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Everything Can Be A Remedy

As practitioners of Chinese medicine we tend to focus on herbs, minerals and needles as the tools of our trade. Around this core of professional medical practice, diet, exercise, and the many forms of cultivation form a second layer of interventions that imperceptibly fuse with the broader cultures in which medical practice is situated. The Chinese literature contains many interesting essays, stories and anecdotes that explore this transient realm of the in-between, where practices and things we do not necessarily define as medicines become so by the way they are thought of and used.

In a world where everything is composed of the same qi, everything can, of course, interact with everything else, everything is potentially a medicine. In the words of the sixteenth century philosopher, statesman, poet and general Wang Yangming 王陽明 (1472-1529):

Wind, rain, dew, thunder, sun and moon, stars, animals and plants, mountains and rivers, earth and stones are essentially of one body with human beings. It is for this reason that such things as the grains and animals can nourish human beings, and that such things as medicines and minerals can heal diseases. Since they share the same qi, they enter into one another.⁠

In this blog, I have translated four essays from different literatures that discuss different kinds of things as medicine. I tremendously enjoyed reading them, and perhaps others will do so, too. They also show how writers in late imperial China belonging to apparently different worlds (Buddhist monks, poets and novelists, physicians) drew on and mixed up different traditions in their writings and cultivation practices with scant regard for the boundaries we tend to draw between them.

Chan (Zen) as medicine

Chan (Zen) has a sweet flavour and a cooling nature. It calms the heart, eliminates pathogenic qi, opens impediments, unblocks the blood vessels, clears the mind and benefits the will. It preserves one’s youthful looks, eliminates anxiety, and gets rid of filth. It is good at resolving all toxins and therefore can regulate a multitude of illnesses. For medicines to benefit human kind, given differences in age, physical appearance, bodily structure and comportment, only the most refined is good medicine, able to cure anyone, be they sages, old or young. The remainder are generally found in the midst of the forest chanting at the wind and moon. They have had generations of followers throughout the ages that have collected the noise they make as medicine but those who take it merely end up neglecting their lives. Unless one has witnessed a display of it penetrating the unfathomable one will not recognise this medicine. Without the need for false asceticism, one dose of the prepared medicine will shed all one’s worries as when one is freed from being bound. Its effectiveness is magical and it allows people to enjoy a long life. Therefore, the Buddha employing this medicine to treat all those suffering from illness is called the great king of medicine. It is like the light of the world that breaks through all ignorance. However, those who consider this a superstition, who shelter behind disbelief, whose illness is located where it cannot be reached, who are deluded by gods and ghosts and who wander aimlessly between life and death cannot be helped by it. How very sad!

Note: The Buddha is sometimes referred to as the "king of medicines" because he offers his teachings as medicines to all, and has a different medicine (or teaching) for everyone according to their needs. This text, which is included in Xiao Ying 曉瑩: Luohu yelu 羅湖野錄, Wan xuzangjing 卍續藏經, vol. 83, p. 395b, plays with this view of Buddhist teachings.

Dreams as medicine

The taste of dreams is sweet and their nature mellow. They are nontoxic. They benefit the spirit and will, smooth the blood vessels, remove vexious stagnation, clear the heart/mind, let one keep a distance from vulgarity, and lengthen ones’ life span. This medicine is produced in five different places, but two places are the best. One grows in the secluded realm of landscape, and the other grows in the realm of the supernatural. Both have the capacity to cure illness caused by the dusty world. Those produced in the realm of the past are called lingering dreams. Taking them lets people hold on to what exists. Those produced in the realm of future are called medicinals for knowing the future. Today, all those who are fond of dreaming commend this medicine. However, because it easily makes one vulgar and could also increase worries it is not a good herb and those who collect dreams do not value it. The last type is produced in the land of surprise, also called the realm of surprise. Dreaming this can lift one beyond lethargy, but it also makes people mad. Wise people cure illness with good dreams. Making them does not depend on water or fire. Closing your eyes is all that is needed. Those who collect these medicines do not pay attention to the seasons but always do so at night.

