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Cultivating Ch'i

A Samurai Physician's Teachings on the Way of Health

Written by Kaibara EkikenAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Kaibara Ekiken
Translated by William Scott WilsonAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by William Scott Wilson

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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Samurai are best known for taking life—but here is a samurai doctor’s prescription for how to preserve life, and to make yours a long and healthy one. Unlike other samurai of his time, the samurai Kaibara Ekiken (1630–1714) was concerned less with swordsmanship than with how to maintain and nurture the healthy mind and body upon which martial techniques and philosophy depended. While serving as the chief medical doctor and healer to the Kuroda clan, he came to a holistic view of how the physical, mental, and spiritual lives of his patients were connected. Drawing from his medical practice, the principles of traditional Chinese medicine, and his life experience, Ekiken created this text as a guide to sustaining health and stamina from youth to old age. Ekiken’s advice regarding moderation, food and drink, sleep, sexual activity, bathing, and therapeutic practices is still amazingly intuitive and appropriate nearly three hundred years after this book was written.

Excerpt

 
General Remarks
 
1
 
You should consider the foundation of your body to be your father and mother, and its beginning to be Heaven and Earth. As you are born and then nourished by Heaven and Earth and your father and mother, you cannot truly consider your body a personal possession with which you can do as you choose. Rather, your body is a treasured gift from Heaven and Earth. It is also something left to you by your parents. Thus, you should cherish it, nourish it, neither damage nor destroy it, and take care of it for the natural span of its life. This is the basis of being dutiful to Heaven and Earth and to your father and mother.
 
Should you lose your body, you are good for nothing. Further, to damage or destroy it thoughtlessly is the highest ingratitude. Indeed, to consider the gift of life as your possession alone and then to abuse it by overindulging in food, drink, sex, or in any other manner is to squander your health and invite disease to enter. To hasten your own demise so thoughtlessly demonstrates extreme ingratitude. It also suggests a fundamental ignorance.
 
Once born into the world, you can lead a long, happy, and enjoyable life if you are intently respectful of your father and mother and Heaven and Earth, and if you walk the path of morality and compliance with duty. Isn’t such a life what everyone truly desires?
 
If this is what you seek, you must first consider the above-mentioned new Way in which to look at life, learn the techniques of the Way of Nurturing Life discussed in these pages, and regulate your body well.
These are the very first rules in human life.
 
2
 
There is nothing more precious than the human body. Would you trade it for anything else under Heaven or within the Four Seas? To remain unaware of the techniques for taking care of it and arbitrarily give in to indulgences that would destroy it would be the height of stupidity.
 
Consider the relative importance of human life and of human desires. Every day, be careful with your health on that one day. If you fear the dangers of succumbing to selfish desires, the same way you fear walking on thin ice, you should live a long life and be able to avoid disaster.
 
Why shouldn’t you enjoy life? You should. But even with all the wealth under Heaven and within the Four Seas, it will do you no good if life is short. Indeed, you may pile up a mountain of treasures, but it will be of no use. Thus, there is no greater fortune than following the Way of Nurturing Life, taking care of your body, and living a long life. For this reason, a long life is considered to be the first of the Five Happinesses listed in the Book of Documents. It is, in fact, the very root of the Ten Thousand Happinesses.
 
3
 
In all things, if you are unendingly diligent, you will undoubtedly see an effect. For example, if you plant seeds in the spring and nurture the seedlings in the summer, surely there will be a large harvest in the fall.
Similarly, if you make an effort to increase your understanding of how to care for your health and continue to do so for some time, you will definitely see effects: your body will become stronger, you will be free of disease, you will not only maintain your natural lifespan but lengthen it, and you will enjoy your life. You should not doubt this principle.
 
4
 
A person who loves his garden will tend it day and night, watering the plants, laying down mulch, fertilizing the soil, and eliminating pests. When the garden flourishes he will rejoice. When it declines he will grieve. Compared to your body, your garden is a trivial matter. How can you not love your body as much as the grasses and trees in your garden?
 
When you tend to your body and practice principles for nurturing your health with diligence, you are being dutiful to your parents as well as to Heaven and Earth. You are fulfilling your obligations to them. If you would do this for the sake of providing yourself with a long, happy life, you must temporarily put aside work that is not pressing and learn these techniques from the time you are young. Being circumspect with your body and taking care of your life is the most important work you have as a human being.
 
5
 
The first principle of the Way of Nurturing Life is avoiding overexposure to things that can damage your body. These can be divided into two categories: inner desires and negative external influences.
 
INNER DESIRES encompass the desires for food, drink, sex, sleep, and excessive talking, as well as the desires of the seven emotions—joy, anger, anxiety, yearning, sorrow, fear, and astonishment.
 
THE NEGATIVE EXTENAL INFLUENCES comprise the four dispositions of Nature: wind, cold, heat, and humidity.
 
If you restrain the inner desires, they will diminish.
 
If you are aware of the negative external influences and their effects, you can keep them at bay.
 
Following both of these rules of thumb, you will avoid damaging your health, be free from disease, and be able to maintain and even increase your natural lifespan.
 
6
 
Controlling your inner desires is the foundation of the Way of Nurturing Life. If you build a solid foundation, your natural strength will increase and you will be able to hold off negative exterior influences. If you are not circumspect with your inner desires and your health weakens, you will be easily worn down by the negative external influences, which could result in a serious illness and a shortening of your life.
 
