Finding Words for the Mysterious: Contemporary Writings on the Divergent Channels A comparative review Nicholas Sieben
This article discusses the following writings:
The Divergent Channels: Jing Bie David Twicken (Publishers: Singing Dragon, London, 2014) Advanced Acupuncture: A Clinical Manual Ann Cecil-Sterman (Publishers: Classical Wellness Press, New York, 2012) The Channel Divergences: Deeper Pathways of the Web Miki Shima and Charles Chace (Publishers: Blue Poppy Press, Boulder, Colorado, 2001) Secondary Vessels of Acupuncture Royston Low (Publishers: Thorsons, Wellingborough, 1983) (currently out of print) Jeffrey Yuen: Transcripts of classes taught at the New England School of Acupuncture near Boston, 2000-03, can be ordered through the school.
(A Comparative Review by Nicholas Sieben, vol. 8 No. 2)
Amongst the ‘channel systems’ of acupuncture, the divergent channels remain the most mysterious. They are arguably the most underused and under-appreciated of all channel systems presented in what is considered the classic medical ‘bible’ of acupuncture: the Ling Shu (Spiritual Pivot). Despite their relative lack of popularity, many clinicians consider the divergent channels to be amongst the most powerful and clinically effective of all acupuncture channel systems.
Ann Cecil-Sterman, in her 2012 book Advanced Acupuncture: A Clinical Manual says the divergent channels are ‘key players’ in the treatment of chronic degenerative disease and autoimmune conditions. She claims to have experienced remarkable clinical results from the use of these channels. David Twicken also advocates the importance of using the divergent channels in his clinical practice. His recent book The Divergent Channels: Jing Bie also says the use of these acupuncture channels has ‘substantially increased clinical effectiveness’. Both Cecil-Sterman and Twicken begin discussion of the divergent channels with a passage from chapter 11 of the Ling Shu, emphasising their importance amongst the acupuncture channel systems: ‘Study these [divergent channels] first … the skilled pass right by them, while they are the very breath of the superior clinician.’
This statement, suggesting that the divergent channels are the most important of all acupuncture channel systems, while also being the least understood, makes for an intriguing topic. The challenge authors face when writing about the divergent channels is how to make them come to life in a way that is both philosophically intriguing as well as clinically concrete and useable. The problem for many authors comes from validating claims as to the role and function of the divergent channels. There is very little direct mention of these channels in classical literature. Only chapter 11 of the Ling Shu directly mentions the divergent channels. Authors must take passages from other chapters in the Nei Jing and create arguments as to how they indirectly address the divergent channels. This can lead to interesting debates. However very few authors have dared to take on the debate (and criticism) that writing about the divergent channels can bring. Even those who do address the divergent channels often focus solely on their own clinical findings, ignoring partially or altogether the problem of textual support for their claims within the medical classics.
The books by Cecil-Sterman and Twicken are worthy attempts to address a difficult subject. They present their own personal experience using the divergent channels clinically. However, both books do little in the way of illuminating the mysteries of the channels as presented in the Ling Shu.
The 2001 book by Miki Shima and Charles Chace, entitled The Channel Divergences: Deeper Pathways of the Web is more successful in grappling with the difficulties of the divergent channels, presenting debates surrounding the theoretical basis of these channels. Along with the currently out-of-print book Secondary Vessels of Acupuncture by Royston Low, these are two scholarly texts that best succeed in creating a sense of identity for the often overlooked divergent channels. They take on the difficulties inherent in the Ling Shu, without relying solely on personal clinical experience.
However, statements by Shima and Chace validate the efforts of Cecil-Sterman and Twicken, even elevating their methods as the proper way in which the divergent channels are to be explored. They believe that the mysterious and unclear way in which the authors of the Nei Jing presented the divergent channels suggests that these channels are best understood, not theoretically, but through interaction. It is through the experience of working with the divergent channels that their truth can be unlocked.
Shima and Chace cite modern philosopher Zhang Dong-sun who says that even the ultimate Chinese philosophical guide to life, the Dao De Jing, does not tell us explicitly what the terms ‘dao’ and ‘de’ mean, but ‘rather seeks to engage us and to provide guidance in how we ought to interact with phenomena, human and otherwise, that gives us context in the world’. This is a reason why, say Shima and Chace, the approach of Japanese divergent channel experts ‘has predominantly been to sidestep [the theoretical] completely and focus on therapy’. According to Shima and Chace, the style in which Cecil-Sterman and Twicken present their discussions of the divergent channels, as clinicians sharing their own clinical and cultivation experiences, is really the best way to go about it.
