Sunday, May 15, 2005

The Order of the Green-Lipped Monkey

I drove to the Surf City College of Chinese Medicine and parked in the lot kiddy-corner to the school, across the street from the beach. What a great location for a school – I could go for dips in the ocean in between classes! I was a little bit anxious, since I hadn’t been in school for years and didn’t really know what to expect. It was true, I had signed up almost on a whim, in response to Kazi Dama’s invitation, but the fact was that I was ready for a change in my life. I had been working as a university administrator for about five years, and although I felt capable and appreciated in that capacity, a part of me was dissatisfied with my job. I wanted to help people in an immediate, one-on-one way. Having seen Kazi Dama perform his miracle on Dave’s sprained ankle, and intrigued by what little I knew about the Iron Pork tradition, I decided that I would explore the healer’s path as a possible new career.

Also, at about this time, Dave had started hanging out with Pischering more and more, just the two of them. This was a new pattern, as we had until then always spent time with him together, the three of us. I have to admit that I was a little jealous. But overall I was secretly relieved. Dave had for the past year or so been suffering through the aftershocks of a particularly messy breakup, and I had been his chief counselor and emotional support. Naturally, when Pischering started talking about Rohini and how devastating the end of that relationship was, Dave’s ears perked up and he shifted his attention from me to Pischering, who appeared to know far better than I how to balance the appetites and regain sanity. This left me with more free time than I was used to, and the recognition that I wanted to spend some of that time learning about health and healing.

I walked into the school building and asked some students where the “Bamboo Room” was. According to my schedule, that was where my first class, Fundamentals of Traditional Chinese Medicine, would meet. The semester had started a couple of weeks earlier, and I was acutely aware of how much I had missed. The teacher, a friendly Chinese doctor named Geoffrey Wong, was lecturing about the different kinds of qi, or vital energy, about how it was produced, how it flowed through the body in channels, and so on. It was fascinating, but it might as well have been taught in a foreign language. As a matter of fact, I was convinced at times that he was speaking in a foreign language, between Dr. Wong’s heavy accent and the many Chinese medical terms he was using. Nevertheless, I enjoyed his class and looked forward to buying the textbook and catching up with my classmates.

The next class, Acupuncture 101, was less satisfying. The teacher, an older American woman with white hair and a no-nonsense manner, launched immediately into a review of the Lung and Large Intestine acupuncture channels. I was greatly discouraged because I had missed the previous two classes, and thought I would never catch up. She taught the location of the acupuncture points with a cartographer’s precision, and I doubted whether I would ever be able to locate the points accurately enough to pass her exams.

Finally, at the end of the day, it was time for Kazi Dama’s class. Because he was not trained in traditional Chinese medicine, and was not a licensed acupuncturist, the school officially called him a “visiting practitioner” and allowed him to teach clinical classes, provided he didn’t pierce patients’ skin. As I would soon find out, the skin-piercing provision did not present a problem.

The first patient that day suffered from excruciating menstrual cramps, and was actually in the throes of cramps at the time of her visit. She lay curled up in pain on the massage table. Kazi Dama approached the woman with calm compassion, asked her a few questions, then gently touched her temples with great reverence. He stayed in this position for a few minutes, then walked slowly around the table, seeming to be feeling for something with his fingertips in the air around the patient and at the surface of her skin. Once he had worked his way down to the foot of the table, he appeared to find what he was looking for, and touched a point on the patient’s ankle with his index finger. “Liver 4,” some of the students whispered to each other. “Feel better now?” Kazi Dama asked. The woman nodded, then fell into a deep sleep. One of the students, who had his fingers on the patient’s pulse, gasped. “Her pulse just calmed right down!” he exclaimed. Kazi Dama smiled. Then, he pulled one of his stones out of his pocket and applied it to the point on the woman’s ankle, and held the tip of a fat gold needle at several points on her belly, using his other hand. Then he herded us out of the treatment room, saying, “Now we let her rest.”

Once we were back in the herb pharmacy, where Kazi Dama gave the students free rein in the creation of an appropriate herb formula for the patient, the students pummeled him with questions. “How did you pick Liver 4?” “Why didn’t you check her pulse?” “What were you doing when you held her head?”

Kazi Dama laughed, and said, “You want to make things more complicated than they are! Always, what I do is the same: feel the Pischering Field, feel the ha, find where it is out of balance, then balance it. Your Chinese medicine is essentially the same, but you rely on intermediate steps – check the pulse, look at the tongue, etc. Why not just perceive the field? Anybody can do it!”

One of the students, a pretty young lady in her third year, asked, “And why did you use Liver 4? Is it because it’s the Metal point on a Wood channel, and metal controls wood?”

