གསོ་བ་རིག་པ (Sowa Rigpa)

Etymology of Sowa Rigpa

“Sowa Rigpa is generally translated as 'the science of healing' and often used synonymously for 'Tibetan medicine'. Historically, Sowa Rigpa can be considered a borrowed term from Sanskrit, accompanied by an adopted sense of 'science', which initially signified all forms of medicine known to the Tibetan world, regardless of their place of origin. Over the centuries, Sowa Rigpa became linked to local, indigenous, and 'enskilled' practices; later, to nationalist political sensibilities; and of late to cultural belonging. The term evokes territoriality, claims to ownership of knowledge, concerns over sustaining national identities, and considerations about how place-based healing practices and material resources relate to the globalizing ideas about traditional Asian medicines. Textual and ethnographic analyses and interviews with practitioners from China, India, and Nepal show how Sowa Rigpa exists at once as a marker of shared intellectual and cultural histories and forms of medical practice and as a label for a globally circulating medical system with distinct interpretations…

Das, Sarat Chandra. 1902. A Tibetan-English Dictionary with Sanskrit Synonyms. Calcutta: The Bengal Secretariat Book Depôt.
Das, Sarat Chandra. 1902. A Tibetan-English Dictionary with Sanskrit Synonyms. Calcutta: The Bengal Secretariat Book Depôt.

…‘tsowa’ means ‘livelihood, sustenance, nourish, survival, cure, be alive and keep alive’, and ‘sowa’ means ‘to enhance, feed, nourish, strengthen, heal, cure’...

…These definitions were echoed by Dr. Tenzin Bista (a Buddhist monk in the sakya tradition as well as a medical practitioner and the cofounder of Lo Kunphen, a school, pharmacy, and medical clinic based in Mustang District, Nepal): ‘The meaning of sowa, it is related to Bodhisattva mind [byang chub gyi sems] because it is about taking care [in English]. As doctors we must put the needs of our patients first. The aim of sowa rigpa is to alleviate suffering, and this intent is in the word itself’. This reading by Bista underscores a distinction also in the Four Treatises, namely that anything that can bring benefit to the patient should be considered part of Sowa Rigpa…

… Sowa rigpa combines what is likely an ancient Tibetan cognate (’tsho ba) with a concept that can be considered to have been ‘borrowed’ during the transmission of Buddhism from India to Tibet. The concept of rigpa emerges from the Sanskrit cikitsāvidyā, which was one of the five major fields of knowledge, often simply called the ‘five sciences’, taught at Indian monastic universities, the other four being esoteric learning (nang rig pa, now often translated as ‘Buddhism’), logic (gtan tshigs rig pa), grammar or language (sgra rig pa), and arts and crafts (bzo rig pa)…It was adopted by Tibetan writers in the ninth century and generally employed up until the late seventeenth century, when the five sciences were more deeply linked to politics and forms of government in Central Tibet, largely under Desi Sangye Gyatso, the Fifth Dalai Lama’s regent and one of the most important figures in the development and dissemination of medical knowledge in Central Tibet. Among the five major sciences, logic, language, and Sowa Rigpa underwent a more formal codification in written treatises...The Tibetan translations of Sanskrit medical works that were included in the commentaries of the Tibetan Buddhist canon, the Tenjur, also classified Sowa Rigpa as one of the ten...Here again, although sowa rigpa is used as a classificatory marker of medical works regardless of their place of origin, it referred to the various medical traditions that were known to the Tibetan world – but not limited to Tibet – at that time in history, including Indian, Chinese, Central Asian, and Greco-Arab texts and practices.

Das, Sarat Chandra. 1902. A Tibetan-English Dictionary with Sanskrit Synonyms. Calcutta: The Bengal Secretariat Book Depôt.
Das, Sarat Chandra. 1902. A Tibetan-English Dictionary with Sanskrit Synonyms. Calcutta: The Bengal Secretariat Book Depôt.

Not only can sowa rigpa be considered a borrowed term, it is also accompanied by an adopted sense of ‘science’ that came along with its translation from Sanskrit to Tibetan. However, the ten areas of knowledge traditionally studied in Buddhist monasteries also have become conventionally translated as ‘science’ (rigpa). When speaking of traditional medicine in contemporary contexts, the term ‘science’ can be fraught, given the ways that the term links to value systems defined in relation to biomedicine. But ‘science’ here can also be interpreted as ‘a field of knowledge’ or an academic or monastic ‘discipline’. Where ‘science’ leaves off and ‘religion’ begins remains rich epistemological and cultural terrain. Yet we cannot think of Sowa Rigpa simply as ‘Buddhist medicine’; it is rather a process ‘moving toward a scientific and empiricist mentality’ that has been influenced by ‘Buddhist habits of thought and practice’ over time…

… To Sangye Gyatso, writing in the seventeenth century, the term sowa rigpa meant more than one thing. In the Mirror of Beryl [Mirror of Beryl is a detailed account of the origins and history of medicine in Tibet through the end of the seventeenth century.] he uses it in two ways: first, as one of the forms of knowledge following the Indian tradition of the five major sciences, and second, as a general term to delineate the medical traditions of the various gods and Bodhisattvas. Sangye Gyatso discusses how Bodhisattvas study the science of healing, and then defines the term as follows:

“Therefore, it is definitely part of bodhisattva conduct and a field of endeavor for the wise. In Sanskrit this science is known as āyurveda. ‘Lifespan’ (tshe, āyuș) and ‘life force’ (srog, prāṇā) are synonyms. ‘Life’ (’tsho ba, jīva) is the basis of consciousness. In the desire and form realms, it is the basis for warmth and consciousness. Knowledge of this life is the science of life. The Sanskrit term cikitsā means ‘expertise in healing’. It is the expertise in balancing the disordered elements or constituents of the body. It is also referred to as the ‘science of healing’ (gso ba rig pa) or cikitsā vidyā.”

This quote is noteworthy in that it defines sowarigpa as a ‘field of endeavor’ (gzhol pa’i gnas, lit. ‘a place to work hard’) whose conceptual basis and humanistic utility is evidenced not only through a lineage of texts but also through ‘expertise in healing’ (gso ba’i dpyad). Here, ‘expertise’ should be understood as practices of examination and analysis – an ‘enskilled’ way of being that occurs in the process of balancing the body in day-to-day life. It is not just textual or theoretical knowledge that makes something a sowa rigpa practice; it is putting that knowledge into action in particular contexts.”

from: Craig, Sienna & Gerke, Barbara. (2016). Naming and forgetting Sowa Rigpa and the territory of Asian medical systems. Medicine Anthropology Theory. 3. 87-122. 10.17157/mat.3.2.350.


Sowa Rigpa सोवा रिग्पा
Tibetan medicine तिब्बती दवा


Sowa Rigpa சோவா ரிக்பா
Tibetan medicine திபெத்திய மருத்துவம்


Sowa Rigpa (transliteration) 索瓦日巴
Tibetan medicine 藏药
The Science of Healing 治愈的科学