THE PRIMER PROJECT


An activity of the Primer Group

 

A Special Integration Group (SIG) of the
International Society for the Systems Sciences (ISSS)
originally SGSR, Society for General Systems Research.

and

IISII
INTERNATIONAL INSTITUTE
for
SYSTEMIC INQUIRY AND INTEGRATION



Presenting


THE FIRST INTERNATIONAL
ELECTRONIC SEMINAR
ON WHOLENESS


http://www.newciv.org/ISSS_Primer/seminar.html

 




 

THE TAO OF SYSTEMS


Ancient Systems Thinking in China and Its Application in Chinese Life

By Yi Lin

 

Abstract

Systems thinking and systems related concepts are found in one of the Chinese classics: the Tao Te Ching. Practical applications of this early systems appraoch in medicine are described. The historical trace of this medicial theory reveals the fact that the concept of systems and the connection between the parts and whole can be dated back to at least the time of China's Yellow Emperor of 2600 B. C..

 

A Glance at the Tao Te Ching

The Tao Te Ching is the most translated book, written by human, in the world. Among many reasons for the superabundance of translations are the following: (1) the Tao Te Ching is considered to be the fundamental text of both philosophical and religious Taoism. The Tao, or Way, is at the heart of the Tao Te Ching, and is also the centerpiece of all Chinese philosophies and thoughts. (2) The brevity and the insights it offers make it among the few classics in the world. It is so short yet so packed with food for thoughts. It can be read and reread without exhausting the opportunity for obtaining new insights. (3) It is supposed to be, in the word of the author himself, ''very easy to understand''. However, when one actually tries to read it, he/she will realize that it is extemely difficult to comprehend fully.

The Tao Te Ching was written during Chou Dynasty (1030 -- 207 B.C.) arround 400 - 300 B.C. by a person known as Lao Tzu. Here, Tao means the Way that things should be and Te means integrity, which signifies the personal quality or strengths of an individual, one's personhood. Te is the moral weight of a person, which may be either positive or negative. Together, Tao Te means the overall character of a human being and his environment. In the literature, there was very little to be found about the author concerning who he was and what profession he was in.

According to many well documented research, it has been believed that Lao Tzu could actually be the editor of the collection, named Tao Te Ching, of many old sayings. In Chinese history, there are so many precedents of influential thinkers being named tzu: K'ung Tzu (Confucius), Meng Tzu (Mencius), Mo Tzu (Mecius or Macius), what does the word ''tzu'' really mean? Here, tzu in Chinese has many meanings, including ''son'', ''pupil'', ''man'', ''scholar'', etc. When combined with the word ''lao'', one of the many understandings could well be ''father'' in the sense of a family setting. Together with the belief that the book is a collection of old sayings, it is reasonable to say that Lao Tzu (father) is the pseudonym of the editior of the collection; and whoever is reading the Tao Te Ching, he/she can simply believe that he/she is reading his/her own father's words when the father is parenting and teaching the child on how to be a good citizen.

According to many scholars of both the ancient and modern times, the Tao Te Ching is not just simply about the family teaching of children; more importantly, it was written as a handbook of ancient rulers. As for its philosophical stand(s), it is worth mentioning that there have be many different points of view about this end. The following are four main points of view: (1) the Tao Te Ching reflects the wishes of the then-peasents' class of private ownership; (2) the Tao Te Ching represents the position of the then-growing class of farmers; (3) the Tao Te Ching stands for the thoughts of the then-declining class of slave owners; (4) the Tao Te Ching is a book on the art of war, emphasizing on philosophical and logical education. For details, see \cite{Wu1990}. There is not only much in the Tao Te Ching of a mystical and metaphysical quality, and it is also a bold combination of cosmic speculation and mundane governance.

 

Tao Te -- the Undefinable Grand System

In this section, we will focus on the ideas and concepts, contained in the Tao Te Ching, related to modern systems. Our discussion is based on V. H. Mair's recent translation \cite{Laotzu} of the manuscript discovered at Ma-Wang-Tui site in 1973. This new manuscript can be dated much closer, which means several hundred years earlier, to the supposed date when the classic was written than all other manuscripts used in all other various translations.

