Three Treasures (Taoism)

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The Three Treasures or Three Jewels (Chinese : ; pinyin :sānbǎo; Wade–Giles :san-pao) are basic virtues in Taoism. Although the Tao Te Ching originally used sanbao to mean "compassion", "frugality", and "humility", the term was later used to translate the Three Jewels (Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha) in Chinese Buddhism, and to mean the Three Treasures (jing, qi, and shen) in Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Chinese language family of languages

Chinese is a group of related, but in many cases not mutually intelligible, language varieties, forming the Sinitic branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family. Chinese is spoken by the ethnic Chinese majority and many minority ethnic groups in China. About 1.2 billion people speak some form of Chinese as their first language.

Pinyin Chinese romanization scheme for Mandarin

Hanyu Pinyin, often abbreviated to pinyin, is the official romanization system for Standard Chinese in mainland China and to some extent in Taiwan. It is often used to teach Standard Mandarin Chinese, which is normally written using Chinese characters. The system includes four diacritics denoting tones. Pinyin without tone marks is used to spell Chinese names and words in languages written with the Latin alphabet, and also in certain computer input methods to enter Chinese characters.

Wade–Giles, sometimes abbreviated Wade, is a romanization system for Mandarin Chinese. It developed from a system produced by Thomas Wade, during the mid-19th century, and was given completed form with Herbert A. Giles's Chinese–English Dictionary of 1892.


Tao Te Ching

Sanbao "three treasures" first occurs in Tao Te Ching chapter 67, which Lin Yutang (1948:292) says contains Laozi's "most beautiful teachings":

<i>Tao Te Ching</i> Chinese classic text

The Tao Te Ching, Chinese: 道德经; pinyin: Dao De Jing), also known as Lao Tzu or Laozi, is a Chinese classic text traditionally credited to the 6th-century BC sage Laozi. The text's authorship, date of composition and date of compilation are debated. The oldest excavated portion dates back to the late 4th century BC, but modern scholarship dates other parts of the text as having been written—or at least compiled—later than the earliest portions of the Zhuangzi.

Lin Yutang Chinese writer

Lin Yutang was a renowned Hokkien Chinese writer, translator, linguist, philosopher and inventor. His informal but polished style in both Chinese and English made him one of the most influential writers of his generation, and his compilations and translations of classic Chinese texts into English were bestsellers in the West.

Laozi Semi-legendary Chinese figure, attributed to the 6th century, regarded as the author of the Tao Te Ching and founder of Taoism

Laozi, also rendered as Lao Tzu and Lao-Tze, was an ancient Chinese philosopher and writer. He is the reputed author of the Tao Te Ching, the founder of philosophical Taoism, and a deity in religious Taoism and traditional Chinese religions.


Every one under heaven says that our Way is greatly like folly. But it is just because it is great, that it seems like folly. As for things that do not seem like folly — well, there can be no question about their smallness!
Here are my three treasures. Guard and keep them! The first is pity; the second, frugality; the third, refusal to be 'foremost of all things under heaven'.
For only he that pities is truly able to be brave;
Only he that is frugal is able to be profuse.
Only he that refuses to be foremost of all things
Is truly able to become chief of all Ministers.

At present your bravery is not based on pity, nor your profusion on frugality, nor your vanguard on your rear; and this is death. But pity cannot fight without conquering or guard without saving. Heaven arms with pity those whom it would not see destroyed. (tr. Waley 1958:225)

Arthur Waley describes these Three Treasures as, "The three rules that formed the practical, political side of the author's teaching (1) abstention from aggressive war and capital punishment, (2) absolute simplicity of living, (3) refusal to assert active authority."

Arthur Waley British academic

Arthur David Waley was an English orientalist and sinologist who achieved both popular and scholarly acclaim for his translations of Chinese and Japanese poetry. Among his honours were the CBE in 1952, the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry in 1953, and he was invested as a Companion of Honour in 1956.

Chinese terminology

The first of the Three Treasures is ci (Chinese : ; pinyin :; Wade–Giles :tz'u; literally: 'compassion, tenderness, love, mercy, kindness, gentleness, benevolence'), which is also a Classical Chinese term for "mother" (with "tender love, nurturing " semantic associations). Tao Te Ching chapters 18 and 19 parallel ci ("parental love") with xiao ( "filial love; filial piety"). Wing-tsit Chan (1963:219) believes "the first is the most important" of the Three Treasures, and compares ci with Confucianist ren ( "humaneness; benevolence"), which the Tao Te Ching (e.g., chapters 5 and 38) mocks.

Classical Chinese, also known as Literary Chinese, is the language of the classic literature from the end of the Spring and Autumn period through to the end of the Han dynasty, a written form of Old Chinese. Classical Chinese is a traditional style of written Chinese that evolved from the classical language, making it different from any modern spoken form of Chinese. Literary Chinese was used for almost all formal writing in China until the early 20th century, and also, during various periods, in Japan, Korea and Vietnam. Among Chinese speakers, Literary Chinese has been largely replaced by written vernacular Chinese, a style of writing that is similar to modern spoken Mandarin Chinese, while speakers of non-Chinese languages have largely abandoned Literary Chinese in favor of local vernaculars.

