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Acupuncture Today
April, 2007, Vol. 08, Issue 04
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The Evolution of Oriental Medicine

By Jacob Godwin, LAc, MAOM

It is incumbent upon the current generation of practitioners to guard the essence of our practice, as so many thousands have done before us. Our arts have survived catastrophic events, dynastic conflict and, most notably, the test of time.

They have not survived on good luck alone, however. It has been the diligence of each generation of clinicians, who have refined, updated and reconfirmed the core theoretical constructs upon which our practice is built, and derived from them effective means of healing the people of their time. Our generation is no different. We have an inherited duty to guard and propagate our ways in our own time and place.

Never before has so much literature been available at practitioners' fingertips. Ours is the first generation to have access to nearly all written material concerning our arts. In the past, location, lineage and the political environment profoundly limited a practitioner. Nowadays, we can study nearly any tradition we want, thereby transcending those limitations. We have access to the texts and, in many cases, to masters of particular lineages. We now have a whole picture of what it is to practice Oriental medicine. The more angles from which you view a subject, the greater your perspective and the deeper your understanding of that subject. Having all of the varied styles of Oriental medicine gives us those angles - not by learning just one style, but by learning many styles. Studying many styles, many texts and many methods gives you a sense of what lies between them. That is the good part; that is how to find the virtue of The Way.

The cultic attitude of the many practitioners of the myriad styles of practice within Oriental medicine has led to a diminution of the core cosmologic assumptions that found our practice, and to counterproductive infighting. It is not that the disparate styles within our art are wrong or ineffective. To the contrary, it is their very effectiveness that I use to prove my point. If all of these styles are effective, yet contradictory, then none of them offers a complete picture. If five-phase theory is so superior, why can hard-line TCM practitioners succeed equally well, and vice versa? It is because each of them is only one branch of the tree. The problem is simply that many practitioners have become narrow-minded, ignoring the core logic behind it all. They are ignoring the tree.

Over the millennia, many styles have developed around key theoretical concepts such as five-phases, six-stages, stem and branch chronology, and others. Other schools have developed as specializations in a particular technique, such as nourishing blood or strengthening the spleen and stomach. These different schools of thought all defer to particular sets of chapters in the Huang Di Nei Jing, Nan Jing, Shang Han Lun, etc., as their source texts, thereby having much in common with regard to theory. The consequences of their praxis, however, generate certain contradictions among the various styles. Many of these contradictions are superfluous, such as minor differences in the functions of certain acupuncture points or herbs. Some differences are far more important. One example of these important disparities is the multitude of pulse-taking methods. Careful study of pulse examination techniques reveals there are today - and have always been - fundamental differences in the concepts of qi, blood, the nature of the meridian systems, etc. Many systems differ in their ascription of organ functions and interrelationships.

These are only a few of the core issues about which we as a profession seem to disagree. It is at these perceived weaknesses in our determinant theoretic constructs that we are being successfully attacked by our critics. These attacks come not only from outside of the profession, but also from within. They are detrimental to the perseverance of our ways.

What is needed today from our generation of practitioners is the presentation of an inviolable core logic based upon sound cosmologic assumptions, through which we may correlate the different styles and by which we may explicate the multitude of methods in a coherent language. This is the only way to ensure our victory in the inevitable upcoming battles with the AMA and the established health care industry at large. The initial shots have already been fired across our bow. No amount of political or financial maneuvering will save us. Those tactics have led the current health care institutions down the wrong path, as they are now learning. In the end, the truth comes out from underneath all the advertising campaigns and adulterated science.

We need to learn from their mistakes and stick to our science. We have to deal with the public as equals and educate them on our philosophies; our way of life. The truth is that we have the potential to instigate a major paradigm shift across the globe by standing up to the big pharmaceutical-based medical establishment. But to do all of this requires us to have the answers to the questions. We have to provide an unassailable front. We have to be unified. We have to be so effective and make so much sense to everyone out there that they can't help but listen. We have to provide the world with our core logic in no uncertain terms. The AMA and the public at large want to know why we do the things we do and why we think it works. Let's let 'em have it.

This core logic would have to be simple and salient. Its structure would have to be internally consistent and its application ubiquitous. It must be readily observable in the natural world by anyone at any moment. This might sound like a big task, but we already have such a construct. This construct founds every single endeavor in Oriental medicine, martial arts, Chinese philosophy and nearly every other aspect of Asian culture. It is present in all that we do in our profession. We just haven't really presented it to the world around us in a coherent manner. This construct is, of course, the yin-yang construct.

