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The body is the temple of life. Energy is the force of life. Spirit is the governor of life. If one of them goes off balance, all three are damaged. When the spirit takes command, the body naturally follows it, and this arrangement benefits all Three Treasures. When the body leads the way, the spirit goes along, and this harms all Three Treasures.
(first century BC)
All humans are born into this world endowed with the three precious treasures of life, by virtue of which we are able to exist, function, and think. These treasures compose our inherent natural legacy, and the degree to which we protect and preserve them determines the state of our health and the span of our lives. Those who squander and abuse the precious treasures of life suffer the poverty of chronic disease and premature death, while those who cultivate and conserve them enjoy the riches of health and longevity.
Taoist tradition of China contains the world's longest ongoing record of scientific inquiry, spanning a period of at least 5,000 years. Since ancient times, health and longevity have always ranked among the foremost fields of interest studied by Taoist adepts, who view the human organism as a microcosm of the universe, complete with its own internal 'heaven' and 'earth', its own
'climate' and 'seasons', its own cyclic transformations and natural interplay of universal energies.
In the Taoist view, the Three Treasures upon which life depends are essence
Essence refers to the physical body of blood and flesh, including all its basic material constituents, particularly the essential fluids such as hormones,
enzymes, and neurotransmitters. Energy is the primal life force which suffuses every cell and tissue of the living body and activates its vital functions.
Spirit encompasses all aspects of the mind, both human and primordial,
including awareness and cognition, thought and feeling, will and intent.
Together the Three Treasures
also known as the Three Marvels
function as a single organic unit.
Each of the Three Treasures has two fundamental aspects, known in Taoist terminology as 'prenatal'
or primordial and temporal. The prenatal aspects are the pure qualities which precede birth and infuse the fertilized embryo at the moment of conception. The postnatal aspects are the temporal manifestations which develop after birth,
beginning at the moment the umbilical cord is cut and the infant draws its first breath of air. Prenatally, the Three Treasures are a formless,
indivisible unit, but after birth they separate and take on their respective temporal aspects, thereby becoming vulnerable to depletion and decay. One of the primary purposes of Taoist alchemy is to restore the prenatal unity and primordial purity of essence, energy, and spirit in order to prevent disease and degeneration of the postnatal human organism, retard the aging process, and prolong life.
There is really no great mystery to Taoist alchemy. It is simply a matter of learning how to employ the mind to harness energy and thereby regulate essential biochemical transformations and vital organ functions in the body. Most people passively permit environmental, emotional, and physical stimuli to govern their essence and energy; Taoists actively use their minds to master their energy,
and their energy to control their essence. By regaining access to the latent primal powers of our minds, we can learn how to apply 'mind over matter' in order to guard the health and longevity of our bodies.
Taoist alchemy reverses the constant, debilitating depletion of essence, energy, and spirit caused by ordinary life in the material world and transforms it into a process of accretion that preserves the Three Treasures and prolongs life. This is a process which anyone can learn and practise, but it requires a basic familiarity with the universal principles that govern human life and its natural environment. The only qualifications required to become a Taoist adept are the will and the discipline to take full command of your own energy, full control of your own body, and full responsibility for your own life. The rest is simply a matter of method.
Essence refers to the most highly refined substances which constitute the human body,
the basic stuff of corporeal life. Also translated as 'vitality', essence is a form of potential energy, like battery fluid, from which the body draws energy as required. In its prenatal aspect, essence is the primal creative force of the cosmos, the universal urge to procreate and perpetuate. Each individual receives a fixed measure of this prenatal essence from the fusion of sperm and ovum provided by father and mother. After birth, as the body develops, this primal essence is stored in what the Chinese call the 'kidney glands' (adrenal cortex) as well as in male and female sexual secretions and reproductive organs. It is passed on to the next generation through sexual reproduction and is therefore regarded as immortal and self-perpetuating.
