Dr. Dorjee Rapten Neshar is the chief medical officer and senior consulting physician at the Bangalore branch of the Tibetan Medical and Astro-science Institute, which operates more than 50 medical clinics throughout India. Born in Central Tibet in 1964, he fled to India five years later to escape the Chinese occupation.
Though he comes from a long line of traditional medicine practitioners, Dorjee was initially more interested in studying Western medicine than traditional Tibetan methods, which include balancing the body and mind using herbal pills and spiritual practice. Ultimately, he ended up enrolling in college for Tibetan medicine, and since then has risen to become one of the world’s most renowned practitioners.
In the following interview, the doctor and subject of the 2016 documentary, The Legacy of Menla, talks to the film’s screenwriter about treating cancer patients, the intersection of Buddhism and medicine, and the future of holistic interventions.
How did you start practicing traditional Tibetan medicine?
Tibetan medicine came to me as a blessing in disguise. I come from a long line of Tibetan physicians, so there was always pressure from my family for me to follow in their path. But, growing up, I was not too interested in traditional healing systems. I was gearing up to study modern Western medicine, but due to some technical issues at my college, scholarships became unavailable. I was left with little choice, and decided to enroll at the Tibetan Medical College in Dharamsala, India. It was not long before I became fully immersed in the multidimensional intricacy of Tibetan medicine—and I have not looked back ever since.
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Could you elaborate on your experiences as a Tibetan physician, particularly when it comes to treating patients with severe diseases and the terminally ill?
Tibetan medicine is well-known for treating major and chronic diseases, such as diabetes, metabolic diseases, and cancer. In recent years, we have started receiving patients diagnosed with all stages of cancer because of our various success stories from former patients.
Many patients come to us after receiving other forms of treatment, such as surgery and chemotherapy. They tend to either take our treatments in conjunction with Western medicine or decide to make the switch completely. Either way, I always advise patients according to their specific case and condition. For instance, if I see they have a cancerous tumor that is fairly advanced, I advise them to go for surgery. If I see the cancer aggression is very strong, I suggest that they take a few cycles of chemotherapy. The patient can then decide to take our medication instead of continuing with chemotherapy. In the end, it’s their choice.
There is no magic bullet to cure cancer, and I don’t claim that we can cure it. But I have strong faith in the efficacy of our herbs as well as in our multidimensional and holistic approach. We have had patients who have been cured, and many other patients whose life expectancies have been prolonged. Again, this does not mean that every patient will react the same way. The patients themselves play a vital role in treatment. Their faith and confidence in taking our medicines, as well as their participation in the healing process, is key.
What is the connection between Tibetan medicine and Buddhist values and teachings?
The most unique feature of Tibetan medicine is its connection with Buddhism. This connection is how we draw the distinction between Tibetan medicine and other alternative healing systems, such as Ayurvedic or traditional Chinese medicine. As practitioners of both Buddhism and medicine, we are taught to understand the patient’s suffering. We develop a deep sense of compassion within ourselves, and this becomes something we can then transmit to other sentient beings.
Understanding the vital life force and its connection with the cosmos also gives us a more holistic appreciation when it comes to treating diseases. So does the understanding that disease can be traced back to a person’s previous karma. We work with the patient to minimize or purify their karmic influences through meditation and other spiritual practices, so he or she becomes more favorable to receiving the treatments that we prescribe for them.
Patients tend to be very receptive and open to engaging in these spiritual practices, whether they are Buddhist or not. I often tell them that they don’t need to visualize the Medicine Buddha if they don’t want to—they can just envision receiving the blessings of their own protector.
There are patients who might be less willing to do the meditations, usually because they come to us after already giving up all hope. But I tell these patients that they need to change their mindsets. If they don’t open their hearts, they are unlikely to benefit from the treatment.
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What pressures do you think Tibetan medicine faces in the globalizing market economy?
We rely first and foremost on word of mouth to disseminate our practices. When we first set up our clinic in 1991, we didn’t have many patients, no more than four or five a day. It is thanks to the success stories that we have grown so much.
Practicing Tibetan medicine is a noble profession, so we do not believe in advertising and commercializing it. Having said that, there are a number of practitioners who believe our products—such as massage oils, antiseptic creams, and green teas—could do very well in the global market. There are still some doctors who believe Tibetan medicine should stay immune to advertising, but I think introducing some of our products to the global market could be a good solution to offsetting our production costs.
How does Tibetan medicine cope with the world’s increasing environmental challenges?
There are ongoing discussions on how to protect the medicine we use. Some of our high-altitude medicinal plants are nearing extinction, while others are now protected by environmental laws. We are considering mass planting and cultivating some of our medicinal herbs as a long-term solution, but I don’t think we have reached that stage just yet. If our medicinal herbs become unavailable, substitutes are mentioned in the texts as well.
Nature will always produce what we need, but humans should not take advantage of that. If we are too greedy, we cause earthly disturbances, and these disturbances gather like a big smog until nature retaliates, unleashing natural degradations in the form of floods, climate change, abrupt changes in flora and fauna, and so on. This is why we must have a more holistic view when it comes to protecting our environment. No matter how long we as human beings live, we must ensure that we live in harmony with our planet. I believe it is possible if we try.
[This story was first published in 2017]