South Africa's only Tibetan doctor

Renaissance Magazine, December 21, 2005

Interview By Rozelle Mazetti with Dr. Lhakpa Dolma

Pretoria, South Africa -- "Tibetan Medicine is deeply integrated with Buddhist practice and theory which stresses the indivisible interdependence of mind, body and vitality. The ideal doctor is one who combines sound medical understanding with strong realisation of wisdom and compassion. I strongly believe that our medical system is one of the means in which we Tibetans can contribute to the well being of others, even while we ourselves live as refugees." - His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Hardly a month goes by without a claim of yet another new, miracle cure for life threatening illnesses such as cancer and aids. A keen interest in the holistic approach to healing has prompted me to investigate many of these claims and in doing so it has become more and more clear to me that true healing is all about balance. Western medicine has made incredible strides over the last 100 years and has much to offer. However while the west has taken the approach of separating, dismantling, dissecting and reducing human beings to constituent parts, traditional healing has for thousands of years regarded human beings as a synergy of body, mind and spirit, where each component is as important as the other in the process of creating the harmonics of healing, integration and balance.

One of the oldest traditional methods of healing known to mankind is Sowa Rigpa. Sowa Rigpa is based on the teachings of the Buddha which were compiled into a text called Gyud-Zhi by a Tibetan scholar in the 8th century. These texts and their commentaries form the foundation of Tibetan Medicine, as it is known in the west and have continued to offer hope and healing in India and Tibet despite years of suppression by the Chinese in the country of its origin. Now, as a result of the initiative of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in Exile, Tibetan Medicine is becoming available in other countries. South Africa is graced with just one Tibetan doctor, Dr Lhakpa Dolma.

I was fortunate to spend a weekend with Dr Dolma and her husband Tashi at the Office of Tibet in Pretoria. During this time I had the opportunity to ask Dr Dolma to tell me more about herself and Tibetan Medicine.

ROZELLE: Firstly, what brought you to South Africa?
DR. DOLMA: My husband Tashi works for the Office of Tibet, an official agency of the Central Tibetan Administration of His Holiness the Dalai Lama for Africa. I joined him in November 2002 after completing my internship at the Tibetan Medical and Astrological Institute and the affiliated clinics in the south of India. Since that time I have been giving lectures, workshops and consultations so as to bring more awareness of Tibetan Medicine to this part of the world.

ROZELLE: What made you decide to study medicine?
DR. DOLMA: My first aim when I was a child, was to become a teacher because I would not be who I am today without the inspiration that I received from my teachers. However, in 1992 my father became seriously ill and I was called from school to look after him. While he was still in hospital his illness and weak physical condition made it very difficult for him to lift his head and as a result his head was slumped down on his shoulder. I had always had the fear of losing my father through illness and so it was very distressing for me to see him so helpless, but what made the situation worse was the rough and offhand way in which the attending doctor ordered him to lift his head. I felt so sad and helpless. In that very moment I decided to become a doctor, one who would be compassionate and gentle to patients, unlike this rude man. My father gradually regained his health. He has some knowledge of Tibetan Medicine which he shared with me and later I joined the Tibetan Medical and Astrological Institute in Dharamsala where I did the full course.

ROZELLE: How long does it take to qualify as a Tibetan doctor?
DR DOLMA: Firstly, the minimum qualification required to write the entrance examination is a matriculation. The examination is taken in both Tibetan and English. Acceptance is based on merit, and only twenty five students are enrolled every fourth and fifth year. The duration of the course is five years plus one year of internship at the clinics under one of the senior doctors.

ROZELLE: What does the course cover?
DR DOLMA: The principal text used as a source of teaching Sowa Rigpa is called Gyud-Zhi in Tibetan, or The Four Medical Tantras or Treaties which is the textual form of certain discourses given by Shakyamuni Buddha. These were committed to writing during the 8th century by Yuthog Yonten Gompo. Gyud-Zhi is made up of four volumes containing 156 chapters with 5,900 verses.