Postnatal essence is refined and synthesized from nutrients extracted from food and water and is stored primarily in the liver, blood, and marrow. It takes form as very pure and potent fluids such as hormones, enzymes, neurotransmitters,
cerebrospinal fluid, lymphatic fluid, blood plasma, and other biochemical essences. It manifests itself as gender and sexuality, provides strength,
vitality, and immunity, and is most easily depleted in men through excessive loss of semen, in women through menstruation, and in both genders through chronic stress, malnutrition, and illness. Postnatal essence resides in the sacrum and is closely associated with sexual and digestive functions.
Energy is the vital force that activates every function and drives every process in the human body, voluntary as well as involuntary. It is like the electric current running through a computer: without it none of the functions works. In its prenatal aspect, energy is the primal power that pervades the entire universe, where it manifests itself as heat, light, motion, and other universal energies. Postnatal energy manifests itself in humans as the various energies associated with the major organ systems, and as body heat, breath, pulse, and other forms of bioenergetics. Postnatal energy is polar and electromagnetic and is characterized by constant activity and transformation.
Humans derive primal prenatal energy from two sources. One is from the transformation of the prenatal essence stored in the adrenal cortex and sexual glands. This is called
('primordial energy'), and every individual is born with a limited supply of it. Converting prenatal glandular essence into primal energy requires an advanced form of
Taoist alchemy known as
('internal work'). The other source of prenatal energy is called
which refers to the sky and the cosmos beyond. Cosmic energies from the sky enter the body through the top of the head, while light is assimilated through the skin and eyes.
The source of postnatal energy is called
which refers to food, water, herbs, and other material supplements, as well as air. Dietary elements are digested to extract vital nutrients, which the body then transforms into energy. Energy from the air is absorbed through the lungs and may be cultivated with a simple form of Taoist breathing exercise called
('energy work'). When air energy from the lungs blends in the blood with earth energy from the digestive system, it forms what is known as 'True Human Energy', the fundamental force of temporal human life.
Human energy resides in the chest and is closely associated with breathing and blood circulation, heart and lungs. Taoist medical texts state that 'energy leads blood', which means that blood flows wherever energy goes and that blood circulation may therefore be controlled by regulating breath. This is a fundamental principle of
Spirit refers to the mind and all its various facets and functions. Prenatal spirit is the primordial 'mind of Tao', the immortal soul, the original light of consciousness. It is the eternal spark of awareness which 'is not born and does not die'. It is immaterial, luminous, and resides in the heart.
Postnatal spirit manifests itself as thought and sensory awareness, psyche and personality, ego and the notion of self. Although the original mind of Tao is open, undifferentiated, non-dualistic, and perfectly still, its temporal manifestation in the human mind is closed, discriminating, dualistic, and ever agitated. The postnatal human mind resides in the head and expresses itself through the cerebral functions of the brain.
Every human being possesses the primordial mind of Tao within his or her heart, but very few are aware of it. Because of the self-deluding obscurations the human mind creates from sensory perceptions and conflicting emotional reactions, most people remain blind to the light of their own primordial spirit until the moment of death, when everyone gets a sudden glimpse of it. The higher stages of esoteric Taoist alchemy and meditation teach us how to control our senses,
calm our emotions, and balance our energies, so that we may look tranquilly inwards beyond the human mind in order to restore awareness of the primordial mind of Tao. This awareness enhances life and also prepares us for death. Since primordial spirit is the only aspect of mind that 'is not born and does not die', those who know it do not fear death, and this knowledge gives them perfect freedom and equanimity in life.
Taoist sage Lu Tung-ping, who lived during the Tang dynasty (AD 618—905) and is still revered as one of the great progenitors of Taoist philosophy,
described the Three Treasures as follows, translated here by Thomas Cleary:
Vitality: In heaven, vitality is the Milky Way, it is the light of the sun, moon, and stars,
it is rain and dew, sleet and hail, snow and frost. On earth it is water,
streams, rivers, oceans, springs, wells, ponds, and marshes. In people it is vitality, the root of essence and life, the body of blood and flesh.
