Over-simplified bodies

Medical Chinese medicine regard the human body as an physical object and the qì or meridians are seen as internal functioning of this physical object. The conscious self within it is seen more or less as a byproduct of bodily functions. Traditional Chinese medicine usually speaks of this self as Shén. Shén could be translated as a spirit. The most used medical classics speak about five shéns and describe various emotions associated with each of them. The shén residing in heart and named Shén and is said to be above others and representing human spirit and in a way the Self. In the Western world many acupuncturist refer this Shén as spirit and other shéns as emotions.

In the past however there were not only one or five Shén in the body but numerous different shéns forming the whole. These shéns were not seen as spiritual counterparts of material human body but the very essence of this material being. The concept that human body is “without an empty spot that is not shén” formed the basis of spirtual cultivation and medical  practices.

The following translations are from 太上老君內觀經 (Tàishàng Lǎojūn Nèiguānjīng) or Classic of inner contemplation. This Táng Dynasty (618-907) text first describes the formation of body and continues explaining that how the formation of body gives us understanding and the way of using contemplation of ones being and mind to trace it back to the source.  Very beautiful Taoist text also defines clearly some terms used in many medical classics. Pieces of the text are quoted in later medical classics.

The formation of body


When father and mother have intercourse the human being has its begining
During the first month in womb the essence and blood concentrate
During the second month the fetus-form will develop from the embryo
During the third month the Yángshén forms three Húns and begins to move and live
During the fourth month Yīnlíng form seven Pòs to slow and cooldown the form
During the fifth month five phases divide to [their] Zàngs calming their Shéns
During the sixth month six laws fix fǔ-organs to nourish the Líng
During the seventh month seven essences open [their corresponding] orifices to Bright light
During the eighth month the eight luminous Shén can descend true Líng
During the ninth month from the Palace room the threads extend to manage the essence
During the tenth month Qì is sufficient and 10 000 forms are ready

The above quote explain how the body forms during pregnancy. From this follows the fact that this body is seen in ancient texts as concentration of spirit itself. The 7 pòs are sometimes refered as Earth spirits that provides a being instincts and animal qualities. Sometimes these pò spirits are seen in a negative light but their functioning is essential for survival and nourishment of ones being. They represent the animistic life force in body. The 3 húns are seen as heavenly spirit that compose a threefold soul of human. The eight luminous spirits appear in form of the Original spirit (Yuánshén 元神) in later versions of this passage quoted in medical classics.

The “layers” of human embodiment


Lǎojūn said:
Dao provides our role and it is known as fate (命 mìng)
[From this] naturally [follow] our qualities and form (形 xíng)
[And that] we call nature (性 xìng)
This [nature] assign beings [their proper places]
We call this heart
In heart resides the memory ( 憶 yì)
We call it intention (意 yì)
When intention manifests we call it will (志 zhì)
Will used without ignorance is called wisdom (智 zhì)
Wisdom about 10 000 beings is called intelligence (慧 huì)
[The spirits/influences that] move and direct are called Húns (魂)
[The spirits/influences that] still and cool are called Pòs (魄)
[That which] flows and moves in bones and flesh we call blood
[That which] protects shén and nourish qì is called essence (精 jīng)
Qì [that is] fast and quick, is known as [nourishing] róngqì (榮炁)
Qì [that is] turbid and slow is known as (defensive) wèi[qì] (衛)
[That which] collects and binds together 100 shén is known as embodiment (身 shēn)
10 000 images becoming whole visible [body] known as form (形 xíng)
Mass that itself blocks [everything] is called matter (質 zhí)
Look and manners that can be imitated is substance/style (體 tǐ)
[The whole composed of] big and small parts is called body (軀 qū)
The whole that can be thought but not measured is called Shén
The distant that is echoed through these transformations is called Líng
Qì coming and entering the embodiment is called life
Shén leaving from embodiment is called death
Therefore opening to life is called to Tao (道 dào)

This description of layers of embodiment give us many keys to deeper understanding of the classics.

The problem is that the terms of  身, 體, 軀 and 形 are usually translated simply as a body. As one can see this is clearly an over simplification or Westernization. Shēn (身) might be better translated as being or embodiment as it contains all these layers. The tǐ (體) is composed of bone or frame(骨) and container (豆) for something unknown (曲). It might be translated as way of being, style or spiritual substance. A strong tǐ refers to (moral) integrity and purity of a man and not just a strong body. Qū (軀) in the other hand is composed of being (身) that works as a box(匸) for small things (品) refers to the physical body.

The knowledge and understanding of exact terms is crucial while reading many taoist and medical classics. It is hard to understand contemplation practices without first understanding what is being contemplated. In study of medical classics the understanding the human is the most important. Only then the rest of the theory can understood correctly.