I had no idea what she was talking about, but Kazi Dama apparently did, or maybe he didn’t and considered the question irrelevant. “I did not ‘use Liver 4’!” he said emphatically. “I used the point that needed to be used. This is the big mistake with your Chinese medicine! You think that individual points ‘do’ specific things! In truth, they are a way to access a field in your body that is out of balance with your overall Pischering Field, and possibly with the greater fields in which you live. You want to make things simple, to believe that a point does something, like stop cramps or eliminate nausea, but treating the point won’t do those things if the patient’s imbalance is due to something else. So cut through the in-between steps! Don’t prescribe a point like it’s a drug! Just feel the imbalance and correct it!”

There was some mumbling and grumbling of the “easy for you to say” variety, then finally one student asked the question that everyone wanted to ask. “Why don’t you use needles? I mean, why don’t you insert needles into the skin?”

Kazi Dama seemed to weigh in his mind what he was about to say, then said, “I know you are here at this school to become acupuncturists, to learn how to stick needles in people. Your acupuncture is good medicine, and it works. I come from another tradition, one that is similar, but a little different, that also works. If they both work, then no problem! But I will tell you why I don’t insert needles. I believe that metals affect the Pischering Field directly by their physical properties. There is something about skinny metal wires that directly affects the Pischering Field by being nearby, by simply touching the skin – maybe they function as a kind of antenna that emits or absorbs ha as necessary, or maybe they interact with the electromagnetic signaling system of our cells and tissues.” He sounded out the word “electromagnetic” as if he had been practicing it in front of a mirror. “But you don’t have to pierce the skin! The only advantage of piercing the skin with needles, as far as I can tell, is that you create a way to keep the needle where it is so you can do other things. Like work on your herbs!” he said, prompting us to get to work on the formula.

Since this was my first day in school, all I did was weigh out herbs that the more senior students had decided should go into the formula. The pretty senior showed me how to use the quaint Chinese hand scales that we were expected to utilize, and I got to work weighing out the fragrant roots, bark, and leaves with another freshman. For the most part, Kazi Dama ignored us, but occasionally he would sniff the air, glance over at what we were doing, come over, and nibble on a small piece of this or that herb. Most of the time he just grunted and left us alone, but a couple of times he would taste an herb and tell us not to include it in the formula.

“What’s wrong with this herb?” asked one of the seniors.

“Nothing wrong with it. Just not the right herb for her.”

“What do you call it in your tradition?”

“Don’t call it anything. We don’t have this herb. Probably not a mountain herb.”

“Then how do you know it’s not right for her?”

Kazi Dama sighed. “Herbs are a little more straightforward than acupuncture points,” he explained. “They actually work in the body and ‘do things.’ You can generally tell what herbs do based on how they taste. This one is too pungent and warm for her. She’s already too hot. It will just dry her out.” This response was extremely puzzling to me, but it seemed to make sense to everybody else, so I didn’t say anything.

One of the students appeared to get frustrated that Kazi Dama was rejecting some of their herb choices. “But it’s part of the formula,” he protested.

Kazi Dama sat the student down, then gathered all of us together, saying, “Listen everyone – this is important. Herbs are superficially like pharmaceuticals, but they are not the same. Herbs are creatures, like you or me. Even if they are dead and dried, their essence, their ha, is still there. It is their ha that interacts with the patient’s ha, and brings about healing. Don’t treat herbs like little medicines. Treat them as wise beings who will help your patient. It is too easy to simply prepare a formula that somebody else came up with. Instead, you must think and feel which herbs are the correct ones. Too many of your formulas are far too large – there are so many personalities at work that the patient’s ha gets confused. Always keep in mind: who is the king herb? Who is the queen? Who are the advisors? A nation with too many rulers, or weak rulers with a huge army, or with too many advisors, is not good – this will only breed only chaos.”

After the woman with cramps left, pain-free and extremely grateful, the next patient failed to show up so we had an hour free. I seized the opportunity to ask Kazi Dama about being a healer. “Kazi Dama, how do you know, I mean really know, that this is the right profession for you?”

Kazi Dama pondered my question for a few moments, then replied. “Unfortunately, at this point in your career it is very hard to know. You have interest in helping people, and that is a good start. But also, maybe you also have fantasies about helping people. What I mean is, if you have not worked in a healing profession before, maybe you like the idea of healing; you can’t know anything about the actual practice of healing. But the idea is good too, the interest is good. They are both signs that you have compassion for your fellow human beings, and that is the root of all healing. As to whether you will be a good doctor, or whether you will like being a doctor, you will find out only after you have been doctoring for a while.”

