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A collection of notes on the topics of classical Chinese, medicine, and traditional culture.
 

This blog is a collection of ruminations, translations, and personal opinions by Sabine and some guest authors. Reflecting my own personality, some posts are academic, some clinical, and some personal, some are excerpts from existing books and some may become part of future books. Please leave comments with feedback, questions, constructive criticism, and differences of opinion as long as you argue your reasons for disagreement logically. Any personal attacks, uncivil remarks, or self-promoting comments will be deleted.

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Humming with Elephants???

To explain my funky book title, I offer you here an excerpt from the introduction to my new book (available at the online store here).

 Replica of a Shang dynasty bronze pitcher (Portland, OR)

Replica of a Shang dynasty bronze pitcher (Portland, OR)

As a whole, the Great Treatise on the Resonant Manifestations of Yīn and Yáng discusses the correlations and correspondences, or in my favorite translation “resonances” (yìng 應), between the actions and movements of Yīn and Yáng in the macrocosm of nature at large and in the human body and an infinity of other larger and smaller microcosms, from the cells to plants and animals to society and the stars in the sky. Without going into too much detail here, I would like to suggest that what English-speaking scholars of philosophy, science, and medicine have been referring to as “correlative thinking” or as the “theory of systematic correspondences” deserves a stronger and more concise term to describe this relationship of “stimulus and response/resonance” gǎn yìng 感應. After years of waffling, I have chosen the translation “resonance” to describe the interactions of the various microcosms with each other and with the macrocosm. I am indebted to countless esteemed Chinese medicine colleagues, teachers and students, for decades of conversations about this theme, but in particular to the three senior doctors Z’ev Rosenberg, Long Rihui, and Brenda Hood.

 藥 as found in ancient bronze inscriptions

藥 as found in ancient bronze inscriptions

In addition, my reasoning has developed partly as the result of my work with this text and my efforts at explaining it to students, but also through my work with bees in my orchard; my personal experience of the effects of PTSD and of treatments with tuning forks and shamanic drumming on my nervous system and my shén Spirit, Qì, and jīng Essence; my musical training and passion as a classical violinist and twangy Mexican-style accordion player; and perhaps most importantly the lessons I learned as a biodynamic farmer, irrigating a very special piece of land in the high mountains of northern New Mexico. Most readers may be familiar with the important etymology of the Chinese character for “medicinal/remedy” yào 藥: It is a combination of the grass radical (signifying most likely that the first cures were primarily plant-based) on top of the character yùe / lè 樂 , which depicts a wooden rack with bells, drums, or jade sound stones attached to it.

Carrying the basic meanings of “music” and “joy,” this character is explained in the Yùe Jì 樂記 (Record of Music), a chapter in the Lǐ Jì 禮記 (Record of Rituals) as follows:

感於物而動,故形於聲。聲相應,故生變;變成方,謂之音;比音而樂之,及干戚羽旄,謂之樂。
Sound (shēng 聲) is produced by a response to being moved by things. Sounds resonating with each other (xiāng yìng 相應) engender change. As change becomes directional (fāng方), it produces tones. The aligning of tones and resulting music/joy, affecting shields and axes, plumes and ox-tails, this is what we call “music.”
 
 The bronze bell assembly from the tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng (433 BCE)

The bronze bell assembly from the tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng (433 BCE)

 

The earliest Chinese dictionary Shuō Wén Jiě Zì 說文解字 (Explaining Graphs and Elucidating Characters), which dates from the second century CE, explains the use of the element 樂 in the character 藥 as simply the phonetic element. Nevertheless, the choice does suggest the affinity of the early Chinese conception of medicine with the idea of resonance or vibrations, as experienced with musical instruments like bells or drums. Of course this connection makes perfect sense when we consider the all-important role of Qì in any traditional Chinese treatment, whether with medicinals, acupuncture, moxibustion, incantations, prayers, or exorcisms in a continuum of what we might for lack of a better choice call “natural” and “supernatural,” or “physical” and “spiritual” modalities. Like hopefully many of my readers, I personally have had the great fortune numerous times of experiencing the calm joyful state of being in a dynamically vibrating equilibrium in perfect attunement with the environment as the result of a skillful acupuncture treatment, early-morning qigong session by the sea, or in the midst of playing chamber music. And one of the closest metaphors that comes to my mind to describe this state is the sound and feeling of universal humming in the midst of a swarm of bees. It is for this reason that I have chosen the whimsical word “humming” to translate the character yìng 應 in the Chinese title of the text as part of the title of the present book. For an explanation for the appearance of elephants, continue reading.