In the light of modern systems, the Tao Te Ching is a theory of a special system, consisting of man and his environment. This system is named as Tao-Te. The Tao or the Way is about how things, including man and nature, should be, and Te or integrity is about the man itself. This is evidenced in chapter 62,\ ''Man patterns himself on earth, earth patterns itself on heaven, heaven patterns itself on the Way, the Way patterns itself on nature.'' Here, it is believed that there is a single and overarching Way that encompasses everything in the universe.

Similar to modern axiom systems of scientific theories, the system Tao-Te was introduced and studied without a definition given to either Tao or Te. ''The Way is concealed and has no name.'' (chapter 3). ''\ The ways that can be walked are not the eternal Way; the names that can be named are not the eternal name. The nameless is the origin of the myriad of creatures.'' (chapter 45). ''The appearance of grand integrity is that it follows the Way alone. The Way objectified is blurred and nebulous. How nebulous and blurred! Yet within it there are images. How blurred and nebulous! Yet within it there are objects. How cavernous and dark! Yet within it there is an essence. Its essence is quite real; within it there are tokens.'' (chapter 65). ''There was something featureless yet complete, born before heaven and earth; silent -- amorphous -- it stood alone and unchanging.''\ (chapter 69). ''The Way is eternally nameless.'' (chapter 76). Intuitively speaking, Te represents self-nature or self-realization in relation to the cosmos. It is in fact the actualization of the cosmic principle in the self. Te is the embodiment of the Way and is the character of all entities in the universe. Each creature has a te which is its own manifestation of the Tao. Tao represents cosmic unity, while Te stands for the individual personality or character. The Tao Te Ching portrays the absorption of the separate soal into the cosmic unity, it describes the assimilation of the individual personality (te) into the eternal Way (Tao). In simplest terms, te means no more than the wholeness or completeness of a given entity. It represents the selfhood of every being in the universe. It also has a moral dimension in the sense of adherence to a set of values. From Tao, the vast variety of creatures and things in the world spring. Contrary to the existence or being of all the things or beings in the world, the Tao, their origin, is without existence. In terms of general systems, Tao represents the system, while Te stands for the attributes of each member of the whole; and the theory of the system Tao-Te depicts how the members and the whole are connected in such a way that the whole system could be in a chaos or in harmony.

One of the features of modern systems is the structure of layers. That is, an object B of a system A can be a system itself, an object C of the system B can be a system again, ..., see \cite{LinMa1987} for details. This kind of layer structure can be seen at many different places in the Tao Te Ching. For example, \ ''When the Way is lost, afterward comes integrity. When integrity is lost, afterward comes humaneness. When humaneness is lost, afterward comes righteousness. When righteousness is lost, afterward comes etiquette.'' (chapter 1). ''Preeminent is one whose subjects barely know he exists; the next is one to whom they feel close and praise; the next is one whom they fear; the lowest is one whom they despise.''\ (chapter 61). Related to the concept of layers of systems, if one ignores the parts of members of the systems, then the structure of relations can be seen as stratifiable. This idea is contained in chapter 62: ''When the great Way was forsaken, there was humaneness and righteousness; when cunning and wit appeared, there was great falsity; when the six family relationship lacked harmony, there were filial piety and parental kindness; when the state and royal house were in disarray, there were upright ministers.'' In terms of systems, it says that if the high level structure is difficult to control or to study, a lower level will always be there.

