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Modern Tibetan medical education and the widening doctor-pharmacist divide in Nepal: What’s the problem?

14. 1. 2020 @ 18:00 19:30

Kampus Hybernská

Hybernská 4
Praha 1, Praha 110 00 Česká republika


Sowa Rigpa – often translated as Tibetan medicine – has centuries-old roots in the Himalayan mountain regions of Nepal as the dominant scholarly medical tradition. Yet over the last few decades, these local lineage-based currents of tradition are being increasingly transformed by the changing tides of modernity, especially in the capital of Kathmandu. Sowa Rigpa is on the verge of state recognition, which has already fostered the foundation of a university-affiliated Tibetan medical school with an integrated biomedical curriculum, as well as a national register of practitioners waiting to be officially recognised. Academic researchers and NGOs are involved in the documentation of traditional knowledge, medicinal plant trade, and conservation efforts. A dozen urban clinics have opened their doors in the vicinity of the large Buddhist stupas of Boudha and Swayambu, some of which cater increasingly to tourists from both ‘East’ and ‘West’, along with several cottage industry pharmacies producing pills, powders, as well as a growing range of incense, herbal teas, and cosmetics. Despite this institutional, professional, and commercial ‘progress’, however, some senior practitioners criticise what they perceive as the substitution of extensive mastery of the classical medical texts with English-medium lectures on biomedicine, and the loss of skill in terms of clinical expertise, applying external therapies and medicine making, leading to a new generation of practitioners that will be unable to make their own pills. This lecture focuses on this widening doctor-pharmacist divide, and the related discourses of loss and practices aiming to resist it, trying to understand what all of this implies for the potency of Sowa Rigpa medicines in Nepal.

About the speaker

Dr. Jan van der Valk is a scholar-practitioner with a multidisciplinary academic training in the fields of biology, ethnobotany and anthropology. He is currently a postdoctoral researcher in the project ‘Potent Substances in Sowa Rigpa and Buddhist Ritual’ (2018-2021) at University of Vienna’s Department of South Asian, Tibetan and Buddhist Studies (ISTB), which aims to understand the healing potential of Tibetan medicines from the perspectives of their makers. Jan’s interests revolve around the techno-scientific and material processes that transform natural substances into Tibetan medical formulas, which was also the main theme of his doctoral dissertation (University of Kent, 2017). Since 2012, Jan has also been studying Sowa Rigpa with his teacher Pasang Yonten Arya. In 2017, he opened his practice and herbal dispensary called ‘The Blue Poppy’ in Belgium.