elephantDing.jpg

Following a commentary by Wú Kūn 吳崑 from 1594, we may often be tempted to equate Yīn and Yáng in the macrocosm in its narrowest physiological sense with Blood and Qì, respectively, in the body, especially if we approach this text narrowly as clinical medical literature without taking into consideration its early Chinese cultural context and the significance and meaning of medicine and healing within that culture. Nevertheless, I would argue that that interpretation is only one of many frames of references and will be too limiting for many passages in this chapter. As the reader will notice, the text constantly shifts between the macrocosmic view (of the Supreme Ultimate, or tài jí 太極) and its expression in the two-fold complementary actions of Yīn and Yáng, alternately expressed at the level of Heaven and Earth, as the unfathomable (shén 神) and the apparent (míng 明) in the phenomenal world of the Myriad Things (wàn wù 萬物), as the Qì and Flavor (wèi 味) in food and medicinal substances, or in the many correspondences of Yīn and Yáng within the human body, which, as its own macrocosm, incorporates countless more possible microcosmic systems.

xiang.gif

The character xiàng 象, which I have chosen to render as “manifestations” throughout this book, literally means “elephant,” or specifically ivory. It is an important term in early Chinese thought and requires much more time and space than I can dedicate to it in the context of this book to plumb its full meaning. For readers familiar with the Yì Jīng 易經 (Classic of Changes), it might be helpful to recall that xiàng refers to the “image” or “illustration” of the hexagrams, i.e., their visual and symbolic representation. In Chinese astrology, tiān xiàng 天象refers to the celestial images or traces in the movement of the heavenly bodies that correlate with or reflect the visible phenomena on Earth. In this context, the character 象 is often paired and at the same time contrasted in a typical Yīn-Yáng duality with the term xíng 形, which I translate in the following pages as “Form,” as the earthly manifestations of heavenly images. In this combination, xiàng can perhaps be seen as the formless archetypal patterns of change in the interaction of Yīn and Yáng that are associated with the ineffable nature of Heaven. Through the continuous and dynamic interaction of Yīn and Yáng, ascending and descending between Heaven and Earth, these xiàng take on concrete shape in their Form (xíng) as the Myriad Things. Moving on from the duality of Yīn and Yáng to the trinity of Heaven, Earth, and Humanity, we can now begin to contemplate the role of humans as the intermediary between these two poles in a political and cosmological sense. The opposing yet complementary forces of Yīn and Yáng need to be managed, regulated, or “put in good order” (zhì 治) by the ruler and sage in the socio-political realm. This involves harmonizing the country, rooting out disorder in all its manifestations, and aligning human activity with the daily, seasonal, yearly, and astrological cycles of the macrocosm. In its perhaps oldest and original sense, zhì 治is the action of managing the waterways to prevent flooding in one area and drought in the other, as the mythical culture hero Yǚ 禹, tamer of floods and founder of China’s first Xià dynasty, is said to have done. It is no coincidence, however, that the same character that is used to describe this activity of the ruler in ruling or “putting in good order” the country (zhì guó 治國) is also used in the compound zhì bìng 治病, “to treat disease,” which is the activity of the medical practitioner. The overlap and complementarity between the two microcosms of the body politic and the human body are well-known to any student of Chinese medicine or culture. As in the case of ruling the country, the physician is also in charge of “managing the waterways,” in this case by promoting free flow (of Qì and Blood), avoiding pathological blockages, and ensuring the healthy movement of vital substances in and out and up and down and through the entirety of the human body. In my mind, the Great Discourse on the Resonant Manifestations of Yīn and Yáng is the perfect expression of this basic identity between the activities of the sage-ruler and the sage-physician, riding the Dào by following the flow in the right direction (shùn順) in the ever-moving currents of Yīn-Yáng change. Enjoy, be inspired, and learn!

 
 Sabine humming with a dragon in the Wellington airport

Sabine humming with a dragon in the Wellington airport