Interdisciplinary Modes of Rigor in Chinese Herbalism

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Interdisciplinary Modes of Rigor in Chinese Herbalism

by Thea Elijah

What constitutes knowledge? For instance, how do we know what a Chinese herb does? One point of agreement appears to be that if something is stated in a classical text, we accept it. Some of us believe that extensive empirical evidence from folk traditions or modern clinical usage constitutes an acceptable pathway of knowledge, although we disagree as to what constitutes sufficiently extensive clinical evidence. Given the expense of the Western medical EBM model and its frequent lack of adequate resemblance to both the theoretical and clinical structure of actual Chinese medicine in practice, it does not seem reasonable to discount substantial folk or practical “evidence” just because it did not accrue in a formal trial. Nevertheless we are left with the question of, if the Western EBM standard of evidence is frequently inadequate for our purposes, what is our standard?

My suggestion is that in order to achieve a rigor of verification that is accurate and encompassing rather than narrow and self-defeating, we need to work with not one standard but several simultaneously, i.e. an interdisciplinary approach. If something is true, it must be true by more than one method of evaluation, and preferable several. There must be rigor of evaluation in each method, but I am most concerned with the potentials of contrasting or overlapping methods, each applied with their own rigor.

For instance, during the years when I was studying pulse diagnosis with Leon Hammer, I never heard him quote classical texts. He studied with John Shen, a Chinese master, and learned a theoretical structure and a disciplined sensitivity of the fingers that is astounding. From a strictly clinical perspective, Leon Hammers work must be called rigorous; when he puts his fingers on a client’s pulse, he is not making things up, nor is he teaching his students to make things up. This is not a text-based rigor, but a consistent and long-term progressive discipline of fingers and awareness.

I contrast this with the rigor of Paul Unschuld’s approach to understanding Chinese medicine. Is what Paul Unschuld had done with Chinese medical history more rigorous that what Leon Hammer has done with his fingertips? I cannot see how they can be compared, except insofar as they are both very different examples of thorough diligence. Are they of equal value? This may be controversial, but I say that they must be ranked equally (not as individuals but as genre examples of scholarly versus clinical rigor), because what is theory and history without fingertips—and what are we to do with what meets our fingertips without a theoretical context?

I take a second example from qi gong. While employed at a particular school of Chinese medicine, I happened to be in the herb dispensary while a qi gong class passed by. The qi gong teacher had all the students hold hands, and invited me to join the group too (I did so). At random the teacher selected an herb from the formula that I was making: shu di huang. He held it in his hand, and there moved through the group a deep sense of thick dark silence, as though we were all suddenly at the bottom of the ocean. The teacher let go of this herb, and chose at random another: chen pi. As he held this herb, everyone’s posture shifted, faces brightened, and a brisk liveliness of the mind—hm, hm, like bees at work—filled us.

Obviously no words can quite capture the sensations of a qi gong herbal experience, but one must at least try.

This qi gong teacher had no formal knowledge of herbs, could not identify them, and had never read an herbal text. With chunks of Bensky 3rd edition memorized, I’m sure I couldn’t say that I knew more about shu di and chen pi than this qi gong teacher knew—and conveyed!—through touch and transmission.

The direct experience of an herb through qi gong practices is clearly no adequate substitute for text-based knowledge of herb functions. But just as clearly to my mind, a text-based knowledge of herb functions is no substitute for the direct energetic transmission that qi gong disciplines afford. With the qi gong alone, we may be prone to making things up; we need accepted historical text to help us verify and correct our perceptions. Without direct transmission, our reading of text is no less likely to be fraught with interpretive error, as our minds unavoidably seek to “fill in the gaps” left by lack of direct experience with the subject matter.

I say that it is imperative that, in the name of rigor, we not wed our sense of valid truth to any one pathway of knowledge, but instead ask that if something is true, it must be verifiably true for the clinician and the scholar and the textbook academician and the qi gong master—and perhaps we might add the scientist and the poet—when all of these disciplines are practiced with full and necessary rigor.