Kazi Dama appeared to be lost in thought for a minute or two. Then, he said, “In my case, medicine was what I grew up with. It was simply expected that I would be a healer. There were times when I was bored with it, with endless lines of sick people outside the door. There were times when I did other things, but I always came back to medicine. There are worse things you could do with your life. There are more and more sick people, and more and more unhappy people, in the world. It is good, to help people. But also, I think I am lucky. I have the temperament for it.” He paused, then pointed at a scroll on the herb room wall. It was a Chinese painting of a scruffy-looking man wearing clothes made out of leaves. The man, who had two little horns sticking out of his messy hair, was chomping on some green herbs – you could see the stems and some leaves sticking out of his mouth. “Who is that man?” Kazi Dama asked.

Nobody seemed to know, so a student went to get Geoffrey Wong from the teachers’ lounge. The affable teacher took one look at the scroll and said, “That is Shen Nong. He is the Divine Farmer. He is the god of herbal medicine.”

“What is he eating?” Kazi Dama asked.

“Herbs,” replied Dr. Wong.

“Do you know what kind of herb?” Kazi Dama queried.

Dr. Wong walked up to the scroll, looked closely, then hazarded a guess in Chinese: “Ma…? Da Ma?”

Kazi Dama repeated the word: “Da Ma? Dama?! Just like my name!” Then he laughed and laughed. “Dama! Dama! This Shen Nong is definitely a member of the Order of the Green-Lipped Monkey! Ha ha ha ha!”

By this point, a number of students from other classes had gathered around, curious about the loudly-laughing new teacher. I asked the obvious question. “Kazi Dama, what is the Order of the Green-Lipped Monkey?”

When he regained his composure, Kazi Dama said, “Well, since you are asking about what it takes to be a good doctor, I might as well start from the beginning. You see, there are different kinds of doctors. I will tell you now about one kind. People get interested in medicine for different reasons. Some of you have yourselves been ill, or you feel a lack of wholeness and seek ways to remedy this. Some of you are interested in acupuncture, in how the energy of the body flows and works to regulate health. Others of you are naturally drawn to herbs. Some of you got interested in the last five to ten years, maybe after watching a TV show or reading a book. But some of you have been very interested in herbs as long as you can remember. You are the ones who liked to eat strange plants in the yard, or on walks in the woods, when you were a child. You eat strange plants – even if they are very bitter – because you are curious, and you like the interaction with the plants, you like how they make you feel. You are members of the Order of the Green-Lipped Monkey. You are my kind of doctor.”

With a little prodding, Kazi Dama continued. “The founder of my tradition was a man named Khazan Doshi. He was a member of the Order of the Green-Lipped Monkey. But the Order is much much older than even him. We say that long ago, before there were people, there were monkeys. Of course, all monkeys eat leaves, so you could say they all had green lips. But a few monkeys discovered special plants, special bitter dark green plants, that had a special effect. The plants made the monkeys wise. The monkeys liked this, so they ate the special plants quite regularly, staining their lips and mouths a dark green. My tradition, the Iron Pork lineage of Champogrla, is directly descended from those monkeys. It is said that Khazan Doshi ate champo leaves, and that is how he saw into the future, saw how our people could avoid extinction during the Great Cold. Until quite recently in Champogrla, on special occasions like our New Year’s Day in the springtime, clowns would wear green lipstick to show this association. The clown-monkeys are fools, rascals, but in their craziness they are also wise.”

One of my classmates, a friendly New Yorker named Andy, asked, “Kazi Dama, what do you mean, the plants made the monkeys wise? What kind of effect did the plants have? And what does this have to do with being a doctor?”

Kazi Dama looked very pleased with Andy. “Ahh, now you ask the good questions,” he said. He took a sip from a cup of tea he kept on the herb room table. “The plants let the monkeys see the big picture. The plants let the monkeys take a step back from playing the monkey game, to see deeply into life. And that is what a good doctor must do: see deeply into life.”

Andy said, “Are you talking about drugs?”

Kazi Dama looked him squarely in the eye and responded, “That is a very good choice of words. What are drugs? ‘Drug’ means medicine, but ‘drug’ also means a substance that affects the mind. These plants are both. From the very beginning, members of the Order of the Green-Lipped Monkey were in the minority. Most monkeys, and now most people, are not compelled to have this sort of relationship with plants. Indeed, one could argue that such plants can cause great harm. I understand the public health aspect of this argument. But I will tell you this: if you are this kind of doctor, no laws, no prejudice will change you. This is simply the way you are. And because there have always been people like you, we have what we now call herbal medicine. Most people won’t try strange, bad-tasting herbs. But the green-lipped monkey tries them all! I consider myself lucky to be a green-lipped monkey! If you are one too, you have chosen a good profession for yourself!” Then, he hastened to add, “If you are not a green-lipped monkey, that’s OK too! You can still be a great doctor! You can still see deeply into life! Thank you everybody! Good night!”

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