Taoism and Traditional Chinese Medicine

The Tao and Chinese Medicine have been intertwined from the ancient beginnings of chinese culture. The earliest practitioners of healing were the Wu, shamanic practitioners who were usually women. Their methods involved exorcism and trance states that were used to formulate healing ceremonies and rituals. Speculation exists that the exorcism methods of shaking spears and burning incense and aromatic woods formed the basis for the later development of acupuncture and moxibustion. The Wu are believed to have been the forerunners of later Taoist healing practitioners. While philosophical Taoism, as represented by the Tao Te Ching and Lao Tzu, didn`t become a school of thought until 400 BCE, the practices of the Wu had been in existence for over a thousand years. The outgrowth of these practices was carried into the traditions of the Tao shih, or the Taoist priests, and their ritual and healing practices. The Tao shih used dance, song and meditation-visualization to comprehend and treat diseases. The Tao shih actively invoked these states to perceive the spiritual influences that may be at the root of a disease. They combined ritual exorcism with hands on energetic healing and herbology to treat the whole person.
In the philosophical tradition of Taoism, the emphasis upon Nature and closely following the principles of Nature as a model for the ideal life clearly has been incorporated into Chinese Medicine. The emphasis upon harmony with the seasons and the cyclicity of the flow of Qi are an example of this. Sections of the Huang Ti Nei Ching also reveal a Taoist influence in several references to the ideal lives of those in antiquity who were able to live over a hundred years without the loss of their physical or mental faculties. Following the Yellow Emperor's question regarding these people, his teacher Chi Po replies;
"The men of antiquity understood the Tao. They led their lives in accordance with the rules of yin and yang. They ate and acted moderately, no one dissipated their strength through unseemly behavior. Thus they preserved their strength and lived out their years."
Taoist practitioners were a major influence in the development of the materia medica of Chinese Drug therapy. The search for elixers and magical pills that could confer immotality upon the user led to experimentation with a wide variety of plant, animal and mineral products. The Reishi-ganoderma mushroom, cinnabar-mercuric sulfide and Ginseng root were all believed to have supernatural influences on longevity and health. The emperor Chin Shi Huang is believed to have sent ships to the islands of the west, what we now know of as Japan, in search of a magical mushroom that could confer immortality upon the user. When no one returned from the second expedition it was believed that the explorers, fearing punishment for failing to find the magical herb, settled in Japan, helping contribute to the early development of Japanese culture.
Other influences of Taoism are in the area of the Chinese health exercises known as Qi Gong. These exercises were based upon early Taoist breathing methods and postures which aimed at purifying and preserving the body. The famous physician Hua To developed a method known as the "Frolic of the Five Animals" which was based upon his observations of animals and their special attributes. This system has survived as one of the oldest methods of Qi Gong used for health and healing purposes. Current Qi Gong methods are used widely in China and the west to balance and preserve the flow of Qi through the channels and collaterals. The use of the external emission of Qi from healer to patient is also becoming more popular and well known today.
The majority of Qi Gong systems in use today can be traced back to ancient Taoist practices and the search for immortality. Later Taoist practices incorporated Chinese medical practices into the body of healing that was performed by the Tao Shih. Tuina, herbal therapy, moxibustion and the use of external emission Qi Gong were part of the healing arts that many temples and monasteries taught, according to Taoist Master Share K. Lew, a graduate of the Yellow Dragon Monastery in Canton, China. Monks were required to study the theories and methods as part of their basic training. This enabled them to better serve the people that formed the members of the lay temples in the cities.
While the concept of the Tao was embraced by all of the different schools in China, the influence of Taoism in the development of Chinese Medicine was a major influence. By forming a bridge to the concepts of natural law and the relationships of human beings to it, Chinese Medicine took on a flavor and style that has remained well into the 21st century.