The Purpose of our Practice - Sun Ssu-Miao, Maimonides, and Practitioners of Chinese Medicine

By Chad Dupuis
Tagged in Lifestyle and Basics

As practitioners of Chinese Medicine we know that we are offering something unique. Day after day we see patients heal with help from the tools offered by our medicine. Often these patients have failed to respond to any other treatment - traditional or “alternative.” The techniques and knowledge we share are drawn from the collective wisdom accumulated by generations of practitioners. A wisdow that has also been tested by generations of patients. As practitioners, we are simply conduits of this information perhaps adding our own jewels from time to time.

While we certainly do not heal every case, some cases are remarkably fast and others take longer (many times at odds with our expectations), we have the capacity to always offer benefit to our patients. Not many forms of medicine can truly say this. It is a wonderful medicine to practice, to study, and to offer to our respective communities.

Our Purpose

Even with all of this inherent beauty of technique and whole person attention our understanding of the purpose of our practice is often cloudy. We all know that being a Chinese Medicine practitioner most often means much more than simply practicing medicine. You have to be an educator, a business person, a student, a counselor, often a legislator, a leader and an example, and more. Being a “practitioner” of Chinese Medicine in the west particularly is no simple feat. This is both incredibly stimulating and exciting but also a difficult skill set to live completely. We are in many ways, whether we like it or not, leaders of what is and will more so come to be a strong part of the future of medicine. Yet we are often avoided and even barred from full participation in our western systems of medicine. This will, of course, all change as time rolls on - but for now it is a intriguing position to be in.

For westerners, practitioners, students and patients alike, we are still learning and integrating this “new” medicine. We are limited to varying degrees by our own language, conditioning, cultural training, and time to hone and develop our skills - both technical and personal. While we certainly have our work cut out for us, I wouldn’t change my “career” for anything... It is truly a wonderful time to be learning so many deeply beneficial theories and tools to share with our patients and colleagues.

While the vast majority of us are strongly driven by the happiness we derive from helping our patients we can also draw motivation from leaders of medicine who have faced similar challenges in the past.  There words help to convey the magnitude of our task and the proper focus required to help our patients.  For this article I wanted to touch on two people who are inspirational to me - Sun Ssu-Miao and Maimonides.

Sun Ssu-Miao (~581-682 AD)

Sun Ssu-Miao is familiar to many practitioners of Chinese Medicine. He was a famous and influential practitioner during the early part of the Tang Dynasty ~600BC. We have many writings from Sun Ssu-Miao regarding herbal medicine particularly and all other aspects of Chinese Medicine. Personally I find his writings about the qualities and proper motivations that practitioners must develop both challenging and incredibly inspiring (much like our medicine generally). To convey his wisdom best I will let him speak....


...physicians should not rely on their own excellence, neither should they strive with their whole heart for material goods. On the contrary, they should develop an attitude of good will. If they move on the right path, concealed from the eyes of their contemporaries, they will receive great happiness as a reward without asking for it. The wealth of others should not be the reason to prescribe precious and expensive drugs, and thus make the access to help more difficult and underscore one's own merits and abilities. Such conduct has to be regarded as contrary to the teaching of magnanimity. The object is help. Therefore, I enter into all the problems in such detail here. Who ever studies medicine should not consider these problems insignificant!...


Arguably ahead of his time he cautions tendencies (often strong within our western minds) to “treat” conditions externally with herbal medicines (“drugs”) so easily. His words about looking at our activities and diet first (the things we personally have control over) and then doing more if necessary are very important, in my opinion, for all of us to remember...


...those who practice medicine must first recognize the origin of an illness; they must know which violations have caused the suffering. Then they must treat it with dietary means. If dietary therapy does not cure the illness, only then can they employ drugs. The nature of drugs is violent, just like that of the imperial soldiers. Because the soldiers are so wild, how could anybody deploy them recklessly? If they are deployed inappropriately, harm and destruction will result everywhere. Similarly, excessive calamities are the consequence if drugs are thrown against illnesses carelessly....

