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Interview with Tibetan Doctor Phuntsog Wangmo

Jan 31, 2024

Tell me a little bit about yourself

I am Tibetan and I live in Massachusetts right now. I work for Shang Shung Tibetan School of Medicine which was founded by my guru, Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche. I’m the director of the school and also the main teacher of the school. I’ve been working there for over 20 years.

What made you interested in studying Tibetan medicine?

There were a couple of reasons for studying Tibetan medicine. I think the number one reason was I always had a passion for healing things, also my brother became a Tibetan medicine doctor before me. During his internship he was taking people’s pulse and for me that was fascinating. 

I’d go downstairs and check the pulses of the smaller animals, we had a cow and a small baby cow. So when my brother was taking the pulse of people, I would go outside and take the pulse of the baby animals. I always wanted to do something like this. Then later it was the family’s choice—my guru, my uncle, Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche, said to the family, Phunstog should study medicine. And that sort of pushed me to get on the road, but I had an idea before. 

What is Tibetan medicine?

Source: Shambhala Publications

Tibetan medicine is the natural medicine way. If you’re familiar with Chinese medicine or Ayurvedic, we are very similar, but the root of Tibetan medicine is it came from Tibet. It was before Buddhism was introduced to Tibet when we had the Bon tradition, our indigenous tradition. So the origin of our medicine is in the Bon tradition. It is very ancient, I think it is one of the most ancient healing modalities. It has such a long history. This is what makes it very special. 

What are the differences between Chinese medicine and Tibetan medicine?

One time, someone asked my guru Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche, What is the difference between Chinese medicine and Tibetan medicine? He said the difference is you know about Chinese medicine, and you don’t know about Tibetan medicine. Because Tibetan medicine is new to the West. 

There are many other differences. Another difference is the way of understanding the body, understanding the meaning of the relationship of the individual body to nature, and the relationships between planet, earth, and sky. The theory of Tibetan medicine is very holistic. We don’t say “This diet is good for everybody,” everyone is working as an individual. Everyone has a different way of living, different personalities, different age, and different bodily energies. Plus the seasons, the families, the circumstances. Everyone is unique. 

They also use this in Ayurveda, I tried to learn a little bit. It is so fascinating, and so is Chinese medicine. But Tibetan medicine has a unique approach. The other difference is the herbs, we have high mountain herbs, which are very different.

I’m so lucky and pleased that my family chose this path for me. Every day I thank my family, they’ve given me many wonderful things, including my guru. There’s no way I can repay what they gave to me. Every day I thank them for their choice and what they gave me. My family is really supportive, and the family chose this path for me. 

My guru is my mother’s uncle; it was my karma to connect with him. It is so fascinating how each person met their teacher. I am lucky to have such a wonderful guru and teacher. After he escaped from Tibet, he became a professor at Naples Eastern University, and he worked under the Professor Tucci, who had invited him to move to Italy. He was one of the very high Tibetan scholars and a very great master as well. 

What does Tibetan medicine have to say about mental health?

tibetan medicine art
Source: TimeOut

We don’t have a separate body and mind; the body and mind energy work together as a team. If one isn’t functioning, the other is affected. When we have a headache, we are not happy. When we are not happy, we don’t want to eat. When we don’t eat, we don’t get sleep. They are all connected. Up to now, we don’t have professional mental health doctors. I work with a lot of crazy people in Tibet. Although, we don’t have the same as in the United States. This is number one.

Number two, our lifestyle has changed. We think that with everything developing, everything has become easier. Yes, that’s true, a lot of things have become easier. I can fly from here to there, 50 or 100 years ago, travel from Tibet to here must have been a big journey, almost impossible, but now it’s very easy. But certain things have also become more complicated. I feel like our lives are always in competition, every day is like racing a marathon, we are running endlessly, even though we don’t really know where we are running. But this is a way of living. 

It’s like we are all driving on a highway, so we have to keep the speed limit. You have to keep a certain speed limit; you have the pressure. Since we are always running, we damage nature. This material level made our motherland poor, and our resources became poor. Now gas is no longer gas, we’ll all have to drive electric cars soon. Now gas is ending and water is also ending, firewood is ending, there is a lot of this kind of thing. Nature is limited, and our desire is unlimited. I think these two are unlimited desire chasing, limited nature is not responding well. I think for this reason, there are more and more people with mental health issues. 

Now it’s hard to really rest. Because there are so many things to listen to, watch, this and that—I think it is all wonderful—but if not used appropriately it brings a lot of damage. We are distracted, our minds are so distracted. When I talk with ten people, maybe one person says I’m taking time for myself, having a cup of coffee outside, and enjoying nature. It’s very rare to hear. Most people are running here, running there, working two jobs, plus taking care of family, plus doing this, plus doing that. They’re running and not enjoying, but they feel like they must keep up this pace to function and maintain this life. 

When I ask people if they sleep well, many say they couldn’t sleep well. For many people, there’s no time for sleep. I tell people to eat good food, eat breakfast, and many times there’s no time for breakfast, you have to run. There are many other individual issues, but this is a societal issue as well. 

So far in Tibet it is not as bad as here. Before, we had a lot of ups and downs in our lives, many internal and external circumstances, but the crazy or mentally depressed is not that common. Of course, there are, but suicide is very rare. Everywhere now is this sort of running, because we are used to it. But in Tibet we don’t have a lot of responsibility to pay the bills, every day is not like a competition. Life is very peaceful and calm. 

