Making rejuvenating medicinal butter in the Swiss Alps with Dr. Pasang Yonten Arya

Pasang Yonten Arya (Menrampa) is a practitioner, scholar, and teacher of Tibetan medicine educated at Men-Tsee-Khang in Dharamsala, where he served as assistant pharmacist, lecturer, and college principal between 1977 and 1989. After lecturing at the Central Institute for Buddhist Studies (Ladakh, 1981–1991), he moved to Italy, where he heads the New Yuthok Institute and Tibetan Medicine Education center (TME). I have been studying with him since 2012.

In the late spring of 2019, I (Jan) participated in a week-long TME rejuvenation workshop in the Swiss Pre-Alps, together with eighteen other students. It took place in a large chalet on the edge of a quiet idyllic village, enveloped by the sound of a nearby waterfall, green alpine pastures, and pine forest.

The view from where the medicinal butter workshop took place. The Gyüzhi states the importance of finding a suitable place for a rejuvenation retreat, which should be “clean, quiet, pleasant, and free of obstacles.”

Over lunch on arrival day, Dr. Pasang welcomed the students to this ideal place for rejuvenation with the following words:
“This is a workshop. You have to work, you must touch with your hands, body and mind together. You might burn yourself or feel nauseous, whatever, you must do it. It is not enough to look at a video, or to attend a lecture. This is pharmacy. You must work! One, two, three times, then only you begin to understand: ‘Ah, this is the way.'”

Our teacher foregrounded manual work, the senses, practice and experiential knowledge in menjor, the making of medicine. The nourishing qualities of medicinal butter alleviate excess lung (‘wind’) and strengthen the body. Making menmar is excellent for rejuvenation, but without preliminary cleansing there would be little benefit upon taking the medicine: “preparing [fresh] food in a dirty cooking pot, does it make sense or not?,” he commented. Kitchen metaphors, associating cooking with digestion as well as with medicine making, were a recurring theme throughout the workshop.

The butter does not only need to be refined by removing impurities and ‘extracting the essence’ (chülen), it should also be ritually perfected and consecrated. This practice involved visualisation of Buddha Amitāyus (Tshe dpag med) and recitation of a specific mantra, through which the medicinal butter is transformed into nectar. The practitioner visualizes how five-colored nectar light is absorbed from the elements of the ten directions, and again emitted from the medicine, increasing the lifespan of all beings.

The medine butter jars were consecrated with the blessings of the Medicine Buddha (pictured here), and infused with life-force essence through accumulation of the rejuvenating mantra of Amitāyus.

In this combined medicinal butter and rejuvenation workshop, I learned both as a practitioner and as an anthropologist engaged in participant-observation. This education through apprenticeship foregrounds the importance of honing skills through interactions with the dynamic properties of materials, and also comes with intriguing analytical questions. To properly study medicine preparation and empowerment, it seems that fieldworkers have few options other than (partially) becoming artisan-practitioners themselves, however inexperienced they may be. In this sense, anthropology is like a craft.

Sowa Rigpa Clinics in Boudha, Kathmandu, Nepal

The great stupa of Boudhanath covered with monsoon clouds in the background, August 2019
A steady stream of Buddhist devotees and tourists on the khora, circumambulating the stupa

The great stupa of Boudhanath, situated in Kathmandu’s northeastern outskirts, has been a crossroads of long-distance trade and Buddhist pilgrimage for many centuries. It is said by Tibetans to fulfil the sincere wishes of travelers who first lay their eyes upon it. In the tight circle of three-storied buildings around the stupa alone, three Tibetan medical clinics attract the attention of passers-by with multi-lingual signboards including Tibetan, English, Nepali and Mandarin Chinese. During a five-week stay in Boudha, I discovered ten active clinics within twenty minutes walking distance from the stupa. Although Sowa Rigpa has centuries-old roots in the Himalayan mountain regions of Nepal as the dominant scholarly medical tradition, this profusion of urban clinics, some of which cater increasingly to tourists from both ‘East’ and ‘West’ , is a more recent phenomenon. In this blogpost, I briefly introduce three quite different Boudha clinics.

