RIGZIN Women celebrates Tibetan women as culture bearers. In Tibetan, rigzin refers to an individual steeped in traditional knowledge. In this ongoing series, RIGZIN Women recount, in their own words, how they sustain their heritage and their livelihoods.
I was born into a yogi family in the Amdo region of the Tibetan plateau. As a child, I spent a lot of time outdoors by myself. I grew up in a remote area, and there weren’t many children around me to play with. There were no video games or electronics either, so nature was my game. I had to use my imagination to play. I would stare at the sky for hours and find stories in the clouds. I think playing like this helped me in my healing work since ultimately it is all mental, imaginative and meditative. My childhood gave me certain abilities: I was good at relaxing my mind, I respected the food I ate, I knew how to be my own companion when I felt lonely. I find that modern life does not nurture these kinds of abilities in children. Only recently have I truly understood the value of my simple childhood.
From an early age, I was also exposed to mantra chanting, a melodic recitation of prayers. My community is known for its chanting traditions. In my village, everyone contributes to build a mani khang—a modest community structure with a shrine. It’s more communal than a monastery. Villagers contribute what they can to buy idols as well as food and flowers for offerings. In the winter, the whole village gathers there to chant, or as we say, “boil mantra.” Even the most timid people join in. As we chant in unison, everyone sees each other in a harmonious and positive way. Voices over voices, there is always a feeling of going beyond time and space.
Mantra healing is not just repetitive chanting. The tradition, which originated around 5,000 years ago, holds a vast body of knowledge that trains the mind to become positive and strong. Traditionally, mantra has been used as an antidote to mental diseases. Long before terms like “depression” and “bipolar” existed, ancient Tibetan medical texts referenced mental disorders called “illusory diseases.” According to these texts, the best prevention and cure was mantra healing—the practice and study of mantras.
In Sanskrit, man means mind and tra means protection. Mantra healing is a powerful form of sound healing that uses sound and sacred words to protect the mind from the three mental poisons: ignorance, anger, and desire. When they are out of balance, they can control us. We have to rebalance them but not try to eliminate them. We cannot eliminate ignorance, anger, or desire as they are an inextricable part of our humanity—of human existence. When we ignore them, we feed them. When we are aware of them, we disempower them.
My grandfather was the spiritual backbone of our family. He was an ngapa. In Tibetan, nga means mantra and pa means man. Ngapas are those people who chant mantras. In the Rebgong region, there is often one person in the family who is the dedicated ngapa—in our family, it was my grandfather. My grandfather knew the value of knowledge. He believed that even without money or schooling, you could still be literate, knowledgeable, and learn all your life. As a child, he had me study religious texts and taught me the foundational teachings of the Nyingma school of Buddhism. Traditionally, official ngapas have been men, but in the past twenty years, women have started doing it as well. Now, I too am an ngama (the female version of an ngapa).
Although I am an ngama, I do not consider myself a “professional” because mantra healing is a way of life—not a livelihood. Most ngapas have day jobs. We do not and cannot receive payment for mantra healing, which is sacred and has no price. As ngapas and ngamas, we can only collect alms—offerings and donations. And although we chant prayers, we are healers, not priests.
I also studied with the renowned physician and Buddhist master Dr. Nida Chenatsang who founded Sorig Khang International, an academy for traditional Tibetan medicine. Through Dr. Chenatsang, I discovered the world of healing science.
Healing science consists of five parts: medicine, diet, lifestyle, external therapies, and spiritual healing. External therapies include physical practices like massage and acupuncture. Spiritual healing consists of three paths: yoga to heal through the body, mantra and breathing to heal through the mouth, and visualization or meditation to heal through the mind. Given my upbringing, I was immediately drawn to spiritual healing and mantra in particular.
There are mantras for each of the five senses, for internal organs, and for different kinds of diseases like insomnia, metabolic disorders, and inflammation. When I work with younger girls, we do mantra healing to help with anxiety before exams. I have also received feedback that these mantras help put babies to sleep.
The primary method of studying spiritual healing is through retreats. However, these retreats are not luxurious spa weekends at hotels or organized yoga sessions. Although my teacher gives me instructions beforehand, the retreat itself is to be done alone. I go into a one-room house near my home and do not interact with anyone for seven days. I do meditation, visualization, chanting, prostration, and yoga. I also visualize Yuthok, the founder of traditional Tibetan medicine and the embodiment of the Medicine Buddha. My family leaves food for me outside the door. Removing distractions is essential to achieve the focus required to reach the eight levels of consciousness. To be able to heal others, you yourself must be strong. These retreats are critical for building your mental strength and spiritual capacities.
I have been practicing mantra healing for almost a decade. Although I am now a healer and a teacher, I will always be a student. As ngapas and ngamas, we believe that learning never ends.
Drukmo Gyal is currently on her second world tour and working on the release of a new album. The Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage collaborates with culture bearers on the Tibetan plateau to support and sustain their cultural heritage.