Sunday, October 21, 2007

The 9th Dharma Session of Middle Way Buddhist Association: The Spiritual and Medical Benefits of Prostration, the Buddhist Nexus

We usually cover our car journey from our home to the usual venue of the monthly Dharma session of Middle Way Buddhist Association at Pinellas Park on the other side of the Tampa Bay in less than 35 minutes. Our usual route is by way of I-275, which can be notoriously jam-packed on weekdays, or on certain weekends when the Bucs, and lately the Bulls of USF, are playing their home games. Yesterday was not a game day, but then again we have not taken this route in the afternoon before as the Dharma sessions are held in the morning of a saturday.

But to accommodate the schedule of the speaker of the 9th Dharma session held yesterday, the time was changed to 2pm. We left home at 1.15pm, and were 15 minutes late. That was even after we had decided to take a detour through SR60 via Courtney Campbell Bridge to the north to cross the Bay and then turned south along US19 to Pinellas Park after we were caught in a snail crawl just coming into the Tampa downtown portion of I-275. We wasted some minutes in “just going along” with the optimistic frame of mind that perhaps the backup was from traffic going to the Veteran Expressway and not the I-275 bridge over the Bay. We knew our optimism was misplaced when the exit lane at the turnoff to Veteran Expressway was empty.

So we joined the session while the attendees were in the middle of meditation, most seated on the floor carpet while some on chairs. I took my seat at the back, my usual position, and plunged into deep concentration, or at least attempted to. The usual spectrum of noises came up, and waned, accompanied by the usual allotment of extraneous thoughts that the noises engender. But I remained motionless, save for some occasional shaking which I knowingly corrected, or arrested, my awareness at work. Soon I heard the familiar chime of a bell, a cue to awaken to another reality, complete with sight and sound. And that would be the talk on Traditional Chinese Medicine by Dr. Peter Chang, a National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM)-certified diplomat in both Acupuncture and Chinese Herbology currently based in Orlando.

This may seem as a departure from the usual theme of the Dharma sessions that revolve around the wisdom of Buddhism, but as is soon obvious from the Dr. Chang's delivery, the link is unmistakable, even though Traditional Chinese Medicine can be embraced in its own right as “a safe and effective alternative for [our] health” as the introductory leaflet on Dr. Chang's credentials recommends.

Entitled “Harmony Chinese Medicine”, the leaflet states further that:

Oriental medicine consists of acupuncture, Chinese Herbology, bodywork (tui na) [similar to body massage in broad terms], nutritional therapy, moaxabustion [the more usual spelling is moxibustion, which is “the burning of moxa or other substances on the skin to treat diseases or to produce analgesia], gua sha ["an immediate form of domestic "first-aid" intervention" and "involves repeated pressured strokes over lubricated skin with a smooth edge", "commonly a ceramic Chinese soup spoon was used, or a well worn coin, even honed animal bones, water buffalo horn, or jade"], cupping, and exercise based on the principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Established as an energetic [I can't help but speculate whether "energestics" could have been a more apt description from a similar usage I'm familiar with in describing the movement of sediment grains in water in terms of flow energy] model, Oriental Medicine recognizes a vital energy behind all life forms. This energy, Qi, was discovered to flow along specific channels throughout the body knows as meridians. Each channel is associated and interacts with a particular physiological system and internal organ. A deficiency or imbalance of energy in the meridians is considered to be the cause of disease.

In the above, I have taken the liberty to look up some terms and reproduced the brief explanations from these cited sources. These are not alien topics to me, having come from Malaysia, a typical Far East locale where Chinese medicine was brought in together with the influx of Chinese immigrants into the country a century ago. While personally I have not undergone such medical treatment (however, I could only vouch for that as far back as my memory permits, which is my childhood days), but I have seen it applied to my own brother when we were young.

Dr. Chang started by citing some of the common physical afflictions resulting from car accidents, sports injuries and physical mishaps such as falling, and job-related ailments. Neck pain, whiplash, back pain readily come to mind while we are all too familiar with stiff neck (zero range motion), numb arms, pinched nerves from a sedentary job. So what better way to start the session than to look at our spinal structure and the uniqueness of each of its components in relation to its link to different internal organs through nerve connections.

Sister Lily handing out pencils for us to jot notes, back to the school days.

Dr. Chang then proceeded to enumerate the type of nerve connection to each vertebra of our vertebral column, aka spine, sub-divided into different sections as illustrated in the image below combined from the two handouts distributed during the session. Instead of putting these details in the handouts, Dr. Chang had opted for oral explanations, correctly rationalizing that active participation from the attendees, in this case listening, inquiring, and jotting down with understanding, would have served us better. And it did, as evident from my list here, complemented by the clarifications sought by fellow attendees and my own post-session Internet sleuthing:

Our vertebral column, front and sectional views (note that the Sacrum consists of five vertebrae fused into one, and the Coccyx is perhaps better known by its layman counterpart, the tail bone).