Before I came to the West I worked in a remote area in Eastern Tibet and that was my best lifetime. People have a lot of physical issues there, arthritis, high blood pressure, and respiratory system issues because we are very high elevation. Many people work as nomadic farmers, so they have lots of physical work. But inside they are so joyful, they don’t have this sort of, this is mine and this is yours. Everything is communal. Your children can run outdoors all day and night and no one will attack them. Your neighbor will take care of your children or animals. Every family has similar productions, every family lives in a similar style. 

tibetan nomads beautiful landscape
Source: Free Tibet

The life is really peaceful, especially for women. They need to work hard, taking care of animals and children, but they know how their lives will be, so there’s nothing to wait for. I see these people get enjoyment really deeply. In the city, there are many things that are much better, but the deep enjoyment is not so often seen, the circumstances of life are very different. 

When I was working in Eastern Tibet, hardly any women came to complain about mental issues, being sad, depression, anxiety, young ladies, and young boys as well. Some women over my age have some worry for their children. But now this unhappiness, depression, and anxiety, goes to the younger generations, there is something changing. I don’t know exactly what is changing, but there is something changing. 

Could you talk about some interesting stories with patients?

Number one, when someone comes to see me, I don’t consider them to be a patient and I’m the doctor. I consider them to be my relative. I enjoy working with them and I try my best as a family member—when I say you’re a patient and I’m a doctor, I have to present a little more nicely and I don’t do that. I really work like a family. 

This is a great part of working with people, I don’t feel pressure from the patient, I don’t feel like if I say something wrong they will not be happy. I try my best with them, as family. In Tibetan medicine, we say, When you work with people you consider yourself as the parent and the person as your child.

One time I was working in Eastern Tibet, and there was a lady they brought to me, and she had this mental disturbance for almost two years. Her house was on top of a hill and there was a road below, there weren’t many cars, but travelers on horses would pass by. What she would do is wait there and launch stones at the people below. So that road was sort of blocked. 

So many villages came together and gave her one last option, you come to see Doctor Phuntsog, and if she can’t do anything we will build a small house for your family—she is married and has 5 or 6 kids—and then she should stay inside that house, sort of like a jail. She cannot stay outdoors. 

They brought her to me, and she came with the two men, one of them was her son, and somehow he managed to keep her controlled, and one was another strong man. I said, Don’t worry, you can leave her with me. Everyone said, No, she will attack you. I said, No, she won’t, she knows me, so she won’t attack me. So they let her go, and we talked and after a couple of sessions working with her, she was completely cured. 

What I want to say is if you say to a mental health patient, “You are mentally sick, you are crazy,” they will do crazy actions. If you tell me, Phuntsog, “you are crazy,” then why would I care, I would do all sorts of strange things. Because it doesn’t matter what I do, you already consider me crazy. 

That was my idea, I always try to consider people as very normal, people have different elements of up and down, our reactions are different. I said she could stay with me, we can work together, and I told her, once the men left, “You are very normal, you are very beautiful, you are the same as any other woman. Don’t show yourself as crazy, or they will think you are crazy.”

 I said, “Keep in your mind to not do any strange things, can you agree to that?” She said, “Yes.” Then of course I also used medicine and external therapies. But it was to give her trust and let her give back trust, the power of trusting each other is a sort of base for healing. Of course, you need to work with medicine and so forth, but I’ve worked with a lot of people in Eastern Tibet, they bring all of the crazy people to me. 

What resources do you recommend for learning about Tibetan medicine?

Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche
Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche

There are a lot of books about Tibetan medicine, but one book I recommend is Birth, Life, and Death, written by Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche. This is a very basic Tibetan medicine book, you can see how the body is related to nature, how the body and mind energy work together, and how these three work together as a team. 

Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche is a doctor and his teacher was a very well-known doctor, so his book really taught me a lot. It’s like my bible. Wherever I go I take that book with me. Shang Shung School of Medicine has lots of Tibetan medicine information there. We have lots of free videos, lots of great masters, great yoga teachers, Western doctors, Chinese acupuncturists, and Ayurvedic doctors. 

There’s a great Tibetan doctor who unfortunately passed away, Doctor Yeshi Dhonden, there are his books as well. But Birth, Life, and Death I really recommend. I started Tibetan medicine in Tibet, and then I read tons of books, then Rinpoche’s book opened up another window of Tibetan medicine. You can find this book in Shang Shung bookstore.

What happens when someone comes in to get a consultation?

In Tibetan medicine, we have three approaches to people: touching, looking, and questions/answers.  Among these three, the first is questions and answers; we ask many things, but the four main things we ask are general complaints, general diet/behaviors, how long they’ve had the issue, and what other doctors/treatments they’ve had, sort of like health history. Because when we have symptoms, many symptoms can be one root. In Tibetan medicine, it’s normal to reach the root of the disease. To get the root we need to know more information. 

There are four conditions of the disease, provocation is one of them, sort of like accident is one of the causes for the problems. But daily life is diet and behavior, and these are conditions for disease. Diet and behavior are directly related and if you drink a lot of alcohol, later you may have liver issues. If you smoke a lot, you may have lung problems later. So if someone complains, we ask about their diet and behavior and see if that’s linked. That is number one. 

The second is we also ask about sleep patterns and mental state. We want to see the general foundation of the issue. From there we check the pulse, it is unique to Tibet—in Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic medicine they also do this—and it is very in-depth. We also observe the physical, observing the way they speak, walk, how they present, all of those are part of the observations. If necessary, we do a urine analysis, it can be a very important part of the diagnostics. Then we do a sort of prognosis or give treatments. Then, if they need it we give them herbs, diet/behaviors, supplements, and teas. 

Any final thoughts?

I just want to tell people to come here to The Buddhist Center, it’s really healing. It’s such a  lovely place with lovely teachers, and lovely people. They do a lot of good work for humanity here. Everything they do here is so precious and I am really happy to be a part of that.


Interview conducted by Isabela Acebal

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