I’ve alluded to this a numer of times in recent posts, but I think the use of herbs here in Bali needs to be explained further.

In Bali, plants and their medicinal applications of not thought of, nor used, as simply for their physical-chemical properties. Plants come with, absorb, take on, and are affected to be far more than just their chemical components.

Plants convey intention, are a product of the time and space in which they were picked, embody the mindset of the preparer, are told what their purpose is, thanked for lending themselves to the healing of the patient, and often take on significance far beyond standard medicinal uses for said plant.

To be more specific, there is a personal relationship between the healer and the plant. The effectiveness of plants is influenced by when and how they were picked and prepared, whether the healer had been recently purified, if it was a special day, which part of the plant is chosen, and method of collecting the plant. So for example, a plant picked with devotion and utmost thanks, on a full moon in the perfect season, in the right growing area, at the right time of day, by a highly regarded healer who’d been recently purified, and who said a prayer of thanks while telling the plant its new purpose, would be very different than a plant chosen at random by a careless person. The efficacy or healing properties of the earlier plant would be much stronger than the latter.

Even after they’ve been picked, special characteristics can be conveyed to the plant. For example, I mentioned when I was making Jamu, the teacher asked me to speak to the herbal mash.  She asked me to tell it how I wanted it to help me, to thank it for coming to me, to sing it a song, to just talk lovingly and gratefully to it.  She said this helped it work better.

In another example, one of the healers I’ve observed a number of times may choose plants that seem to have no scientific ability to help the patient’s condition.  The plants may be chewed by the patient, placed on the stomach, held in the hands, or chewed by the healer and spit on the patient.  From a western perspective, there is absolutely no way simply holding leaves in your hand offers any health benefits.  All of this was explained to me that the healer has actually chosen the plants with loving care, told them their role, prepared them especially for the patient, sometimes written sacred symbols on them, and conveyed his intention through the plants.  Therefore when coming into contact with the patient, their chemical propeties are not the key element. The healer also explained that plants connect us to nature, helping the patient become more grounded and rooted to the earth.  (To be honest, the intricate role and relationship the plant has with the Balian healer and their role in the patient’s cure is somewhat beyond me. 😛 )

In all of these respects the Balinese pharmacopeia is unique.  Let’s compare and contrast with both Chinese medicine (TCM) and standard pharmaceuticals. For Chinese herbal medicine, the growing location and season is important, but not essential; for example, northwest of Zhejiang province in the spring is thought to produce the best of plant X.  But, who picks the plant and what time of day or night is not relevant, contrary to what it may be in Balinese herbs. When in comes to Longjing green tea, though, the Chinese are similar to the Balinese in that they emphasize tea leaves picked before Qing Ming Jie (a date that varies accoridng to the the lunar calendar) are the best quality. After the picking of the plant, which may be ritualized in Bali, but is not in TCM, they are ‘processed’ in very different ways: Chinese herbals are typically dried, roasted, or otherwise processed, while Balinese prefer fresh plants that they may talk to, apply sacred drawings to, or chant a prayer over before they’re ready for use. In Balinese healing, frequently the gatherer is also the processor is also the ‘doctor’ administering the herbs; by contrast in Chinese medicine there would be countless intermediaries between the growing plant and the patient. More commercialized productions of Jamu (as typically made on the island of Java), would be more similar to the Chinese medicine production.

To produce modern pharmaceuticals substances are  isolated and refined, isolated and refined all the way down to only chains of elements. Pharmaceuticals are considered only by their microscopic chemical components, whereas TCM looks at the efficacy of the whole herbal, beyond simply the active compounds, while Balinese consider plants from the macro-cosmic perspective embodying specific energy determined by the universe working in conjunction with the healer. (Now if only someone could explain to me, and then compare and contrast with homeopathy…)

It is not for me to judge which approach is best or ‘right.’  But of the 3, my mind most easily grasps how Chinese herbals can work.

Due to the unique factors of the cosmos influence on the plants, the time and space in which they’re collected, and the transfer of intention from the healer to the plants there has not been significant commercialization nor mass production and export of Balinese plants.  Some people (and companies) are beginning to realize that herbs such as turmeric root, various types of ginger root, galangal, etc can be approached, and therefore commercialized, in the same manner at Chinese herbals.  And as such are beginning to export the resulting Jamu. Still, this is more prevalent on the island of Java than Bali.

What do you think?  Which approach to ‘medicine’ makes the most sense to you? Could you understand and believe the Balinese philosophy of healing plants?