The terms “opening, closing, pivot” are mentioned in the Nei Jing, in reference to the qualities of each of the six conformations. These terms are important to the theoretical understanding of the dynamics of each individual conformation, as well as the dynamics of the relationships between the conformations.
In this article, I would like to expand on the understanding of these terms, and to suggest the possibility that the correlation between the conformations and the “opening, closing, pivot” dynamics in the Shang Han Lun, isn’t identical to the correlation in the Nei Jing.
The physiological model of the 6 conformations, is described in the Nei Jing as a complex of channels, movements and qualities, that function together to sustain the whole. The dynamics and characteristics of each conformation are described in the Su Wen, ch. 6, the name of this chapter is:
阴阳离合论 – The discourse on the separation and reunion of Yín and Yáng
The name of the chapter is a clear indication that the Yin and Yang relationship is a complex system, involving essential processes of movement and change. The terms “opening, closing, pivot”, are used to illustrate the nature of movement and change embedded in each specific conformation.
In the division and unity of the three yang (vessels) the major yang is the opening, the yang brilliance is the door leaf, the minor yang is the pivot. (These) three yang conduits cannot lose each other. If they beat, but not at the surface, this is called one yang.
In the division and unity of the three yin, the major yin is the opening, the ceasing yin is the door leaf, the minor yin is the pivot. These three yin cannot lose each other. If they beat, but not in the depth, this is called one yin.
(Translated by Paul U. Unschuld and Hermann Tessenow)
In this paragraph, the conformations are categorized in the following way:
|opening||Tai Yang||Tai Yin|
|Pivot||Shao Yang||Shao Yin|
|Closing||Yang Ming||Jue Yin|
These 3 terms can be understood in various ways:
- “Opening” describes motion in an upward and outward direction.
- “Pivot” describes motion of regulation between in and out, up and down.
- “Closing” describes motion in a downward and inward direction.
- “Opening” describes function that enables communication with the external environment. This requires a combined mechanism of ability to interact with external forces, together with the ability to provide protection from potentially harmful forces. This requires a mechanism which is alert and able to respond quickly to stimuli, while also allowing rest and relaxation.
- “Pivot” describes function of regulation of the tension between the changing external conditions and the internal requirements, abilities and desires. This requires a mechanism with awareness to the constant changes of both the external and the internal environment, and with qualities of flexibility and adaptability.
- “Closing” describes function of containing and guarding internal substances and processes. This requires a mechanism which provides stability and guards the internal environment from the changes in the external environment.
In the Shang Han Lun, there is no mention of the categorization of the conformations to the qualities of “opening, closing, pivot”. However, because the author mentioned the Nei Jing as one of his sources, the basic assumption is that his understanding of the 6 conformations, is identical to the conformations described in the Nei Jing.
The conformations of the Shang Han Lun can therefore be understood in the following way:
Conformations with an opening dynamic:
Tai Yang conformation opens to the external environment surrounding the body. It is therefore to be responsible for the ability to experience and absorb the world through the senses, mobilize our body, and to provide the necessary protection for this interaction.
Tai Yin conformation opens the internal, yin processes of the body to the more yang oriented systems and processes. This enables the absorption of nourishment from external sources, to be used internally for physiological purposes of development, strengthening and healing. The opening of this conformation is essential not only for receiving from the yang oriented systems of the body, but also for providing the yang conformations with the substances of qi, blood and bodily fluids manufactured in the Tai Yin.
When the opening mechanism of the Tai Yang is not functioning properly, it can be manifested as hyper-sensitivity to external stimuli, both physical and emotional.
When the opening mechanism of the Tai Yin is not functioning properly, it can be manifested as weakness and a tendency to withdraw and try to avoid external interactions, both physical and emotional.
When the opening mechanism of one conformation is damaged, it is likely to affect the opening mechanism of the other.
Conformations with a closing and pivot dynamics:
In the yang conformations, the dynamics of closing and pivot is very clear:
Yang Ming has the closing dynamics. The closing enables heat to accumulate and intensify within the body. This intense heat is necessary for functions of fermentation and transformation, such as digestion and metabolic processes. The closing of the conformation not only allows to maintain this essential heat, it also seals and contains the heat, as well as moving downward to enable drainage. This prevents it from leaking out, where it can become destructive force, creating damage in the body in form of inflammatory disorders, bleeding, and mental disorders.
