Reporting from Taiwan: Yesterday, I was introduced to an acupuncture doctor in the small city of Hukou. My wife’s sister, a Buddhist nun, knew about the doctor and thought that I would enjoy meeting him. Dr. Chen is regarded as a Master and laoshi (teacher). My wife, her nun sister and three other nun friends waited in the reception area as the last patients of the day were being seen in a small room just in back. Rows of certificates lined the walls, with some larger traditional wooden plaques adorned with ornate Chinese characters. In the far corner, a TV was playing a soap opera – “the Legend of Bruce Lee”.
As I thought about meeting the laoshi, I had no expectations. Traditionally, any great Master would necessarily check out the disciple before revealing any deep secrets or imparting any knowledge which could be used ignorantly or with harmful intent. Quick possibly, I would fail the test. Additionally, I have never found the time to learn Chinese so everything would need to be translated by my wife – another potentially serious strike against me. Furthermore, I as the potential disciple am responsible for carefully evaluating anyone who I might call teacher. In a traditional Buddhist context, such an evaluation period might last 12 years. Right – no expectations! At least there would probably be some good tea to be enjoyed and if I payed attention, probably I would learn some tea table etiquette or maybe pick up some useful tip.
Sure enough, as the last few patients were filing into the treatment room, the doctor’s wife led us all upstairs to a traditional tea table and began pouring small cups of tea and passing peanuts and sweets around. I rarely drink traditional tea, but found myself drinking the smooth tasting brew almost as quickly as each successive cup was filled.
The nuns all joked that I had not learned Chinese yet and diligently set about correcting that deficiency, peppering me with little bits of conversation that I barely understood as my wife patiently translated. Eventually the doctor entered the room. Everyone stood up to greet him. He was a short man with thin but jet black hair, a significant paunch, and a noticeably powerful aura of Chi about him. He leaned forward with enthusiasm as he spoke and laughed often. He asked me if I could guess his age, and though I had already heard he was in his seventies, I figured it would be polite to guess low so I said sixty five. I acted surprised to learn that he was 74 years old. He did indeed look very robust and healthy for his age. He had been working for the last 4 hours with only a 30 minute break but did not show any signs of being tired.
At first impression, he struck me as having a slightly inflated ego, but very soon, I changed my opinion, deciding that he was simply sharing his joy of practicing the healing arts. We watched several short videos of him from years before performing external Qi Gong on patients, some with cancer. One patient with stomach cancer was given a few weeks to live by regular doctors and after Dr. Chen’s treatment’s, he lived another five years. In the videos, the patient was always seen lying prone on a table, Dr. Chen was waving his arms and fluttering his fingers, almost like conducting an invisible orchestra, with the patient’s limbs flailing about in synchrony with his gestures. He never touched the patient. I had never seen anything like it before, and had I not studied Chinese medicine and Qi Gong myself, I think the video would have seemed spooky – like some kind of dark magic, or perhaps just faked.
He asked me how I inserted the needle and I gestured my typical needle tap with tube. He laughed a bit and seemed to shake his head in disdain, but upon answering a few other of his questions, I seemed to have passed some sort of test as he then began receiving my questions.
Although he used herbs, he said that acupuncture can be effective as a stand-alone modality. Once the needles are inserted, at that moment, the medicine enters the channels and begins to balance the Chi and Blood. He typically only used 2 or 3 needles for most conditions, with direct needle insertion (no tube), and went for powerful stimulation, unless the patient was weak and then he would use lighter stimulation. Treatment times tended to be short, 5 to 15 minutes of needle retention, and he saw the patients one by one. I frequently heard him say “Jing, Chi, Shen”. He always assessed each patient’s Chi to determine the treatment using four traditional methods – visually inspecting, smelling, palpating, and listening (including asking questions and listening to the answers).
One of the nuns had a headache and upon a short discussion, she lay upon the table whence he thrust a needle quickly and nearly up to the hilt in the vicinity of Hegu (LI4). She gasped in obvious pain but quickly relaxed afterwards. I told him that I would lose half of my patients after the first treatment if I went for that much Chi. I also remembered the community acupuncture principle of allowing the charged energy field of a room full of patients to do the work of balancing the Chi in each patient rather than relying on few special points strongly stimulated.
As acupuncturists and practitioners devoted to alleviating suffering, I think it is important that we accept that there will always be different methods which are more suitable in some cultures and communities. This is simply called using skillful means. Furthermore, a quiet and humble practitioner with no reputation may be equally as effective as one who is charsimatic and famous. Appearances can often be deceiving.
Asians have a long standing acceptance of acupuncture and aren’t deterred by the strong Chi technique that is commonly used by doctors in that part of the world. In America, the situation is different. It may be true that the chi of Americans tends to run closer to the surface of the skin.
We need to employ flexible thinking if we wish to be of service to others, avoiding rigid dogmatism. Also, we need to be open to learning. We need to not be lazy, avoiding being satisfied with any limited achievements our ego may wish to stand upon. Learning is endless. I’m going back to visit Laoshi Chen for lunch in a few days. I can’t wait to get back to CommuniChi – my clinic in Seattle. Thank you everyone in POCA for your teachings.