The concept of process, which involves the notion of time, has been studied by many people, including some of the greatest minds in the history, such as Newton, Poincar\'{e}, Einstein, etc.. In terms of systems, the concepts of time systems (see \cite{MT1974}, \cite{MT1989} and \cite{LinMa1987a}) and tree-like hierarchy of systems (see \cite{Lin1988} and \cite{Lin1990}) have been introduced and studied from many different angles. As a matter of fact, concepts, related to that of process, can be seen at various places in the Tao Te Ching. For instance, chapter 5 contains the following: ''The Way gave birth to unity, unity gave birth to duality, duality gave birth to trinity, trinity gave birth to the myriad creatures. The myriad creatures bear yin on their backs and embrace yang in their bosoms. They neutralize these vapors and thereby achieve harmony.'' In the words of von Bertalanffy, the Whole was created first. By looking into the Whole, some objects and relations among the objects become dominating, which in turn give birth to ''duality''. Now, the Whole, the collection of the objects and the entirety of the relations constitute the ''trinity''. This Trinity is the fundamental structure of all the things and beings in the universe. In the words of ancient Greek atomists, Lavoisier, Einstein, or the laws of conservation, the Way is constant while all other things will vary at the level of the Trinity according to the observations of a third entity. Based on the research of pansystems, Lao Tzu had used the idea of general symmetric relations to describe the relation between gentle and dramatic changes, the general symmetric process of the gradual development from the chaotic qi (vapor) to the creation of myriad creatures. For more details, see \cite {Wu1990}. In the point of view of ruling a state, Lao Tzu's statement describes the fact that only with a clear view of the Way, there will be a stable, peaceful and prosperous country, which is called the unity. The stable and peaceful environment furnishes the prerequisite and the potentiality (the duality) for the development of myriad societal events. Even though the existence of the myriad societal activities or entities is mutually constained or self-contradictory, it is the existence of these myriad mutually constained and self-contradictory activities and entities that the whole or the country is in a balanced prosperity. In terms of systems research, only under the the condition that a system exists, the entireties of objects and relations will possess their meanings. With the definite system, its obects and relations, it becomes reasonable to study the myriad properties and structures of systems.

One of the important structures of general systems is the center. In 1956, Hall and Fagen \cite{HallFagen} introduced the concept of centralized systems, where a centralized system is a system in which one object or a subsystem plays a dominant role in the operation of the system. The leading part can be thought as the center of the system, since a small change of the part would affect in some way the entire system, causing considerable changes. As for how to form a centralized system, the Tao Te Ching has the following teaching: ''Now, for this reason, Feudal lords and kings style themselves ''orphaned'', ''destitute'', and ''hapless''. Is this not because they take humility as their basis?'' (chapter 2). ''That which all under heaven hate most is to be orphaned, destitute, and hapless. Yet kings and dukes call themselves thus.'' (chapter 5). That is to say, in order to form a centralized system, the ''center'' or the leading part must have harmonic relations or connections with the rest of the system. This conclusion coincides with the main result in \cite{Lin1988a}.

When more than one system appears in the study of general systems, one of the first things needs to be done is to compare the systems under consideration. The study of the concepts of functions and mappings in mathematics is a good example. In the research of general systems, the concept of mappings between systems can seen in several different places, such as \cite{Cornacchio} and \cite{Lin1991}. The need of comparison was phrased by Lao Tzu in the following way: ''Observe other persons through your own person. Observe other families through your own family. Observe other villages through your own village. Observe other states through your own state. Observe all under heaven through all under heaven.''\ (chapter 17).

The scientific history has shown the fact that systems are everywhere, and that nowhere has no systems. A great treatment on the facts is Bunge's book \cite{Bunge1977}. Accompanying the facts, in the last half century, the concept of systems has been applied to the study of all corners of human knowledge, see, for example, \cite{Klir1970} and \cite{Wu1990}. Meanwhile, the reserach of general systems has shown some technical problems. In short, it is extremely difficult to develop some of the fundamental concepts in the theory of general systems, such as the concept of general systems. For details, see \cite{Wood1982}. All these phenomena had been vividly presented in the Tao Te Ching as follows: ''When the Way is expressed verbally, we say such things as 'how bland and tasteless it is!' 'We look for it, but there is not enough to be seen.' 'We listen for it, but there is not enough to be heard'. Yet, when put to use, it is inexhaustible!'' (chapter 79).