Shao Yang has a pivot dynamics. It is referred to as being half exterior and half interior. It is the pivot that enables communication between the external Tai Yang and the internal Yang Ming. It is the pivot that regulates the demands and conditions of the external world with the requirements and desires of the internal being. This pivot is crucial to well-being and vitality.
In the Yin conformations, there is room for discussion, which is the closing and which is the pivot. Most commentators classify the Yin conformations in accordance to the Nei Jing classification:
Shao Yin is classified as a pivot. It regulates the yin and yang forces of the body, maintaining the fundamental balance necessary for existence.
Jue Yin is classified as a closing. Life forces are cyclic, the closing of jue yin maintains the motion of the cycle and prevents movement from becoming chaotic, and as a result dangerous and destructive.
Alongside this understanding of the classification of the conformations, there is another way to define them. Giovanni Maciocia has raised the argument that Shao Yin should be classified as closing, and Jue Yin as pivot. His discussion on the topic can be found in this link >>
His argument is based on the cyclic order of the conformations and on their mutual relationships.
I would like to raise a few more arguments in favor of Shao Yin as closing and Jue Yin as pivot:
1. Zhang Zhong Jing, who wrote the Shang Han Lun, did state the Nei Jing as one of his sources. However, he also stated additional sources, which have not survived, so we do not know if there might have been a different understanding of the conformations.
In addition to this, the Nei Jing is the basis for the theoretical understanding of Chinese medicine concepts, while the Shang Han Lun is a clinical text. The shift from theory to practice, quite often entails changes and adjustments to the understanding of the theoretical concepts. It is probably due to this, that the 6 conformations described in the Shang Han Lun through their pathological characteristics, are not identical to the pathological characteristics described in the Nei Jing.
2. Understanding the Shang Han Lun, is not merely a matter of understanding the content, but also of the context. In this case, the order of appearance can be a clue to the author’s intentions.
The Yang conformations appear in the text in the following order:
1. Tai Yang (opening)
2. Yang Ming (closing)
3. Shao Yang (pivot)
So it is reasonable to expect that the order of the Yin conformations should follow the same pattern. The order of appearance of the Yin conformations in the text is as follows:
1. Tai Yin (opening)
2. Shao Yin (closing?)
3. Jue Yin (pivot?)
3. Shao Yin conformation is responsible for the fundamental and delicate substances and processes, crucial for our very existence. Pathologies of this conformation are related to final stages of terminal illnesses, indicating that damage to this conformation is often beyond repair.
This can suggest the functionality of the Shao Yin as a closing dynamics: it needs to be protected from the ongoing changes and fluctuations of the external environment, that might easily throw these delicate processes out of balance.
4. Jue Yin conformation is responsible for the productivity of movement and change between the 2 opposing forces of the body. It allows the body to nurture the bursting yang forces within the nourishing yin forces. It is the driving force behind the cyclic movement of our physiological processes. Pathologies of Jue Yin are characterized with chaotic and unregulated changes between the 2 polarities: hot-cold, excess-deficiency, yang-yin.
This is why I believe the Jue Yin should be considered a pivot, allowing balance between the extremes, and maintaining the productive cyclic rhythm of the body.
The discussion of classification of the conformations with the terms “opening, closing, pivot” is of both theoretical and practical importance. It helps us to better grasp the dynamics of the conformations, and to be more precise in choosing treatment strategies and understanding the formulas of the Shang Han Lun:
- Understanding the relationship between conformations: For example, if the opening mechanism of Tai Yin is damaged, the opening mechanism of Tai Yang might be affected. Similarly, treating the Tai Yang will likely have an effect on the function of the Tai Yin. This is one of the reasons the formula Gui Zhi Tang is mentioned in the text in relation to both conformations.
- Utilizing the dynamics of motion to heal a conformation: For example, using herbs and acu-points with downward motion to treat Yang Ming disorders, Qi Gong exercises that train the downward and inward motion in the body to help heal the Yang Ming, etc.
- Accurately defining the dynamics of a pathology: While each conformation is characterized by a main dynamics of motion, there are “opening, closing, pivot” mechanisms within each one of the 6 conformations. For example, the Tai Yin is characterized with an opening dynamics, but it must also have a closing dynamics in order to absorb nutrients into the body. This can indicate a need for applying treatment techniques with closing mechanisms in addition to opening ones.
