The Song of Preventing Diseases in the Four Seasons
From the Zun Sheng Ba Jian, by Gao Lian (Ming Dynasty)
Commentary by Dr. Henry McCann
Chūn xū míng mù mù fú gān, xià zhì kē xīn huǒ zì xián
Qiū sì dìng shōu jīn fèi rùn , shèn chuī wéi yào kǎn zhōng ān
Sān jiāo xī què chú fán rè, sì jì cháng hū pí huà cān
Qiè jì chū shēng wén kǒu ěr, qí gōng yóu shèng bǎo shén dān
In spring, Xu brightens the eyes and supports Liver-Wood,
When summer is reached Ke lets one avoid Heart Fire,
In autumn, Si secures Metal’s harvest to moisten Lung,
Kidney’s Chui verily brings peace to the center of Kan,
For the San Jiao having said Xi eliminates heat vexation,
And in all seasons constantly utter Hu and the Spleen can transform food.
Do not utter sound that the ears can hear,
And this Gong will be outstanding to guard the Spirit Medicine.
The Six Sounds for Nourishing Life (六字決養生功) is a traditional exercise with a very long history of use in China. The exercise is based on uttering six different sounds, each of which is associated with one of the Five Viscera, with an additional sound for the San Jiao. The exercise of exhaling these sounds is said to have a regulatory effect on their corresponding viscera and channel. The first real version of the Six Sounds comes from Sun Si Miao’s Qian Jin Yao Fang Ch.27, the Longevity Methods of Master Daolin (道林), and the same method appears in the Dao Zang in DZ1427 Taiqing Daolin Shesheng Lun (Great Clarity Discourse on Protecting Life by Master Daolin). However, these early versions of the Six Sounds did not yet include the San Jiao. The first model that includes San Jiao is also found in the Dao Zang, in DZ818 Taiqing Daoyin Yangsheng Jing (Great Clarity Scripture of Daoyin and Nourishing Life).
The poem translated here is recorded in the Zun Sheng Ba Jian (Eight Treatises on Following the Principles of Life), a text on the Nourishing Life tradition written by Gao Lian in the Ming Dynasty. Here Gao associates the Six Sounds exercise with the movement of the seasons based on Five Phase associations.
“In spring, Xu brightens the eyes and supports Liver-Wood”
Spring is the season of the Wood Phase and thus associated with the Liver and other correlates of Wood – eyes, sinews, etc… Practicing exercises in conjunction with exhaling the “Xu” sound regulates Liver and the correlates of Liver, hence the line says “brightens the eyes.” We can also use this sound for other problems of Liver, for example Yang ascending leading to headaches. Here the poem only gives us the sound, but various lineages of practice have added in other postures, either static or moving, to accentuate the sound’s ability to effectively regulate Liver.
“When summer is reached Ke lets one avoid Heart-Fire”
The character for the Heart sound is usually pronounced “He,” but an alternate reading of the character is “Ke.” In the lineage of the Six Sounds I practice, a lineage that comes through Hu Yaozhen, we use the sound “Ke” so that is how I have rendered the character into Pinyin Romanization for this translation. The Heart sound is said to regulate and settle the Heart, and can be used as well to clear Heart fire. Thus it can treat conditions such as insomnia, agitation, anxiety, et. al.
“In autumn, Si secures Metal’s harvest to moisten Lung”
In the Huang Di Nei Jing the movement of the four seasons is described repeatedly as the movement of birth, growth, harvest and storage. Thus the phrase “Spring brings birth, summer grows, autumn harvest and winter stores” (春生夏長秋收冬藏) is seen in the Ling Shu. Here the sound of the Lung, “Si,” secures the Metal phase’s ability to move Qi into harvest, the movement of autumn. When the body can appropriately store, and the Lungs can appropriately store, then the Lungs are able to hold onto moisture to counteract the drying nature of autumn.
“Kidney’s Chui verily will bring peace to the center of Kan”
“Chui” is the sound of the Kidney, and while not explicitly mentioned in this line it is thus the sound for winter. The Kidney, as the water viscera, is associated with the water trigram – Kan 坎. This trigram is composed of 2 yin/broken lines on the outside with one yang/solid line on the inside. The image of Kan then is the yin of water, which holds and stores the true yang of the body; this is the yang of the Ming Men, that which is also called the Dragon in the Water. One of the key practices in Neigong is the movement of Qi down to be stored and secured in the Dan Tian, the Elixir Field. This is the same as bringing the upright yang down to be secured in the Kidney root. Doing so consolidates both Qi and Essence, and the importance of this cannot be understated. Hence the text here states that the Kidney sound brings peace to the center of Kan – thus it sinks Qi to the Dan Tian or Lower Jiao to secure the Essence. Sinking and securing the Qi is also the very image of Kidney and the Water phase, which, as mentioned in the previous line, has the function of storage.
