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Two medical professionals share how Himalayan art and practices helped during the pandemic

Healing Practices: Stories from Himalayan Americans highlights how Tibetan Buddhist practices for well-being have been a powerful source of support for individuals and communities throughout times of personal and societal crisis, including during the COVID-19 pandemic. Featuring objects from the Rubin Museum’s collection alongside stories from Himalayan Americans, the exhibition reveals the complexities of what it means to heal and illuminates how people have adopted and adapted traditional Tibetan healing practices for today’s world.

The exhibition was developed in collaboration with an advisory group of artists, medical professionals, spiritual leaders, activists, educators, and art therapists interested in the intersection of art, healing, and activism. For Spiral magazine, two members of this group, Dr. Kunga Wangdue, a Tibetan medicine physician, and Pema Dorjee, a nurse, shared how they infuse Buddhist ideas into their care for others, explained how the art in the exhibition inspires their own healing and those of their communities, and offered advice on everyday practices for well-being.

Dr. Kunga Wangdue was born in a remote village in Tibet and entered monastic life at age ten. After being briefly jailed with other young monks protesting for human rights, he studied Tibetan medicine, eventually becoming a physician in India before moving to the United States.

Michelle Bennett Simorella: What is one fundamental difference between Tibetan medicine and Western medicine?

Dr. Kunga Wangdue: Tibetan medicine is a holistic practice with an approach of focusing on the mind, body, and spirit. In Western medicine, they look at disorders as chemical or mechanical and neglect the subjective issue of the patients. In terms of treatment, Tibetan medicine focuses more on the individual and considers both subjective and objective aspects.

Could you expand on the holistic approach of treating obstacles to well-being?

There are many people who don’t have any physical illnesses, but if mental problems like sadness, depression, and stress are untreated they can slowly affect physical well-being. Unhealthy physical health can affect our mental health, and mental health can affect physical health. That clearly shows that there’s a bridge between the body and mind, which we call energy or duawa. To have a healthy life we need to take care of both mental and physical health.

How is diet incorporated in the holistic approach to wellness in Tibetan medicine?

Our bodies are made of what we eat. If we eat the wrong foods, they can accumulate in our body and manifest as illness. That’s why diet is the number one cause of imbalance in the body. Whenever I am treating patients, I always ask them to avoid the foods and drinks that are harmful for them and try to take those that are good for their condition. There are four different types of treatment in Tibetan medicine: diet, behavioral, medicine, and therapy. The dietary regimen is mentioned first. It not only helps treat disease but also prevents disorders from accumulating in the body.

Historically Tibetan artists have created exquisite works of arts with powerful images as practical guides for well-being. How do these types of artworks inform your medical practice?

We learn the many different illustrated medical thangkas in medical college. It is the visual explanation of Tibetan medical theories. In my practice, when patients come to see me and they don’t understand the concept of Tibetan medicine, I show them the illustrated thangkas. It helps them to understand their condition and how the treatment will help them.

Detail of Medicine Buddha, Bhaisajyaguru; Tibet, 18th”“19th century; pigments on cloth; Rubin Museum of Art; gift of Ralph Redford; C2008.19 (HAR 57001)

Is there a particular artwork in the exhibition that inspires you in your personal or professional life?

When I have the Medicine Buddha thangka or statue in front of me, it reminds me that I am a follower of the Medicine Buddha who practices knowledge of medicine with love and compassion for all beings suffering from mental and physical illness. This reminds me that, as a Tibetan medical practitioner, I must follow the ethics and principles of Buddhism. There is a long chapter in Gyuzhi, the primary Tibetan medical textbook, for physician ethics, morals, and responsibilities. So it’s a good reminder for me to be the best version of myself when treating patients.

When I’m facing some difficulties with treatments and patients, I meditate on the Medicine Buddha and pray. I am much more relaxed after meditation and prayer, and with a relaxed mind many different ideas and solutions often come to mind.

Queens became the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and greatly impacted the Himalayan and Tibetan communities of New York City. What practices did you employ to deal with the gravity of the situation?

