Eastern and Western cultures evolved from radically different assumptions regarding the basic elements of reality. This polarity affects every aspect of their respective civilizations including medicine. Two books that bring these contrasts into sharp focus are Manfred Porkert's "Chinese Medicine" and Deepak Chopra's "Return of the Rishi." Both authors are physicians and display a laudable erudition about matters beyond medicine.
Porkert's book, written in collaboration with Christian Ullmann, is an English translation of a German work that has converted ancient Chinese medical terms into a Latinate scientific lexicon. This ambitious project is a bridge too far. The book demands that the reader embark on an intellectually strenuous hegira that slogs through four different languages while winding its way through disconnected historical eras. Lacking the rigor of the scientific method, the Chinese system resists easy explanation, leaving the reader with the impression that even intense scrutiny cannot explain its mysteries. Nevertheless, the authors present a prodigious amount of information that would be worthwhile to anyone interested in understanding the basis of Oriental medicine.
The book highlights two different views concerning what exactly constitutes a being. The West sees an individual primarily as a biological machine consisting of anatomical parts that support a conscious "I." Disease occurs whenever a part malfunctions. Western medicine attempts to identify and correct this malfunction either through the use of drugs or surgery. Because this is essentially a reductive process, Occidental doctors have difficulty seeing the whole from the parts.
Traditional Chinese medicine posits that a being is not an object but is rather a constellation of energy patterns called "chi." Health is the condition of harmony between these forces and disease occurs whenever there is an imbalance. The aim of the Asian practitioner is to identify which force is out of synchronism and then bring about its realignment. Treatment consists of altering the flow of energy sometimes using only diet, purgatives and exercise. A more dramatic modality used to change the direction of flow is acupuncture. The final goal of any therapy is to restore a harmonious balance.
Since traditional Chinese doctors do not obtain blood, sputum, or tissue samples, there can be no verification of a diagnosis. Therefore, one can never be sure if a particular treatment plan has cured tuberculosis or a psychosomatic illness. This major flaw notwithstanding, Chinese medicine is a synthetic/intuitive system that is complementary to the West's analytic/rational one. Elements of both systems are necessary in order for any physician to practice good medicine.
The second book, "Return of the Rishi," is quite different. Unlike Porkert's work, which has a textbook quality about it, Chopra employs a narrative style to recount his pilgrimage, beginning with his childhood in India and ending in the medical mecca of the West, Boston. In a charming series of personal anecdotes, Chopra tells of his early total faith in Occidental medicine. However, when he reaches the pinnacle of success as a practicing endocrinologist here in the United States, his disenchantment begins. Casting about, he reaches back to his roots and rediscovers ayurvedic (Hindu) medicine. It is similar to Chinese medicine in that the practitioner arrives at a diagnosis principally by feeling the patient's radial pulse. However, in ayurvedic tradition, the emphasis of treatment is more upon herbs and diet, with less dependence on acupuncture. Unfortunately, while Chopra wants to raise the status of ayurvedic medicine in this country, he is vague about the details of this system. While he points out the poignant failures of high-tech, modern health care, he doesn't develop a convincing argument for its alternative.
The other theme of this very personal book is his account of his search for a guru to guide him on the path toward enlightenment. After he becomes an advocate for ayurveda, he meets and is profoundly influenced by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of Transcendental Meditation. The latter half of this book extols the virtues of TM, Chopra's enthusiasm for this one route to bliss leads him to such extravagant statements as, "The only truly happy people I have ever met are transcendental meditators." This kind of zealous endorsement weakens Chopra's principal message for the West, which is: Meditation is an important discipline that promotes health, reduces stress and centers individuals. Westerners will have to forgo their strict insistence on scientific proof because, as Hamlet tells Horatio, "There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy." The leitmotif of Chopra's book is a theme that resonates in quantum physics, present telecommunications and modern philosophy.
The differences between Eastern and Western systems of thought bear a striking resemblance to the contrapuntal functions of the right and left halves of a single brain; Eastern Yin is to the right as Western Yang is to the left. Both of these rich cultures have profound truths. It behooves all of us to attempt to meld these two hemispheric ways of being. The result will be a more conscious world consisting of more integrated individuals. Both of these books strive to achieve this goal.