R. Descartes and Galileo developed the following methods about scientific research and administration individually: Divide the problem under consideration into as small parts as possible, and study each of the isolated parts \cite{Kline1972}, simplify the complicated phenomenon into basic parts and processes \cite{Kuhn1962}. In the history of science and technology, Descartes's and Galileo's methods have been very successfully applied. They guaranteed that physics had won great victories one by one \cite{von1972}. Why are the methods so powerful? According to Lao Tzu, we have the following: ''Undertake difficult tasks by approaching what is easy in them; do great deeds by focusing on their minute aspects. All difficulties under heaven arise from what is easy, all great things under heaven arise from what is minute. For this reason, the sage never strives to do what is great. Therefore, he can achieve greatness.'' (chapter 26). Not only it tells why Descartes's and Galileo's methods work, but also it teaches the relation between parts and whole with the whole being a higher level structure than all parts.

 

Ancient Systems Thinking Applied in Chinese Traditional Medicine

The theory of Chinese traditional medicine is based on four primitive terms:\ Yin, Yang, Qi, and Xue. Xue might be identified with blood in the Western medicine, which by the way no-one knows the correctness of this identification for sure. Qi is some kind of vapor which together with Xue is supposed to carry oxigen and various nutrients throughout the human body, and which guarantees and nurtures the balance of Yin and Yang. Here, Yin and Yang also have various meanings. For example, running a fever is Yang, and feeling cold is Yin. Each organ of the human body or the entire body can be controlled by either yin or yang. In general, Chinese traditional medicine is not concerned with microorganisms or details of the body's organs and tissues. The strength of this classical medical discourse lay rather in its sophisticated analysis of how functions were related on many levels, from the vital processes of the body to the emotions to the natural and social environment of the patient, always with therapy in mind. Chinese medicine is best evaluated in the light of this strength rather than according to criteria that could not have been applied anywhere until half a century ago. For more comments along this line, see \cite{Sivin1990}. Some modern physicians who have not troubled themselves to study classical medical doctrines dismiss them as futilities of the fuedal past. Others have portrayed classical medicine as a remarkable corpus of theory -- based on adaptations of the yin-yang and five--phases concepts -- that succeeded in understanding the body as a many-leveled system and treated its ills holistically. To be more specific, let us concentrate on a small branch of Chinese traditional medicine: acupuncture.

As a means of curing diseases, acupuncture is effected by needling certain related points on the human body to invigorate the meridian system and to harmonize qi energy with blood circulation. According to the literature, unearthed cultural relics, and the related research on the laws of development of societies, the art of acupuncture had germinated way before the written language was created \cite{Qiu1985}. The study of the cultural relics unearthed in 1963 shows that the use of stone needles can be dated back to more than 1400 B.C.. Acompanying the invention and development of metallurgical technology, by the time the earliest medical book ''Canon of Medicine'' (500 -- 300 B. C.) was written, ancient stone needles, bone needles, and bamboo needles, had been gradually replaced with bronze needles, iron needles, gold needles, silver needles. And in our time, stainless steel needles have been in use.

 

The doctrine of meridians is a theory about the structure and distribution, physiological functions, pathological changes and its relations with the organs of the human meridian system. It is a major part of the theory of Chinese traditional medicine.

The meridian system consists of two parts. One is called ''Jing-Mai'', which means pathways and goes up and down and connects human body's interior and exterior. This part dominates the entire meridian system. The other part is called ''Luo-Mai'', which means network, consists of small branches out of the Jing-Mai, and distributed crisscross all over the body.

The meridian system internally belongs to the organs, and externally networks with the four limbs. It communicates between the organs and the body surface so that the human body becomes an organic whole in which qi and xue are so moved, and yin and yang are so nurtured with nutrients that the functions of each part of the body are kept harmonized and balanced. Each clinic application of acupuncture is based on this doctrine.

