The stories and teachings on Daoist medicine expounded here emerge from one of the last remaining inheritors of the knowledge of the藥王派 (Yao Wang Pai, Medicine King Sect of Daoist Medicine), as it is currently transmitted at the Five Immortals Temple on Bai Ma Shan. Much of this legacy has been lost, and much of what still exists remains secret as it is not taught to those outside the sect, and Daoists adhere to the precept 道不言師 (they don’t talk about who their teachers are). The 藥王派 were 出家 (renunciant) itinerant Daoist doctors with very strict requirements for their practice; they were not to practice medicine for profit in urban environments, and their treatments were limited to life threatening conditions, not used for minor illnesses.
Although the terms Daoist Medicine and Chinese Medicine are both broad and difficult to define, especially as there is a large overlap of each other and mutual influence. Yet, there remains enough discrepancy to make comparison not only viable, but necessary in the consideration of the totality of medicine practiced in China as a whole. Daoist Medicine manifests itself in a great deal of different forms, and although this essay only deals with one strain of it, it aims to provide insight into the broader themes inherent in Daoist Medicine in its entirety.
At Five Immortals Temple, there is no official medical clinic and as such only a limited amount of actual medical treatments occurs. The majority of these treatments take the form of herbal decoctions primarily using herbs growing on the mountain. Other treatments include massage, acupuncture, fire therapy, cupping and bleeding. By and large, those staying at the temple are encouraged to take responsibility for their own health situation through the practice of Qigong, Taiji and other Longevity exercises, and most importantly through changing their own thoughts and behaviours. It was repeated and stressed that being cured of disease did not give one license to return to previous habits, as these were what caused the disease in the first place. One was cured of disease for a purpose, in order to create a new self and a new life. If one returned to their former lifestyle habits and ways of thought, the disease would return. It was also emphasised that Five Immortals Temple is not a hospital, but a place where people can come and 調理身體 (regulate their bodies). The Five Immortals website documents the experiences of many who have healed various chronic ailments during their stay there, including Lyme’s disease, amenorrhea, diabetes, etc. It should be emphasised that Daoist Medicine is inseparable from the Daoist religion; in fact, Dao and medicine could not be seen to be separate; one needs to first practice the Dao, and the practice of medicine would naturally follow. As such, healing in itself isn’t the ultimate concern of the Daoist doctor; the healing process itself should ideally serve as a catalyst for a kind of sacred metamorphosis in which, with a new healthy body, a new personality emerges along with it, together with blossoming and enlightened forms of perception and behaviour. Medicine also serves as a means for Daoists to relieve the suffering of others while spiritually elevating themselves, one of many paths that can lead to a higher understanding of the Dao.
One of the primary differences between 中醫 (Zhongyi, Chinese Medicine) and 道醫 (Daoyi, Daoist Medicine) – acknowledging that the borders between the two are often blurred both historically and in contemporary practice – is that the latter involves more esoteric elements lacking in the former. This work with the sacred is something missing in the popular practice of contemporary Chinese Medicine, both in China and abroad. Daoist Medicine involves a consideration of 有形 (form) and 無形 (formless), and many of the methods incorporated in Daoist Medicine deal with the 虛體 (formless body) as well as the 肉體 (physical body). Lower levels of formless existence are classified as being yin, higher ones than this are a mixture of yin and yang, whilst the very highest are considered 纯阳（pure yang). Accordingly, the diagnostic scope of Daoist Medicine is significantly broader than that of contemporary Chinese Medicine, taking into consideration 天因，人因，地因 (Heavenly, Humanly and Earthly causes). Heavenly causes include 先天，因果，精神，心理和無形因素 (Pre-heaven, karmic, spiritual, psychological and formless factors). People can be born with certain disease states, or a pre-disposition to develop them which can stem from pre-heaven or karmic origins. These can be transmitted from parents or other ancestors, or even due to types of heavenly contracts decided before birth. This inherited karma is the responsibility of the inheritor to resolve or repay; often it is not the appropriate place for any doctor to interfere, or must do so in a careful, considered manner.
