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Wisdom and healing in the mountains of Ladakh


High in the remote Himalayas is the ancient kingdom of Ladakh, known as “ The land of the passes”. Ladakh is the most remote region of India, a dramatic high altitude desert, which lies on the western edge of the Tibetan Plateau.

A magical land, immersed in times woven blanket by Buddhist prayers, clad in the rainbow of prayer flags that sit high on the mountain passes, reminding us of another world. Enchanting monasteries cling to the edge of cliff tops, looking out onto the vast mountain peaks and the piercing blue sky.

For 8 months of the year, Ladakh is cut off from the rest of the world, shut by extreme winter temperatures that can fall below -30.  Ladakh is situated on a high altitude plateau, between 3000 and 4000 metres above sea level, whilst most of the people are related to the Tibetans and follow similar cultural and religious practices.

Healing in Ladakh.

One of the main systems of healing in Ladakh is called Amchi medicine and in many ways is almost identical to Tibetan medicine. Tibetan medicine was once practiced right across the Himalayas right up to Mongolia, where as Ladakh is now one of the few remaining areas where Tibetan medicine is still the indigenous medical system

The Amchi tradition belongs to an ancient family lineage, which has been passed down for many generations. Amchis do not charge patients for their consultation and treatment; instead, they rely on villagers who help them with farm work, some food supply and exchanges. This livelihood is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain in a fast changing rural economy. Due to the influx of consumerism, television and tourism this way of exchange is becoming less common.
What is on the verge of extinction is not only a highly sophisticated medical system but also a community-based curative and preventive practice, emphasizing water and spring cleanliness, proper diet and healthy lifestyle. Amchis are not only medical practitioners. They are important actors of village life. Besides preserving the harmony of families, social relations, mental balance of individuals, they are the main consultants for community decision-making.

New ‘Amchis’ have to take their passing out examination orally in front of the whole village, where they are examined by a panel of respected senior Amchis and elders from surrounding villages. This means that the prospective patients get a good insight into the amchi that will be responsible for their healing.

The Amchi doctor holds a high position in Ladakhi society, they are often not only the medical doctors but also very strong community leaders, often holding the position of the ‘Goba’, the head of the village.

As well as Amchi healers, there are also Onpo’s (Astrologers), and Lhamo’s (Female Shamanic practioners) and Chodpa’s, (Tantric yogi practitioners) that help to give a holistic choice in healing various ailments. The Amchi is mainly concerned with diet & nutrition, herbal remedies, spiritual practices aligned to the medicine Buddha and psychological disorders.

Tibetan Medicine

Tibetan medicine is an ancient synthesis of the art of healing, drawing on the knowledge of medical systems existing in a wide region of Southeast and Central Asia. The fundamental essence of Tibetan medicine is based on an integration of Indian Buddhist system of medicine, Ayuveda, Chinese medicine, the ancient shamanic traditions of the Himalayas.

Like all the phenomena of conditioned existence, diseases are also the product of causes and conditions. There are two main causes of the disease: a long-term cause and short cause.

Ignorance or unawareness is the ultimate cause of all diseases. Because of ignorance or delusion, one cannot see the reality of phenomena and thereby we cling to the belief in an isolated personal self or ego which in turn give rise to the three mental poisons: desire. hatred and stupidity. So ignorance and three mental poisons constitute the long-term cause of disease.

Secondly the short-term causes of disease are the three energies: wind energy, fire energy and water/earth energy. They are in fact produced by the three mental poisons: Desire gives rise to wind, hatred to fire and stupidity to water/earth. These three constitute the basic energy system in the body. When the energy system in the body is balanced one is healthy, when it is unbalanced one becomes sick.

There are four factors responsible for the imbalance, they are: improper climate, influence of demons (also psychological mind sets), improper diet and improper behaviour. Since everything is interrelated, imbalance in one organ or one of the elements effects the rest of the organism.
The healer will use various paths to help with the healing of the patient. These paths can be looked at through the three jewels of Body, Speech and Mind.

Body

In relation to healing of the physical body and its ailments, diet and nutrition as the first means of treating a disorder. If we have an imbalance of fire for example, we should avoid hot food and drink and look for a cooling diet. The next factor the doctor will view is physical exercise and the environment of the patient, including the climate where the patient lives.