As practitioners, then, our motivation must be the health of our patients. To do this properly we need to closely scrutinize both our lives and the lives of those in our society and care. This is because the primary causes of illness are "our lives" - not external threats, chemical factories, the economy, etc. Those things may not help but it is our day to day medicine (our food) and our day to day activities that have the most control. As practitioners we have the responsibility to explore these facets which will benefit ourselves, but more importantly our patients.

As you understand more of what is driving illness, compassion arises driving the motivation to help others without regard for fame, wealth, acceptance, etc. Exactly what Sun Ssu-Miao motivates us to do.

Moses Maimonides (1135-1204 AD)

Now onto someone likely unfamiliar to many practitioners of Chinese Medicine but very motivational nonetheless. Moses Maimonides is a highly regarded Jewish philosopher and physician. While I am far from knowing much about Maimonides myself or about many of his philosophical views and Torah scholarship - I have been personally motivated by the little I have read of his work. Early “western” medical theories have always intrigued me as a practitioner of Chinese Medicine as there are many similarities in theory and views (and, of course, many divergences).

A particular writing of Maimonides that inspires me comes from the “Prayer of Maimonides” - his personal prayer to provide inspiration, guidance and motivation within his work. Again, I will simply let him speak....


...inspire me with love for my art and for Thy creatures. Do not allow thirst for profit, ambition for renown and admiration, to interfere with my profession, for these are the enemies of truth and of love for mankind and they can lead astray in the great task of attending to the welfare of Thy creatures. Preserve the strength of my body and of my soul that they ever be ready to cheerfully help and support rich and poor, good and bad, enemy as well as friend. In the sufferer let me see only the human being. Illumine my mind that it recognize what presents itself and that it may comprehend what is absent or hidden. Let it not fail to see what is visible, but do not permit it to arrogate to itself the power to see what cannot be seen, for delicate and indefinite are the bounds of the great art of caring for the lives and health of Thy creatures. Let me never be absent-minded. May no strange thoughts divert my attention at the bedside of the sick, or disturb my mind in its silent labors, for great and sacred are the thoughtful deliberations required to preserve the lives and health of Thy creatures...



...should those who are wiser than I wish to improve and instruct me, let my soul gratefully follow their guidance; for vast is the extent of our art. Should conceited fools, however, censure me, then let love for my profession steel me against them, so that I remain steadfast without regard for age, for reputation, or for honor, because surrender would bring to Thy creatures sickness and death...


...imbue my soul with gentleness and calmness when older colleagues, proud of their age, wish to displace me or to scorn me or disdainfully to teach me. May even this be of advantage to me, for they know many things of which I am ignorant, but let not their arrogance give me pain. For they are old and old age is not master of the passions. I also hope to attain old age upon this earth, before Thee, Almighty God!
Let me be contented in everything except in the great science of my profession. Never allow the thought to arise in me that I have attained to sufficient knowledge, but vouchsafe to me the strength, the leisure and the ambition ever to extend my knowledge. For art is great, but the mind of man is ever expanding ... ... Almighty God! Thou hast chosen me in Thy mercy to watch over the life and death of Thy creatures. I now apply myself to my profession. Support me in this great task so that it may benefit mankind, for without Thy help not even the least thing will succeed...


My primary teacher, Master Tom Tam, told me often to never stop advancing, never stop learning. While it is difficult at times to remain a student yet convey and display the “mastery” required as a practitioner, it is crucial to do this nonetheless. Never stop...

As practitioners we are not in competition with anyone or any form of medicine we are simply here to help others. Our only competition is really with ourselves - our own ego, false confidence, and often petty personal tribulations.  These motivations inspire us to focus on our calling - keeping our true purpose in mind we can freely perform our work from day to day free of irrelevant concerns and worries. Challenging, yes, but these motivational thoughts inspire us towards something larger and ultimately far more worthwhile than anything we could imagine for our individual lives.

In our own way we are responsible for the lives of our communities.  While this is a serious responsibility, properly viewed it is an intensely motivational and driving force moving us to develop and share our skills and knowledge.  What a profession...

The Purpose of our Practice - Sun Ssu-Miao, Maimonides, and Practitioners of Chinese Medicine

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Authored by: Chad Dupuis on 8 March 2011

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