Wing-tsit Chan was a Chinese scholar and professor best known for his studies of Chinese philosophy and his translations of Chinese philosophical texts. Chan was born in China in 1901 and went to the United States in 1924, earning a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1929. Chan taught at Dartmouth College and Chatham University for most of his academic career. Chan's 1963 book A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy was highly influential in the English-speaking world, and was often used as a source for quotations from Chinese philosophical classics.

The second is jian ( ; jiǎn; chien; 'frugality, moderation, economy, restraint, be sparing'), a practice that the Tao Te Ching (e.g., chapter 59) praises. Ellen M. Chen (1989:209) believes jian is "organically connected" with the Taoist metaphor pu ( "uncarved wood; simplicity"), and "stands for the economy of nature that does not waste anything. When applied to the moral life it stands for the simplicity of desire."

The third treasure is a six-character phrase instead of a single word: Bugan wei tianxia xian不敢為天下先 "not dare to be first/ahead in the world". Chen notes that

The third treasure, daring not be at the world's front, is the Taoist way to avoid premature death. To be at the world's front is to expose oneself, to render oneself vulnerable to the world's destructive forces, while to remain behind and to be humble is to allow oneself time to fully ripen and bear fruit. This is a treasure whose secret spring is the fear of losing one's life before one's time. This fear of death, out of a love for life, is indeed the key to Taoist wisdom. (1989:209)

In the Mawangdui Silk Texts version of the Tao Te Ching, this traditional "Three Treasures" chapter 67 is chapter 32, following the traditional last chapter (81, 31). Based upon this early silk manuscript, Robert G. Henricks (1989:160) concludes that "Chapters 67, 68, and 69 should be read together as a unit." Besides some graphic variants and phonetic loan characters, like ci ( "mat, this") for ci ( "compassion, love", clarified with the "heart radical" ), the most significant difference with the received text is the addition of heng (, "constantly, always") with "I constantly have three …" (我恆有三) instead of "I have three …" (我有三).

The Mawangdui Silk Texts are Chinese philosophical and medical works written on silk which were discovered at the Mawangdui site in Changsha, Hunan, in 1973. They include some of the earliest attested manuscripts of existing texts, two copies of the Tao Te Ching, a copy of Zhan Guo Ce, works by Gan De and Shi Shen and previously-unknown medical texts, such as Wushi'er Bingfang. Scholars arranged them into 28 types of silk books. Their approximately 120,000 words cover military strategy, mathematics, cartography and the six classical arts: ritual, music, archery, horsemanship, writing and arithmetic.

English translations

The language of the Tao Te Ching is notoriously difficult to translate, as illustrated by the diverse English renditions of "Three Treasures" below.

Translations of the Three Treasures
TranslationSanbao三寶CiJianBugan wei tianxia xian不敢為天下先
Balfour (1884:41)three things which I regard as preciouscompassionfrugalitynot venturing to take precedence of others — modesty
Legge (1891:110)three precious thingsgentlenesseconomyshrinking from taking precedence of others
Lin (1948:291)Three TreasuresLoveModerationNever be the first in the world
Erkes (1950:117)three jewelskindnessthriftinessnot daring to play the first part in the empire
Waley (1934:225)three treasurespityfrugalityrefusal to be 'foremost of all things under heaven'
Wu (1961:97)Three TreasuresMercyFrugalityNot daring to be First in the World
Chan (1963:219)three treasuresdeep lovefrugalitynot to dare to be ahead of the world
Lau (1963:129)three treasurescompassionfrugalitynot daring to take the lead in the empire
English & Feng (1972:n.p.)three treasures which I hold and keepmercyeconomydaring not to be ahead of others — humility
Wieger & Bryce (1984:34)three thingscharitysimplicityhumility
Mitchell (1988:110)three treasures which I preserve and treasurecompassionfrugalitydaring not to be first in the world
Henricks (1989:38)three treasurescompassionfrugalitynot presuming to be at the forefront in the world
Chen (1989:208)three treasuresmotherly lovefrugalitydaring not be at the world's front
Mair (1990:41)three treasurescompassionfrugalitynot daring to be ahead of all under heaven
Muller (2004:n.p.)three treasurescompassionfrugalitynot daring to put myself ahead of everybody

A consensus translation of the Three Treasures could be: compassion or love, frugality or simplicity, and humility or modesty.

Other meanings

In addition to these Taoist "Three Treasures", Chinese sanbao can also refer to the Three Treasures in Traditional Chinese Medicine or the Three Jewels in Buddhism. Victor H. Mair (1990:110) notes that Chinese Buddhists chose the Taoist term sanbao to translate Sanskrit triratna or ratnatraya ("three jewels"), and "It is not at all strange that the Taoists would take over this widespread ancient Indian expression and use it for their own purposes."

Erik Zürcher, who studied influences of Buddhist doctrinal terms in Daoism, noted (1980:115) two later meanings of sanbao: Dao "the Way", jing "the Scriptures", and shi "the Master" seems to be patterned after Buddhist usage; Tianbao jun天寶君 "Lord of Celestial Treasure", Lingbao jun靈寶君 "Lord of Numinous Treasure", and Shenbao jun神寶君 "Lord of Divine Treasure" are the Sanyuan三元 "Three Primes" of the Lingbao School.

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Three Treasures or Three Jewels may refer to:

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