Yesterday while tidying up the ancestral shrine, an outdoor area consecrated to the departed, we noticed a diminutive, all-but-desiccated plant growing right under the shrine’s entry arch. Perilla decided to take up residence precisely here.
Coincidence? Perhaps not, when you consider that Perilla is not only an herb used in East Asian Medicine, but one that is central to treating a group of conditions called “Gu.”
Gu is an ancient character used in connection with an equally ancient symbol from the I Ching (or Book of Change). Number 18 of that venerable tome’s 64 hexagram symbols is called Gu. Its pictogram shows an offering vessel filled with worms: offerings left to spoil on the altar have offended the ancestors. The symbol speaks of ancestral displeasure, or even an ancestral curse–never a good omen.
These creepy crawly connotations help explain the usage of “Gu” in later texts to refer to a range of harmful occult practices, black magic and curses. Gu came to be synonymous with mysterious, dangerous, difficult-to-treat illnesses whose causes were as much spiritual as physical. Gu conditions were considered to require extraordinary, sometimes extreme therapeutic measures. Herbal strategies included large doses of aromatic plants, in effect to ‘smoke the demons out.’ Such as…Perilla.
In modern practice, my (Jonathan’s) mentor, Dr. Heiner Fruehauf (founder of the Classical Chinese Medicine program at NUNM), has recognized the affinity between chronic parasitic or spirochetal infections and Gu. Following a mostly forgotten, centuries-old Chinese textual record, Dr Fruehauf re-introduced the use of several herbal formulae that treat chronic Lyme disease and other manifestations of “Gu syndrome.” The lead herb in these formulations? Again, Perilla.
Coming back to yesterday’s unexpected botanical find–
Perhaps the land and her plant emissaries were reminding us stewards of the edgy, potentially hazardous nature of this season and of ancestral work. After all, honoring the departed goes hand in hand with what can be described as ghost-busting.
Perhaps, too, the land was providing a prophylactic: a subtle fumigating treatment with the penetrating aroma of Perilla for all who pass through the ancestral arch this year, coming or going.
Blessings on all of your work with the living and the dead. Be mindful out there. And don’t forget to take your herbs.
Jonathan H Edwards, LAc.
Heartward Co-Founder and Traditional East Asian Medicine practitioner