A lot of people in our community know me as a Tibetan doctor, so I was informing them about the disease through social media based on CDC information and my knowledge of Tibetan medicine. I have a friend who closed all the doors and windows. Many times, his kids asked him to open them, but he refused. He told his kids that the virus could come through the windows. People had irrational fears based on incorrect information. That’s why having the right information and the right source of information is the key thing.

When you and your family got COVID you decided to share your experience online. What was your motivation?

At the beginning of March 2020, I had an itchy throat. My wife got a fever, and I could tell that this was not the cold or flu. It’s totally different. Then my daughters and my sister-in-law showed symptoms. There was no treatment for COVID-19. My wife called her family doctor who said to quarantine at home and call 911 only if you have breathing issues. I checked all the medical records in Tibetan medical texts. There’s a chapter that talks about epidemic disease in the future. There are many signs and symptoms that exactly match COVID-19. It says try to keep yourself at a distance from others, block air passages, and take some herbs and herbal tea. After taking Tibetan herbs for five or six days, all my family members’ symptoms were relieved.

Then one day I went on Facebook Live and talked about my experience. I wanted to share my experience because we felt better, and I knew many people were afraid of dying from the virus. I had small bags of herbs that my mom sent from Tibet, and I thought this was an opportunity to help people, so we started giving them out for free.

Did you need to change or adapt your methods of treating patients because of the unprecedented nature of the pandemic?

The number one thing is I tried to educate them through online teachings, social networks, and phone calls. Online teaching is wonderful because we can reach a lot of people to talk about health and prevention.

What was the treatment that was most sought after and appreciated by patients during the pandemic?

Many people called me after I shared my own experience. They appreciated that I was living proof that I didn’t die. It gave a lot of people hope. Then I taught them how to use the precious pills. People misunderstood and thought the precious pills are for every disorder, but that’s not true. Every precious pill has its own designated treatment. Many people were also taking the wrong diet, so I gave them dietary advice according to Tibetan medicine, because not everyone can get herbs.

What is a simple tip you could give our readers for life longevity?

Stress, depression, anxiety””those are the biggest factors that reduce our lifespan. So try to always take care of both the mind and body. Have a balanced life. That way you get not only a longer life but a happier life.

Pema Dorjee is a registered nurse and the current president of the Tibetan Nurses Association, which has over six hundred members in New York and New Jersey.

Michelle Bennett Simorella: As a nurse of Western medicine, how do you incorporate aspects of Tibetan well-being and healing into your work?

Pema Dorjee: Patients coming to the hospital are very acute, very sick. I see not only they’re physically sick, but they also have huge anxiety. I try to get rid of these negative emotions. I try to bring positive emotions to the patients, so that it will affect not only their mental well-being but also, indirectly, their physical care. When a patient is aggravated or angry, I try to calm them. Let’s do some breathing exercise, let’s take a deep breath. Breathe all the good energies in, breathe all the bad energies out. I also try to make patients stay in the present instead of the future. They worry what’s going to happen to me? Will I have a surgery? Forget about everything””just try to stay in the present moment. That basically comes from a Buddhist perspective.

Are there any artworks in the exhibition that inspire you in your work?

I really like the idea of compassion incorporated in art, because compassion is something that not only bonds people but also brings good energy. When I see a patient, I don’t expect anything from them, but I imagine or visualize them getting better. When the patient gets a little better, I’m happier because I think my practice and my job are working.

In our exhibition advisory group, you suggested that the image of Avalokiteshvara is a remedy for hate because this deity embodies compassion. Why is compassion important for individual and communal well-being?

Hatred is a natural emotion that anybody can have, but if you show compassion to someone showing anger to you, the hatred is going to subside. The power of compassion is such that anything can be possible. Compassion is an antidote.

Eleven-Headed Thousand-Armed Avalokiteshvara; Tibet; 14th”“15th century; pigments on cloth; Rubin Museum of Art; gift of Shelley and Donald Rubin; C2006.66.178 (HAR 190)

New York has seen an unprecedented rise in hate crimes and violence directed toward Asian communities since the beginning of the pandemic. What toll has this taken on healthcare workers in your community?

The message sent by the administration and leaders in America started badly from the top down and made the Asian community feel vulnerable. I feel we can fight back through education, through having a better message, and having more compassionate, understanding leaders. We need to heal together, not in a segmented way.