Amchi Wangchuk Lama is Kathmandu’s most senior practicing amchi. He still oversees the production of his own medicines, in powder and pill form, including several highly complex precious pills which are individually wrapped in colourful silk fabric. Amchi-la was born in Kyirong in the water-horse year, in 1942. He learned Sowa Rigpa at Drakar Taso (Brag dkar rta gso) monastery and was a monk for many years. Amchi Wangchuk’s clinic is not that easy to find and he does not speak English. He is highly respected, especially for his expertise and skill as a medicine maker. His Nakpo Gujor protective pills, to be worn around the neck, are popular, and monastics also come to purchase compounds for ritual purposes.

Pure Vision Sorig is the name of Dr Sherab Tenzin Barma’s clinic. It is affiliated to his main Healing and Research Center near Pharping, about an hour’s drive from downtown Kathmandu. Dr Sherab hails from Bhutan, where he studied Buddhist philosophy as well as medicine. After a five-year training, he graduated from Chagpori Tibetan Medical Institute in Darjeeling. His clinics offer a range of external therapies, including various types of kunyé massage, herbal steam baths and cosmetic treatments. Besides the prescription-based medical formulas, he also designed a product line of liquid herbal extracts.

Dr Jigme (also know as Jixian Jia) heads the Youthok Tibetan Medical Clinic on the second floor of a building on the khora itself. A large bright room with four windows overlooking the stupa houses six hospital beds, where several elderly patients are getting IV drips. Acupuncture needles are also applied regularly, including by his wife and three assisting amchi in white lab coats. Dr Jigme got his Rabjampa college degree at Qinghai University Medical School, which included an internship in the large integrative hospital nearby. The consultation and dispensing room also has an altar with offerings, thangkas and photographs of important Buddhist teachers, which includes a picture of his young son, who was recognised as a reincarnation of Druptop Rinpoche. Dr Jigme prefers medicines imported from Tibet, because he believes herbs harvested there have higher potency, and since they are manufactured and packaged according to strict GMP procedures.

An amchi family’s old medicine room in Tingmosgang, Ladakh

Amchi Tashi Stobgais, who works at the National Research Institute for Sowa Rigpa (NRIS) in Leh, kindly invited us to his parental home in Tingmosgang to spend the weekend early September last year. We reached there in half a day’s drive along the Indus river valley.

Now a quiet village with dotted with apricot orchards, and some homestays and guesthouses for tourists, Tingmosgang is of considerable historical importance as witnessed by the ruins of a 15th-century royal castle, as well as centuries-old monasteries. Amchi Tashi can trace back three generations of amchi in his family before himself, but the family title ‘Lhajenpa’ and ‘Lharjé’ indicate that he probably hails from a line of royally appointed physicians. His father was trained by his grandfather and so on, but Tashi chose to study at Men-Tsee-Khang in Dharamsala.

We were honoured to speak to Tashi’s father, and to visit the old family shrine room where Mémé Yutok – Amchi Tashi’s grandfather, a famous amchi known across the entire Sham Valley, who traveled around on horseback – had installed a special Medicine Buddha statue, and where he passed away in tukdam.

Going through a small door adjacent to the shrine entrance, we were astonished to find the medicine making room (menjor khang) with its many bottles and instruments. Out of use since his father retired, this small room with its wooden floor and three shelves is like a museum full of treasures: a large grinding stone, wooden medicine containers, bottled locally harvested blue gentian flowers, copper and horn cupping implements, minor surgical instruments, leather medicine pouches, and a large medicine bag lined with snow leopard skin!

a large leather medicine bag lined with snow leopard fur, used by Mémé Yuthok, Amchi Tashi’s grandfather