DISCOVER BHUTAN: Sowa Rigpa Science of Traditional Medicine and Healing

Rooted in Buddhist philosophy and influenced by the ancient medical systems of India, Tibet, and China, Sowa Rigpa – the traditional science of medicine – has been a cornerstone of Bhutanese healthcare for centuries.

The origins of Sowa Rigpa can be traced back to over 2,500 years to the teachings of the historical Buddha. As Buddhism spread across the Indian subcontinent, the knowledge of healing and medicine was integrated into monastic practices, leading to the development of a comprehensive medical system known as Ayurveda. Over time, as Buddhism traveled northwards to Tibet, it merged with the indigenous bon healing traditions and Chinese medical practices, giving birth to Sowa Rigpa.

The Buddhist saint Guru Padmasambhava is believed to have brought Sowa Rigpa to Bhutan in the eighth century, when he first travelled to Bumthang on the invitation of the ailing local King Sindhu Raja.

The Guru also blessed many herbs and natural hot springs across the country, which are believed to have medicinal values and healing properties.

In ancient times, Bhutan was also known as Lho Men Jong – which translates to the Southern Land of Medicines – a testament to the country’s rich medicinal legacy.

However, it was only much later in the 17th century that Buddhist master Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the unifier of Bhutan, consolidated Sowa Rigpa as a part of the formal monastic education.

The third king of Bhutan His Majesty Jigme Dorji Wangchuck established the traditional medicinal system for the welfare of the people of Bhutan, with the establishment of Indigenous Dispensary at Dechencholing, Thimphu in June 1968. 

Since then, the Sowa Rigpa medical tradition has been seamlessly integrated into the Bhutanese healthcare system alongside modern healthcare.

Sowa Rigpa encompasses a holistic approach to health and wellbeing, focusing on the balance between the body, mind, and spirit. The practice is based on the understanding of the three humors – rlung (wind), mkhris-pa (bile), and bad-kan (phlegm) – and their influence on an individual’s physical and mental health. 

The fundamental practices of Sowa Rigpa involve various aspects. One aspect is Dietary Therapy, which underscores the importance of maintaining a balanced diet tailored to individual body types and health imbalances. Another aspect is Herbal Medicine, which encompasses the use of a wide range of medicinal plants, minerals, and animal products to create remedies that target specific ailments.

External Therapies form another integral part, which includes methods like massage, medicinal bath, and therapeutic yogic exercise aimed at restoring harmony and balance within the body.

Lastly, behavioral and spiritual counseling are key components, integrating practices such as meditation and recitation of mantras to promote mental and emotional wellbeing.

The Bhutanese government has established the Traditional Medicine Services, which operates alongside western medical facilities in hospitals and clinics across the country. Under the Traditional Medicine Services, traditional practitioners undergo rigorous training and certification, ensuring the quality and efficacy of Sowa Rigpa treatments. 

In today’s rapidly advancing world, the relevance of Sowa Rigpa extends beyond its traditional roots. As people seek alternative and holistic approaches to healthcare, interest in Sowa Rigpa has surged globally. In Bhutan, alongside modern medicine, Sowa Rigpa continues to play a pivotal role in the country’s healthcare system.

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