Energy: In heaven, energy is substance and form, yin and yang, the movement of the sun,
moon, and stars, the processes of waxing and waning; it is clouds, mist, fog,
and moisture; it is the heart of living beings, evolution and development. On earth, it is power, fuel, the pith of myriad beings, the source of mountain streams; it is life-giving and killing, activating and storing; it is the passage of time, flourishing and decline, rising and falling, sprouts and sprout sheaths. In humans it is energy, physical movement, activity, speech,
and perception; it is use of the body, the gateway of death and life.
Spirit: In heaven, spirit is the pivot, the true director, the silent mover; it is the essence of the sun, moon, and stars; it is the wind blowing, thunder pealing;
it is compassion and dignity; it is the force of creation, the basis of the origin of beings. On earth, it is ability, communion, opening; it is the shapes of myriad species, mountains and waters; it is peace and quietude, the source of stability; it is calm, warmth, and kindness. In humans, it is the spirit,
the light in the eyes, thought in the mind; it is wisdom and intelligence,
innate knowledge and capacity; it is the government of vitality and energy,
awareness and understanding; it is the basis of the physical shell, the foundation of the life span.
Three Treasures are one aspect of the fundamental trinity which runs throughout
Taoist philosophy and esoteric practices. Anatomically, the Three Treasures of essence, energy, and spirit 'reside' in the sacrum, thorax, and brain, where they manifest respectively as fluids, breath, and thought. Energetically, the
Three Treasures are associated with three power points known as 'elixir fields'
which are the focal points of esoteric Taoist alchemy. Essence pools in the Lower
Elixir Field, located behind and a bit below the navel, and its alchemical name is 'water'. Energy collects in the Middle Elixir Field in the chest and is associated with breath, pulse, and speech. Its alchemical identity is 'fire'.
Postnatal spirit is housed in the Upper Elixir Field, located behind the point between the eyebrows, and is associated with the pituitary and pineal glands and the hypothalamus. In Taoist alchemy it is known as the 'embryo'.
the Three Treasures originate in the 'Three Powers' of heaven, earth, and humans. Heaven is the source of spirit, and earth is the source of the essential elements which constitute the human body. Humans, who stands between heaven and earth, are the source of the unique force known as True Human
Energy, which fuses the spirit of heaven with the essence of earth to form the human body and manifest the human mind.
All humans are born replete with the full potential of their innate primordial powers. During the ordinary course of life on earth, the demands and distractions of the temporal postnatal world gradually deplete essence,
dissipate energy, and exhaust spirit, undermining health and hastening death.
Most people are constantly distracted by the demands of the body and its insatiable appetites for food, sex, and entertainment. Rather than treasuring their bodies as 'temples of the spirit', they abuse them to satisfy their animal appetites. Indeed, most people these days take better care of their cars than they do of their bodies, spend money more carefully than they spend energy, and devote more time and attention to television than to their own minds. They pollute their essential bodily fluids with denatured foods and toxic drugs, deplete their energy with chronic stress and emotional turmoil,
and exhaust their spirits with the myriad distractions and desire of worldly life. Even those who profess interest in spiritual life often fail to make significant progress simply because they neglect to take the first crucial step of cleaning up their acts on the levels of essence and energy. When essence is polluted and energy unbalanced, spirit grows dim and weak.
Taoist alchemy reverses this process of depletion first by purifying and preserving essence, then by balancing and conserving energy, and finally by cultivating and concentrating spirit. Through an esoteric alchemical process known as
'Triplex Unity', purified essence is converted into energy, which is then raised and refined through the higher energy centres until it reaches the brain, where it is again transformed to nurture spirit.
