A Reply to "Is Chinese Medicine a Religion?"

By Z'ev Rosenberg, LAc

Note: The following letter was submitted by Mr. Rosenberg in response to the version of "Is Chinese Medicine a Religion?" published in the July issue. The corrected version of that article also appears in this issue.

I appreciate the decision of Brian Carter and Michael Devitt to publish the revision of the article "Is Chinese Medicine a Religion?" in this issue as I requested. I also wanted to share a few words to elucidate my position, and explain why I requested the changes. Perhaps others have had similar experiences to what is described in the article, but I've never been in acupuncture offices that I felt were "religious temples" of any sort. According to Jewish law, posters or statues of deities in a medical office or bathhouse are considered decorations, not objects of worship.

For me, a person's religious beliefs are private. I've never felt the need to discuss my beliefs in print, except for a widely distributed interview I did 10 years ago. Because of the article in the last issue of Acupuncture Today, however, I did feel the need to clarify my point of view.

I have been studying and practicing Eastern medicine since my teens, when I discovered macrobiotics and yoga, and later Chinese medicine in the mid-1970s. I obtained my first copy of the Yi Jing when I was 15 years old and began its study. The heady cross-cultural climate of the 60s, later the inspiration for the "New Age" movement, was what made it possible for the alternative medicine movement to develop. The "New Age" movement opened more doors, but unfortunately, often mixed up different paths and priorities, leading people to draw incorrect conclusions about Chinese medicine. The eclecticism of the era often obscured the rigor and devotion to study and practice in one discipline, leading to an often watered-down, mixed-up approach. In my earlier days of practice, I was often guilty of this, as well.

The study of Chinese medicine requires familiarity with some degree of Chinese philosophy, which has some overlap with religious practices. Chinese medicine has been influenced by Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism throughout its long history. Such texts as the Yi Jing and the Tao De Jing are major influences on yin-yang philosophy and, as a result, Chinese medicine. I think it is important to study these texts, and I find the similarities to Jewish thought quite fascinating. Claude Larre, a Jesuit priest, apparently felt the same need, as he devoted much of his life to the study of Chinese philosophy and medicine. At this level of study, I find no conflict whatsoever. I simply will not pray to ancestral idols or bow down to images in specific temples, as it is forbidden in Jewish practice. Again, this is a personal matter, and should not reflect on followers of other paths.

While I agree with Brian that Chinese medicine is not a religion, I do want to point out that the practice of Chinese medicine is as much a way of life as a profession. Chinese medicine has a spiritual aspect that cannot be ignored. The classical texts teach us that compassion is an important part of medicine, and that physicians must practice ethics and be upright individuals. Moses Maimonides, the great Jewish physician, said, "Medicine is a science essential to man, anytime, anywhere, not only in times of illness, but of health as well. It truly can be said that medicine should be a man's constant companion."1 According to Maimonides, following a regimen of health in lifestyle, diet, exercise and treatment develops one's spiritual aspect, as "no one can be aware of the Creator when one is ill." However, the teachings of Chinese medicine are universal, and can be applied to anyone without offending or contradicting anyone's religion or spiritual path.

While healthy controversy is a good ferment for our developing field, an accurate understanding of one's point of view is also essential. Thanks again to Brian and Michael for agreeing to my short discussion.


  1. Muntner, Suessman (eds.) Treatise on Asthma. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott and Company, Philadelphia, 1963; introduction, pg. Xvi. Out of print.

Z'ev Rosenberg has lectured widely both to the public and to students of both Chinese medicine and macrobiotics over the last thirty years. He is the former president of the Acupuncture Association of Colorado (AAC), where he spearheaded a successful drive to register acupuncture practitioners in that state. He also has written several articles for professional Chinese medical journals, including Oriental Medicine, Protocol Journal of Botanical Medicine, Journal of Oriental Medicine in America, Journal of Chinese Medicine, and most recently The Lantern Journal. He presently continues to teach and chair the Herbal Medicine department at Pacific College of Oriental Medicine, San Diego, and has had a private practice in Chinese medicine since 1983.

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