Orthodoxy in Oriental Medicine

Zhang Zhongjing (150 - 219 AD) Author of the 傷寒論

This weekend I was sorting through dozens and dozens of my old Japanese Oriental Medicine (OM) texts that I hope to sell to clear up my basement shelves –anyone interested? :-)  One of those OM texts was the 傷寒論 (Treatise on Cold Injury), a classic Chinese text.  As I flipped through its pages, I reminisced of my OM days and of the many of the controversies between the various schools of OM.

Comparing different cultures, languages, governments, religions and medical philosophies has taught me much about the human mind.  By the time I studied Oriental Medicine (OM), I had already left Christianity.  So I had one clear model in my head of how people fight over “orthodoxy”.   But when I began my Oriental Medical studies, I had no idea that there would be controversy here too.  I naively did not expect to find many different, contrary schools of thought.  I had instead hoped, in my perennial idealism, to find “true” medicine — real knowledge of the natural wisdom of the body (arrrghhh, that was painful to write, but that was once me).  Anyway, I soon found out that OM was as divided as Christendom.   What humored me was watching how each school of thought berated the others — I had seen this somewhere — oh, yeah, in Christianity.

Just as lineage is important to many Christians, I found it in OM too.  Heck,  I saw lineage stressed in all the Japanese and Chinese schools:  martial arts, tea ceremony, Ikebana, calligraphy, Buddhism, Shintoism.  The mistaken notion of “older is better and wiser” was a common fallacy employed.  It struck me as particularly funny in medicine where it would seem that empirical results would be all that mattered.  But careful empirical results were not tested in OM.  Thus, without measurable verification,  a plethora of dogmatic, contrary schools of thought can survive for centuries — both in OM and Christianity or in any of the schools mentioned above.

Controversies in OM include Yin-Yang theory, Five Element Theory, Channel Theory and many more.  In addition to controversial theories, controversy over source material is also common.  As I browsed the Treatise on Cold Injury I again saw pages discussing the controversy of “correct translation” of the text.  For just as in Christianity, since older is better, then a correct translation of an older text [scripture] takes us back closer to the truth.  Oh how common are the foibles of all cultures.  But when you don’t have empirical testing, lineage and revelation are important life rafts.

Comparative studies are a fantastic way to see behind our assumptions and to begin to understand how humans “think”.  But for people who never leave Kansas, this may be hard to imagine.

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Filed under Philosophy & Religion

5 responses to “Orthodoxy in Oriental Medicine

  1. Very good post. Martial arts is a great example, and you see the same fractiousness in science and philosophy (tradition still holds sway in both). Heck, I’ve even had way more than my fill of people arguing about which math education technique works best for kids. It’s important to be cross-disciplinary and avoid being too judgmental.

    Speaking of the Christian fractiousness, I’m afraid that much of it is based on political expediency rather than any sincere regard for tradition or interpretation.

  2. @ JS Allen
    Thanks. Wouldn’t you agree that Christian sectarianism (fractiousness) is largely the result of the same things that cause sects in Buddhism, Islam, Judaism and many other religions? That is, Christianity has no special immunity to normal human foibles.
    Concerning science, the scientific method is a way to address fractiousness — but you are right — politics, personality and much more can hinder it.

  3. i really liked ” in my perennial idealism, to find “true” medicine — real knowledge of the natural wisdom of the body (arrrghhh, that was painful to write, but that was once me).” that was a great insight.

    this is why i read old stuff… not just the Bible but theology from the 1700s and stuff. the questions they were asking, we’re asking now.

  4. @ Zero1Ghost
    But you see, I began to see that the old stuff was rather blind and stagnant for centuries due to their lack of tools. No fault of theirs, but certainly they deserve no respect for just being old.

    Concerning theology you ironically said,

    the questions they were asking [in the 1700s], we’re asking now.

    I think that some of the questions still being asked are because of the lack of correct method. It is a stagnation due to fundamental errors deemed as orthodox — that was the point of my post.

    Sure, I am not denying that some things never change, but that is not the point of my post.

  5. i should really have talked about what TYPE of questions were/are being asked. i’m talking about the big “meta-questions” of how best to live, how to walk with others who are in grief, how best to organize society, how best to serve others, what are humans, how did we get here, what is the fabric of the universe, is there a unified field theory or is that chasing a ghost-rabbit, you know things like that.

    they don’t deserve respect for being old, yet i enjoy reading them just as i enjoy reading history period. i’m fascinated by it, and not just European Christian history either.

    i think science is asking many similar questions as well, so it’s not stagnation.. and science does have an orthodoxy too. mention Quantum and many will claim it’s not science, just “woo” thinking.

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