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Cultivating Traditions between the Global and the Local

Founded in 1979 by the medical anthropologist Charles Leslie and the historian Arthur Llewellyn (A.L.) Basham, the International Association for the Study of Traditional Asian Medicine (IASTAM) represents a unique vision of bringing academics and practitioners of Asian medical traditions into dialogue with each other. The organization’s mission is to promote the study and cross-cultural understanding of Asian medicines from a variety of disciplinary perspectives, and to do so in a way that not only honors but also embraces the sometimes-difficult task of reckoning the world of reflection and critique with that of engagement and practice. IASTAM’s previous congresses have been held in places as diverse as Canberra (1979), Bombay (1990), and Austin (2006), but until last year, never had a Congress been held in a Himalayan country. Likewise, while one can find the occasional paper or reference to Tibetan medicine among the listings of abstracts from previous international congresses, neither scholarly nor practitioner perspectives on Tibetan medicine and related themes of Tibetan and Himalayan civilizations have been prominent in the history of the organization.

All of this changed last year, when the 7th IASTAM congress was held in Thimphu, Bhutan. Not only was this the largest international conference to ever be held in the Himalayan Kingdom, but it was also the first IASTAM event that thoroughly embraced and represented scholars and practitioners of Sowarikpa, the “science of healing” practiced and studied in its diverse forms across the sweep of High Asia and beyond, and known in the hosting Land of the Dragon (Drukyul) as “Buddhist Medicine.” More than 200 people attended this congress, which was held in the Royal Institute of Management (RIM) on the western outskirts of Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, and hosted by the Institute for Traditional Medicine Services, Ministry of Health, Government of Bhutan. The event was covered by all major Bhutanese newspapers, and was also featured on regional television and radio.

The congress brought together not only scholars and practitioners of Tibetan, Himalayan, East Asian and South Asian healing systems, but also social entrepreneurs, civil servants, and representatives of global businesses engaged in the commercial sale of Asia-derived medicinal products. Students of Asian medical traditions—including those from the local Bhutanese Traditional Medical College—were present and engaged in the conference. This international gathering was also an opportunity for other Bhutanese students (e.g. those from the Languages and Cultures Program of the Royal University) to see world-class scholarly and professional presentations. This mélange of perspectives owed a lot to the theme of this congress: Cultivating Traditions and the Challenges of Globalization. During our five days together in Thimpu, many unique and innovative conversations were had between scholars, scientists, policymakers and practitioners. Compared with previous congresses, there was a growth in the range of topics and methodological approaches in the schedule, from history, anthropology, philology, law and religion to literature, art history, gender studies, and Asian medical and biomedical practices.

Particularly salient from a Tibetan Studies perspective were several panels that were conducted entirely in Tibetan language, and that were devoted to issues of practice as well as textual studies, including a large panel devoted to Bön medicine and a panel on the relationship between ritual healing and textual practices in Tibetan contexts. Tibetan studies perspectives were also prominent in more thematic panels on topics such as longevity practices, medical pluralism, and public health, while some scholars ventured into comparative discussions such as a dialogue between medicine in Amdo and Korea, situated as they are on opposite margins of Chinese culture and civilization, and a panel on women and gender in medicine and healing across Asia, which included important contributions by Tibetan women practitioners and topics related to Tibetan women’s health. Denise Glover and I organized a large panel on the themes of conservation, cultivation, and commercialization of Himalayan and Tibetan medicinal plants, which drew from practitioners and producers of Tibetan medicines as well as anthropological, legal, and social entrepreneurial perspectives.