In fact the whole of the Tibetan medical system is based on finding balance between the five elements. It is understood that our human body and the world is made from the five elements, and in order to stay healthy we find a balance between our inner world and body and the outer elements.

Speech

Another important aspect of the healing process is the aspect of speech, communication & Relationships. The Amchi will look at our relationship to all things, our habitual patterns, our living environment, our friends and social networks. In fact, listening itself is a very powerful part of the diagnosis.

One way of diagnosis is through listening to the pulse, deeply listening to the rhythms and tides within the body. The Amchi will literally, tune into the subtle layers of movement in the body, hearing, watching, reading the body, through practice one can understands the language of the body, its cries for help, its deep songs. The names for some of these internal songs are often used in metaphors such as the swimming of a fish, or the flying of an eagle.

The amchi might suggest the patient seeks the company of friends, or a warm fire. It might be a particular place the patient must visit, or to give an offering to a local deity or sacred tree/river. Sometimes the patient might be given a sacred mantra or sound to balance the body or mind, to enchant one back to health.

It might be that the patient needs to share, talk, sing, cry, howl, weep, dance or wail their grief, their blocks, the anxiety to create some space, some movement where things may of got stuck. This aspect of speech is like the wind that helps to move things along, to clear the air.

Mind

One of the most important aspects of deep healing is to realise the true nature of all things. At its essence is the realisation that all things are interconnected, that everything changes. Understanding that all things are connected we can see that nothing is separate or exists independent of anything else. In order for all phenomena to exist each thing relies on so many contributing factors to co arise in each moment. This includes our self, which means our perceived separate self is an illusion.

As the Buddha said, “There is no separate self to suffer, the one who realises this is free from suffering”. In fact the whole teaching of the Buddha is given like a medical diagnosis, in that we suffer because we don’t realise the cause of our suffering, when we realise the cause, and our actions are in line with that understanding, then we are free.

Vast sky like mind

When we see that everything always changes, like the weather and the five elements that all things are constantly in motion and nothing including our self is the same from one moment to the next. Initially this can create a sense of anxiety, but a deeper realization of impermanence can reveal a sense of the vast openness, freshness and potentiality in every moment.

Leh Palace

This openness is like space or the vast sky, sometimes called our Buddha nature or natural state, this vast unoriginated primordial awareness is the basic ground of all our experience, our whole world arises from this simple awareness itself.

By being present to all things as they arise in each and every moment, wisdom, clarity and compassion arise naturally. When we realise that all things that arise are mere apparitions, like clouds that arise in the sky, we can see that the only constant in our lives is this witnessing awareness itself. This is the practice of meditation in all aspects of our life, which is healing of the mind.

A gift to the world

The Amchi system of healing is a great gift to the world and has wonderful treasures to offer that are still relevant to our daily lives in twenty first century culture. Of course this is just a brief glimpse of a vast array of teachings. The best way to get a taste of its healing potential is to meet a true master of the tradition. In August 2009, Huw Wyn will be hosting a journey to Ladakh where we will be guided by Amchi Tsewang Smanla, a 7th generation Ladakhi Amchi. We will visit ancient monasteries, spend time in sacred caves, remote hermitages, traveling with nomadic healers and staying with traditional families in what promises to be a trip of a lifetime. And at the same time the trip will help to keep this ancient system alive.
Huw Wyn is founder of Tigers Nest in Sussex; he has a Buddhist based psychotherapy practice, offers Tibetan medicine and runs retreats and workshops in nature all year round. For more details of the project and the journey to Ladakh, visit http://www.tigersnest.com/

Amchi Tsewang Smanla is a seventh generation Tibetan healer/doctor who lives in the small village of Nurla along the Indus river and near the ancient and beautiful monastery of Lamayuru. He was trained in Amchi medicine since an early age by his father and has continued to pass his own wisdom to his own children. A wise, gentle, kind and compassionate man, he spent many years studying this ancient in-depth and comprehensive system of healing. He has been traveling to the west every year for the last 15 years and therefore has a unique perspective of both the ancient and the modern.

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