The doctrine of meridians had been formed more than two thousand years ago, based on: (1) Clinic observations. The points with similar curing powers are always nicely located on lines. By classifying the acupuncture points with similar functions together, the channels of meridians were gradually formed; (2) The logic reasoning through pathological changes on the skin. In clinic practice, it had been noticed that when a certain organ was not functioning normally, there would be pain under pressure, rashes, color changes, etc., at certain parts of the body. The observation and analysis of these surface pathological phenomena also helped the establishement of the doctrine of meridians; (3) Inspiration from the knowledge of anatomy and pathology. Through autopsies and vivisections, ancient physicians learned the locations, shapes and some pathological functions of the organs. And the observation of the distribution of many tubal and stringy structures and their conncetions with various parts in the human body had inspired the understanding of meridians.

As the history indicates, many had considered that China's Yellow Emperor of 2600 B. C. be the founder of acupuncture, and the number of acupuncture points known to the physicians had been gradually increased through generations of practice. A total of 295 acupuncture points, including 25 single points and 135 double points were described in the earliest medical book ''Canon of Medicine''\ (500 -- 300 B. C.). In the ''Jia Yi Classics of Acupuncture'', written by Huanfu Mi in 256 A. D., some more points were added, making a total of 649 acupuncture points, including 49 single points and 300 double points. In 1027 A. D., Wei-yi Wang did an investigation along this line and supplemented with more points, reaching a total of 51 single points and 303 double points. Wang also casted the first bronze-figure showing the distribution of the meridian channels and locations of the points. In the year of 1601, ''Illustrated Bronze-figure Ming Tang'', a chart illustrating acupuncture points and meridian channels, was drawn by Wen-bing Zhao. The illustration was made on the skeleton shown from four different angles:\ the front, the posterior, the left front, and the right posterior. The ''Compendium of Acupuncture and Moxibustion'' edited by Ji-zhou Yang located 667 acupuncture points, including 51 single points and 308 double points. According to the ''Law for Medical Practice'', published in 1742, the number of acupuncture points was further augmented to 670, including 52 single points and 309 double points. Since 1949, the technique of acupuncture treatment has been widely used in medical fields. The successful results of acupuncture anaesthesia were published in 1971. As of today, acupuncture treatment has various effects on 300 some diseases, around 100 of which acupuncture treatment has shown very satisfactory results. The effectiveness of the treatments of cardiovascular and cerebral diseases, gallstone, bacterial dysentery, etc., had not only been confirmed with modern scientific methods, but their working principles had also been given in terms of physiology, microbiology, and immunology.

The research and clinical practice of acupuncture were not just limited to China. In fact, around 600 A. D., the theory and clinical practice had been spread to Korea, around 562 A. D., to Japan; by the end of 1700 A. D., to Europe. Currently, the research and its clinic practice of acupuncture can be found in more than one hundred different countries in the world; and more and more people turn to it for ''magic'' cure. For example, in 1994 alone, Americans made some 9 to 12 million visits to acupuncturists for ailments as diverse as arthritis, bladder infections, backpain, and morning sickness. And, internationally well-known schools, such as Oxford University and University of Maryland, are involved in the foundamental research of mechanisms on why the needles really do what they were said to do. For details, see \cite{Weiss1995}.

Let us now take a look at the pathological functions of the meridian system. Meridians possess the capability of connecting internal organs and four limbs. Even though the organizational organs, including the vital organs of human body, all the limbs and bones, the five sense organs, the nine apertures, skin, flesh, muscles, etc., have their own different pathological functions, they function collectively in such a way that the interior and the exterior, the upper body and lower body are harnomized and unified into an organic whole. All these mutual connections and colaberations are realized through the meridian system.

Meridians possess the ability to transport qi, xue, nutrients throughout the body, to nurture yin and yang, and to protect the body from various outside


By Yi Lin
International Institute for General Systems Studies
Department of Mathematics
Slippery Rock University
Slippery Rock, PA 16057, USA


Send e-mail to issstopics-L@newciv.org

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