As someone who has been collaborating with practitioners of Tibetan medicine for more than a decade in different national contexts (primarily Nepal and Tibetan areas of China), this meeting felt particularly important, given the pace at which Tibetan medicine is changing at present. Today, Tibetan medicine represents multiple, and sometimes conflicting, agendas. Tibetan medicines must at once be proven efficacious and safe according to international biomedical standards as well as appeal to non-Tibetan consumers. Sowarikpa must retain a sense of cultural authenticity and, at times, a direct connection to Tibetan Buddhism, yet also reflect innovation within the scientific tradition from which it emerges, and from biomedicine. Tibetan medicines must be capable of treating illnesses in Tibetan communities, often in places where health care is limited and basic biomedical treatment is also unavailable. Yet these medicines are increasingly finding a market within non-Tibetan contexts in many countries where alternative health care options and paths to wellness are sought. Those who teach and practice Tibetan medicine must at once be attentive to new models of learning and state-mandated licensing and certification requirements as well as biomedical understandings of health and disease, while striving to retain, and sometimes even innovate, traditional practices and modes of knowledge transmission. For these and other reasons, the chance for such a well respected yet diverse group of Sowarikpa practitioners to gather, learn from each other, and discuss their work, was invaluable. It is important to note that many of these excellent panels, on which people from China, Nepal, India, and Bhutan participated, would have been impossible without generous support from Trace Foundation, among other sponsors.

The days in Thimphu passed quickly and memorably. I can still remember the feeling of flying into the airport in Paro: the verdant, monsoon soaked hills, the vertiginous turn toward a strip of runway at the base of Himalayan mountain ranges. I also remember the cacophony of languages on the plane and in the conference setting. Both within the formal contexts of panels and discussion, and as participants milled about in the lovely courtyard of RIM, feasting on ema datse and sweet tea, important connections were made and invaluable information was exchanged, here in Tibetan, there in Chinese, Nepali, Hindi, English, and lovely combinations of all of these.

One of the highlights of the trip for me was an excursion a group of us took the day before the scheduled panels began. We hiked up to Taktsang, the famous “Tiger’s Nest” monastery perched on the craggy cliffs above Paro, where Guru Rinpoche was famed to have flown on the back of a tigress in the 8th century. Among the group of pilgrims that afternoon was a doctor I’ve known for years who hails from Mustang, Nepal, the vice director of the largest Tibetan medical consortium in China, and various other scholars and friends. As we climbed up to the monastery, I delighted in overhearing conversations about the medicinal plants we were seeing, the lushness of Bhutan’s forests, comparative stories of medical practice, and practical discussions about future collaborations. By the time we reached the temple, high altitude sun had given way to ominous clouds. Soon, the rains came. We huddled together in the various temples (lhakhang), paying respects and delivering kathak from far-flung locales under the raucous sound of the downpour. By the time we began our descent, the red earth trail had turned to slick mud, impelling us to hold hands, to help each other down the mountain.

What I found most striking, though, was participants’ sincere desire to communicate, to bridge gaps of culture or experience, and to come to know more about the diversity of healing practices throughout Asia, and, when it comes to Sowarikpa, on both sides of the Himalayas. One evening, most of the Tibetan amchi and menpa (practitioners of Tibetan medicines) in attendance gathered together for dinner and shared stories late into the evening. By the account of this event I heard from friends the next day, it was an unprecedented, and moving experience. The following morning, I encountered a senior Tibetan doctor at the book display. This individual had spent the first half of his career in Lhasa, but was now a prominent practitioner in India. His voice cracked as he told me about the previous evening, and his delight in discovering that one of the young Tibetan doctors from China whom I’d helped to invite was the son of a dear friend of his, from his Lhasa days. “This,” he said in central Tibetan, “is lineage.” I couldn’t agree more.

Sienna R. Craig is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Dartmouth College as well as the cofounder of Drokpa. She is the author of Horses Like Lightning: A Story of Passage Through the Himalayas (Wisdom Publications, 2008), Clear Sky, Red Earth: A Himalayan Story (Mera Publications, 2004), and the coeditor (with Vincanne Adams and Mona Schrempf) of Medicine Between Science and Religion: Explorations on Tibetan Grounds (Berghahn Books, 2010).