The Three Treasures is an ancient Taoist terminology and philosophy at the core of tonic herbalism. Diving into this beautiful concept helps us to understand tonic herbs on a deeper level, to understand our bodies, and how we can build substantial longevity. From The Three Treasures, we derive our intentions and purposefulness for our herbal practice. Before we dive into these three types of energies that together create the human body, we need to take a step back and see from where The Three Treasures emerge.
All energy is created through the interaction of Yin and Yang, from the brightest star to the smallest particle. The entire universe is composed of, at its foundational level, energy/Qi, including the human body.
The Chinese and Taoist philosophy is wholly founded on these principles of everything being primarily energetic, non-material, and in a never-ending state of change and transformation. This is, of course, now also being confirmed by modern physics.
It is at the core of the Taoist point of view that there is nothing between heaven and earth besides Qi and Tao (the laws and patterns of the universe that emerge through the intelligent / organised / chaotic flow of Qi.)
Considering that Qi embraces all life, as well as circulating and sustaining life itself, we can begin to sense the enormity of our reliance upon Qi energy. At the core, the Taoist path is an awareness, whereby part of the nature of life is to attract and absorb Qi from the environment and transform it so that we can expand and live the fullest life possible.
The more Qi that a living organism can accumulate, cultivate and utilise, the more vibrant and "successful" it will be (hand's up who wants Qi now!)
From a human perspective, if we are ineffective at gathering and cultivating Qi, the less vibrant our system will be, and therefore a higher susceptibility to degeneration and reliance on external institutions for our health will occur.
It is the purpose of Taoism and tonic herbalism to optimise our absorption and cultivation of Qi, by following the flow and laws of nature with our way of living.
Through observing nature, living organisms and the human body over millennia, who we call the Taoists observed that there are many types of “I” in the body and more importantly (in this context), three layers. Without giving them a label, the Taoists are simply humans wanting to live in accordance with nature and to be as healthy as possible. This wisdom and grassroots scientific observation led to the quintessential theory of Chinese philosophy that is known as The Three Treasures. The Three Treasures make up the constitution of our body and who we are as living beings in body, mind/energy and spirit. The Three Treasures are known as Jing, Qi and Shen. To translate these treasures we need many pages and many metaphors, however, they can be loosely translated in English as Essence, Vitality and Spirit.
The ultimate goal of the Taoist practices, from Qigong and yoga, to herbalism and meditation, is to harmonise, cultivate and expand these three energies.
A very old analogy, used since time immemorial, and taught to us by Master Teeguarden, would explain these concepts using a candle.The Jing is the wax and wick of the candle, it is extremely condensed energy that becomes material. The Qi is the flame likened to the energetic activity of the candle which when burning (alive) results in the burning down of the candle. The Shen is the light / radiance emanating from the lit candle. I’m going to use this analogy as we go on.
The larger the wax and wick, and the better the quality, the steadier / bigger and long-lasting the candle will be (remember the Jing / wax is your body.) When the flame is steady and large it will give off a greater and steadier light likened to your virtuous, spiritually-wise self shining through.
It's important to note here the distinctions in sustainable ways we can burn through our candle in life. Quite often people will develop practises and lifestyle flows to build their Jing / wax and enlarge their Qi / flame, and in the first few years of cultivation / creating a healthier lifestyle (or decades if you have a very strong constitution), you can feel wonderful. However, if you are doing this in an extreme, or excessive manner, without an ongoing ability to adjust based on the many facets of who you are and what you need (i.e staying ideological with your diet or exercise because of your identity being enmeshed in them), then you will not be burning your candle in a centred, steady manner.
Candle in a centred, steady manner (above) vs an unsteady leaking Jing candle (below)
You will instead, start to get too hot on one side, or weak on one side, and create a hole that the wax spills out from, rather than just staying put in the centre of the burning candle with strong walls and boundaries that keep the wax inside. This is known as leaking your Jing. What we want is the flame to burn bright and liquidise lots of the wax / Jing so you can explore and optimise your physical self, but we do not want to do this to the detriment of our long term health. Examples of this would be people who are strong and appear to be at the pinnacle of health, however, they live excessively and do not age well. Likewise, people who are married to a diet who feel great for 10 years until cracks start forming and because of their rigidity, they leak their Jing / wax.
