"Its use came into my hands"

I recently came across this phrase in a book on Kampo, the Japanese system of herbal medicine with close ties to classical Chinese herbal traditions. I was strangely moved; for as a student and young practitioner in this tradition of herbalism, the saying seemed to describe so well my experience of learning this vast, complex, and subtle art: a sense of being taught not only by my teachers but by the tradition itself.

At times, reading through my herbal textbooks—dense, classically-rooted manuals by the likes of Taiwanese physician Huang Huang, Heiner Fruehauf, and Keisetsu Otsuka—I become overwhelmed. There seems to be no bottom to the well I’m staring down and dipping my pitcher into.

Yet there seems to be a kind of grace at work. In the clinic, however much I have learned seems to be just enough. Often, a formula I have been studying will turn out to be just what’s called for. Other times, at a loss for what to prescribe, I’ll flip open a book to just the page I needed to see, perhaps to a formula I’ve never used before but which is just the right one for the situation. At such times, the phrase applies: “its use came into my hands.” I didn’t merit it; it came to me from the ancestors of the tradition.

I’m reminded of another saying: love something enough, and it will share its secrets with you.

Indeed, because of my love for this work it rarely feels like work. It’s an ongoing widening and deepening, a gradual encompassing of a terrain so vast its only limits are my own.

Being not so far still from the beginnings of my studies, I recall how small was the first piece of land charted. It began when a single formula clicked, came into my hands (perhaps it was Guizhi Tang, Cinnamon Twig Decoction). It spread outward from there, through related formulas; meanwhile entire islands and archipelagos remained inaccessible, mysterious.

Many remain so. Others I have caught tantalizing glimpses of; there’s a sense of them flirting with me, beckoning. They do so unpredictably, yet often in groups. Just yesterday two separate patients needed the same formula, Maimendong Tang, one I’d rarely used in the past. Another presented with a pattern similar to that for Banxia Xie Xin Tang, a prescription I turn to frequently; but with her constipation, stiff red tongue and aversion to cold I found myself returning to the books where a cousin formula, Fuzi Xie Xin Tang, jumped out. One more formula whose use came into my hands.

And so it goes, in fits and starts; the living tradition working me, working through me. How far this can go will depend on my dedication.

To those just starting out in the study of herbalism or any living tradition, I offer my experience by way of encouragement.

Trust what you’re drawn to. Let your work become play. Nourish the connection with loving attention, and see what grows.