Three Treasures (traditional Chinese medicine)

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The Three Treasures or Three Jewels (Chinese : ; pinyin :sānbǎo; Wade–Giles :san-pao) are theoretical cornerstones in traditional Chinese medicine and practices such as Neidan, Qigong, and T'ai chi. They are also known as Jing Qi Shen (Chinese :精氣神; pinyin :jīng-qì-shén; Wade–Giles :ching ch'i shen; "essence, qi, and spirit").


Despeux summarizes:

Jing, qi, and shen are three of the main notions shared by Taoism and Chinese culture alike. They are often referred to as the Three Treasures (sanbao三寶), an expression that immediately reveals their importance and the close connection among them. The ideas and practices associated with each term, and with the three terms as a whole, are complex and vary considerably in different contexts and historical periods. (2008:562)

Etymology and meaning

This Chinese name sanbao originally referred to the Taoist "Three Treasures" from the Tao Te Ching (67, tr. Waley 1958:225): "pity", "frugality", and "refusal to be 'foremost of all things under heaven'". It has subsequently also been used to refer to the Jing Qi Shen and to the Buddhist Three Jewels (Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha). This latter use is misleading, however, as the Three Jewels in Buddhism is a completely different philosophy. The Buddha is the teacher, the Dharma is the teaching, and the Sangha is the community. The Three Jewels of Buddhism are the external supports for achieving realization, while the Three Treasures of Taoism are interior qualities or attitudes to be cultivated.

In long-established Chinese traditions, the "Three Treasures" are the essential energies sustaining human life:

This jing-qi-shen ordering is more commonly used than the variants qi-jing-shen and shen-qi-jing.


In Neidan "internal alchemy" practice (Despeux 2008:563), transmuting the Three Treasures is expressed through the sequence:

  1. lianjing huaqi (鍊精化氣)
    "refining essence into breath"
  2. lianqi huashen (鍊氣化神)
    "refining breath into spirit"
  3. lianshen huanxu (鍊神還虛)
    "refining spirit and reverting to emptiness"

Both Neidan and Neo-Confucianism (Despeux 2008:564-5) distinguish the three between xiantian (先天) "prior to heaven", referring to what is innate or natural, and houtian (後天) "posterior to heaven", referring to what is acquired in the course of life. The former are described as Yuanjing (元精) "original essence", Yuanqi (元氣) "original breath", and yuanshen (元神) "original spirit".

The (2nd century BCE) Huainanzi relates qi and shen to xing "form; shape; body".

The bodily form [xing] is the residence of life; the qi fills this life while shen controls it. If either of them loses their proper position, they will all come to harm. (1, tr. Englehart 2000:99)

The Taoist text Gaoshang yuhuang xinyin jing (高上玉皇心印經, "Mind-Seal Scripture of the Exalted Jade Sovereign", or Xinyin jing "Mind-Seal Scripture") is a valuable early source about the Three Treasures (tr. Olson 1993).

Probably dating from the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279), this anonymous text presents a simple and concise discussion of internal alchemy (neidan內丹). In particular, it emphasizes the so-called Three Treasures (sanbao三寶), namely, vital essence (jing), subtle breath (qi), and spirit (shen). (Komjathy 2004:29)

The (late 16th century) Journey to the West novel provides a more recent example when an enlightened Taoist patriarch instructs Sun Wukong "Monkey" with a poem that begins:

Know well this secret formula wondrous and true: Spare and nurse the vital forces, this and nothing else. All power resides in the semen [jing], the breath [qi], and the spirit [shen]; Guard these with care, securely, lest there be a leak. Lest there be a leak!

Keep within the body! (tr. Yu 1977:88)

Recognition in the West

Frederic H. Balfour's (1880:380-381) brief essay about the Xinyin jing ("The Imprint of the Heart") contains the earliest known Western reference to the Three Treasures:

"There are three degrees of Supreme Elixir – the Spirit, the Breath, and the Essential Vigour."

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Taoism, or Daoism, is a philosophical and spiritual tradition of Chinese origin which emphasizes living in harmony with the Tao. In Taoism, the Tao is the source, pattern and substance of everything that exists. Taoism teaches about the various disciplines for achieving "perfection" by becoming one with the unplanned rhythms of the all, called "the way" or "Tao". Taoist ethics vary depending on the particular school, but in general tend to emphasize wu wei, "naturalness", simplicity, spontaneity and the Three Treasures: 慈, "compassion", 儉, "frugality" and 不敢爲天下先, "humility".

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The Zuowanglun or Zuowang lun is a Taoist meditation text that was written by the Shangqing School patriarch Sima Chengzhen (647–735). Taoism incorporated many Buddhist practices during the Tang Dynasty (618–907), and the Zuowanglun combined meditation techniques from Taoism and Buddhism.

Taoist meditation Meditative practice

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Liu Yiming

Liu Yiming (1734–1821) was a Chinese ophthalmologist, philosopher, and writer. He was one of the main representatives of Taoist Internal Alchemy, or Neidan. He was an 11th-generation master of one of the northern branches of the Longmen 龍門 lineage, and the author of a large number of works that illustrate his views on both Taoism and Neidan.

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to Taoism:

<i>Neiye</i> Oldest Chinese received text

The c. 350 BCE Neiye 內業 or Inward Training is the oldest Chinese received text describing Daoist breath meditation techniques and qi circulation. After the Guanzi, a political and philosophical compendium, included the Neiye around the 2nd century BCE, it was seldom mentioned by Chinese scholars until the 20th century, when it was reevaluated as a "proto-Daoist" text that clearly influenced the Daode jing, Zhuangzi, and other classics. Neiye traditions also influenced Chinese thought and culture. For instance, it had the first references to cultivating the life forces jing "essence", qi "vital energy", and shen "spirit", which later became a fundamental concept in Daoist Neidan "internal alchemy", as well as the Three Treasures in traditional Chinese medicine.