‘We are left with the realization that, in all likelihood, the authors of the [Nei Jing] were less concerned with imparting knowledge of what the channel system is than with how to interact with it’, say Shima and Chace. ‘The information in question cannot be understood from the standpoint of purely passive observation’. The mark of a successful discussion of the divergent channels can thus be measured by how much it inspires others to begin their own interactions with these channels. Does the text inspire interest in exploring the divergent channels? Does it inspire confidence and provide support for clinicians to get started with their own inquiries?
The teachings of Jeffery Yuen are the way I first learned about the divergent channels. He has a miraculous way of bringing Chinese medical theory to life, making the acupuncture channels into living, breathing entities. Yuen’s information is a combination of years of study, under the influence of his Daoist priest grandfather and an imperial medical herbalist who served the last emperor of China. Yuen, himself a Ling Shu priest, brings his vast knowledge of Chinese spiritual philosophy as well as a scholarly rigour to all of his teachings. Unfortunately, though, Yuen does not publish. There are, however, transcripts of classes he taught at the New England School of Acupuncture near Boston during 2000-03 which can be ordered through the school. One of these transcripts is devoted entirely to the divergent channels. Yuen’s teachings are for me always the standard by which I judge all other Chinese medical scholarly efforts.
The one difficulty many people have had with Yuen’s teachings however is how to apply them practically in the clinic. The book by Cecil-Sterman is obviously an attempt to meet this need, creating a step-by-step clinical manual, inspired by Yuen’s teachings. The difficulty with Cecil-Sterman’s book, however, is that it requires a background into the theoretical roots of the treatments, which can only be found in Yuen’s teachings.
Cecil-Sterman’s viewpoint on the divergent channels is predicated on something she calls the ‘disease nemesis theory’. Having studied with Yuen for many years myself, I know this is something he frequently talks about in relation to the divergent channels. Cecil- Sherman describes this theory as the tendency for the body ‘to create a slow-progressing disease or milder chronic disease in order to prevent a more serious one’. Unfortunately, she does not go into detail as to where this theory originated, which is a shame because it weakens her very intriguing argument. The origination of the ‘disease nemesis theory’ in name comes from controversial cancer specialist Sam Chachoua. Yuen, himself being a Chinese medical specialist in cancer care, is obviously aware of Chachoua’s work, borrowing the name of this theory to present his own, which he says is rooted in chapter 63 of the Su Wen (Simple Questions). Royston Low is in agreement with Yuen, also citing chapter 63 of the Su Wen as a chapter that details the role of the divergent channels.
The divergent channels are seen first and foremost by Cecil-Sterman and Yuen as vessels of ‘latency’. They are ‘collaterals’, whose role is to capture pathogenic factors that have overwhelmed the physiological defensive measures of the body, as represented by the sinew and primary channels. Unresolved pathogens are diverted into minor blood vessels in the case of the luo vessels, and into the joints via the divergent channels where they are kept relatively quiet and inactive. The ‘disease nemesis’ aspect of this theory is that the body, when it is holding on to a latent pathogen, will manifest symptoms less severe than if the pathogen was allowed to penetrate into the internal organs. The luo vessels and divergent channels act as safeguards to prevent this from occurring. The most common symptoms associated with the divergent channels, as suggested by chapter 63 of the Su Wen, are bi obstruction syndrome (pain), or wei atrophy (degeneration). According to Yuen and Cecil-Sterman, the symptoms discussed in chapter 63 of the Su Wen resemble those we have come to associate with many chronic degenerative diseases and auto-immune conditions.
Twicken takes a different approach to the divergent channels in his book. He acknowledges briefly that the divergent channels can hold on to latency, absorbing pathogenic factors from any area of the body. However, his main focus is to see the divergent channels as a type of support system for all other channel systems in the body.
Twicken bases his arguments on a passage from chapter 5 of the Ling Shu that states: ‘There are an extraordinary number of diseases in the separate (divergent) channels’. Twicken borrows this passage from the 1993 translation of the Ling Shu by Wu Ji-Nuan (published by University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu). He interprets this chapter as stating that the divergent channels connect to all areas and energetic levels of the body, and can therefore help all of the channel systems in the body in the treatment of pathology.
Like Yuen and Cecil-Sterman, Twicken describes the divergent channels as ditches that can absorb unresolved pathogens from other channel systems.
The area where Twicken’s claims broaden the discussion of the divergent channels comes in his suggestion that there is a dual nature to the divergent channels. They are capable of absorbing pathogens, acting as ditches, yet they also act as reservoirs that can feed and support the channel systems of the body when they are diseased.
Twicken’s approach to the divergent channels comes to resemble the Nan Jing’s description of the extraordinary vessels. Chapter 27 of the Nan Jing (Classic of Difficulties) says that the extraordinary vessels act as ‘ditches’ and ‘reservoirs’ for the primary channels and luo vessels. They both absorb unmanageable pathological excess from these channels as well as provide them with energy and resources when needed.