Although the 魂 (Hun, ethereal soul) and 魄 (Po, corporeal soul) are often taught in contemporary Chinese Medical theory, their use in clinical practice is limited. Although the 魄 is considered to be more yin, and 魂 more yang, the two are fundamentally inseparable, and in this respect can be likened to the north and south poles of the earth; any damage to them can also lead to damage of the 陰題 (yin body), and accordingly, to the physical flesh. They can be described as a kind of communication channel which allow communication with formless realms of existence. 魂魄 require a peaceful internal and external environment to optimally function. They are also damaged by karmic afflictions, such as harming other life. These karmic afflictions can also be inherited. These kinds of afflictions would be taken into consideration by a Daoist doctor, and can often be seen to be the root cause of many incurable illnesses. However, a Daoyi will also have developed a strong sense of intuition, and should recognise when it is appropriate to remove these kind of 業帳 (karmic debts), and when they need to be left to naturally take their course. Although the doctor should always manifest utmost compassion, they should also recognize when there are higher forces than themselves at work and their healing is not appropriate. Healing rituals in Daoism often take the form of exorcisms directed at 陰性能量場 (yin type energy fields, or entities). These are ancient by human standards, and attach themselves to people on a formless level in order to feed off them in various way. This type of attachment often leads to symptoms like enuresis and seminal emission or efflux as they often attach to Mingmen and leach kidney essence. They often prefer to act at night, when the person in question is asleep and their 營衛氣 (yinq and wei layer of protective qi) is at minimised activity so it is easier to strike. However, yin entities can also operate during daylight hours on a more subtle level, slowly influencing the person in question over time just as a magnet placed next to a piece of metal slowly becomes magnetised after prolonged exposure. These healing rituals are said to induce fear in these lower level entities, and cause them to flee.
Spiritual issues include disease states which can arise from religious beliefs and methods of worship. For example, the reverence of animal spirits can lead to the emergence of various somatic and psychological imbalances.
Much emphasis is placed on what can loosely be translated as the psycho-somatic causes of disease. It is emphasised that people with chronic illnesses need to change their thoughts, and the consequent behavioural patterns that led to the creation of the disease state in the first place. Psychological causes for illness can come from the 7 emotions and 6 desires, societal pressure, unharmonious relationships with family members and friends, economic factors . Other formless causes for disease can stem from one’s 八字四主 （8 Characters and Four Pillars), which are fixed according to the time of one’s birth and relate to the cycles of the five elements, birth, growth, return, storing and the harmony and violation of natural time. A person’s 來因 (literally, reason for coming), that is to say, the reason for their incarnation on Earth, can also be a factor in the emergence of illness and disease.
The Human causes of disease are things usually factored into contemporary Chinese medicine diagnosis; these include 日常生, 活習慣 (daily life and habits)，飲食(diet)，縱慾 (lust)，勞作 (manual work) and the like. The basis of this knowledge is the 黃帝內經 (The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic), one of the seminal texts of Chinese medical theory dating back to the Han Dynasty. When considering Human level causes for diseases, the Daoist doctor places special emphasis on “禁” (prohibitions), which aim to curb the behaviours which led to the development of the final disease state, and in turn hopefully eventually contribute to shifting the consciousness of the patient so that they are able to embrace a healthier lifestyle.
Diagnosis of the Earthly causes has an expressive amount of overlap with the study of Feng Shui (Geomancy). The location of one’s home with respect to the external environment and well as the internal arrangements can affect the body over time and eventually result in diseased states. Things like the position of mountains and rivers, buildings and roads, sounds, light, air quality, graveyards, slaughter-houses, power lines, and the like are all significant and maybe be influential. The Daoist doctor must be able to recognize these kind of geographic anomalies as potential causative factors of disease, and resolve them accordingly.
A huge amount of emphasis is placed on the Daoist doctor’s personal training in the Qi Gong, Yang Sheng, sitting meditation, Dao Yin, stillness practice, etc. to develop their own strong 氣場 Qi Field. It is said that it is not difficult for a Daoist adept to study medicine, or “導師學醫，籠中抓雞” (A Daoist studies medicine like the trapping of a chicken in a cage). This is principally because of the development of their 功 (skill fostered as a result of extended training and effort) and the establishment of a strong field of Qi allows them to grasp the root of any disease and help the patient recover regardless of the technique employed. The ultimate purpose of this training is to open ones 特意功能 (special abilities,) only once these special abilities have been opened can one be considered a true Daoist doctor.
However, in the grander scheme of Daoist cultivation training, arriving at the level of Daoist doctor is still considered quite low. It is a method of 煉己，築基 (refining the self and establishing a foundation,) which are preparation for later stages of 丹道 internal alchemy cultivation. Medicine in Daoism is a means of using one’s developed abilities to help others, and in doing so, 積累公德 (cultivate virtue); In this way, medicine can be taken as an established path to immortality 醫道通仙道. However, these medical skills which have been developed are required to be relinquished in order to proceed further along this path, otherwise one has the potential to get stuck in a 彎路 (side path), and all further efforts at cultivation will be obstructed.
