San Bao - the Three Treasures


Most Taoist arts, including Tai Chi and the other internal martial arts, also qigong, speak of the ancient formula known as San Bao or the ‘Three Treasures’ - these are Jing, Qi and Shen. The aim in all Taoist arts is to transform jing into qi, and then qi into shen, and finally shen into the Dao or Emptiness (Fig. 12.1). One way this formula can be interpreted is to convert coarse bodily energy into refined psycho-physical energy, and psycho-physical energy into spiritual energy. This again can be seen as a process of increasingly higher levels of integration of energy.

Jing in Mandarin literally means semen, so some interpret the formula to mean conservation of sexual essence and then sublimation of this into qi. To a certain extent this is a valid interpretation because one needs a lot of nervous energy to meditate and do qi work - so sexual abstinence can help. A broader interpretation, however, is that sexual activity, like copulating, involves a lot of coarse, physical energy, as in a couple thrashing about in bed in the throes of sexual passion. It is a metaphor for gross, physical strength – pounding heart, heavy breathing - which the internal arts and qigong are trying to go beyond. As mentioned earlier in the book, boxers also often practice abstinence to prevent dissipating their strength before a fight.

Qi can be defined as psycho-physical energy, a more refined energy that can be developed through mind-body integration - a soft, loose, elastic (in a word, relaxed) bodily strength with an element of psychological will or intent and projection essential to it. Shen refers to the still more refined spiritual energies that are released when mind and body become more completely integrated. As a result of this degree of integration, higher states of consciousness, for example, in meditation can emerge[2].

Hence the process involves a passage from the physical to the psychological and the psychological to the spiritual. The spiritual can then lead to the transcendental, known in the San Bao formula as transforming Shen into the Dao or Emptiness. This is becoming one with the Dao (Tao) (one with the ‘Way’ of all things) in Taoism, and is referred to as Enlightenment in both Taoism and Buddhism. 

Tai Chi aims at the integration/harmonization of body, mind and spirit, which is just a modern description of the san bao formula. For example, we were taught to do the form three times – once for the body, once for the mind, and once for the spirit. Each is usually done slower as you move from the physical to the spiritual level. These three levels have been described by John Ding as the three human conflicts – Body, Mind and Spirit.

You start with the body form and discover that you are not very physically integrated. For example, we often have poor posture, poor breathing, poor balance and are usually locked up in patterns of holding, stiffness and tension.  The body form works on transforming awkward movement into natural, graceful whole-body movement.

Then we learn the mind form wherein the form is done with the mind-intent (xin-yi) as the driving force, like putting the driver in the car. This is the most difficult part of training because the mind wanders and this is because we are not psychologically integrated, we are easily and chronically distracted. When the bodily energies become integrated and the mental energies become integrated with them, then the two become infused into one, and the spiritual level is born. Again we see ever increasing levels of integration going on.

One pithy formula I have come across to describe this process is as follows:

The generative force (jing) changes into vitality (qi) when the body is still;

vitality changes into spirit (shen) when the heart is unstirred;

The first line implies to me the cultivation of bodily relaxation in standing qigong (Zhan Zhuang or standing Chan (Zen)), or sitting meditation, necessary to accomplish transformation of jing to qi. The second implies the practice of ethics, so that the heart (emotion) is not stirred up, and the practice of meditation to calm the mind. These two practices are closely connected. We have described this process as the three regulations or adjustments - regulating the body, the breath and the mind so as to achieve state of inner harmony, coherence and optimal psycho-somatic functionality.


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