The relationship between the divergent channels and extraordinary vessels is an interesting topic. Unfortunately, Twicken barely scratches the surface of this and many other intriguing claims he makes in his book. He presents his ideas, yet fails to make connections. As the reader, I saw that Twicken was presenting ideas that have their root in both chapter 63 of the Su Wen, as well as chapter 27 of the Nan Jing: ideas that seemed to have come to him from Yuen or Shima and Chace. However, very few of Twicken’s theories are cited. Also, he makes no mention of the fact that his main textual source, chapter 5 of the Ling Shu, comes from a passage translated by one scholar, which is not universally agreed upon. Some translations of chapter 5 say the passage is about the ‘separate [divergent] channels’, while others translate it as relating to the channels and collaterals in general.
Twicken’s book makes interesting claims, yet fails to support them convincingly through his analysis. He stays simple in the presentation of his material, yet sometimes this has the effect of seeming as if he has not done his scholarly homework. Twicken’s book reads best alongside the book by Shima and Chace, and the transcripts of Yuen’s lectures. These scholars provide the classical textual support that helps in the digestion of Twicken’s efforts.
The book by Shima and Chace is more successful in its rigour. They discuss the problems inherent in translating the Nei Jing, acknowledging different interpretations of Chinese medical terms, and finally state which direction they have chosen to go with their book. Shima and Chace go so far as to present their own original translation of chosen passages from the Nei Jing, and then re-translate them to express their point of view on the divergent channels. This effectively allows the reader to begin to trust the authors: their scholarship and effort as experts on the topic of the divergent channels. The books by Cecil-Sterman and Twicken require more of a leap of faith to accept their arguments. We are asked to trust in these authors as authorities, merely based on their own claims of clinical success. This creates difficulty, as both authors are still relatively unknown within the field of Chinese medical scholarship as master clinicians and teachers.
The overall effect of Twicken’s book is as a systemisation, much like the Jia Yi Jing (Systemic Classic of Acupuncture) by Huang Fu Mi. It is a helpful reference book, organising a lot of information from the Ling Shu, such as the signs and symptoms of the various channel systems: the primary channels, sinew and luo vessels. He places his overall focus on using the divergent channels as support systems for the other channel systems, yet this does little to explain what the divergent channels are in and of themselves. Like the Jia Yi Jing, Twicken’s book does little to illuminate the mystery of the divergent channels. Twicken’s book seems best for the acupuncturist beginning his/her clinical practice. It is helpful as an easy desk reference, but not very deep as a scholarly commentary on the medical classics.
If Twicken’s book resembles the Jia Yi Jing, the book by Shima and Chace is closer to the Nan Jing. It is more successful in its exploration of the difficulties in understanding the divergent channels. By comparing and contrasting different translations of classical Chinese medical terms found in Ling Shu chapter 11, it clarifies what other commentators say on the subject in relation to what the authors themselves believe. As a study, it is deep and probing, not claiming to know the answers, but more interested in gathering various points of view into a single volume.
The books by Twicken, Cecil-Sterman and Shima/Chace all contain clinical case studies. Those by Shima/Chace share clinical findings by multiple divergent channel clinical experts, while Twicken and Cecil-Sterman present only their own clinical experiences. Twicken’s book demonstrates divergent channel treatments based on various scenarios, showing simple introductory ways these channels can be used clinically. Cecil-Sterman is more detailed in her book, creating a step-by-step treatment process for each of the divergent channels based on Yuen’s Su Wen inspired ‘disease nemesis’ point of view.
For the beginner, new to the divergent channels, Twicken’s book may be the best. It is light on medical theory; more of a gentle welcome to exploring the Ling Shu. For those who are already exploring the acupuncture channel systems in clinical practice, Cecil-Sterman’s book is best, providing troubleshooting hints she has gleaned from her own experience. For the seasoned practitioner, looking to gain deeper understanding into the nature of the divergent channels, the book by Shima and Chace will hold the greatest appeal. Personally, I feel the lecture transcripts by Yuen are still the best basic primer to the acupuncture channel systems in general, providing philosophical, scholarly and contextual basis for their clinical use. More than any other teacher, Yuen helps students and practitioners begin to think within the mindset of the Chinese medical classics: he helps us enter into the Nei Jing, making it seem less impenetrable and more inviting.
(A Comparative Review by Nicholas Sieben, vol. 8 No. 2)
Nicholas Sieben is a New York City based acupuncturist. For the past ten years he has studied the Chinese medical classics extensively, mainly with master teacher Jeffrey Yuen. Nicholas publishes his own blog, as well as articles for various Chinese medical publications. He is currently working towards a doctorate in classical Chinese medicine, with a focus on mental health.