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Article Inner Transmission

Reflecting on Essentials of Classical Chinese Medicine


by Marina Danilova, August 2020

What a delight it is to hold another meaningful book on Chinese medicine. Much gratitude to the authors - Yang Zhenhai and Liu Lihong, as well as to our deeply respected colleagues - Sabine Wilms and Heiner Fruehauf, for this gift.


The actual acupuncture method - elegant, effective and loyal to the classical roots - occupies only the last third of the book. The rest of the text explores the foundational principles of Chinese medicine, providing insights and reminders of paramount importance for our profession. 


Inspired by the book, I’d like to use a few of its quotes to share my reflections on some of the distinctive features of Chinese medicine that are so dear to my heart.

View of Life


Page 25. “Life is not an isolated thing but from the very beginning must include the participation of Heaven and Earth”.


From the perspective of classical Chinese teachings, human life comes from the marriage (intercourse, unity) of Heaven and Earth and is being sustained by constantly connecting and harmonising with nature. 


“The human body is a body of flesh and blood and yet it relies entirely on true Qi being transported into it in order to establish life.”2


Heaven’s principle (true Qi, Yang) makes life possible, but it must merge with the material body (Yin) for a person to be alive. Constant changes and transformations resulting from the interplay of Heaven and Earth unfold in a circular orderly motion alternating between the two states. The state of contraction, drawing in, going into storage, recharging and the state of expansion, expression, coming out of storage, giving away. Health and longevity depend on the body’s ability to take life from nature to continue my life, and then use my life to connect and give back to nature, other lives.


Yin and Yang


Page 43. “Chinese medicine has numerous methods for treating disease, but not a single one among the thousands of these can depart from Yin and Yang”. 


When we practice Chinese medicine, nothing departs from Yin and Yang. We seek for Yin and Yang in our understanding of life and health. We evaluate Yin and Yang when diagnosing. We assist in the remedying of Yin and Yang when helping others. We strive for harmony of Yin and Yang in safeguarding our own health and the health of our patients.


Appreciating the importance of Yin and Yang helps us make the right choices when developing our knowledge and elevating our practice. Learning methods, treatments and techniques is still important but becomes a natural extension of our deep relentless study and contemplation of Yin and Yang! As Zheng Qinan puts it: “On the path of the physician, the challenge is not using medicinals, but rather understanding patterns. At the same time, one could also say that the challenge is not understanding patterns, but rather understanding Yin and Yang.”3


Six Conformations


Page 27. “The Six Conformations are precisely Three Yin and Three Yang, which is the Dao of the Three Powers4 in the system of Chinese medicine”.


When we talk about the Six Conformations it is important to remember that we still talk about Yin and Yang. We continue breaking down the one circle of life, now into six stages, to better understand the whole and make it practical. This allows us to comprehend physiology - the processes within the body to sustain and express life. Building on this we can identify and remedy disharmonies of each Conformation. Then the action of an individual acupuncture point or a herb can be understood in the context of restoring the harmony of the Six Conformations. The choice of the protocol or the formula can now be made from a place of understanding, and the efficacy of treatment can jump manyfold.

The Heart


Page 38. “The fact that every single profession and trade in China’s tradition emphasises the “heart-method” as the last step shows that as soon as the heart method is involved, this implies that it cannot be measured and that it has unlimited potential”.


This particular section of the book reminded me how fortunate and grateful I am for having met my teacher, Yaron Seidman. Yaron has been an enthusiastic advocate of the heart-method (xin fa) in his works and teachings, transmitting and developing the legacy of the Huai Xuan5 school and Confucian classics.


Both the authors of the Yellow Emperor Inner Transmission of Acupuncture and Yaron in Hunyuan Foundations remind us that the character for the Heart, unlike the characters for other Zang organs, does not contain the “flesh” radical. The Heart represents the non-material, metaphysical aspect of our existence: mind, behaviour, emotions and spirit. 


“In ancient Chinese terms, as in the Huai Xuan legacy, a good state of health is not feasible without intentionally and constantly withdrawing one’s gaze from the rush and noise of the world of appearance, and directing it inwardly to a place of quiescence and silence within the Heart. This place is a person’s Center, Zhong .”


Yaron goes on to mention the sayings of Confucius from Zhong Yong (“Common Center”): “Center is the place from which emotions have not been discharged yet” and “When an emotional discharge is regulated by the Center, harmony ensues.”6


Xin fa is employed as a way to re-establish the connection to the Center. If we want our medicine to be effective and complete we cannot avoid the Heart method. But is it possible to teach it? Probably yes, but it’s very difficult, because it comes down to the Heart of the practitioner. Therefore we must first cultivate the ability of “seeing” what’s best for life in every single moment, then we can touch the hearts of others in a meaningful way. Acting from the place of the Center can reach that place in others - isn’t it the source of all marvellous transformations! How to become such a practitioner? That brings me to the final point I’d like to mention here.


Self-cultivation for Practitioners


Page 40. “Why is it that every professional and trade in traditional China emphasised personal conduct and virtuous actions? Why is it that they so emphasised the accumulation of merit and piling up of virtue? In fact, all of this was done in preparation for the heart-method. In that case, what this virtue look like in the context of Chinese medicine? It is the “Perfect Sincerity of the Eminent Physician”7! It is how we embody humanness! And this once again brings us back to the question of how to act human, because when our humanity is complete our medical practice is complete… And in this context we must understand clearly that the upper-level practitioner can emerge from no other path than this one!”


It was difficult for me to shorten this quote, nor do I want to attempt to comment on it. To me, it is perfect and complete. Each of us who aims to elevate our level from “safeguarding the material body” to “safeguarding the spirit”8, can ponder about it individually.


I would like to conclude by saying, that if we want to become accomplished practitioners of Chinese Medicine, if we want our medicine to hold, the above principles, in my view, should become the warp, the longitudinal threads of our profession. Then our methods and treatments - the weft - can be woven into the fabric of our art with integrity and ease. If we treat others with acupuncture and herbs without these principles - are we still practicing Chinese Medicine? I will leave it to you, the reader, to find the answer in your own heart.


The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Transmission of Acupuncture.Transmitted by Yang Zhenhai, edited by Liu Lihong, translated by Sabine Wilms, introduced by Heiner Fruehauf. © The Chinese University of Hong Kong 2020.

2 Zheng Qinan, True Transmission of Medical Principles, translated by Yaron Seidman, page 20.

3 Source: Classical Chinese Medicine, Liu Lihong, edited by Heiner Fruehauf, translated by Gabriel Weiss, Henry Buchtel, Sabine Wilms, page 470.

4 The Three Powers (san cai) is a standard term to refer to the trinity of Heaven, Humanity, and Earth in Chinese culture. The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Transmission of Acupuncture, the footnote on page 26. 

5 Huai Xuan school, founded in China during the Qing dynasty, by Liu Yuan.

6 Hunyuan Foundations, Yaron Seidman, 2018. Page 50.

7 Dayi jingcheng is the title of a famous treatise on medical ethics by Sun Simiao that has provided the ethical foundations for the practice of Chinese medicine till this day. The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Transmission of Acupuncture, the footnote on page 40.

8 “Crude doctors safeguard the material body; upper doctors safeguard the spirit”. Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic, Plain Questions, chapter 1. Source: The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Transmission of Acupuncture, page 34.

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