Daoist Medicine is divided into the seven skills 七技 many of which are unique to it and help distinguish it from Chinese Medicine, although, as mentioned earlier, there is also a great deal of overlap. They are 訣，法，咒，符， 禁，氣，術 – hand seals, rituals, incantations, talismans, taboos, qi and techniques . All these skills must be built on the basis of Daoist training 修練(Daoist asceticism), without this manner of development one would not have the kind of internal strength to be able to make them work efficiently. The root of all these skills lies in the body of the practitioner, who needs to develop a form of communication with higher realms of existence 天地的勾通，上界的勾通. Furthermore, these skills must be founded on the Quanzhen tenets of 慈悲，愛，包容 (compassion, love and mercy), otherwise they would be classified as 黑法 (black methods) as they would be limited in scope to the human level of thought and desire, and will never reach the magnitude as methods encompassing 大慈悲 (great compassion). Without compassion, love and mercy, one can never communicate effectively with 萬物 (the ten thousand things) and any practice with the higher realms would eventually damage the practitioner. It should also be mentioned that in the grand scheme of Daoist training 修煉 (Daoist asceticism), these are considered small methods, 九牛一毛 (like a single hair on the back of nine oxen), a drop in the ocean when compared to higher levels of training. Those reaching this higher stage do not need to employ such methods to heal others.
These skills are also not entirely independent entities but are often incorporated and employed together in various forms; for example, without a study of incantations and hand seals one will not be able to apply rituals. Training for each of these skills requires an initial period of intense study followed by a period of regular maintenance so that the practitioner builds and retains the power inherent in the skill. For example, when training a talisman it must be trained daily for a specified period of time under certain strict condition with certain orally transmitted incantations. Only when practiced in this way can the talisman be fully empowered, and will its usage be efficacious. Although one can find such talismans scattered through various literatures, they are disengaged from a lineage and an oral tradition, as well as the practices associated with them. Furthermore, they are often altered so that their power is significantly curbed. This prevents dangers that can arise from their misuse. There are strict requirements for their employment. Talismans should only be used in cases when the patient in question is begging the Daoist doctor for help, and is willing to put all preconceptions aside and put their full faith in the doctor. In addition, the doctor should recognize the patient as someone they have 緣分 (destiny) with. If this is not the case, the talisman will not be efficacious, or will have undesired results.
The 術 treatment methods employed are numerous, many of which are also encompassed within 中醫 (Chinese Medicine); acupuncture and moxibustion 針灸,草藥 herbal medicine incorporating 丹，丸，湯，膏，散 （pellets, pills, decoction, plasters and powders) 蜂療 bee healing, 食療dietary regulation, 音療 music healing, 熏fumigation, 蒸steaming, 火療 fire healing, 拔罐 cupping, 按摩 massage, 氣功療 qigong healing, 組場療 group energy field healing, 風水 fengshui and 已經 yi jing to name a few.
Just as in the practice of contemporary Chinese Medicine, the source of acupuncture theory is the 黃帝內經. In practice, the calendrical methods such as 靈鬼八法 (Eight Methods of the Spirit Turtle) often relate to what point will be open according to the specific time according to the stems and branches. In this way the body of the patient is considered to be a part of the larger natural environment and cycle of time, the motion of Heaven, Earth and the Universe, and thus is treated accordingly.
With respect to herbal medicine, Daoist Medicine places a great deal of emphasis on using freshly picked, local herbs. These are always given preference over dried, prepared herbs that have been mass produced by the agriculture industry wherever possible as they contain the complete medicinal properties of the plant 藥性全部在. There are certain incantations which can be recited to give thanks and boost the efficacy of the herb when they are being collected. Once again, one’s own personal training is emphasized; the qi field developed by the practitioner is seen to attach to the herbal prescription and influence the treatment of the patient. In this way, the same herbal formula prescribed by two separate practitioners can yield markedly different results.