Everything in life has Jing, Qi and Shen; planets, plants, cells etc. We are going to focus on The Three Treasures of the human being. Ok let's jump into each Treasure...
Jing is the primal energy of life. You can imagine that the wax of the candle is like your structure. Jing resides in your Kidneys and can be considered the battery pack (or savings account) of your body and your life. If you burn up all your Jing too early then you’re broke, which is also known as degeneration and death. When we are getting into tonic herbalism, we start with Jing. Generally in the West, that’s what we want to be working on because honestly, we’re all tapped out. Our adrenals are under pressure, our energy is low, life is stressful. But we don’t want to be relying on stimulants or stimulatory herbs and practices to survive. That’s a sure way to keep on tapping out your Jing which keeps you leaking Jing.
On the other side of that, when you build Jing and Jing is strong within your Kidneys and within your body, your lower back gets nice and strong, your knees get strong, your bones are strong, and you’re going to have a lot of capacity in them. The stamina, strength, and power return to your body. Our living tissues; the fascia, the connective tissue, are all aspects of that Treasure Jing. So we always start with Jing to ensure you have the foundation upon which to build your health. We've got a full article giving you the download on how to Cultivate Your Jing here. Jing is closely associated with our genetic potential, hormonal systems and the ageing process. The quality of Jing we inherit and cultivate over our lifetime determines the lifespan and vitality of one’s life. Jing is a highly concentrated energy. The purpose of taking Jing-supporting herbs is to maintain our Jing to prevent unnecessary physical degeneration and premature ageing and to support hormone function.
One of the key intentions of tonic herbalism arises from an awareness of our Jing energy which is to age gracefully / prevent premature ageing. We are not talking about the anti-ageing quick fix you get from creams that you found in a Cosmo magazine. We are talking about maintaining the foundations through an extremely smart and personalised lifestyle and herbal practice that ensures that at no point through your 40’s, 80’s and 90’s (hopefully), you are walking on eggshells with your health. Ensuring that you are keeping it sustainable so that you have foundational energy to keep genes expressing healthily and vital systems like digestion and immunity continue to flourish.
This isn’t pie in the sky, you know these people who have found their rhythm in life, they have conserved their Jing and exude life well into their later years. The biggest factor to stop leaking Jing and begin to cultivate what it is to live life sustainability (i.e super healthy sleep patterns, appropriate diet, sun exposure, hydration and movement for your constitution and stage of life).
When we are in careers, relationships, social circles etc that contradict our values and the energy of our body which is to flow, then this can also be a source of leaking Jing. The reason I created the JING blend was so you could get a nice well-balanced tonic to come in and pour that Jing energy in,you can check out the JING blend here. It is the Kidney water organ system that houses our Jing. And it is said that Qi is the child of Jing; so when Jing is strong and providing a foundation, Qi will flourish.
When we talk about Qi as a Treasure we are talking about the localised energy in the human body, not the narrative that everything in the universe is Qi / energy.
Jing lays the potential, the mobilisation of thoughts, the mobilisation of fluids, the mobilisation of electromagnetic currents through the channels of the body. That’s your Qi. That is your vitality for life to occur, it is the foundation from which Qi flows through and animates into life. Whereas Jing contains the blueprint for life within the genes, Qi is the inexplicable, ungraspable, intelligent force that flows through the material world and genetic potential, and sparks it into life, a.k.a "the spark in the machine".
Leading on to the flame of the candle; that’s the Qi. The second Treasure refers to our life-giving force, which is also closely related to the breath and the Blood. Qi is that living energy, prana, and its mobilisation within the body. When you have strong Qi, you have a nice flow through the organs, and the organs will be happy; they will smile. By Qi flowing through the meridians and accumulating within the major organ systems, you will also have a nice strong surface immunity and a vibrancy about you.
The Qi Treasure is most simply summed up and perceived as our vitality. Our Qi energy animates our physical body (Jing) and governs/activates all bodily function and thought. It is said that Qi is the child of our Jing Essence, and when our Qi becomes strong, our Shen (Spirit) can shine bright. Qi energy is the primary source for the functions responsible for nourishing and protecting the body, cells and primary organs.
It takes a combination of cyclical and never-ending cellular and energetic collaborations to produce and maintain a strong accumulation and flow of Qi within the body. However, for practical purposes, we can state that the Qi we use daily in our lives is initially derived from the food we eat being processed by the Spleen and the air we breathe being processed by the Lungs.
