Compassion as the driving force of Classical Chinese Medicine practice

classical chinese lecture liu lihongA while ago, I began a series of posts designed to describe my experiences with Dr. Liu Lihong, renown Classical Chinese Medicine clinician and scholar. He visited NCNM in Portland just about a month ago, delivering powerful lectures and teaching us all with grace and simplicity. Many folks have asked me to share what he had to say about the Fire Spirit school of Chinese herbalism, a school that takes the use of Fu Zi (aconite) and Gui Zhi (cinnamon) to be its guiding methods. Unfortunately, I didn’t take written notes – only a recording – and it is taking me some time to transcribe. It may have to wait until school is out in a couple of weeks, when I have time between clinic shifts.

The truth of the matter is that the most powerful information that Dr. Liu gave us really had nothing to do with the practicalities of herbal formulations. I would like to share what I learned about a lecture he gave in our Medical ethics class about compassion in Classical Chinese Medical practice. I will soon share more of what I learned from this contemporary master of our medicine.

Medicine as the Bodhisattva way

Dr. Liu started out by talking about the concept of a Bodhisattva in Buddhism.  In my reading, I have discovered that not everyone agrees on the definition of this concept.  A basic understanding of Bodhisattva reveals a being who is either enlightened or well on their way who decides to hold off Nirvana in order to help other human beings reach enlightenment.  By this definition, they embody the purest compassion and service to humanity.  Certainly a noble goal for anyone, particularly a physician.

Dr. Liu wanted to help us understand what it would mean to live as a Bodhisattva.  He explained that for him living this principle in daily life certainly involves living life to its fullest while striving to deeper understanding of what it means to be alive.  Living a full life was explained to involve coming to a state of balance in health both in body and in the emotions.  That way both Xing (form) and Shen (spirit) will be unified and harmonious.  This allows us to be a great resource of inspiration for our patients while also allowing us the ability to walk our path with strength and purpose.

How do we do accomplish this task?  By following the guiding hands of the ancients. 文化 (Wen Hua) is a Chinese term that’s something like “culture.”  Dr. Liu related to us that the deep meaning of the term encompasses more than what the normal American interpretation might reveal.  It isn’t just a collection of wheres and whens and whats, but a body of knowledge produced by great people that can be used for transformation of human lives.  The study of culture and cultural artifacts, like the Classical Chinese texts, is more than an empty academic exercise.  Or, at least, it should be.

The ancient texts, like those written by Kongzi (Confucius) are part of the Wen Hua that we can use in our quest to follow the Bodhisattva way. It isn’t important that we analyze the texts in an analytical manner. The important thing is that through our study of the texts, we allow them to Hua – to transform us. I think I understand from what Dr. Liu was saying that he believes Chinese medicine knowledge is this way as well. Many of us know a person who has nearly encyclopedic knowledge of Classical texts or Zangfu differentiation or herbs or acupuncture, yet remain a mean-spirited and uninspired person. This is a waste of the information.

So, our goal should be to allow what we are learning to transform us. Our program at NCNM, I believe, really takes this matter to heart. The whole first year is all about breaking you open to receive the teachings fully. It’s a tulmultuous year for many. My experience was truly a birth process.  I felt the pain and the subsequent release of that pain only to be shot into an unknown world that is both breathtaking and a little frightening!

On the other hand, these last two years have been a lot of information, taking it in and trying to figure out how to use it. I feel that it would be easy to become obsessed with the consumption and reproduction of information, forgetting to be transformed. Now that I look closely at the next three weeks, I realize that it is another birthing process. Our finals are pretty laid back and my mind and spirit naturally turn to cultivation. I find myself wanting to do Qigong, wanting to spend time in nature, wanting to read texts that inspire me. I find myself reading back over my first year notes, reconnecting to the symbolism we were steeped so heavily in during our first year.

Words to live byconfuciansim_golden_rule

I realize the truth of what Dr. Liu was teaching us as I’ve described above. But, there was more. After talking to us about the process by which we can get closer to enlightened awareness, and the purpose of that in turning us into superior physicians, he let us in on what he believed to be the highest truth of the Way of the Bodhisattva. It’s a simple statement, echoed through many cultures in one form or another. In this instantiation, it is expressed in a slightly different form than most Westerners are used to – by Kongzi (Confucius):

子曰、其恕乎、己所 不欲、勿施於人

Zǐyuē, qí shù hū, jǐ suǒ bù yù, wù shī yú rén

The master said, it’s perhaps “Shu”, do not place upon others what you would not have placed upon yourself.

I acknowledge my translation could use work. 🙂 But, you get the point. It’s another statement of the Golden Rule – in this negative form sometimes called the “Silver Rule.” Important within it is the character 恕 Shu. This character is composed of three radicals. On the bottom, we have the Heart. Above that on the left we have the radical for Woman and on the right the Mouth radical. So, “Shu” is something like a woman speaking her heart. Or the kind of speech that comes from the strength of a woman’s heart.

Opposed to this elsewhere is the character for anger, 怒 Nu, which looks very similar. The only difference is the upper right radical which is a picture of a hand. The woman radical and the hand radical together as a character by themselves means “slave.” So, anger is when your heart is enslaved. We can look at this in an external way – as when someone is somehow preventing us from living our heart’s desire. But, Dr. Liu asked us to look at it differently.

Anger is, he suggested, like not having a master within yourself – when one loses control. Shu is an antidote to this – it is living out our heart’s greatest desires, our heart’s purest desires.

This gives us ultimate freedom and it allows us to arrive at our true nature which is always productive of behavior in line with the “Golden Rule” as listed above.

Perhaps you’re not sure what this has to do with Chinese medicine, but for me it was clear.

  1. To achieve mastery in medicine, we must not only learn from the Classical texts and the wisdom of our teachers, but also allow this information to transform us on a deep level.
  2. This transformation will be on many levels. Physically, we will “follow our own advice” and live in accordance with the ways that our teachers lay out for us. Emotionally and spiritually, we will walk the path of the Boddhisattva.
  3. This path is one that brings us into line with Shu – opening to our true nature through living the truth of our heart. This in part involves, and is productive of, behavior in line with the Golden rule.
  4. This Golden rule indicates that we should treat others as we treat ourselves, or that we should not do to others what we would not have done to ourselves.
  5. In some sense, all of this tells us to polish ourselves into the kind of doctors that can serve as great examples for our patients. But, we must also allow our patients to be a mirror for us – when we gaze into that mirror we must always be asking ourselves if we are treating our patients as we would want to be treated in similar circumstances.

I’d be interested to hear what you think about this in the comments.


About Eric Grey

Hi - I'm the founder of this site and the primary master of all functions here. When I'm not writing, you can find me reaching out to the Chinese Medicine community across the web and in my own backyard. I currently teach Chinese herbs at my alma mater, the National College of Natural Medicine. Additionally, I'm the founder of Watershed Wellness, a thriving local clinic in Southeast Portland in Oregon. No matter where I'm working, you'll find my focus on the Classical approach to Chinese medicine laced throughout everything I do.

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