These symbols are meant to be questioned (they just don’t often give clear answers)


I have a feeling I’m going to get in trouble for my teaching. It’s not that I’m that revolutionary, or that I really even know that much more than my students. It’s just that my fundamental orientation towards the universe is to be always, always asking questions. I don’t always need to let those questions come out of my mouth (undergrad philosophy students, take notice!) but they are always in there. In particular, I tend to question fundamentals. Fundamentals, here, are those basic concepts that act as building blocks for entire edifices of knowledge. Fundamentals, here, are also those things that people most often tend to take for granted.

It’s just the philosopher in me, some might say. But, I could just have easily learned the habit in my work in a microbiology lab in my undergrad years. Or in my work as a forest ranger. Or in my all-important work as a father. I think almost any situation can be helped by a willingness to ask very simple, very essential, very difficult questions with a willingness to be surprised. The clarity of thought that can emerge from such investigations is worth the effort. It is effort, though, there’s no doubt.

So, what are these trouble-making lectures I’m giving? Well, I probably inflate myself unnecessarily. Some of it is just introducing the students to interesting concepts at an early stage – such as the flavor/element combinations introduced in the “lost” Yiyin Tangye Jing (伊尹湯液經). I’m assuming that a number of you have already read the eye-opening article by Wang Shumin, found in the book Medieval Chinese Medicine: The Dunhuang Medical Manuscripts after her extensive research into the remnants of the text found in the Dunhuang caves. While it’s not instigating trouble as such, I do think that being forced to consider these things makes the students more inquisitive, and more likely to think deeply about what they are learning in other classes. But, again, maybe I am congratulating myself a little too quickly.

Not familiar with the text I’m referencing?  The essence is this : twenty five herbs are categorized according to the five elements. This would be cool enough, particularly given that the text was likely referenced by Zhang Zhongjing in his writing. What an insight into the construction of Han dynasty formulas! But the herbs are also given flavors, some contradictory to those we know in modern times and the flavors are in turn related to the five elements in a unique way.

  • You know wood as being affiliated with sour. In the Tangye – it’s affiliated with pungent. Think of the spreading action of wood, its reaching and movement and activity.
  • You know fire as being affiliated with bitter. In the Tangye – it’s affiliated with salty. What is softer than fire? And what better to soften than salt?
  • You know earth as being affiliated with sweet. Ok, no changes there.
  • You know metal as being affilated with pungent. Perhaps predictably, the Tangye talks about sour instead. Think about the condensing and gathering power of sour, and the condensed and gathered nature of metal.
  • You know water as being affiliated with salty. Bitter anyone? Bitter is a downward draining flavor, one that is almost universally associated with cooling and making things more dense for their eventual expulsion. That is fitting for water, our “lower” (but Northern!) element, and while not condensed as such – is certainly the coolest of our elements.

In class we have been making use of these flavors as we work with our senses to understand herbs. I’m learning, of course, just as much as they are – it’s a wonderful journey so far.

One thing I’ve noticed, and something I continually impress upon my students, is the importance of keeping withincategories – at least at first. Let me explain, briefly. Consider a spectrum. On the left side, you have the world of ideas, of Form (in the Platonic sense) and of the Universal. Moving rightward you have the constellations, stars, planetary motions. Further finds you looking at the Earth, the weather patterns, moving on to flora and fauna. Getting still more focused we find the human being, but considered as a whole, and organ systems considered in their symbolic totality. Going further right, we have specific physiology of organ systems (generation of Qi and so forth) and even getting a little more narrow to consider biochemistry, genetics. Finally, we have pathology and the specifics of what goes wrong, when and why.

It’s a kind of focusing down to the smallest thing, and represents for me my process of clinical focus (whether bottom up or top down).

When I’m trying to think through something, like the flavor/element relationships in the Tangye Jing, I try to stay in a narrow part on the spectrum. So, for instance, I tried to stay on a more symbolic level in my explanation above. I was talking about the elements as they show up on Earth, but not really within the human body. They’re still in the realm of ideas. I think I would be speaking less clearly if for wood and fire I talked about pathology, and for earth I talked about physiology, and for metal I talked about the world of Form and Idea and for water I discussed the Kidney. I see that kind of thing a lot, and it sort of confuses me.

I think staying within categories, particularly when the information is unclear or contradictory, is a helpful learning tool.   Have you used something similar?  Find this to be unnecessarily restrictive?  I’d like to hear from you 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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