Hardly a month goes by that a current or prospective student doesn't ask me, "Why don't you have courses on medical palmistry? Why don't you teach external qi gong? Where can I learn more about Reiki?" and other similar questions. My answer is always the same: "We teach traditional Chinese medicine. These topics are not part of our curriculum."
This usually leads to a whole series of questions about my opinions on these types of things. Almost without exception, I withhold judgment on them. "There may be something to it, and many learned scholars and great practitioners have discussed and used it, but we do not," is the usual response to these follow-up questions. If they persist in wanting to know why we do not teach them, I dust off my copy of the Analects and tell them the story of "Confucius and the Gift of Medicine."
In the Analects, we find a strange account of Confucius receiving a gift of medicine: "When K'ang Tzu sent a gift of medicine, he [Confucius] bowed his head to the ground before accepting it. However, he said, 'Not knowing its properties, I dare not taste it'"(Analects, 10:16). This is a most unusual incident and appears to go against what we know of both Confucius and K'ang Tzu, who were on good terms and were, indeed, practically friends. It could not be that Confucius feared harm from K'ang Tzu, whom he trusted and with whom he spoke often and at great length. Why, then, did he not take the medicine?
A hint is found in the reason he offered at the time: "Not knowing its properties, I dare not taste it." Notice that he did not cite fear of poisoning by K'ang Tzu, nor even suspect that K'ang Tzu made the gift in any spirit other than one of pure friendship and to honor Confucius. He accepted the gift in a perfectly appropriate manner, acknowledging the generosity and concern of the giver with a deep bow. Yet, he did not take it. Indeed, he was so cautious that he did not even dare to taste it, so great was his respect for medicine and its power to alter and change a person.
On the surface, this is already sound advice; one ought always to exercise caution in the taking of any medicine, irrespective of its origin or the spirit in which it is offered. No cause of illness is more easily avoided than the frivolous use of medicine, as TCM practitioners see in their patients who self-medicate with herbs.
Are we to assume that this was the teaching to be conveyed in recording this incident? It cannot be that the sage of classical China only wanted future generations to not take or use medicine except under a physician's guidance. Confucius was not known for wasting words, and so we must assume something else is meant by the story.
An esoteric reading of Confucius is supported by the evidence found at Analects 4:15: "My way is bound together in one continuous strand." His teachings, inseparable from his words and deeds and way of life, are all one continuous strand. Consequently, nothing he says or does can be excluded from the examination or interpretation of anything else he says or does. Therefore, we must turn to Confucius to try to find the meaning of the "gift-of-medicine incident."
"The things on which the Master [Confucius] did not speak were extraordinary events, feats of strength, disorders, and spiritual beings" (Analects, 7:20). Confucius did not speak on strange and extraordinary topics that were ever on the lips of other self-styled sages, yet did not dismiss them either. This suggests a certain intellectual caution on the part of the sage; a reserve borne out in yet another of his famous sayings: "The study of strange doctrines is injurious indeed" (Analects, 2:16).
The purpose of medicine is to restore health to the patient, through a modification or correction of some existing physical process. The purpose of "doctrine" or teaching is to restore order and harmony to the mind of the student, through a modification of some existing mental process. To this extent, doctrine is an analogue to medicine, fulfilling a similar function in the heart and mind of the student.
Now, even as one would not take medicine without knowing its effects, so, too, ought one to avoid doctrines or teachings of unknown effect. This does not mean that the medicine or doctrine is unsound or that it might not be true or useful. It means only that since its effect is unknown, it ought not to be taken, regardless of who offers it.
Confucius follows up his warning against strange doctrines with a bit of epistemology that should sound familiar to students of Socrates: "When you know a thing, to hold that you know it; and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it - that is knowledge" (Analects, 2:17). Confucius' intellectual caution, then, is the fruit of deep meditation upon the limits of human knowledge; like Socrates, he found true wisdom in the knowledge of ignorance.
For a sage to confess the possibility of the limits of knowledge, whether in his own person (in the case of the medicine) or, more broadly, on "extraordinary events" and "spiritual beings," is itself an acknowledgement of the extent of his knowledge and his wisdom. That is, intellectual caution and reserve, far from representing a willful truncation or walling-off of a subject, is, in fact, the greatest possible expression of the fruit of knowledge and inquiry and reason. The caution that keeps Confucius from tasting medicine of unknown effect is the practical expression of a far deeper insight into the nature of human knowledge and its limits. He does not drink K'ang Tzu's medicine for the same reason he does not speak of extraordinary events and spiritual beings.
It is this caution that animates and informs the intellectual streams of traditional Chinese medicine. As a living body of knowledge, it is open to the new, and graciously accepts gifts from friends, but is always careful not to taste things of unknown effect. It is this caution that prevents TCM from falling into faddishness, and it is this caution that is the secret of TCM's longevity.
Lisa PH Lin is founder and current President of the Texas College of Traditional Chinese Medicine, the first and oldest school of acupuncture and TCM in Texas.