The Life Story & Prominent Themes
Lobsang Wangyal was born in 1920 in the Yarlung Valley in Central Tibet. From the first pages of his autobiography he emphasizes his predisposition to Buddhism as a child. This first led him to join the local monastery, Tashi Dechen Gon, at the age of thirteen. He emphasizes the connection this monastery had with the Dalai Lamas, as it was the home monastery to the Second Dalai Lama, Gendun Gyatso. The inclination towards and belief in Buddhism is a theme that recurs throughout his story. Likewise, that he mentions this connection with a Dalai Lama of the past foreshadows his later position as personal physician to the present Dalai Lama. He did not stay long, however, as he was selected from among the young monks to study Tibetan medicine at the Lhasa Medical School when he was fifteen years old.
The conditions of the school were strict and Lobsang Wangyal spent long hours memorizing texts (such as the Four Tantras), practicing diagnosis, and studying astrology and astronomy. In addition, he became the personal assistant to the headmaster, Khyenrab Norbu, who was also a well-known physician of the time. The young Lobsang Wangyal felt great admiration for Khyenrab Norbu who became an important mentor to him. Later, during the Cultural Revolution, Khyenrab Norbu would use his influence to help secure better treatment for his former student.
The admiration Lobsang Wangyal felt for this teacher becomes clear when, in 1954 at the age of 34, he decides to marry Saldon, the daughter of Kundeling Lobsang Gyaltsen, a notable Lhasan aristocrat. Saldon was a religious woman and they remained married until her death in India of a brain hemorrhage in 1985. However, Lobsang Wangyal worried and hesitated over the decision to marry because he knew that Khyenrab Norbu would not approve. Specifically, his teacher was known to have disapproved of daughters of aristocrats, and marriage in general, because it distracted students from their studies. After requesting that an acquaintance intervene and explain the situation to Khyenrab Norbu, Lobsang Wangyal went through with the marriage but he never lost the feeling that he had let down his teacher.
Lobsang Wangyal then recounts the Chinese invasion of 1949 and the 1950s, conflating events of this period into continual aggression in which the Chinese lied again and again. In culmination, the Tibetans rose up in protest in March of 1959. During the revolt, Lobsang Wangyal was at the Kundeling house in Lhasa with his brother-in-law. Lobsang Wangyal’s tone in this section of his life story demonstrates the negative feelings he held towards Chinese control in Tibet, a theme which continues throughout his written account. This is likely a direct consequence of the suffering he underwent following the Tibetan uprising. The Kundeling house was eventually surrounded by Chinese soldiers and everyone inside was arrested and sent to Drapchi Prison. Because of his involvement in the uprising and his background and connections with an aristocratic family who owned land and had servants, he was sentenced to seven years in prison. While in prison, Lobsang Wangyal suffered through forced hard labor with poor living conditions and very little food. Many of his fellow prisoners suffered from malnutrition and starved to death. He also recounts that because the Chinese were not skilled in farming techniques, their toil produced very little yield from the ground. Throughout this section of his autobiography and throughout his proceeding travels to India and Western countries, Lobsang Wangyal writes from a strong Tibetan nationalist perspective. He makes clear his and other Tibetans’ wish for a Tibet free from Chinese rule and sees the Dalai Lama as the true spiritual and temporal leader of the Tibetan people.
After a period of time, Lobsang Wangyal’s skills as a physician were put to use and he escaped the harshest treatment that others suffered during the Cultural Revolution by working in the prison’s clinic. Because Tibetan medicine during this period was seen as backwards, he had the opportunity to study techniques of Western medicine which he says benefitted him later on. The autobiography from here to the end is structured largely around specific anecdotes of treating patients, first in the prisons in Tibet, then the Dalai Lama in India, and finally Westerners in Europe and America. The rest of the major events of his life are woven in the spaces between these anecdotes. A theme that emerges is Lobsang Wangyal’s belief in the efficacy of Tibetan medicine. During his time in Tibet, many of the anecdotes demonstrate the antagonism of the Chinese doctors towards Tibetan medicine in which the Tibetan technique proposed by Lobsang Wangyal turns out to be effective or in which the Chinese technique is shown to fail. He explains the risks he took and the new techniques he developed in order to treat illness and save lives, which gave him confidence in his own skills.
In 1973 Lobsang Wangyal was exonerated of his alleged crimes and was given the formal title of “medical professor” (see page 50). Then, in the 1980s he and his wife were given permission to go on pilgrimage to India, leaving two guarantors in Tibet to ensure their return. While in India, the Dalai Lama requests that he stay and practice medicine there in the role of his personal physician. At first he hesitates because he knows that he must return to Tibet, but he eventually agrees to stay. Interestingly, enough, he never explains what happened to the guarantors. Rather, the biography focuses on his own life as a doctor, healer, and promoter of Tibetan medicine, often leaving out details of the political context or his relationship with other people beyond a superficial level. Lobsang Wangyal spends the 1990s and final years of his life treating Tibetans, Indian leaders, and Westerners as he travels the world. He also gives many lectures on various topics related to Tibetan medicine and promotes the education of future generations of doctors. The autobiography concludes with a transcript of the Dalai Lama’s personal teaching to Lobsang Wangyal on the technique of powa, or transference of consciousness, to be practiced at the time of death. The editor adds at the end that Dr. Lobsang Wangyal passed away peacefully in 2003 at the age of 84.
Motivations for Writing
Several themes point to Lobsang Wangyal’s motivations for writing his story. First and foremost, he writes to promote Tibetan medicine. In recounting his time in Tibet, he emphasizes the efficacy of Tibetan medicine over Chinese techniques. During his travels in the West, he likewise notes that he sees the holistic approach of Tibetan medicine as offering something important to the world, especially when compared to the specific approach of Western techniques. He recounts many anecdotes in which he helps patients who were turned away by Western doctors. It becomes clear that he sees his purpose in life in his identity as a healer and thus writes his story. His words emphasize this one aspect of his life and make clear that his promotion of Tibetan medicine, Tibetan freedom, and the Dalai Lama, all stem from his belief that these likewise promote the well-being of the world.
Towards the end of his account he explicitly mentions his wish to send future Tibetan doctors around the world, explaining that it has the twofold purpose of helping suffering people and raising awareness and funds to support the Tibetan medical institute in India so that it can continue its projects. He writes one section titled, “Service to Society” which likewise underscores his intentions to serve others. Published with Lobsang Wangyal’s autobiographical account are several transcripts of lectures on topics of Tibetan medicine and its connection to Tibetan Buddhism. The fact that the volume was published posthumously (in 2007, four years after his death) and mentions specifically the need of the institute for financial support lends support to the idea that the motivation for writing was, at least in part, a fundraising promotion. That said, his account will be of great interest to those studying this time period and his experience as physician to the Dalai Lama make his life particularly noteworthy.