Soba Rigpa: Good Health is all in the Mind


A plaque at the National Institute of Traditional Medicine in Thimphu, Bhutan, summarizes the root cause of illness as being a lack of knowledge of the self.

The traditional form of medicine in this South Asian country is called soba riga (or gSo-ba Rig-pa). Dr. Terpola, a doctor working at the Institute’s clinic, explains how their medicine works by saying that according to the Tantra, a set of ancient Indian texts, all problems like attachment and ignorance originate in the mind and physical problems then manifest from those problems. It sounds like a broad generalization that could be totally unfounded, but when looking at the power of the mind, using the placebo effect as an example, it becomes easy to see just how much of a role the mind can play in causing illness.

According to Soba Rigpa, the body is composed of three constitutional elements: wind (lung — the energy of movement), bile (thriba — the energy of digestion) and phlegm (bethken — the energy of lubrication and structure). When one of those goes out of whack, a person becomes ill. By harmonizing those three forces in the body, wellness returns, but it is the mind that causes these elements to get out of balance in the first place.

In Soba Rigpa, doctors prescribe a number of different herbs and other remedies to treat people. The museum at the Institute of Traditional Medicine houses hundreds of interesting remedies like cordyceps, a funky parasitic fungus that germinates in the larvae of ghost moths and can fetch several thousand dollars per kilogram. This particular fungus is used to treat all kinds of conditions, from chronic bronchitis to anemia.

But according to Soba Rigpa, getting over an illness isn’t as easy as popping some parasitic fungus. It’s about understanding the conditions that cause us to act the way we do and feel the way we do. To Soba Rigpa practitioners, the preferred method of understanding the self is Buddhism.

Since Buddhism is the main religion in Bhutan, it’s the one that people know and trust. But aside from being the traditional option, it’s a fine choice for those wanting to understand the self because it offers a deep exploration of the workings of the mind. And the nice thing is, if we learn about how our mind operates not only can we improve our health, we can improve our life in general, because we can understand our minds better and not get tricked into believing the stories that we create for ourselves — like being sick.

The Bhutanese — A Healthy Diet: What Tradition Prescribes
WebMD: Cordyceps
NCBI — Traditional Bhutanese medicine: an integrated part of the formal health care services

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