Yin-yang thinking is deceptively simple when stated clearly. It is the application that becomes confusing. The theory is simply that all phenomena are the result of the fluctuation of a singular field along a continuum of opposing states. We use the term qi to refer to the field and yin-yang to describe the opposing states. The holistic nature of reality by which we justify extrapolation between microcosm and macrocosm is merely a logical consequence of reality taking place within a singular field along a singular continuum. The relationship between microcosm and macrocosm via the nature of qi's transformation (i.e., yin-yang theory) is the determinant reasoning behind everything we do. They are asking us how a needle in someone's wrist will effect a change in their mood. We say, how can it not, given the proven holistic nature of reality? We are not at odds with modern science; we are at odds with an industry interested in maintaining its market share at any cost. Never forget that. Real science does nothing but reinforce our theory.

We need to stop presenting the notion of qi as though it is some mystical energy no one knows about but us. We use the words qi and yin-yang to anchor us to our understanding of the phenomenal world as a multitude of varied states of one single field. We have to consider the way we articulate our theories. Given our understanding of qi as explained above, what do we mean when we talk about qi vacuity or when we contrast qi and blood? These issues need to be made clear. Students always remark that what they are learning doesn't make sense. The mind of a novice is a wonderful thing. Unfortunately, the answer to their observation is always that Oriental medicine theory is circular or unable to be explained in a way that "makes sense." This is absurd and betrays the very laziness that attracts our critics like blood in shark-infested waters. Our logic is not circular. The concepts of qi and the yin-yang theory are brilliant and absolutely logically sound. Our application of these theories to the human body and the natural world at large are equally sound. Let's let the rest of the world see it.

The theory of yin-yang is nowhere sufficiently elaborated to satisfy the modern mind (that I know of). The Daoist cannon has many texts, such as many of the interpretations of the Yi Jing by the duke of Zhou, which come very close but still fall short, in my opinion. The Nei Jing is rife with contradictory and incomplete applications of yin-yang theory. These texts do correctly explain certain aspects of the theory, but none offers a complete presentation. The Nan Jing is far more concise, better organized and generally more readable than the Nei Jing, but leaves much to be desired in the presentation of theory. The theory instead must be teased from a multitude of passages in various texts. One has to sift through a sea of contradictions and vagaries in application to finally gain some picture of the enduring core logic running through all of it.

This mastery is a requisite to understanding and, more importantly, efficacy. It is time we codify this grand philosophy and present our practice in its light. We need to divorce ourselves from our pre-qualified reverence for so-called tradition. The real tradition behind our practice is the mastery mentioned above. Real masters such as Hua Tuo, Li Dong-yuan and Zhang Ji broke the rules of dogma. They broke through the surface of the rules to expose the core truths in revolutionary ways. Where is this today? Where is this level of mastery? We need new blood. We need a fresh approach to our practice. With our feet firmly on the shoulders of all the masters before us, we need to reach further to new academic and practical achievements that will ensure the endurance of our most precious arts. We need to break through the years of dogma. Penetrating to the very heart and re-emerging anew should be the mantra for our generation.

It is not that we are ineffective in the way we do things now. It is simply that we are not unified or as strong as we could be. Our field is destined for a pre-eminent position in modern health care. We are not a side dish, we are a main course. Unless we get our act together as a field and manifest our potential, the AMA and all other critics will continue their relentless erosion of our position. If we have people in our profession representing our practice in terms that any first-year debate student can dismantle, never mind the AMA or FDA, we will be forever lost and our masters relegated to back alleys and obscurity. Their attacks will come in the form of "scientific" trials and will be conducted at the most prestigious institutes. They will take the craziest claims of our profession, run them through their tests and "prove conclusively" that our entire practice is quackery. We cannot allow this. Let's give them our precious wisdom of qi and the yin-yang theory in clear and logical terms and let them run that through their trials. We will not only endure the attack, but hopefully also educate the medical doctors and maybe even inspire them to improve their own profession.

This is not a matter of our survival. We're not going anywhere. It is a matter of our ascendance to our rightful position. It is about nurturing and sharing the most profound achievement of the human race. Make no mistake: The multibillion-dollar health care industry will not let a bunch of hippies with their needles and plants take away their bread and butter without a fight. The modern person's understanding of health has been carefully crafted and represents an enormous investment on the part of the pharmaceutical industry. We don't have their billions of dollars. We don't have their connections in Washington, D.C. We do have a more polished and meaningful cosmology than any I've known. We have an entire way of life, from healing arts to warfare, which comes with our theories and is equally polished and proven. We are proposing a profound cosmologic understanding, complete with effective and inexpensive methods that threaten to topple the empire they've built. We need to be ready for what such contention will bring.

Jacob Godwin graduated from the Academy of Oriental Medicine at Austin and is currently in private practice in Austin, Texas. He has studied Daoism since age 17, and enjoys sharing the wealth of wisdom in Oriental medicine with his community and the world through his practice, his writing and his lectures.


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