As for the categorization of Shao Yin and Jue Yin, there is no definite answer in my opinion. The absence of defined borders between the Yin conformations is embedded in their physiology, It is not uncommon for them to fuse into a combined pathology. Therefore, I believe it is important not to automatically treat these conformations as closing or pivot, but rather to observe each case individually in order to assess the motion mechanism that should be adjusted.
This is something that I still don´t really understand. Ling Shu says one thing, Su Wen says another. Maciocia says one…others say the opposite.
Finally, what is the right approach? As a TCM student I still don´t have a sound criteria. Both sounds reasonable….
Many thanks for the post
Thank you for your question, it is one I have struggled with myself. I apologize for the rather long answer:
Within Chinese Medicine there are different and sometimes contradicting models for understanding the physiological function of the body and diagnosing disease. The way I see it, it is not possible or necessary to decide which is right and which is wrong. This is due to 2 main reasons:
1. The body can function in different ways depending on the different circumstances, so there can in fact exist contradicting mechanisms. When you start practicing you will discover that while a certain approach is very efficient with one patient, another patient might need a completely opposite approach. So we need to keep an open mind and adjust our treatment to the patient .
2. We are part of an ancient and ongoing attempt to uncover the many secrets of our existence. In most cases, there are no definite answers, only theories. Here, it is up to each one of us to assess which theory or theories seem to make sense to us, apply it to practice, and see what works best for us. This does not make the theories we choose objectively right, just right for us (which is quite a lot).
Many thanks for your answer and your time.
Having a discussion with a colleague from TCH school we had a sort of intuition. Both approaches are valid, they talk about the same but from different perspectives. It´s a matter of perspective. Even though…I still have to dig into this…..still a lot to learn.
Many thanks for your time and answer.
Having a discussion with a colleague from TCM school we came to a sort of conclussion that probably both approaches are valid. It only depends of perspective. Both talk about the same but from different perspective.
This is a really great article and thanks for sharing it. The best explanation I have seen of this elusive yet essential statement.
What I find most illuminating about your interpretation is your thinking about the ‘closing’ and how it relates to ‘ containing and guarding internal substances’. I completely agree that this must be the function of closing in the same way that you close a vault to safeguard and protect valuables.
Whilst this makes sense with jueyin (which I believe ‘closes’ to store the blood generated by shaoyin) you state that yangming closes to generate heat. In this way you are saying that the Qi is flowing from taiyin through shaoyang into yangming where it is stored and so builds? If so that is a wonderful explanation that really makes sense.
If this’d is correct how do you then understand the Qi dynamic between yangming and taiyin? Yangming stores to build Qi and heat to then assist taiyin in opening to secrete and then absorb the food?
Ps is ‘closing’ really the correct word? Should it be ‘storing? Opening, pivoting and storing?
thank you so much for your remarks, they really got me thinking!!
My understanding is that the Yangming absorbs heat both from internal as well as external sources: The pathway you described from the taiyin originates from the internal mechanisms of the life force within the body (ming men perhaps?). Externally the essential life force from the sun is absorbed through the opening mechanism of the taiyang. Both are necessary for creating the physiological yang of yangming.
I find the relationship between Yangming and Taiyin is intriguing. I have written about this in my Hebrew blog, I will happily translate it into English following your remarks. In essence, if you imagine the cyclic motion of the taiji symbol, it is a motion that generates qi from the dynamics of yin and yang. The descending motion of yangming and the ascending motion of the taiyin work together to power this circulation inside the body. This is how I see it, I am sure there are many more interpretations.
I agree with you, closing does sound off. The Chinese word can be translated as ‘combine’ or ‘converge’ as well, but the context in the Neijing implies the translation needs to be compatible with the metaphor of a mechanism combined of an ‘opening’ and a ‘pivot’. Unschuld translated it as ‘door leaf’. I have no idea really how to express the idea of it in one word and stay true to the original text.
Thanks for your reply. More food for thought. Really looking forward to reading about the yangming-taiyin relationship. Like you I find it is definitely the most confusing and enigmativc relationship. Afterall, taiyin is more external than yangming.