THE SHENG NONG BEN CAO JING: REAWAKENING THE TRUE ROMANCE OF CHINESE HERBALISM
By Dustin Siena
As Chuang-tzu once said, "There is nothing which heaven does not cover, yet nothing that earth does not sustain." Im my heart, this eloquently captures the dynamic relationship between acupuncture and Chinese herbalism. Acupuncture is true heaven medicine, harnessing the great yang energy from above, while herbology of all kinds, regardless of the country or culture of origin embodies the nurturing and feeding capacity of mother earth. Activity and substance together, creating a powerful and healing wholeness of yin and yang.
The acupuncture component has been emphasized throughout our schooling, even though Chinese herbal medicine predates the advent of the first stone needles. Therefore, we must seek to deeply understand the alchemy and magic that the great sages of china envisioned.
As one glances through the Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing, the true beauty and romance of herbalism becomes alive. Herbs are categorized into 3 classes, superior, middle, and inferior class. Almost all of "TCM herbalism" that we are taught in school holds little resemblance to the nomenclature used in this book. It is our responsibility and duty as practitioners to read this book from cover to cover to remind ourselves of the magic that tonic herbs embody.
The first 6 herbs listed in the superior class section are none other than six different colors of Ling Zhi (Ganoderma), commonly known as Reishi Mushroom. These six varieties of Reishi are are related to the 5 elements. Green, Red, Yellow, White, Black, and are related to Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water, while the 6th Reishi, Purple, zi zhi, is not explained clearly. Since Purple Reishi is rather difficult to find, I might infer that this is a truly sublime substance which was used in Taoist practices to open the heart, and could be categorized under the fire element.
The Ben Cao is regarded as perhaps the seminal Chinese Materia Medica from which all others are derived. This work is often grouped together with the Nei Jing, and the Shang Han Lun, as the three most important books in Chinese Medicine.
The contemporary "Materia Medica" that is used in school, has left out the first 6 superior substances listed in the Sheng Nong Ben Cao Jing. We are not taught about Reishi in TCM school, which is very dissappointing since this was revered by the great sages as one of the quintessential substances to cultivate qi, shen, and jing.
In its description of almost all the superior substances, especially Reishi, the Ben Cao describes the substances in this way:
"Protracting taking may make the body light, prevent senility, and prolong life so as to make on immortal."
I would think an herb looked upon so highly by Shen Nong would merit a position in the "Materia Medica" used in schools, and used as a reference book by most TCM practitioners in developing formulas and modifications. One could easily assume that there are many invaluable superior herbs that where left out of our schooling, which deserve exploration and further understanding. Continue reading the superior class of herbs chapter, and you will discover an abundance of extraordinary substances which have been left out of the mainstream of TCM training and practice.
In developing an herbal protocol, I have taken an interesting position. I respect and practice the roots of “zang-fu” style herbalism, and create a formula to treat this imbalance. However, I hold something even higher and greater than this. I create a root formula composed of mainly tonic herbs, to allow the individual to cultivate all three treasures, shen, jing, and qi. And im my humble opinion, this is the essence of great herbalism.
Do tonic herbs send the pathogen deeper into the body? Are they always inappropriate in cases of excess, or spleen/stomach dampness/phlegm? My sense is no. In fact I find the appropriate tonic herbs for a given individual to almost never be inappropriate.
"When the heart is serene, pain seems negligible."
This is from an unknown source, but emphasizes the importance of treating the shen. In my opinion, the tonic herbs can facilitate the spiritual growth process so that disease will simply cease to exist. Three treasure herbs such as Ling Zhi (Ganoderma), are foreign to most TCM trained practitioners, and yet vital to transformation of disease into wellness, even though there applications are so broad, perhaps acting as an adaptogenic.
According to Russian scientist I.I. Brekhman in 1958, adaptogenic herbs like Siberian Ginseng, work to normalize all bodily systems and functions. In a state of stress or excess, an adaptogenic herb could calm the body, while in a state of depletion or deficiency, such a substance could strengthen the entire organism as a whole to sustain itself in its environment.
The idea of resiliency comes to mind. While kindey yin allows us to be flexible and changeable in situations of adversity, kidney yang propels us forward with "zhi" or "will." The combination of flexibility and inspiration to soar is quite appealing.
We are seeking to create a state of homeostasis in our acupunture and herbal protocals. If there were a group of substances that contained the intelligence to tonify when needed, or disburse and spread when necessary, this would be an invaluable substance to utilize in practice. I feel that many of these extraorindary substances may be find in the Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing (The Divine Farmer's Materia Medica).
I only have one warning, if you take too much Yuan Zhi (Polygolae), you could "disinhibit the nine orifices,, sharpen the wits, brighten the eyes, and double (one's physical) strength..."
Page 21, Translation of the Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing by Yang Shou-Zhong"
Here is a basic combination that you may try. The trinity of heaven combination is a trio of 3 herbs which represent, Heaven, Earth, and Humanity. They are Tian Men Dong (Tian means Heaven),
Di Huang (Rehmannia), and Ren Shen (Radix Ginseng). This trinity was used by Taoists to aid in meditation, harmonize yin and yang, and nourish the three treasures of Shen, Jing, and Qi.
Our ability to cultivate our compassion and kindness is the essence of healing. The herbs are a powerful catalyst in this transformational process, not just in our patients, but in ourselves.
Shen Nong dedicated much of his life to personally experimenting with these virtuous and sometimes poisonus substances. His courage and wonder is an inspiration to us all!
By Dustin Siena, L.Ac.
Copyright Dustin Siena 1999