Calling Richard Gere

Hawaii may be home to the first Tibetan medical school outside of India.

October, 2002

Maroon-robed Tibetan doctors may soon be training others to follow in their footsteps, if a startup operation on the Big Island’s Kohala Coast has its way. Kohala Natural Healing Arts (KNHA) is working under the direction of Men-Tsee-Khang, the Tibetan Medical School founded by the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India, to establish a sister school in North Kohala. If the organization is successful, it will be the first Tibetan seven-year medical school in the world outside of India.

In May, KNHA won $5,000 for its second-place finish in the Hawaii Health Care Business Incubator’s business-plan competition. The incubator’s manager William Tobin, says “The KNHA plan really stood out from the others, because it was unique. It’s the first time anyone proposed a Tibetan medical school and it was something the screeners and the judges felt could succeed in Hawaii.”

KNHA president Jonathan Gaines says the second place finish was a huge morale boost. Says Gaines: “That was my first indication that this idea, a natural healing retreat in Kohala, Hawaii, would have credibility within the community of professionals in Honolulu.”

Tobin notes that the alternative health treatment area is growing by leaps and bounds and that the school is a natural fit for the health tourism industry that people want to develop in Hawaii. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the global market for traditional therapies stands at $60 billion a year and is growing. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a component of the National Institutes of Health, cites a 1997 national survey that showed that more than 42 percent of Americans used complementary or alternative medicine.

It takes about an hour to drive to the sleepy town of Hawi (the birthplace of King Kamehameha I and site of KNHA’s headquarters) from the Kona International Airport. KNHA’s eclectic office space is above the Bamboo Restaurant, which used to be owned by KNHA’s current Chairman of the Board Jim Channon.

It’s here that KNHA President Gaines has been toiling, recently to organize a Tibetan medical camp, featuring two Tibetan doctors from Men-Tsee-Khang, to be held in late October. Gaines says the camp is part of starting small, but he expects the KNHA to expand according to a fairly rapid increase in demand for Tibetan medicine. In fact, he’s looking for appropriate parcels of land along the Kohala Coast that might be leased or purchased. Gaines invested approximately $72,000 of his own money into the venture and is in the process of building a staff to raise the $175,000 needed to get to the next phase of the project. One famous follower of the Dalai Lama who’s being approached for support is actor Richard Gere.

Kohala Natural Healing Arts’ five-year plan specifies a number of sources of income for the nonprofit organization, including: Tibetan doctoral training; short courses for Western doctors (MDs); study retreats; day treatment for locals; and specialized in-residence treatments that are longer and more intensive.

Gaines’ first exposure to Tibetan medicine, a practice that dates back to the eighth century, was in the 1970s in New York City where he was studying Tai Chi Chuan (he later made a living as an instructor). He watched a Tibetan doctor perform a typical urinalysis by looking at the color, smelling the sample, dipping a finger in and tasting it, then stirring it to watch the bubbles collect. Says Gaines: “Out of this one urine sample and her knowledge and training, she could do a chemical read out in about five minutes that told her probably 25 percent of what she needed to know for her diagnostics.”

He came up with the idea of creating the medical school, so others could learn without having to go to Dharamsala. Gaines says KNHA will ultimately also encompass therapeutic lineages, such as Japanese shiatsu, Thai massage and Hawaiian lomilomi and exercise and martial arts such as Tai Chi Chuan, yoga and Aikido.

“The mission statement of Kohala Natural Healing Arts is to preserve and protect the natural healing arts of Asia and Oceania, in particular Tibetan medicine,” he says. Gaines says he chose Kohala for obvious reasons: its great beauty, sense of peace and sense of healing.

The Tibetan medical school idea fits nicely with the vision of Hawaii as a “healing island.” The nonprofit health and healing group Five Mountains Hawaii has helped to offset planning for the October Tibetan medical camp and can see ways of partnering in the future. Five Mountain’s Hawaii Executive Director Pat Linton, says, “I think it’s great and I think it’s ambitious.”

The chairman of KNHA’s board, business consultant and social architect Jim Channon, says. “It fits the need as a mid-range business solution for us, because it can be nicely nestled away in the hills, not interfere with our country setting and, at the same time, invite a certain level of visitor here who will pay money that will pay salaries of local people, who will produce and help a nonpolluting, light industry,” he says.

KNHA’s business plan says the medical school would mean a sustainable infusion of cash, since local expertise and labor would be needed to support the operations and infrastructure of the school. Gaines says, “I think there’s going to be a sense of empowerment for Kohala and Hawaii Island as what somebody has called the healing island.”

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Kelli Abe Trifonovitch