Interview with Dr. Phuntsog Wangmo, Director of Shang Shung Institute School of Tibetan Medicine

March 16, 2024

Dzamling Gar

A Brief History and Current Status of the Shang Shung Institute School of Tibetan Medicine

Dr. Phuntsog Wangmo, director of the Shang Shung Institute Tibetan Medical School

The Mirror: Dr Wangmo, can you tell us a little bit about the school’s history in general and then specifically about the three main programs that we have in Tsegyalgar East, Massachusetts, USA, Dzamling Gar here in Tenerife and Moscow in Russia. Firstly, can you give us a brief history of the Tibetan Medical School?

Dr. Phuntsog Wangmo: Thank you. I think we could start from the very early 80’s, when Rinpoche first had the idea of the medical school. I was at the Shang Shang Institute in Italy in the beginning of the 90’s and then I went to [North] America, so I will start from there.

The Shang Shang Institute School of Tibetan Medicine officially began the four-year program in 2005 at Tsegyalgar East.That was the first class. So from 2005 until now we have graduated a good number of people, maybe not as many as we would have liked due to various issues, one reason being that the four-year program is too long a commitment for people. Still I am really so happy, even if each class wasn’t a big class, and even it was not such a financial success, today we have people who have knowledge of Tibetan Medicine. So in that sense we were very successful.

M: How many classes completed the four-year program?

PW: In five years we graduated four groups up until now in Massachusetts. In 2018, Rinpoche gave a certificate to teach to four graduates of the program here at Dzamling Gar  [ see article] This is really good for the school so at least I have someone who can help me teach.

In 2012 we started, under Rinpoche’s guidance, the second School of Tibetan Medicine in Russia, at the main seat of Kunsangar, and there we have graduated one group. In Russia there are a good number of people and the program is more successful in terms of numbers. We have about six people who became teachers and among those six people, two of them are now here with me in Dzamling Gar taking care of the school. Others are teaching in Kunsangar [see photos] so this has been really successful and at the moment I have about ten graduate students who teach and help move the program forward. I am very grateful for this, so I take this opportunity to really thank all the graduate students who help me to teach and care for the school.

Around 2017, we started the Dzamling Gar Medical School, but as you know since Rinpoche chose this place, he was always planning the Tibetan Medical School of Dzamling Gar, in the south of Tenerife. Before we purchased this place, we did some activities in the north of the island, where we held a conference on Tibetan culture and medicine in 2015. [] Many Tibetan doctors participated. So now we do our best to achieve Rinpoche’s vision.

In Dzamling Gar we have the director Ilaria Faccioli; she is a wonderful person with very high capacity and she is tirelessly taking care of the school here. In Russia there is Vladimir Belyaev, who is such a wonderful person doing the same. These two people are very stable and so I thank them and because of them we are able to keep these schools alive. Without Ilaria and Vladimir’s commitment to the program, we could not keep going. The same is also true in Tsegyalgar [East] where we have had ups and downs and some problems, but always someone shows up who has a commitment to Rinpoche. So I want to take this opportunity to say thank you.

I also want to say thank you to the three Gars where the medical school is located. Without the support of these three Gars we might not be here today. We contribute as much as we can, but these Gars are very generously supporting us.

M: So you have the medical program which is the school to train Tibetan doctors and then you offer other kinds of courses, so can you explain a little bit about the relationship of those courses to the program?

PW: Tibetan Medicine is the same as any other medical study. lt is a five year program. The first part of the study is more general and then we go to the different specialties like herbology, pharmacology, internal and external disease. The specialty the student chooses is based on their capacity or interest.

At the beginning we had the four-year program, which is really a five year program, because we also go to Tibet for internships. The four-year program is mainly designed for someone who wants to become a Tibetan medical doctor. It does not mean that one day the person graduates and becomes a perfect doctor. It is a lifelong knowledge, not something that we ever finish, but at least you have the basic idea of what the body consists of and medicines, diseases, causes, conditions, diet, behavior, etc.

Now we are offering shorter workshops of a specific specialty, like diet. Also I wanted to do a caretakers program related to hospice and the dying process. We are still working on that, and we started here [in Dzamling Gar] with a workshop called Embracing Death. I started writing that curriculum for caretakers, which consists of three parts, in Massachusetts. First is the Buddhist aspect, to understand the dying process, the acceptance of death, the second is more related to Tibetan Medicine and the third is combining Buddhism and Tibetan Medicine, to understand how to make the dying person and the beloved family member who stays with that person comfortable.

We offered the three parts in the workshop Embracing Death. Steven Landsberg started with two days related to Buddhism and death. Stephen is such a beloved teacher in the Community and he accepted to collaborate, so he did the first two days, I did the second two days, the Tibetan Medicine aspect and then Ilaria did the the last part on grief. Ilaria has a lot of talent and knowledge. What she went through last year, the suffering of the loss of her son, is beyond, so I thought it would be really good if she could say something through her experience. I hope we can develop this more and do more of these programs since it is very useful.

Embracing Death, workshop with Dr Phuntsog Wangmo, Ilaria Faccioli and Steven Landsberg.

We also have these external therapies like Ku Nye. Ku Nye is a very special Tibetan medical external therapy, so even to do Ku Nye takes training. The practitioner needs to know the general aspects of the body, the elements, which kind of condition is related to the complaints, what that means, what is related to the element, how to choose which point to work on; Ku Nye is a very complete knowledge. We also have other external therapies like moxibustion and compresses – hot, cold and warm compresses. The people who have received Ku Nye treatments all over the world feel great benefit.

