Meet the man who’s quietly bringing ancient Tibet to Charlottesville

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Gyaltsen Druknya is working to bring traditional Tibetan medicine to the U.S. with his organization, Arura Medicine of Tibet. John Robinson photo. Gyaltsen Druknya is working to bring traditional Tibetan medicine to the U.S. with his organization, Arura Medicine of Tibet. John Robinson photo.

Gyaltsen Sangpo Druknya was born in the northeast corner of the Tibetan Plateau in a region called Amdo, a land of arid grasslands, huge blue lakes, and deep, pine covered valleys. Three of Asia’s most famous rivers—the Yangtze, the Yellow, and the Mekong—have their beginnings in the snow-covered mountains that ring the area. Amdo is the birthplace of the current Dalai Lama, and a quarter of the Tibetan population, about 1.6 million people, live there, despite the fact that it lies outside of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, largely subsumed by the Chinese province of Quinghai.

The village where he was born is home to about 500 families. Like 80 percent of the Tibetans in Amdo, they’re traditional nomadic farmers, raising yaks, goats, and sheep on the steppes of the highest and largest plateau on earth.

Gyaltsen’s first name is pronounced like “Jyultson,” but he tells everybody to just say “Jensen” and leave it at that. His last name is familiar as the name of the Downtown Mall hair salon, Salon Druknya, which he co-owns with Tashi, his wife of seven years. They have two kids, a 7-year-old son, Namkia, and a daughter, Chukyi, who is 6. He’s a happy, successful man, but he just can’t seem to relax and enjoy it.

“My personality likes keeping busy,” he said. “That’s why my wife complains.” What keeps Gyaltsen busy is a lifelong interest in traditional Tibetan medicine and a consuming desire to do whatever he can to help his homeland. Last year, he founded a nonprofit company called Arura Medicine of Tibet, with the sole aim of bringing traditional Tibetan medicine to the U.S. Every Sunday and every Monday is spent working towards this goal—and every other spare moment he’s not in the salon. All his spare money is going to that venture too, and he’s not getting paid for the work. But that’s O.K., he’s not in it for the money. And that’s why his wife nags him. “She says, ‘If you spent all your energy on [the hair salon], you and I by now don’t have to work.’”

Tibetan medicine is old. Some say 1,200 years old, others say 6,000 years, but it’s old. In fact, the first international medical conference was held in Tibet in the 7th century, and there’s evidence of Tibetan doctors performing brain surgery way before the current era.

But the ancient tradition has been seriously modernized. Arura Tibetan Medicine Group is a state-financed (read: Chinese Government) company that includes a Tibetan pharmaceutical company (worth $62.5 million in 2006), Tibetan Medical Hospital, Tibetan medical school, Tibetan Medical Research Institute, and the Museum of Tibetan Medicine and Culture, all under one umbrella and all in the Amdo region. If the medicine is holistic, so is the business.

Gyaltsen left Tibet at 18 and went to school in India before setting up a business selling rugs and gems, splitting his time between India and Nepal. Later, he traveled to Singapore, Hong Kong, and lived for a year in Taiwan. In 2001, the then 27-year-old went to visit his sister in Charlottesville, where she was living with her husband. His third day here, a woman asked him if he was going to stay in America permanently. “If you find a horse for me,” said the Tibetan nomad, “I will stay here.” The next day she called his bluff and took him out to Braeburn horse training center in Crozet. As soon as he got on a horse, he was hired, and for the next two years he trained horses for a living.

But then in 2003, Gyaltsen was in a bad car accident. His face was filled with broken glass and needed numerous stitches and his back was so badly damaged he couldn’t work at the horse farm anymore. Taking the bad luck in stride, he decided to open a restaurant. He had no experience as a cook, mind you, but his father owns restaurants in India and Nepal, and he thought he might be able to make it work.

When he first arrived in 2001, Gyaltsen met Tashi, also Tibetan, through the town’s small Tibetan community. She was cutting hair at Carden Salon on the Downtown Mall, and owner John Carden started helping Gyaltsen look for a location for the restaurant. While he looked, he fell back on what he’d done before, selling gemstones from India and Nepal on the Downtown Mall. John asked him if he might want to try cutting hair.

“I thought, ‘No way.’ I have this wild personality,” he said.

But after almost two years with no luck, John asked again. Why not, Gyaltsen thought. He could set his own hours and keep looking for something else. But he turned out to be pretty good at the hair-cutting thing, and in 2005, after only three months on the job, John asked if he and Tashi wanted to buy the business.

“That’s probably [what made] me stay as a hairdresser,” Gyaltsen said. Except for his time at the Horse Center, he’d never worked for other people, he’d always done his own thing.

“I always had a feeling to help Tibet, inside Tibet. I want to do something. …I feel like just work here is not satisfying the goal [I had] when I left home.”

When Dr. O Tsokchen, the head of Arura Group, came to Charlottesville in 2008, it was because he’d heard that a guy named Gyaltsen Druknya had been holding numerous successful fundraisers for the Tibetan Healing Fund, a group working to improve the health and living conditions of women and children in rural Tibet. Dr. O asked him to spearhead the efforts to bring Arura Medicine to the U.S., but Gyaltsen wasn’t interested. He wanted to help Tibet, not America.

Still, he began visiting American medical facilities and talking to doctors and nurses at UVA, and he started to see that not only could Tibetan medicine be a big boon to America, bringing the “mindfulness part of medicine,” but coming to America could also help Tibetan medicine.

“All the hard work, and what they did inside Tibet, if we establish some new place here in America, could be preserved.”

So when Dr. O came back in 2009, Gyaltsen said yes. And then he proposed holding a Tibetan Medicine conference in Charlottesville.

“You sure you can do it?” Dr. O asked.

“Why not?” Gyaltsen said.

Last year, Gyaltsen started Arura Medicine of Tibet. They’ve got a Board of Advisors that includes Jeffrey Hopkins, professor emeritus in UVA’s religion department, the man who built the Tibetan Buddhist Studies program and served as translator for the Dalai Lama for 10 years. They work with numerous Tibetan groups, as well as with the UVA School of Nursing, the UVA Tibetan Center, and the newly minted UVA Contemplative Science Center.

And they need big partners, because they have big plans. The goal is to build a Tibetan Medical Shangri La here in Charlottesville, with a training center, old folks’ home, museum, medical library, meditation hall, Tibetan marketplace, and a Tibetan inn.

I ask Gyaltsen what he does other than cut hair and work on Tibetan causes.

“That’s my wife’s complaint,” he says. But then he thinks a bit and says, “I like bars. I go to bars a little bit.”

He admits that perhaps less of his energy goes into the salon than it should, but his wife and employees keep the place running well, while his heart and mind are with his passion project.

Both he and Tashi are U.S. citizens. Gyaltsen made the leap just last year in a small, unobtrusive ceremony at the Federal courthouse Downtown. He had the option to do it at Monticello, but he didn’t want to make it a big deal.

“Anyway,” he says, “I’m a citizen of the world, yeah?”

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