Tibetan medicine

Tibetan medicine, known as Sowa Rigpa in the Tibetan language, is an ancient form of natural medicine indigenous to the Tibetan people. It is still practiced today throughout Tibet, the Himalayan regions, India, Mongolia, Siberia and in the Western world where ever Tibetans live in exile. Considered among the most essential of the ten Tibetan subjects of study, Sowa Rigpa has benefited the people of Tibet and its surrounding regions for centuries. This unique knowledge is contained within thousands of texts written in the Tibetan language but principally in the four medical tantras, or rYud-bzhi. These four medical tantras have been the primary teaching texts for training Tibetan physicians from ancient times to the present.

The Tibetan medical system is a complex synthesis developed over millennia drawing on both indigenous Tibetan culture and elements from other traditions such as the Greek (via Persia), Ayurvedic (from India) and Chinese systems. Integrating these with the already robust pre-buddhist culture of ancient Tibetan civilization known as Zhang Zhung, Sowa Rigpa flourished amid intercultural dialogues with the leading physicians of India, China, Nepal, Byzantium and Persia who traveled to Tibet as early as the 7th century. These exchanges resulted in a magnificent body of accumulated knowledge unrivaled for its depth of understanding still intact within a vast literary tradition unknown outside of Tibet until recent times. Over the centuries, practitioners of Tibetan medicine have learned how to diagnose, differentiate, and categorize diseases and the influences of external factors such as timing, provocation, and imbalances in diet and behavior. They conducted research and developed treatment principles for physical and mental imbalances and diseases.

This evolution also resulted in a vast pharmacopoeia of medicinal plants native to the Himalayas which were identified, gathered and processed according to ancient prescriptions as well as other external therapies such as Kunye [Tibetan massage], moxabustion, and vinisection [blood-letting]. Unique to Tibetan medicine is its philosophical view based on Buddhism in which the body/mind relationship is interconnected to all phenomena. This holistic view informs the Tibetan medical tradition, which uses sophisticated diagnostic techniques of pulse diagnosis and urine analysis in order to determine systemic imbalances—both mental and physical.

As early as the 6th century BC, the Buddha taught using illness as a central metaphor for suffering, and healing as the primary intention of the Buddhist path to liberate beings from ignorance, the source of all suffering. This philosophical view of Buddhism permeates all aspects of Tibetan culture including Tibetan medicine, which continued to evolve according to the teachings of the Buddha in a richly informed philosophical base not shared with other indigenous healing traditions. Thus, the Tibetan medical system developed into a sophisticated body of knowledge, which encompasses mental and spiritual factors, not just physical, in the diagnosis and treatment of disease and the promotion of well-being and a healthy balanced life. In response to the needs and possibilities of different individuals, the Shang Shung Institute has developed several course options.

Shang Shung Institute and Tibetan Medicine

Founded by Chögyal Namkhai Norbu, a Tibetan scholar and Dzogchen master, the Shang Shung Institute is dedicated to the mission of preserving Tibetan cultural traditions. Among the highest priorities for the American branch is to preserve existing Tibetan Medical knowledge as well as recover aspects of the tradition, which have been lost. In order to accomplish this goal, the Shang Shung Institute has developed training programs in Tibetan medicine, archived all classes, and worked on translations of medical texts.

Students from around the world have participated in the three-year Foundation Course taught by Dr. Thubten Phuntsok, trainings in Kunye Tibetan massage, and related courses on specific topics taught by Dr. Phuntsog Wangmo, full-time faculty-in-residence at the Institute since 2001.

In the fall of 2005, the American branch of the Shang Shung Institute initiated its four-year program under the direction of Dr. Phuntsog Wangmo. This program is the first in the West to closely parallel the training of a traditional Tibetan physician in Tibet or India.  

Over the past few decades, Westerners have become increasingly interested in incorporating the holistic medical practices of the East into their own practice and research. Due to political and cultural reasons, Tibetan medicine, one of the oldest and richest of Asian medical traditions, has largely existed outside the focus of the West. In order to address this need, the Shang Shung Institute has dedicated its resources to develop the first comprehensive training program in English.


Ku Nye is of very ancient Tibetan origins. Through a careful observation of nature, Tibetans discovered the healing potentialities of herbs, barks, minerals and so forth and gradually they learnt how to treat diseases using their hands and simple substances such as butter, oils, herbs, stones, based on a knowledge of the circulation of energy both in the human body and in the external world.

Ku Nye belongs to the last of the four therapeutical approaches of Tibetan medicine, which covers external therapies such as massage, digito-pressure and moxa.

With funding from the Tuscany Region, the Shang Shung Institute conducted controlled tests on Ku Nye in 2004 which established its effectiveness in specific pathologies such as backache, joint pain, headaches, menstrual problems, insomnia, stress and various nervous disorders.

Ku-nye courses

Courses are structured in two alternative ways: two full immersion seminars of ten and five days each with the last day dedicated to the final diploma examination, or six weekends with two additional days plus the final diploma examination.

On successful completion of the course, the students receive the diploma of Ku Nye operator. No further levels are contemplated, but various specialization courses will be available for those wishing to deepen their knowledge.

The course structured in weekly seminars contemplates two additional days as experience has shown how residential courses are more productive, allowing students to learn in a more concentrated way.

Annual Ku Nye courses are held by the School’s qualified instructors. Specialization courses will be held by Tibetan doctors and teachers invited by the School for the purpose.

Copyright © Shang Shung Institute 2011