·         By and large, the stipulations for controlling your inner desires include the following:
·         You should eat and drink moderately, D You should eat and drink moderately, avoiding excess.
·         You should not eat food that might possibly damage your stomach and intestines, thus making you sick.
·         You should be careful with sexual desire, valuing your essential energy.
·         You should caution yourself about sleeping for long periods of time; you should not lie down at inappropriate times.
·         You should not sit at ease for long periods.
·         From time to time you should move your body and circulate your ch’i. Especially after eating, you should take a walk of several hundred steps. If you sit leisurely for a long time, sit still after a meal, or quickly lie down to sleep before digesting your food, you will become stopped up inside and bring on disease. If you persist in any of these forms of inaction for a lengthy period of time, you will be unable to generate your own fundamental ch’i and you will become weak.
·         You should always be unwilling to diminish your health. Be sparing with your words and be moderate with the seven emotions, doing your best to diminish the emotions of anger, sorrow, anxiety, and yearning.
·         If you are moderate in your desires, keep your mind level, keep your ch’i gentle and without violence, and remain quiet and unflustered, then your mind should always be at peace and harmonious. Neither will you be troubled or distressed.
 
These are the techniques for moderating your inner emotions and nurturing your fundamental health. They are all components of the Way of Nurturing Life and are discussed in further detail in other entries.
In addition, you should constantly protect yourself from the negative external influences of wind, cold, heat, and humidity.
 
Taking care of yourself revolves largely around being careful with both the interior and exterior.
 
Observe these points with great care.
 
7
 
Almost everyone is gifted with a long natural lifespan at birth. Those given a short lifespan are rare. Nevertheless, there are many people who, although healthy by nature and strong of body, are ignorant of the techniques of nurturing their health. Morning and night such people damage their fundamental health. Morning and night they unknowingly decrease their essential energy. The end result is that they depart this world early.
 
On the other hand, there are others who, despite being born with weak constitutions and prone to disease, learn to be circumspect and careful precisely because of their misfortune. Their awareness leads to a preservation of health and long life.
 
You can see these two types of people all around you and so should harbor no doubts about what I am saying.
 
Overindulging in your desires and damaging your body is the same as taking up a sword and killing yourself. One happens quickly while the other happens in increments, but the results are the same.
 
8
 
Lao Tzu noted that “a person’s life lies within, not with Heaven.”
 
Whether your life is long or short depends upon how your mind will have it. Even people born with strong bodies and the potential for a long life will die young should they neglect to cultivate techniques for taking care of themselves. And those who are born at a disadvantage, with a weak body and a potentially stunted lifespan, can live long lives if they take care of themselves.
 
In other words, the fate of our health, and thus our lifespan, lies in our hands, not Heaven’s. At birth, Nature deals out exceedingly short lifespans to only a few people. Men like Yen Tzu are the exception.
 
There are principles by which you may extend your life. If one stokes the embers of a fire buried in the hearth, they will remain alive for a long time. Expose those embers to wind and they will soon die. In the same way, if you expose a tangerine to the elements, it will not last the year; but if you store it carefully and watch it well, it may be kept for a longer period than you might expect.
 
10
 
Your fundamental health is, in its origin, the ch’i that gives birth to all the Ten Thousand Things in Heaven and Earth. If you do not have this ch’i, you will not be born. After you are born, you are aided by such external elements as food and drink, clothing and shelter. Thus, your fundamental health is provided for and your life stays on a steady course.
 
If you use external elements such as food and drink—which are to nourish your fundamental health—lightly, and do not eat or drink to excess, they will nourish your fundamental health, maintain your natural lifespan, and even lengthen your life. But if you use these elements to excess, your health will deteriorate and you will become sick. If you become seriously ill and exhaust your fundamental health, you will die. In the same way, if you give grasses and trees in your garden too much water or fertilizer, they will lose their vitality and wither away.
 
Thus, you should seek pleasure in your mind alone, and use external nourishment like food and drink lightly.
 
11
 
When taking care of your health, it is best to first nourish your mind and ch’i. The essentials of this are as follows:
 
·         Suppress anger and desire.
·         Diminish grief and yearning.
·         Neither trouble your mind nor damage your ch’i.
·         Do not take excessive pleasure in sleep. If you sleep for long periods of time, your ch’i will stagnate and not circulate well.
·         Do not go to bed before digesting what you have eaten and drunk. To do so stifles your breathing and is injurious to your health. Please guard against this.
·         With alcoholic beverages, it is acceptable to become lightly drunk, but you should stop halfway. Avoid complete drunkenness.
·         With food, stop halfway to satiety, as it is not good to be completely full.
·         Establish limits with both food and drink and do not go beyond moderation.
·         Be circumspect with sexual desire from the time you are young. You must not be wasteful of your essential energy. If you use too much of this essential energy, your subordinate ch’i will be weakened, you will eradicate the very root of your fundamental health, and your life will surely be shortened.
 
If you cannot be circumspect with your food, drink, and sexual desire, you might end up using restorative medicines every day and supplementing your diet, but such efforts are likely to be of no use.
 
There are other actions or precautions to be taken:
 
·         You should watch out for exposure to and guard against the negative external influences of wind, cold, heat, and humidity.
·         Be moderate and prudent about conduct that requires standing for a long time. Move your body and take walks after eating.
·         Follow the Taoist health practices of stretching the joints and massaging the skin from time to time.
·         Stroke your hips and belly.
·         Exercise your hands and feet and thus circulate invigorated blood.
·         Allow your food to be digested before taking a nap or retiring for the night.
·         Never sit in one place for a long time.
 
All of these are very important for good health
.
Success lies in safeguarding your health when you are not sick. Using medicine once you have become ill and attacking that illness with such treatments as acupuncture and moxa cautery are fallback measures and low on the scale of useful techniques for attending to your health.
 
You must make great efforts in regard to these matters.

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