Qi is the aspect of our life that involves action, function and thought. It is the source of our vitality, and it nourishes, heals, and protects us. Qi herbs help us feel energised, support our circulation and help us to repair and renew our cells.
Qi is derived from the air, the sunlight and the food we consume. The herbs in the QI blend are prized for their ability to amplify the conversion of these elements and processes to deliver more Qi to the body system daily. Through the tonification of Spleen Qi and Lung Qi, in particular, the herbs in the QI blend work deeply on the body’s digestive and respiratory powers. We cultivate Qi with the intention to increase the body’s capacity to build and move Blood, eliminate stagnation and regulate temperature and fluid level.
Qi governs blood, and blood will follow Qi, to remedy circulatory issues, or simply maintain a well-nourished body and cellular system. We must maintain a robust flow of Qi, one that will inspire the Blood to saturate its entire cellular landscape. When Qi is able to expand its reach within the physical and energetic bodies, there is a greater potential for tissue healing, protection and regeneration.
We cultivate Qi with the intention to increase the body’s capacity to build and move Blood, eliminate stagnation and regulate temperature and Fluid level.
Many of the Qi tonic herbs are known for their ability to promote wound healing and regenerate flesh (especially Astragalus). This is primarily due to the herb’s ability to increase the circulation and flow of Qi throughout the body. This action naturally enhances the flow of nutrient-rich blood to the deficient or wounded site, as blood follows Qi.
Many people in the West experience Spleen deficiencies or Damp Spleen due to constitutional weakness, poor/inappropriate diet and lifestyle stress. Weak digestion, loose stools and Fluid retention are all signs of Spleen deficiency.
A nourishing diet and Qi herbs like White Atractylodes and Poria play a primary role, working to nourish the Spleen, increase the digestive fire and drain excess Fluid/Damp without over-drying.
When we consume a nourishing diet, the Spleen is able to harvest an abundance of Qi, and send it to be combined with the Qi we inhale when the breath is drawn deeply into the Lungs. This is our daily Qi. Once created, this Qi is sent to the surface of our body to protect us (the Yang expression), and through the meridians to nourish the inner organs (the Yin expression) - this occurrence in the body is referred to as the Wei Qi. If the Spleen and Lung systems are functioning well, the body is able to operate solely on this daily currency of Qi, rather than drawing on its deeper reserves (Jing). Running on Qi, not Jing, in our daily lives is a key factor in the longevity of our health and subsequent happiness.
Change is movement and Qi is the organisational force that accompanies all movement. At any change of season (physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually) or in any stressful or progressive period, the QI blend can help us to cultivate the adaptability and body-mind connection required to embody a new way of being.
During any significant period of change, the body can become vulnerable. As an immune tonic, the QI blend fortifies the body’s defenses, offering protection against any opportunistic pathogenic invasion that may occur at this time.
People take Qi herbs or partake in Qi cultivation exercise like Taoist yoga, Qigong and pranayama when they feel lethargic and find themselves running out of vitality throughout the day. The QI blend is for those who don’t become completely exhausted but feel like they lose their daily energy too fast and then require pick me ups such as coffee or sugar etc, especially during the afternoon.
The third Treasure is Shen. Shen is the light/radiance being given off by the flame of the candle. Shen is our spirit, or our highest consciousness; the wisdom that we want to share with the world. Shen is most commonly translated as spirit, but may also be translated as our highest consciousness, or source consciousness. It is generally the end goal of a Taoist to build their Shen. Shen is expressed as our most virtuous nature. When we further embody acceptance, non-attachment, forgiveness, love, compassion, kindness, generosity and tolerance, we consider this to be an expression of Shen. It manifests itself as our wisdom and our ability to see all sides of an issue without the influence of right or wrong interpretations.
If Shen is weak, people become ruled by addictions and desires, or suffer depression, anxiety and morality. It is important to note that Shen is not considered to be an emotional state or state of mind. Shen rises above all the important aspects of who we are and when shining from our heart, allows us to integrate our experiences in order for them to be distilled into wisdom. Ultimately we learn to walk through life with a more loving nature.