In the Russian school we recently finished a Ku Nye training and over 40 people participated. We did two separate programs, one at Kunsangar, where our school has its seat, and the other in Irkutsk There is another group there because one of our teachers is a Western medical doctor and lives in that area.

There are three levels of Ku Nye, and at the end of the third level we give a certificate. Ku Nye is also part of the curriculum for the Tibetan medical students who want to become doctors. We also have a program on diet which also has three levels,

This year the Tibetan Medical School in the US changed the four-year program. We will break it down into two parts: the first year and a half we mainly focus on diet and nutrition and then after that people who stay in the program can have some professional training and move to the pathologies.

In the future I’m also hoping to divide the program into three parts, but at the moment we have divided into two parts. This year we have good attendance. This structure is still new, but I think it could work in a better way. My young colleagues say we should do in this way, so I go with that because it’s a different generation with different experiences. Matthew Schmookler, Adam Okerblom, and Leela WH Parker, who have been active graduates with the US medical school for many years, said maybe we should try in this way.

M:  Will you be doing that internationally or only in the United States?

PW: Internationally no, since from the beginning we don’t have the four-year program in Tenerife, so here we are just doing the diet in three levels, Ku Nye in three levels, and then we have these women’s health workshops which we really want to develop because women’s health is really important and now we have this end of life care.

We had the four-year program in Russia at Kunsangar, but since 2018 and Covid, many things happened, so we were not able to restart the four-year program until October of this year. People have been waiting for the four-year program, so in the meantime we have had diet and external therapies. We also do short workshops.

February 15–18, 2024 Shang Shung Institute’s School of Tibetan Medicine, the practice of the first module of the Ku-Nye external therapies program took place at Kunsangar, Russia.

Ku-Nye in Yakutsk located in eastern Siberia near Lake Baikal in February 2024.

Since we receive a lot of from the Dzogchen Communities, we try and give back by offering free webinars every four or five months. We offer webinars by zoom and invite guests to give advice on diet, behavior, breathing, meditation, and our guests have been Yantra Yoga, Vajra Dance and Santi Maha Sangha teachers, and other medical professionals.

Since this job is a gift from my guru, I try my best to move ahead. It is not always easy. I see why Rinpoche wanted to continue Tibetan Medicine in the West, the nature of Tibetan medicine and the nature of today’s samsara, Tibetan medicine can be beneficial for modern times. Rinpoche gave me this job, so for me it is really easy to be responsible and try my best. There is always help from the Community, for example, Oliver Leick will always be part of the School of Tibetan Medicine. He has always helped like a mother for the school. Whenever we have problems we go to him and he gives help, especially financially.

During the Mandarava retreat, people told me that in the regions where they live there is no Ku Nye, external therapies or Tibetan Medicine. I really want to use this opportunity to encourage people to study and practice Tibetan Medicine. English language speakers can study in the US, Russian language speakers and people from Eastern Europe can study at Kunsangar, and Spanish speakers in Tenerife. Tibetan Medicine is a good knowledge for you and to help to others.

Many people worry that Tibetan Medicine is not recognized by any government, but don’t worry. It is not recognized because no one is practicing it. If more people practice and receive Tibetan Medicine, the government will recognize it. If many people request it, the government will consider it and then the permission will come. If there is no interest, there is no reason for the government to consider it. They do not know Tibetan Medicine even exists.

Like traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic medicine, homeopathy naturopathy, all these kinds of medicines, including Western medicine, if no one is familiar or using these medical systems, there is no reason for the government to look into recognizing it. All these disciplines have worked very hard to become legitimate and also the people who use these methods pressure governments to recognize them.

In the US, Tibetan doctors have formed the American Tibetan Medical Association [ATMA] to check how Tibetan Medicine can become legalized. We talked to many lawyers and  professionals. They told us that now it is too early to go to the legislators. They asked how many practitioners are actively practicing and how many consumers there are.They did not say that Tibetan Medicine is illegal. They said that we can practice and if something happens, it is our own responsibility.

In the US Chinese Medicine became legal in some states in 1973. At that time there were over a thousand practitioners just on the West Coast and today there are some 3000. Still people do not know Tibetan Medicine, they don’t have any experience. Some people think you have to be Buddhist, or we are just giving a few herbs; so people have no idea of the breadth of Tibetan Medicine. So I am asking if you can look into studying and practicing Tibetan Medicine, it will be very good for you.

I am asking the different Gars to encourage people to become more familiar with Tibetan Medicine, to receive treatments and maybe even to study. We cannot survive without the help of the Community and the Gars through publicity, to put things about our new programs on the Community websites, send the programs out and when you’re informing about all the activities of the Community, please include Tibetan Medicine.

Khandro [Rosa Namkhai] asks me every day to talk about Tibetan Medicine because many people don’t know about the program, many people have already forgotten, many people never heard about it, and so we should inform people. She has also been researching how Tibetan Medicine could be recognized. Khandro is really trying to put her energies to find how Tibetan Medicine can flourish. It’s such a key support for me.

Please be with us, please understand us and put our information on your website or talk to people about Tibetan Medicine – for example I often ask the Yantra Yoga teachers to include Tibetan medicine in their presentations; how in Tibetan medicine they talk about how breathing is good for health, how tsijong is good for the joints, etc. Please help to make Tibetan Medicine familiar to people’s ears. We try our best to work and hopefully sometime soon we will be able to bring the wish of Rinpoche to fruition. So I want to say thank you for giving me this opportunity to share. Thank you.

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