Queens was the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in New York City and greatly impacted the Himalayan and Tibetan communities. What support networks were most helpful in meeting community needs during that period?

In the Himalayan community in Queens, there were a lot of people who didn’t know anything about the pandemic, especially elderly people. How is it spread? How can we avoid it? We created a hotline with a group of nurses who could answer those questions. We had ten or so experts on call 24/7.

Then we realized a lot of people were already sick in the community and didn’t have access to medical facilities. What they really needed was Tylenol and thermometers, but the stores were closed. We stepped in, got all the supplies from other states, and we started distributing to the community. We had two designated staff who rode small bikes and delivered supplies to the households. After COVID was getting better in New York but started picking up in India, we raised some funds from donors and sent close to eight nurses from North America to help.

Of all the support and care that healthcare workers in Queens received, what had the most powerful impact on you?

Queens was very depressing during the pandemic. All the nurses were working””and not just our regular jobs but also trying to help a community get better. When we were able to help them, that felt like a kind of joy for us. They started calling us later, saying, “Because of you guys, I survived. Let me know if you need any help with the community.” They are more engaged in the community now, because we were able to provide services to them.

What practices did you employ to support members of the Tibetan Nurses Association as frontline workers?

We have a WhatsApp group of three to four hundred members who constantly talk about the issues and in that way we’re able to help each other. Nurses who were working in nursing homes were having a very rough time. We stepped in to help those nurses, providing them with living situations so they didn’t have to live with their families. They could live outside of the family in an apartment with other nurses. Or we provided daily food, so they didn’t have to worry about eating. At that time, nurses had to change their uniforms frequently, so we provided new uniforms. We had a donor from Arizona who donated close to three hundred uniforms to us.

Did members use any particular practices during the pandemic to counter anxiety?

One thing I did that helped me during the peak of the pandemic was waking up at least thirty minutes early and straight away praying””all the mantras, all the texts, especially for Green Tara and White Tara. I asked, please protect me, and that really reduced my stress level. Also in our WhatsApp group, we talked about how to reduce stress through various ways, including a medicine called thang. We were able to get a good collection of thang from Tibetan doctors around New York and distributed it to our healthcare workers at that time.

What are some tips you would give our readers to improve their individual and collective well-being?

New York is a very stressful, busy area. We need to calm down a little bit and focus more on mental well-being. I strongly feel it’s the mind that controls your body. If your mental well-being is good, your physical well-being will get better. Compassion is also important in that it generates more happiness. So if you’re able to generate all the good qualities of a compassionate heart, you will have a good mental well-being and indirectly have better physical well-being as well.

Healing Practices: Stories from Himalayan Americans is on view at the Rubin Museum from March 18, 2022, to January 16, 2023.

About the Contributors

Michelle Bennett Simorella is director of curatorial administrations and collections at the Rubin Museum of Art, bringing two decades of museum experience and leading collaborative projects. Working in Kathmandu, Nepal, for several years expanded her knowledge of art and practices in the region. Michelle has degrees in art history and nonprofit management.

Pema Dorjee is president of the NY & NJ Tibetan Nurse Association (TNA), a nonprofit organization founded by Tibetan nurses in the New York City area. The organization helps nurses with degrees from India and Nepal with credential evaluation services, licensing in different states, and job searches, as well as providing mentoring services to nursing students. It also offers health-awareness programs to Tibetan, Nepalese, and other Himalayan communities. Pema Dorjee works at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, New York.

Dr. Kunga Wangdue was born in Tibet and began his Buddhist studies at the age of eight at Drapung Monastery in Lhasa. He graduated from the Tibetan Medical and Astrology College in India in 1996 and completed an internship under Senior Menpa Kunga Gyurme, former personal physician of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. From 1998 to 2002, he served as a clinical practitioner in Nepal. Dr. Wangdue is the vice president of the Traditional Tibetan Medical & Astro Association New York.

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Image Credits

Hua Khar (active 1990s, Qinghai Province, China); Knowledge of Dietetics””Dietary Restrictions; Chentsa, Amdo Region, Northeastern Tibet (Jianzha, Qinghai Province, China); 1995″“1996; pigments on cloth; Rubin Museum of Art; Gift of Shelley and Donald Rubin Private Collection; C2014.9.22