The theoretical basis of Daoist medical practice, can be seen to share much in common with Chinese Medicine. Both are holistic, consider man as a part of his environment employ Five Element and Yin Yang theory. The Yin Yang theory of the 藥王派 (Medicine King Sect) is essentially the same as the one usually expounded by Chinese Medicine, as is the Five Element Theory with a few notable discrepancies. The colour of 水 (Water) element is taken to be purple, not blue or black. Furthermore, with regards to the 五氣 (Five Qi) this system 水 associates with 躁 (Dryness), while金 (Metal) is linked with 寒(Cold). Unlike the Five Element system usually taught in the Chinese medical system, whose reasons are usually explained seasonally, the explanations given in this system are more physiological in nature. When 寒氣 (Cold Qi) enters the body usually the first thing to be damaged is the lung. Similarly when one sustains 躁 (dryness), much damage is done to the kidneys; in a dry area, the first thing to disappear is water.
However, contemporary Chinese medical practice rarely incorporates Yi Jing and Ba Gua theory in the same manner that Daoist Medicine does. The Yi Jing is seen as having an extremely intimate relationship with medicine to the extent that any doctor seeking to become adept in his profession would be required to study the Yi Jing at some point: “不知《易》，不足以言太醫”. (Those with no knowledge of the Yi Jing will not reach the highest levels of medical practice). The Yi Jing essentially documents the flux of changes that encompass all of reality. This obviously includes all changes regarding disease, health and the body thusly can be applied to the field of medicine. Practically, it can be used in both diagnosis and plotting optimal treatment strategies. Furthermore, a specific hexagram or the numerology of the Yi Jing can be used to assign a specific prescription used in the treatment of disease; its geographical orientations can also be used when assigning patient placement in group meditation healing techniques.
Certain ethical obligations are also placed on the Daoist doctor, many of these based on the concept of the 大醫 (Great Doctor) by 孫思邈 (Sun Si Miao). Restrictions were placed on doctors as in what they could say and how they could act in society. A Daoist doctor was not permitted to operate in an urban environment with the primary goal of earning money, and could not pick and choose their patients based on wealth and status. They were required to travel to see patients, go to places where their skills were needed regardless of consideration of how economically viable it was. A Daoist doctor was expected to have reached a highly achieved state of cultivation, and it is precisely this level of cultivation which allowed Daoists to grasp medical principles with such ease. They were required to have 平心，靜氣 and 安神 (peaceful heart, quiet Qi and a settled spirit) in order to reach a state of 無欲無求 (no desires, no pursuits); they were told to strive to 發大慈悲，救一切苦 (emit great compassion and resolve all bitterness). These requirements hold Daoist doctors to higher standards than most of their lay counterparts, and were supposed to ensure the highest levels of medical practice.
Daoists employ a hierarchy of practicing doctors similar to that described by 孫思邈 （上醫醫國，中醫醫人，下醫醫病 (The highest level doctor treats countries, middle level doctors treat people, lower level doctors treat illnesses). In the Daoist system, 大醫 (Highest level doctor) occupies primary position of this order ahead of 上醫 (Upper Level doctor) to account for the miraculous esoteric healings given by puissant religious figures such as Christ or Shakyamuni. They are said to be able to remove 罪責 (karmic burden) often seen to be the root cause of an illness, with a single sentence or thought. It is the arrival at this pinnacle of medical practice that a committed Daoist doctor would strive for. A 上醫 (Upper Level Doctor) has the capacity to cure seemingly incurable diseases. Sometimes although they can see the roots of deep problems, they do not possess the same level. In addition to employing techniques commonly found in Chinese Medicine, they would also make use of the 七術 (Seven techniques) mentioned previously. As described by Sun SiMiao and in the Neijing, they would treat disease which had not yet arisen; they would not merely treat the diseases or injuries which presented themselves, but would also address and rectify the behavioural patterns which led to their emergence and persistence. In the context of this due order, 中醫 (Mid Level Chinese Medical Doctor) is not only taken to refer to 中國 (the nation of China) but relates to the position of a mid-level doctor, the category where most adept doctors operating within the realms of society would fall into. It is also makes allusion to the philosophy of 中和 (harmony) which permeates the medical system; accordingly a 中醫 is defined as someone with the ability to regulate yinyang of the body into harmony. 下醫 (Lower level doctor) are the doctors who adhere vehemently to protocols taught to them and do not practice medicine with flexibility or any noticeable degree of individually distinguishable skill or innovation. They comprise the vast majority of doctors operating in the hospital system. Below this are the 庸醫 (quacks or medical charlatans) who exist solely to fleece people out of coin using fraudulent means.
Article written by Danel Spigelman (Cheng Shun) during a stay at the Five Immortals Temple.