David Crow answers the question:

What is the nicest thing a non-family member has ever done for you?

Well, Phil, this is a great question and it's been a great exercise thinking about it, because there are a lot of nice things that a lot of people have done for me. And of course, I would put at the top of my list my wife Sara for marrying me, but she's family now. 

So I settled on Dr. Ngawang Chopel, who was my teacher of Tibetan medicine in Kathmandu. And I thought about him as a person who has had a tremendous influence on my life, and someone who not only influenced me but was able to help me help a lot of other people. He did this through tremendous generosity and patience over a long period of time. So that's why I picked my teacher of Tibetan medicine.

He was in Kathmandu after leaving Tibet, after being in Chinese prison camps for almost 30 years after the Chinese invasion. And he had been the physician of a large monastery. As he was going through his training as a young man, he had trained in the classical ways of going out into the forest with his teacher, harvesting the herbs, having ceremonies to give thanks to the plants, and all these classical kinds of ways of learning and practicing Tibetan medicine.

Now, I became very interested in Tibetan medicine after my studies of Chinese medicine. I was somewhat dissatisfied with the training that I received in California in the early eighties to get my acupuncture license. And I was really interested in the spiritual roots of classical Asian medicine and a more... I guess you could say, a holistic approach. What were the doctors doing as far as their relationship with the plants and preparing the medicines and so forth. So I decided to close my clinic in San Francisco and go and see if I could find some teachers in the Himalayas. And I did that — and I did it without any real plan, and without any advance contact. This was before emails.

I arrived in Kathmandu and promptly became sick from the massive pollution that was there. So I went to the Tibetan community Boudhanath and I asked around for the local Tibetan doctor, I was given his location, I went there, he listened to my pulses, he gave me some medicines, and I asked him if I could be his student. And he said, "Yes, come back when you are feeling better." Well, that was the beginning of a long relationship that spanned about six years altogether.


Dr. Ngawang Chopel tends to a patient

I studied with him for a full year the first visit, and I went back on numerous occasions and studied with him for more months at a time. We would meet every day at his monastery and he would basically teach me the classical Tibetan medical system, one step at a time, using these old paintings and thangkas and texts that he had brought out of Tibet himself in an effort to keep his medical lineage and his monastery lineage alive.

So I credit him with teaching me not only classical Tibetan medicine over an extended period of time, but doing so under very difficult circumstances, which included the health challenges of living in Kathmandu, and included the fact that he was elderly, and included the fact that I was very young and inexperienced, and I imagine a rather unruly student, undisciplined student in a lot of ways compared to the monks that were under his care. And I also credit him with teaching me a lot more than just Tibetan medicine.

He also taught me just through his example a lot of very, very important issues about life. He had been a highly respected physician in his village. He had been a high-level administrator in his monastery, and he had been politically opposed to the Chinese when they came in, and so he was singled out for extra time in the camps. And yet he came out of these conditions with compassion, and with a very open mind and heart and a lot of embodied wisdom that taught me a lot of things about how people endure incredible hardship and maintain their spiritual integrity. So this was probably the biggest lesson that I really learned from him, that was nonverbal, it was just through his example.

Although, we did discuss it many times. I did ask him about his experiences and he shared them, and I asked him about the spiritual implications: “How do you maintain your spiritual view under these circumstances?” So he was really very influential in my worldview, not just spiritually, but also in terms of my training with medicine, because what he taught me was a classical system that is very difficult to find now. I was extremely fortunate to be able to work with him every day in his clinic. And that included listening to the pulses of the patients and working with the patients to see what he was prescribing and working with the monks also, to go to the market and to get the herbs and to harvest the herbs and chop the roots and prepare the medicines, and all these kinds of things. It was a classic type of internship, and that's quite rare, and in a lot of ways I didn't realize how valuable it was and how precious it was until sometime later in retrospect.

So he was old when I met him and he passed away when I was studying with him, and I was fortunate to be able to be there with him at that time, and then to go to his cremation ceremony with the monastery. And a remarkable thing happened actually at his cremation. When his body was going into the flames, an eagle came, circled around and then sat down on a wire almost above the fire actually, and just sat there and watched the whole ceremony. And then when everything was done, this eagle just flew off in circles above the funeral pyre into the sky. It was really quite an amazing spectacle, really.

But that's why I thought of Dr. Ngawang Chopel, because he had such a profound influence on me in terms of my spiritual teachings and in terms of my medical teachings. Which I have been able to share ever since. This was 30 years ago, and so his teachings, his influence has continued on, and this is the way that I have been able to repay him. I was always frustrated by not having the resources to actually support him very much when I was there, because I had very little resources to be there. So I have always considered it my responsibility, and my desire as well, to share this story about him. This is the story that I wrote in my book, In Search of the Medicine Buddha; it's in a large part about him. And just sharing the story is the way that I can pay him back, I think. So thank you, Phil, for asking.

David Crow, LAc, is one of the world’s foremost experts and leading speakers in the field of botanical medicine and grassroots healthcare. He is a master herbalist, aromatherapist, and acupuncturist with over 30 years experience, and is an expert in the Ayurvedic and Chinese medical systems. 

David is a renowned author, a poet, and the founding director of Floracopeia Aromatic Treasures. Floracopeia was created as a way to help preserve and promote the use of botanical medicines as solutions to solving numerous interrelated global problems: lack of healthcare, poverty, environmental destruction, and loss of ethnobotanical knowledge.

David has presented his vision of grassroots healthcare, preservation of botanical medicines, and the use of plants for ecological restoration to hundreds of audiences, ranging from small private groups to conferences and lecture halls to a panel discussion with the Dalai Lama broadcast internationally to millions of viewers. Through his visionary synthesis of medicine, ecology, and spirituality, he has helped transform the lives of thousands.

In 1987, David journeyed to Nepal in search of teachings in Tibetan medicine and Buddhist meditation. For the next 10 years, he studied with many teachers. Using his newfound knowledge, Crow opened a clinic in Kathmandu and another in a small mountain village, where he treated beggars from the street as well as high abbots of monasteries. In Search of the Medicine Buddha interweaves medical teachings with insights into Tibetan Buddhism, evoking the beauty and wonder of a faraway land.


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This article appears in: 2019 Catalyst, Issue 16: Kindness