Herbal medicine as a therapeutic resource has existed since the dawn of humanity. The Teacher should always begin by correctly identifying the patient's symptoms; later on, he can decide on the treatment he considers best: meditation, chi kung, herbalism or acupuncture. A good diagnosis is as important as an in-depth knowledge of plants.
The plants from Chinese medicine are traditionally held in high esteem, but I believe there is no better option than to use local plants, or those that you have grown yourself in close quarters, after having made a real effort towards understanding them better. When plants grow wild in their own habitats, these natural environments can aid in our understanding of their uses and properties. This does not mean that plants cannot be introduced into or naturalized in non-native environments.
It is not necessary to kill plants in order to use them; parts of them can be used while they are allowed to flourish and grow; branches and cuttings may be sown after collecting the roots. We should bear in mind that these are living creatures, and that we must respect the fact that they emanate from the Tao, so that we may benefit from their vital energy and special gifts. The plant kingdom is a lifeform; plants deliver themselves to the touch of Chi and their inherent harmony allows them to adapt to every climate, time and place. They experience neither desire nor attachment, they are born, grow and bloom leaving their seeds in optimal condition for Life to emerge again. They are Teachers to us and in them we may find strength to heal ourselves.
To observe the properties of each variety in relation to its place in nature is not difficult, nor is it to choose which varieties may help us in a particular case after carrying out a proper diagnosis. Each variety grows in unique conditions; the doctor who is good and observant will pay attention to the climate and the place where each one exists:
-He will look at the earth, the nutrients that feed it, its color, humidity and dryness, its hardness. He will look at the depth of the roots, their strength and shape, their taste, their nature and how they feel to the touch.
-He will regard the plant as an equal being, and differentiate its characterists as though it had a personality of its own. He will consider in which direction the plant grows, what it looks for: shade, humidity, light. He will see whether it likes the wind, whether it bends in its favor or resists it, whether the leaves become weaker or stronger and safer in its presence.
-He will observe at which time the leaves sprout, when they are greener or drier, which weathers and climates the plant resists, in contrast with others similar to it. -He will consider its shape, its cortex, the amount of water it has and needs; whether it is a plant, a bush or a tree. -He will study how each part of it tastes, raw and after being cooked.
-He will reflect on the flowers, their colors, their maceration, seasons, longevity, taste, smell and texture.
The abundance of each variety at different times and places is indicative of those plants which are appropriate for every syndrome. As human beings we may become sick because of external reasons: the change of seasons, the cold, the wind, the humidity, etc. Plants which are appropriately chosen will show us how to get better, since they have the strength and the capacity to adapt which we may lack at certain times. We may also become sick due to internal reasons: our diet, our emotions, etc. This is how we create a set of confusing conditions for ourselves, which should be carefully looked into and described. A complete case history including what came before and what came after must be carried out, in order to understand the blend of sensations that informs the patient's existence. There are plants which can survive the most intense heat of the summer, they are white and aromatic. They could calm down our worst anxieties and despairs. There are trees which, when those like them have lost all their leaves in the winter, remain unaffected and beautiful after snow falls. Even in the deepest depression and fear, we too may keep our beauty and our balance. This will allow us to keep acting and living until new decisions show us the way forward. There are intense stomach pains due to cold, slow digestive processes for the same reason, made chronical through deficiencies. Warm plants, and some hot spicy ones, could help us here.
-Cardamom seeds heat up the spleen and improve digestion, warm up our kidneys providing slight stimulation.
-Astragalus may not only fortify our spleen but also the vital energy of our entire organism, making it stronger in the face of external disease agents.
-Purple yam water may improve our vital energy as well, and nurture our yin in kidneys and lungs.
-The fruit of the hawthorn could be used in case of poor digestion due to to blockage from food.
-With senna leaves, mallow and peach seeds, we could eliminate intestinal gas due to faeces blocking the way, and we could mobilize our blood and bodily fluids through diuresis. This would also help to get rid of toxic heat.
In Chinese medicine, unique combinations of plants are exclusively chosen for each person. These combinations are called formulae, and they entail the use of different dosages and different parts of each plant, as needed. Rarely do formulae stay the same from one patient to the next, and providing a skilled diagnosis will be crucial in deciding the correct dosage and methods of preparation. Let us take a look at a common plant formula for stress and anxiety in the modern city. I will describe a brief herbal treatment for a chronic blockage of energy in the liver, including permanent heat which has led to the depletion of the yin in it, as well as in the kidneys and in the heart. We find expressions of anxiety and general tension with critical episodes, insomnia, heat in the palms of the hands, the feet and the chest, palpitations, tachycardia, etc.
-Bupleurum root is one of the most important plants for the task of unblocking our liver, particularly when heat is manifest.
-White peony root acts in combination with bupleurum towards unblocking the liver. It protects the yin, softens and decreases the rising of yang in the organ. -Figwort root eliminates chronic excessive heat from the blood. It nurtures the yin.
-Chrysanthemum flower alleviates liver symptoms, especially the rising of yang.
-Gardenia fruit may also be used if data related to heat are significant.
-Melissa helps fortify the spleen and calm down the shen.
-Valerian calms the shen, cools down its fire, enables the flow of the liver to become harmonious and calm, refreshing and sedating it.
-Prepared rehmannia root is the most important plant to nurture the yin from its base, the kidney.
-Lycium and goji berries have similar functions to those mentioned above, especially as far as the liver is concerned.
-Dang gui angelica and sage combined are good if there is consumption of heat through blood. They may also help propel and refresh the blood, calming down the heart.
The methods of Chinese medicine make it an observant and natural approach. It is very subtle and does not generalize. It is in agreement with ancient methods of humanity and ancestral cultures. It considers plants as though they were books to be read which can guide us through necessity in the Tao.
There exist a few plants, at certain junctions of places and climates throughout the world, which can help us achieve a more intense closeness to Life; they are called master plants and they are of a more elevated rank. They provide us with the possibility of beginning a journey, and maybe even a long-lasting tradition, of spiritual learning with a Teacher. They are part of the ancient shamanistic arts and they used to be at the base of true knowledge and learning for our ancestors. Tobacco and ayahuasca are examples of this kind of plants.