“For the San Jiao having said Xi eliminates heat vexation”
The San Jiao is closely related, from the time of the Nanjing onwards, with the dissemination of Source Qi and Yang of the Kidney throughout the body. Thus, it is linked as well with the Ming Men Fire. Because of this, the San Jiao is associated with Fire. When normally functioning the San Jiao allows for the dissemination of Qi through the body. Also, when functioning properly, the San Jiao assists the Kidney in the consolidation of Qi in the Dan Tian. Thus, one of the pathologies of San Jiao is repletion heat that frequently rises up into the head; this can arise from damage due to the Seven Affects, or can arise from external contraction. Repletion heat manifests as vexation or agitation, hence the statement above. However, it does not only lead to vexation, but can also cause tinnitus, ear inflammation, red or swollen throat, headache, or even bleeding patterns. When we read these lines the specific complaints are just single examples of patterns that arise from the related viscera (or in this case bowel). In actual practice the single complaint is a stand in for the multitude of problems that can be associated with the diseased organ. This needs to be kept in mind.
“And in all seasons constantly utter Hu and the Spleen can transform food”
Spleen-Earth is the latter heaven source of Qi and Blood, and movement and transformation are the functions of the Spleen. There are two ways of looking at the season for Spleen. One is that the Spleen, as the Earth viscera, is associated with late summer. However, this way of looking at Earth is tied more to a rigid application of Five Phase theory and is not as useful in actual clinical practice. In the He River diagram Earth is represented by the number 5, which is placed in the center of the arrangement (see diagram). Earth is the movement of transformation that allows the birth, growth, harvest and storage to continuously move, and therefore it is active in all seasons. The 29th chapter of the Su Wen says that the Spleen as the Earth phase “governs the center. Throughout the four seasons it tends the four [other] viscera. In each of the seasons it is entrusted with government for 18 days [at the end of the season as the transformation/transition]. It cannot govern one season by itself.” The Spleen Earth is therefore active in all seasons, and thus this song says, “in all seasons constantly utter Hu.”
“Do not utter sound that the ears can hear”
This line is a reference to how we practice the Six Sounds. Most variations on how the sounds are practiced are of two types: first is that the sounds are said aloud, as if sung with the voice, and the second is that the sounds are exhaled using the proper mouth position but without engaging the vocal cords, like a whisper. This passage could perhaps be read that the latter, i.e., practicing without engaging the vocal cords, is the proper method. Yet, this is not the case. Most beginners, and for that matter intermediate and advanced practitioners, should practice emitting the sound during practice, and either singing the sound or whispering the sound is appropriate. For the most inexperienced beginner, singing is best since it will more fully engage the practitioner’s attention on the sound. The real meaning of this line though is a glimpse into the highest level of practice – leading Qi using mind-intent only. In Chinese we say 意到氣到 – mind-intent (Yi) leads and the Qi arrives. The practitioner who is at the highest ability can lead Qi using intent only, so just thinking of the sound and visualizing the organ and channel alone (as in a type of meditation) will be effective. This level takes time but practitioners can aspire to this goal. Here the passage tells us about the level to which we should aspire, knowing however that in the mean time we practice by actually making the sound.
“And this Gong will be outstanding to guard the Spirit Medicine.”
The word Gong 功 is the same as in Neigong 內功, Qigong 氣功, or Gongfu 功夫 (Kung Fu), and it means some sort of work or achievement that takes time to accomplish. In other words, this line tells us we have to practice the technique for it to work. When I teach my Neigong/Qigong classes, often students tell me they have a hard time concentrating or hard time feeling the movement of Qi internally. They’re often surprised when I tell them I have the same problem! My Shifu says that 3 years gets one a small achievement only, 6 years to a medium one, and 9 years until there is a stable result. My own level of practice is just a small fraction of my teachers’ and grand-teachers’; in modern times we are just so busy that intensive practice is really difficult. So, we move slowly, and that’s fine. But we need to realize it will take time, and that we have to practice with patience and persistence.
The second part of this line mentions the Spirit Medicine. The word Spirit 神 means something important, something precious, something transcendent. In the medical classics Spirit can mean consciousness, or can even mean the finest type of upright or source Qi. The word Medicine is what I have used to translate Dan 丹. Dan means pellet, as a type of medicine that is very special because it is composed of many ingredients and produced over a long period of time, often following a ritual procedure. Some of the best modern examples of Dan are the Precious Pills of the Tibetan medical tradition. Dan also means cinnabar, but this cinnabar is not the actual mineral cinnabar but rather the cinnabar of Daoist Internal Alchemy. Dan is also the same word as in Dan Tian 丹田, the Cinnabar Field, the areas of meditative concentration in Neigong and Alchemy. Together, Shen Dan, Spirit Medicine, is the same as what the alchemists call the Great Medicine, Da Yao 大藥. Contemplative practices are medicine for both the physical body as well as the Spirit. The practice of Spiritual cultivation in the Daoist sense starts with healing and strengthening the physical body, then cultivating longevity, and lastly cultivating spiritual transcendence. Neigong or Neidan practices are the highest form of medicine, and exercises as simple as the Six Sounds are a foundation in what can become the Spirit Medicine.