The five year course is very comprehensive and covers the fundamental principles of Sowa Rigpa, the balance of the three energies known as nyepas, understanding of the five elements and the causes of disease. It covers the symptoms of disorders, diagnosis which is classified into the three areas of touch, visual and interrogation. Treatments, which include lifestyle changes, diet, herbal pills and accessory therapies. Pharmacology covers the collecting, making up and usage of medicinal herbs and medical substances. During the five year course, students are required to go on a month's excursion every year into the Himalayan range to learn how to identify medicinal herbs. There is also the therapeutic side which includes massage, compresses, medicinal baths and hot mineral spring therapy as well as moxibustion, cupping and even bloodletting. And lastly the course covers surgical, gynaecological and paediatric procedures. The role of malevolent spiritual energies in illness and disease is also addressed.

ROZELLE: How could spirits influence one's health?
DR. DOLMA: When a patient fails to respond in any way to sound diagnosis and treatment, we believe that the cause may be spiritual. Past karma and a low accumulation of virtuous actions provide malevolent spiritual entities with an opportunity to inflict mental or physical harm. Such diseases can however be pacified by rituals, and tantric practices performed by lamas and tantric masters, or by going on a pilgrimage to a sacred place, or giving charity and helping the poor and needy.

Rozelle: Could there be other reasons why a patient might not respond to treatment?
DR DOLMA: Life style and behaviour plays a significant role in maintaining health and managing illness. Apart from this, the teaching of Buddha recorded in the Sutra on Entering the Womb teaches that there are four classes of illness. The first of these classes is fairly inconsequential and passes whether one takes medication or not. The second
class includes more serious illness which can be cured if one takes the right medication and follows the correct procedures. The third class of illness includes those which do not respond to medicines or medical procedures but can still be cured through spiritual means. Finally there are illnesses which are karmically terminal by nature. When the body manifests
such an illness death is inevitable. However even in this situation, if the right spiritual practices are followed the patient will die without suffering or fear.

ROZELLE: What does Tibetan Medicine have to offer diseases of the 21st century like Aids, cancer, SARS etc.?
DR DOLMA: Tibetan Medicine treats the causes of disease rather than the symptoms. It diagnoses the cause by checking the balance of the three Nyepas which are known in Tibetan as rLung, Tripa and Badken and the five elements. According to the texts, Tibetan Medicine can prepare herbal pills that can both prevent and assist with epidemics. During the plague in India, many Tibetans used Tibetan Medicinal pills and were not affected. When SARS manifested in China the pills sold like hot cakes in Tibet, China and India. There is no record of SARS in Tibet. I cannot say that Tibetan Medicine can cure Aids but we do have patients in India who are taking the medication and are satisfied with the results. What I can tell you is that Tibetan Medicine has a good record of treating chronic disease.

ROZELLE: What do you think is the responsibility of the patient with regard to their illness?
DR DOLMA: It is very important for the patient to be positive because one's mental attitude can create more problems than the disease. Along with correct medication one's diet is important. We often forget that the food and beverages that we consume provide the fuel for our bodies and eating fresh food, on time is very important.

ROZELLE: What are your hopes for the future?
DR DOLMA: Some day I would like to work together with an allopathic doctor. It can be a good combination. In India there are many Tibetans with tuberculosis who take their allopathic medicine along with the Tibetan medicine to boost Lung and to restore digestive heat. While I am in South Africa I want to bring more awareness about Tibetan medicine, which is not well known here. I hope to give more lectures and workshops and hold as many exhibitions and retreats as possible.

Dr Lhakpa Dolma was born in Manali, India. After completing her schooling at the Tibetan Children's Village, she studied Sowa Rigpa at the Tibetan Medical and Astrological Institute in Dharamsala. She did her internship at Mungod and Bylakuppe TMAI branches in India. For more information about Tibetan Medicine, workshops or consultations Dr Dolma can be contacted at 012 6641193 or 0722004022.