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Tradition and Modernity in a Bonpo Medical School and Hospital in Western Tibet



This three-year project, which commenced on February 1st, 2008, is funded by a grant for £150,256 from the Leverhulme Trust. It is one of a group of research projects which Geoffrey Samuel is developing at Cardiff based around Tibetan and other Asian medical traditions in Asian and Western contexts, exploring in particular healing techniques that encompass both mind and body therapies.

Aims of Project

Bon is a minority religious and cultural tradition that exists in Tibet alongside the majority tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Our study focuses on the activities of an important recent Bon lama and medical scholar, Khyungtrul Jigmai Namkhai Dorje (1897-1955), and on the monastery, hospital and medical school that he founded near Mt Kailash in western Tibet. These still exist under the direction of his principal student, Tenzin Wangdak. The institutions which Khyungtrul founded offer unique opportunities to study a largely-unresearched branch of Tibetan medicine as taught and practiced in contemporary Tibet, as well as to investigate the interaction between Tibetan medicine and the contemporary Chinese health system in a remote rural setting.

The existence of Khyungtrul’s three foundations, in an area that is deeply associated with the historic origins of Bon in Tibet, but from which the practice of Bon had virtually disappeared by Khyungtrul’s time, also raises important issues regarding Bon identity and the role of medical and health practices in maintaining that identity.

Thus our research situation raises a series of interlocking questions regarding the teaching and practice of Bon medicine, the nature of Bon medicine and Bon identity in relation to Tibetan Buddhism, and the situation of Tibetan medicine in general in relation to the contemporary Chinese state.

The significance of the research lies in two main areas:

  1. Within the study of Tibetan medicine, it will greatly extend research on the important area of Bon medicine, investigate significant unstudied issues relating to Bon identity, and examine the effects of the Chinese health system on a established medical tradition outside urban areas. It will also treat these issues as interconnected and as affecting each other in various ways (e.g. the modernizing and globalizing power of the Chinese state and its health policy may be inflected and resisted at the local level by Bon identity politics as mediated through Bon medical institutions).
  2. More generally, it will provide an important case-study of the interrelationship between health, identity, traditional medicine and modernity in an unusual and significant setting, adding to a growing body of research on these important issues within contemporary medical anthropology and medical social science. This includes work on Chinese medicine in metropolitan China and work in many other societies around the world.

We hope that the understanding of these issues will lead in time to better and more productive use of the important resources for human health contained within traditional modes of healing such as Tibetan medicine.

The research will involve a mixture of textual study and field research. Both Millard and Samuel are trained primarily in social and medical anthropology; both have also worked extensively with textual material. The textual component will comprise detailed study of Tibetan medical texts, with consultation with Tibetan medical scholars where appropriate, and will be aimed at identifying distinctive aspects of the Bonpo medical literature. The field research will focus on the use of these texts in medical training and practice, and the impact of the Chinese state health system on the hospital and medical school. It will be undertaken through a combination of interviews of teachers and students, and where appropriate also patients and former patients, at the hospital and medical school. Interviews will also be conducted with students of Khyungtrul and members of his family.


The Leverhulme Trust

Project Value