Cervical Section:
C1: development of eyes and ears
C2, C3: blood circulation to the brain
C4, C5: diaphragm, eyes, ears, nose
C5, C6: throat, thyroid, hand, heart
C7: heart and hand

Thoracic Section:
T1, T2: trachea [think asthma], heart, wrist
T3: lungs, heart [important for skeletal and muscles development in teens]
T4: lungs, liver
T5: lungs, eyes, stomach
T6: diaphragm, ribs, stomach
T7: kidney function, diaphragm
T8: diaphragm, pancreas, liver
T9: liver, pancreas, spleen
T10: kidney
T11: gastro-intestinal tract, uterus [women take heed]
T12: large intestine

L1, L2: urinary bladder, intestine, liver
L3: lower legs, reproductive system
L4: lower extremities, lower legs, large intestine, bowel movement
L5: urinary bladder, lower extremities, prostate [men take heed]

Sacrum (five vertebrae fused into one):
S1: urinary bladder, lower extremities
S2: reproductive organs
S3: reproductive organs, anus
S4, S5: anus, urinary bladder.

There you have it. I'm sure there would be omissions and would appreciate any feedback.

Dr. Chang also touched briefly on the various points of the back as per a third handout (not shown, perhaps with anticipation for a thorough scrutiny in a follow-up session) with special mention of the Yamen (literally translated as the mute gate) point located just below C1, a point when correctly pricked can make a mute talk, but with the risk of bodily paralysis when incorrectly administered. Therefore, acupuncturists never take risks with this particular point for risk of losing certification.

Next to follow was the bending exercise, executed slowly from the head all the way to the lower back, working on each vertebra and its nerve connection from C1 to L5, and then backing up. This is done by visualizing each of the vertebra and reciting each one in turn as the bending proceeds and reversing the order while backing up. In this way, it's as if we are working on all our organs in one pass. The recommended number of repetitions is 5 – 10, any time, any place, the stretching exercise that promotes blood circulation imparting the benefits of “paying nothing and getting everything” as per the living motto of Dr. Chang.
Dr. Peter Chang demonstrating the traditional Buddhist hand gesture.

In Buddhism, the bending exercise forms part of the prostration ritual, one that is aimed at purifying the body, the mouth, and the mind. However, the prostration, just like the bending exercise, can be denomination-neutral in the sense that it could be done in paying homage to any spiritual guide that one is in tune to.

While the movement is best learned visually, I will attempt to verbalize the salient points here:

1) Joining palms, legs spread slightly, and head, spine and legs forming a vertical line.
2) Bending the neck, counting C1 – C7.
3) Bending the back, counting T1 – L5, loosening the whole arms, resting comfortably by the sides.
4) Bending the knees, hands reaching down to rest on the ground, palms faced down.
5) Flattening the feet, the hip sitting on the heels.
6) Lowering the head to touch the ground, palms slightly extended beyond the forehead and turning them face up.
7) Turning the palms face down, proceeding to back up by first letting the toes touching the ground.
8) Pulling the hands back just next to the forehead, raising the bent head/back and the knees.
9) Continuing to straighten the back, and then the neck, palms joined.
10) Repeat as needed.

A word of advice from Dr. Chang: back up with both knees together, not favoring the left or the right in the process. This would make the more difficult movement of backing up easier.

Now that we have learned the basic steps, it's up to us to practice at home, or at work, or anytime and anywhere where conditions permit, to master the movement such that it becomes second nature, and for those of us who are Buddhists at heart, a spontaneous manifestation of our awakening, conscious to the elevation of self introspection.

Back at home, wify showed me a Chinese Buddhist book, entitled Prostration and Medical Study in translation, that details the intimate link between prostration and medical benefits. Published by Kaoshiong Pure Land Buddhist Association (2002) and edited by Venerable Master Dao Zheng, the book details the underlying fundamentals of prostration as an avenue to conditioning our body and mind by infusing humility and to safeguarding our body and mind against stiffness and stress by imbibing compassion and forbearance.

The book cover, with English translation of the passage thereon.

The best feature of the book is undoubtedly the many pictorial illustrations of the Dos and Don'ts of the prostration, including an in-depth examination of the physiological merits of each sub-movement, and the Buddhist wisdom embodied in each.

A scanned page from the book, in black and white, of part of the prostration.

For example, both hands and knees in synchronized motion (another major sequence is adopted in India where the right side is considered the right way, hence right hand/knee first in that order, according to the book), both sides touching the ground at the same time, symbolize equal support for concentration (left) and wisdom (right), and equal application of kindness (left) and compassion (right).

Whichever noble spiritual underpinning that we subscribe to, let's practice the bending exercise and prostration as the fusion of Buddhist teachings and scientific principles of human anatomy, physiology, and physics.


Anonymous said...

Hi there! I am trying to find Dr. Peter Chang's contact information to refer a client to from NC to FL. I am an Acupuncturist. Can you email me his information at THANKYOU!!! WW

Anonymous said...

Where I can get this book??? ask please to
thank you very much!

Say Lee said...

Sorry for the late response. Most Chinese books on Buddhism are normally circulated free at Buddhist temples. At times, one can send request to main buddhist centers here in US or Taiwan. However, unless you read Chinese, I'm not sure whether there is an English translation.