Note: This essay was written by the writer, poet, and Ming loyalist Dong Yue 董說 (1620-1686) sometime between 1643 and 1645 (included in Fengcaoan wen qianji, 豐草庵文前集 Congshu jicheng xubian 叢書集成續編, Shanghai: Shanghai shudian, 1995,vol. 122: 3. 12). Dong was an erudite scholar who wrote across traditions and genres. He was fascinated with dreams, landscapes, gardens, and employed them as tools and settings to break the boundaries between animals and plants, humans and the supernatural. For a more detailed exploration of his multi-layered writings see Zhao, Yingzhi. 2014. Realm of Shadows and Dreams: Theatrical and Fictional Lyricism in Early Qing Literature. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University.

The body as medicine

Those who are good at regulating, make the true yang within kan-water ascend. In this way the qi of the entire body acts like rebirth of yang at the winter solstice which makes the reed ash blow off from the yang mode pipe. [This refers to the correlation between music and the season. Six yang-mode pipes were filled with reed ash, and at the various seasonal junctures (festivals), the ash would swell so that it would blow off in the wind. At the winter solstice the first pipe released its ash.]. Heaven and earth are in harmony following this yang. They make the true yin within li-fire descend. In this way the qi of the entire body acts like the the rebirth of yin at the summer solstice when the cicadas chirp from near and far. Heaven and earth are in harmony and follow the yin. This is the great medicine already present within the body. How might mere herbs and trees be able to accomplish even a small measure of this.

Note: This essay was included by the seventeenth century physician Yu Chang 喻昌 (1585-1664) in one of the case records collected in his Yuyicao 寓意草 of 1643 (Chen Yi 陳熠 (ed.), 喻嘉言醫學全書 Beijing: Zhongguo zhongyiyao chubanshe, 1999, 369-435: 論金道賓真陽上脫之症). Yu Chang was a learned scholar, Buddhist monk, and Daoist adept, who drew on all of these different traditions in his medical practice. This essay, which clearly draws on Daoist internal alchemy, points to the bodily practices that underpinned his own daily life, for he is said to never have needed more than a few hours of rest each day throughout his entire life.

Mind/Heart medicines (xinyao 心藥)

Joy, anger, worry, pensiveness, sadness, fear and fright: these are the seven ways emotions express themselves. Our consciousness of these emotions is vague, and they do not leave any traceable mark. Even a shadow can trigger their expression, but when they stagnate they are difficult to shift. Medicines and needles have no knowledge. How might they dispel false attachments, even if they unblock qi that has already stagnated, or invigorate blood that has already been damaged? How might they protect against a future recurrence of illness in those whose silent and persistent intention is not to transform things? It is only reasonable to use knowledge to dispel knowledge and to use reason to dispel feelings. This is what is meant by treating disorders of the mind/heart with remedies of the mind/heart. In this way, stagnation will be unblocked and knotting will be transformed. When the feelings are separated from the situation rather than being exacerbated by it and all is quiet, the mind/heart as the sovereign is at peace. How might one get worn out by the seven emotions?

Note: This essay was included by the Ming dynasty physician Miao Xiyong 繆希雍 (1546-1627) in his Shennong bencaojing shu 神農本草經疏, published in 1625 (海虞毛氏綠君亭刊本: 論病由七情生者只應養性怡神發舒志氣以解之,不宜全仗藥石攻治). The late Ming was a period when emotions gained tremendous importance as both a tool for exploring oneself and one's place world, and as a cause of physical and social ills. Miao Xiyong, like many of his contemporaries, was inclined towards some form of syncretism of (Neo-)Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism, and his definition of ming/heart remedies combines Ming Neo-confucian discourses on the mind/heart with what we would today refer to as Buddhist inspired mindfulness.

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1 Comment

Peter Torssell
Peter Torssell
Aug 28, 2023

Thank you. Yes very important and inspiring. Peter Torssell

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