Classification of Therapies,
Taoist medical text written 2,000 years ago, states:
'Spirit is sustained by energy, and energy is obtained from the transformation of essence. Essence transforms into energy, and energy transforms into spirit.'
When sufficiently clarified, energized, and rejuvenated, the human mind is able to restore its long-lost connection with its own primordial powers, thereby recharging the postnatal aspects of the Three Treasures with their prenatal antecedents. This is called 'returning to the source'. Through careful control and patient cultivation of the temporal aspects of essence, energy, and spirit manifested in human life, the adept of Taoist alchemy restores a direct link with the infinite primordial power of the universal mind of Tao.
Balance and harmony
Balance and harmony are pivotal points in the Taoist way of life. Health and longevity depend entirely upon the maintenance of optimum balance and harmony among the
Three Treasures, among the energies of the vital organs, and between the human body and its natural environment.
According to the Taoist view, disease and degeneration are caused not so much by external invasion as by 'letting down one's guard'. Germs, toxins, and 'evil energies'
are ever present in our environment, but they can only gain entry and cause damage to a body whose immunity and resistance are impaired by negligence and improper lifestyle. Health and longevity are sustained not by doctors and drugs but by carefully guarding the Three Treasures of life, and the onset of any disease is a clear indication of one's own failure to maintain a strong defence system.
The way to balance and harmony is to live in accord rather than in conflict with nature. The universal principles of the primordial Tao manifest themselves on earth in the form of Mother Nature, who flawlessly follows and clearly reflects the Tao's cyclic patterns. Therefore, Taoists learn the Way by observing and emulating nature. Those who conform to nature and learn how to harness its powers flourish and live long. Those who defy nature and try to pervert its powers for profit and pleasure degenerate and die early.
The primary principle of nature is constant change and ceaseless flux. These changes and fluctuations are neither arbitrary nor chaotic. They are cyclic and follow predictable patterns. The universal principles of yin and yang, the
Three Treasures, the Five Energies, and other cyclic patterns manifest themselves clearly throughout nature, and by studying them the adept learns how to adapt himself or herself to the world and thrive through thick and thin.
Rigid attachment to habitual behaviour, material objects, and fixed ideas runs contrary to the Tao and blocks one's capacity to adapt to an ever-changing world. Flexibility, spontaneity, and complete freedom of thought and action are the only ways to respond successfully to the constant flux of nature and thus live in accord with the Tao.
The modern world operates under the foolish misconception that science and technology can 'conquer nature', thereby permitting human beings to indulge their every whim and fancy. We cut down forests and plunder the seas, pollute the air we breathe and poison the water we drink, contaminate our bodies with artificial foods and synthetic drugs, and stunt our minds with trivial distractions and unnatural notions. The net result of this battle between nature and humans is a hostile environment that subverts rather than supports human life, and the ultimate losers are humans. The human body is a highly evolved product of nature, so it is obvious that if we destroy our natural habitat we also destroy ourselves, and no degree of science or technology can save us from such self-destruction. Our only hope is to call a truce and restore our long-disrupted harmony with nature, and this is how the ancient Tao can best serve the modern world. The Tao provides us with all we need to know to live in accord with nature, to benefit from the trinity of heaven, earth,
and humans, and to protect the precious treasures of essence, energy, and spirit upon which our lives depend.
most people spend their entire lives travelling the path of dissipation,
without ever realizing that it is the quickest shortcut to the grave. As the sage Lu Tung-pin put it:
The human body is composed entirely of essence, energy, and spirit. If you do not cherish your essence and dissipate it recklessly, it is like pouring water into a cracked cup. Instead of filling the cup, it will leak away until it is depleted to the last drop. If you do not cherish your energy and dissipate it carelessly, it is like putting incense on hot coals and continuously adding fuel to the fire until the incense has burned to ashes. If you do not cherish your spirit and dissipate it indiscriminately, it is like setting a lamp out in the wind unprotected and letting the wind blow on the flame until it is extinguished.