When you imagine the spirit living in the heart, you must ensure that your heart is a welcoming home and an inviting space. If you wish for your Shen to continue to grow throughout your life, the greater you know yourself, the more you can evolve this home within your heart and the more authenticity can shine through. The Heart is the element of fire, and fire is the centre of the earth, of the spirit. When our fire is running too hot with excessive fiery emotions (especially joy and excitement), a Yang lifestyle, or being in a constant state of fight or flight, the fire burns too hot and the spirit can't rest comfortably. When the fire runs low, it becomes a cold, unwelcoming home for the spirit. This can be when we are living without passion or when we are ignoring our inner wisdom/intuition.
In general when we ignore the laws of nature and become excessive in one way or another of living (diet, emotion, sex, work etc), then the Shen will be stifled. The core of the Taoist path and for those humans wishing to reach their innate potential is to be of contribution and achieve their own version of longevity and happiness through living in accordance and unified with nature (both our external natural environment and our true nature). This is the ultimate path.
Selfishness and excessive ego are known as the ultimate hindrance to the development of Shen. It can be a funny paradox when starting out tonic herbalism in that the initial intentions of the individual are all about “me”, preserving “my” beauty, seeking longevity due to fear of death, when all of these things can be a dampening of the inner wisdom that is Shen. However it is an entry point and is part of the path. As you move down the track and you alter your lifestyle so that you are not leaking Jing and you replenish your Kidney Essence. When you begin to know thyself and how your lifestyle flow must look so that you can cultivate and circulate strong Qi, you realise that the development of Shen does not come from your own personal gain but from what you give, offer and share. The flow occurs this way from Jing to Qi to Shen because it is only appropriate to give that which is overflowing from your cup.
Many of the most famous tonic herbs are Shen tonics, that support the anchoring and opening up of one's Shen. Other Shen tonics are “stabilisers” and help bring harmony to our emotions and nervous system fluctuations so that Shen isn't suppressed through excessive swings of the pendulum. Just like the Shen tonics were used by many of the sages and spiritual seekers in their quest to find their own forms of enlightenment and to come into harmony with their God, nature and all humankind. They have been used for thousands of years to help in the quest for enlightenment, to connect the user to the higher realms of consciousness.Shen
"When the shoe fits, the foot is forgotten.
When the belt fits, the belly is forgotten.
And when the Heart [shen] is right, 'For' and 'against' are forgotten"
Jing and Qi are fundamental to strong Shen energy as they provide a balanced body to exist in and the energy to devote to spiritual and personal growth.
Build that Jing, get that energy and stamina. Then when we have a nice strong body, a resilient body, a body that has stamina, then we will have strong Qi. We will then have the ability to circulate Fluids throughout our bodies. When you’re circulating, you stay nice, fresh, healthy and vibrant - the vitality and electromagnetic currents of the body are nice and strong. And then, when that is in place, you can be present within yourself, you can unify the mind and the body, and access your Shen in spirit.
The reason tonic herbs are tonic and so revered, is because they work on balancing, harmonising and building these Three Treasures; they are historically the herbs seen to cultivate health and longevity with the most efficacy.
Some herbs like he shou wu will just be working on Jing, a Yin Jing, a feminine, replenishing tonic for the Kidneys. Others, such as Astragalus and Turkey Tail are just a Qi tonic. But some nourishall Three Treasures, such as Reishi mushroom, which is somewhat of a Jing tonic, somewhat of a Qi tonic, but especially a Shen tonic. This is why the Taoists would use Reishi in their meditative practices, and when they would explore and want to get the best out of themselves, or to extract that wisdom from themselves, in order for them to really understand what this universe and this world is about.
If you want more of this type of theory, then join us on our free Tonic Herbalism 101 Course. You will learn about the foundations of the Taoist theory, why we source the way we do, and how to integrate tonic herbs into your daily life.
A quick note here: I like getting herbs wild and semi-wild crafted because they’re exposed to the elements and when you’re taking that wild food in, you’re really connecting to those elements. You’re really connecting to that wild energy, and they have the ability and capacity to then build and tone these Treasures. Basically, when the herbs are grown and gathered Di Tao, the herb contains the treasure that it can then pass onto the body.
If you want a reminder crash course on what are tonic herbs, then check out ourWhat Are Tonic Herbs article here.
The reason that Qi herbs are such a staple; I think it has a lot to do with this idea that's been entrenched in Chinese philosophy, in Taoist philosophy: humans being this bridge between Heaven, Sky, and Earth.