What This 76-Year-Old Man Can Teach About Healing

I Gusti Mangku Sasak, 76

I Gusti Mangku Sasak, a 76-year-old Balinese healer, begins and ends each day by meditating: He focuses on his third eye, the tip of his nose, the tip of his tongue and his throat. He then goes to the rice fields, where he works with his son. When he returns home, around dusk, patients come from his village in the regency of Gianyar and beyond.

He is a third-generation healer who has simple advice for well-being: “Know oneself, be in control of your food intake and be aware of your body.”

I Gusti Mangku is one of about 8,000 healers, or “Bailians,” versed in Usada Bali, the ancient practice of using medicinal plants, oils, herbs and spices, as well as hands-on holistic therapies and ancient teachings, to treat physical and mental pains. In Bali, a province in Indonesia that has a population of more than four million people, healers outnumber doctors by four to one.

He considers part of his practice healing mostly local patients, who donate what they can afford in exchange for treatment. “People that come and see me are sick and are already having problems, and if you force them to pay, you make their situation worse,” he said. “And that’s not healing.”

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Credit...Malin Fezehai/The New York Times

Today, there is an industry of spiritual healing tourism as people from all over the world flock to Bali, drawn by wellness vacation packages and meditation retreats that advertise restorative experiences for body and mind. The number of people going there increased a dozen years ago with the release of the best-selling memoir “Eat, Pray, Love,” which featured a Balian medicine man named Ketut Liyer.

The number of self-professed healers grew alongside the tourists seeking enlightenment. As a result, there is a healthy skepticism among the Balinese people toward these self-proclaimed healers.

But I Gusti Mangku has never heard of “Eat, Pray, Love,” and the interest by foreign tourists does little to alter his daily routine.

While Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim country, the population of the island of Bali is almost 90 percent Hindu. Layers of tradition run thickly through the fabric of the society.

Being a healer is a respected position in Balinese society, one that is handed down over generations. I Gusti Mangku, one of about four healers in a village inGianyar, is a third-generation healer who has devoted much of his adult life to the family trade.

In addition to inheriting his father’s profession, he also passed down his Lontar scribes, which are collections of thin palm leaves tied together with cotton string, inscribed with medicinal recipes, diagnoses and other ancient wisdoms written in Kawi, an old Javanese language still used in traditional arts and during ceremonies.

He remembers his father as a disciplined man who would refuse to ride in cars no matter how long the journey. “It’s healthier to walk,” he would say. When I Gusti Mangku was a young man he didn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps. He was in the middle of his exams to join the Indonesian Navy when his father asked him, the youngest of five children, to take over the family practice. He remembers his father being inundated with patients. “I never wanted to be that busy,” he said.

On a recent warm afternoon in March, people across Bali were celebrating Pagerwesi, a holiday observed every six months, during which a series of prayers, rituals and offerings are done with the intention to fortify their minds and hearts against encroaching evil forces.

As the sun weighs heavy on the rice fields, where I Gusti Mangku and his son work, they make their way back totheir compound, a collection of homes where about 30 family members, including his wife and two sons, live. Around 7 p.m., it buzzes with activity as his extended family, including siblings, in-laws, nephews, nieces and cousins, gather in the northeast corner of the compound, where a family shrine commemorates and honors spirits, Hindu gods and family ancestors. The family’s compound is designed in a traditional Balinese style that follows ancient architectural principlescontaining elements of both Buddhism and Hinduism.

He rings a bell. The sharp sound quiets the family, as they begin to put their hands together and he leads his family in prayer.

Later that day, the sun dipped below the horizon as members of the community start arriving at the compound to seek treatment. They describe their problems in detail: hair loss, stomach ailments, chest pains.

I Gusti Mangku carefully examines his patients’ eyes and the way they breathe, one of the steps of an examination in his specialty, neurological disorders. He then uses his hands, working with pressure points and mixing together formulas based on the person’s needs.

Ibu Made Surati, 67, a long-term patient of I Gusti Mangku, says that she first came to him seeking help after giving birth. She was vomiting blood anddoctors couldn’t find anything wrong with her. After I Gusti Mangku treated her with his own compounds and put her on a dietary regimen that eliminated roasted pork, she says, her symptoms subsided. Whenever she is sick, she will first go to a medical doctor, but if they can’t help, she turns to healers.

One patient sits at the side of his house, waiting for I Gusti Mangku’s son, I Gusti Ngurah Chinarsa, who is being trained in the hope that he will take over the practice. According to I Gusti Mangku, the two healers “have different energies.” In Usada Bali teaching, there is a section that instructs on unblocking, purifying, releasing and balancing different energies in the body. This particular patient had muscular and joint problems, and I Gusti Mangku is teaching his son to understand anatomy so that he can unlock those varied energies.

I Gusti Mangku said he had treated heart conditions, headaches, deafness, breast cancer and other various illnesses. He also recognizes that there are some illnesses that he can’t treat. For example, when he sees patients with typhoid or cholera he will tell them to seek treatment at thehospital.

“A healer should never guarantee that they can heal people,” said I Gusti Mangku.

As foreign dollars flow in to the practitioners and communities of Usada Bali, some worry that the traditions and sacred practice might become compromised. There are now guides that have set up services to serve as middlemen between tourists and healers.

Although I Gusti Mangku primarily heals those in his village and does not disclose his exact location, he says that foreigners started showing up on his doorstep in the 1980s. He has treated people from New York, Singapore and Australia. He is not always sure how they find him, because he is not listed on a tourism site. He never turns patients away, no matter how late. “I never lock my door, he said. “If people show up at night, I will wake up.”

I Gusti Mangku believes that the traditions of Usada Bali must not be shared frivolously. He explains that there is a saying in Bali: “Don’t just tell people who are not asking.” He believes that it is very important that the teachings don’t become distorted or misused.

On the other hand, if people are seeking help or information with sincerity, if they want to learn about Usada Bali, I Gusti Mangku says, “We have an obligation to tell them, because all of these teachings do not belong to us.”

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