Tao offers a viable alternative to the self-destructive behaviour of 'life in the fast lane', an alternative path that leads to health and longevity,
prevents disease and degeneration, cultivates wisdom, and protects the Three
Treasures. The Taoist way of life need not be boring or ascetic; in fact,
Taoists usually get a lot more out of life than ordinary people, including the pleasures of food and sex, precisely because they understand both the limitations and the full possibilities of nature. Yet few people follow this path, not because it is hidden or obscure, but because it is a path that must be travelled slowly, step by step, entirely under one's own power, driven only by virtue of one's own discipline and determination. It is a path of total freedom and independence, but few people are willing to exercise the sort of self-restraint and self-reliance which such freedom demands. As Hu Szu-hui,
physician to the emperor of China, wrote in his medical manual in 1330:
Men of high antiquity knew the Tao and patterned their lives on the harmony of yin and yang, living in complete accordance with the rhythms of nature. They observed moderation in food and drink, regularity in their daily lives, and they did not recklessly overstrain themselves. Consequently they lived long lives. But people today are different. Their daily lives are irregular, they eat and drink indiscriminately without knowing what to avoid, and they do not observe moderation. They give themselves over to dissipation, indulge freely in richly flavoured foods, ignore the Golden Mean, and are perpetually dissatisfied with what they have. Consequently most people today are ruined before the age of fifty.
Taoist tree of health
Taoist tradition of China contains the world's most complete and effective system of preventive health care, based on thousands of years of empirical observation and scientific experimentation. This ancient system of health and longevity is like a grand old tree rooted deeply in the fertile soil of traditional Taoist philosophy. Regardless which branch of the tree you cultivate, they all sprout from the same roots, and each branch bears fruit that contains the seed of the entire tree.
The roots of this venerable tree are the fundamental philosophical principles of the primordial Tao and its earthly manifestations. These theoretical roots include the Great Principle of Yin and Yang, the Three Treasures of life, the
Four Foundations of health, the Five Energies, and so forth, and they are elucidated in this book in Part I: The Roots.
From these roots the tree branches upwards to form the three great limbs of the
Taoist trinity: the Three Treasures of essence, energy, and spirit. Each of these limbs branches further into the various stems of practice, such as diet and nutrition, herbs and acupuncture, breathing and exercise, dual and solo sexual yoga, meditation and internal alchemy. These are discussed in detail in
Part II: The Branches.
From the branches and stems of the tree grow the healthy fruits of practice, the beneficial results obtained by cultivating the Taoist way of life. This rich harvest includes health and vitality, physical longevity and spiritual immortality, mental clarity and emotional equanimity. They are covered in Part
III: The Fruits.
In addition, there are chapters on modern hybrids of the ancient tree, such as the
'New Medicine' and 'New Alchemy', and a section on 'Precious Prescriptions',
including formulas for Chinese herbal tonics to enhance essence and elevate energy, therapeutic foods for health and longevity, and a selected list of
Chinese patent medicines that provide safe and effective relief for common ailments.
Chinese tradition, health is a branch of philosophy rooted in the same universal principles that govern cosmology and chemistry, agriculture and astronomy, physics and pharmacology, and all other natural sciences. The human body is viewed as a self-contained microcosm of the universe, and various parts and appendages are treated more in terms of their functional relationships than their anatomical forms. In the Taoist system of thought, insights into such fundamental natural phenomena as solar and lunar cycles and seasonal changes also provide parallel insight into the workings of the human body. The common denominator which links all natural phenomena and balances all equations is energy, the dynamic power of the universe. Energy is the force which gives form its function, the link between mind and matter, the medium through which humans interact with the invisible powers of heaven and their visible manifestations on earth. It is the pervasive force and transformational power of energy that binds all objects and activities in nature into one organic system of form and function. That universal system is simply called the 'Way', or 'Tao', and human life flourishes or declines to the extent that it stays on or strays from the