Though gSo-ba Rig-pa took shape in Tibet, this medical tradition, which is still practiced in Bhutan, has always been characterized by the diversity of origins. It is based on Indian and Chinese traditions and also incorporated ancient medical practices connected with magic and religion. However, in essence, it is based on the great principles of Buddhism and provides a comprehensive way of understanding the universe, man, and his sickness.
These two great systems of thought inspired Bhutanese traditional medicine, but there were also local influences. In many ancient accounts, sickness is usually attributed to demonic causes. Local gods, demons and spirits of all kinds could be considered as responsible for certain illnesses. To obtain healing, it was necessary to practice particular rituals and only monks or magicians were in a position to do so. This medical practice thus involved much divination the means of diagnosing and recognizing the spells causing the illness and exorcism as the way of treating the patient. And even though medical techniques in Tibet and Bhutan developed subsequently observation, experience, study and knowledge, popular beliefs had a definite influence in the way traditional medicine evolved.
Over and above these various influences, Buddhism itself is at the heart of Bhutanese medical traditions. Buddhism teaches that the existence of phenomena and suffering (sickness, old age and death) have a single origin that prevents man from reaching enlightenment, namely ignorance.
This is the origin of the three moral poisons: desire, hatred and delusion. In turn, these three moral poisons will produce the three pathogenic agents – air, bile and phlegm, which are the origin of sickness if they are imbalanced. With its overall conception of the universe and life, Buddhism is thus a way of linking medical theory to the same single source, in which sickness finds its natural place. Only knowledge, leading to Enlightenment, can free mankind from this painful existence.
It was only after reaching enlightenment and understanding of the ties binding man to this world and the means of freeing himself from them that Buddha could define the origin of pain, discover the way to eliminate it and teach an effective theory. It is therefore not surprising that he became the most outstanding healer.
Through his own experience he discovered the art of healing old age, sickness and death. The divinity of medicine, Sangye Menlha, is represented in traditional iconography with a blue body. His right hand holds out the Terminalia Chebula (Aru), which is believed to cure all illnesses, as a gift. In his left hand is a bowl of ambrosia, the elixir of immortality.