The Taoist sages who developed Chinese tonic herbalism believe that humans are composed of three “Treasures:” or “san bao” (三寶); Jing (精), Qi (氣) and Shen (神).
These energies are called “treasures” by sages such as Laozi (founder of Taoism) and Confucius because they are the very basis of our life.
Each division or branch of Chinese medicine aims to regulate and nourish the Three Treasures as a foundation for balancing energy throughout the body. When Qi, Shen and Jing are balanced and strong we have the highest level of emotional, mental and physical strength. In this space of balance and strength, our spiritual life can flourish.
The Chinese and Daoist (Taoist) philosophy is founded on these principles of everything being primarily energetic, non-material, and in a never-ending state of change and transformation. Daoist sages were acutely aware of their energetic bodies and their lives were oriented towards cultivation and preservation of their energies.
The first treasure, Jing (essence, 精), is the original life force, the true Yang of life and root of our vitality. Early Chinese medical texts refer to Jing as the basis of the human body, the material that fosters our body’s development and sexual reproduction, as well as controlling our birth and growth, eventually waning as we age into death. In a broad sense, Jing gives our body form and substance and connects us to our ancestral past through the genetic code.
In the Chinese medicinal paradigm, Jing is classified into two types: Our genetic code, given to us by our mother and father is known as Pre-Heaven Jing (xian tian zhi Jing, 先天之精), literally the “Essence of Early Heaven”. This can be viewed as the stock that we are given as we enter this world. After birth, Post- Heaven Jing (hou tian zhi Jing, 後天之精) or “Essence of Later Heaven”, is the Jing that we will acquire ourselves, beginning at infancy, through intake of food, water and lifestyle choices.
At birth, our Jing determines the constitutional strength of the body, and a deficiency at an early age can be seen in slow growth or poor development of the brain, bones, teeth or structural deformities. In adults it manifests as impotence, lower back pain, deafness, balding, thinning or graying of the hair, and an early deterioration of the body and mind.
Jing cultivation is often just a lifestyle that promotes well-being— one that includes adequate rest, a healthy diet in accordance with the seasons, meditation, yoga or Qigong.
Chinese herbs also play an integral part in nourishing Jing. The most common Jing herbs are cordyceps, he shou wu, deer antler, eucommia bark and goji berries. Exhaustion of Jing, or “Jing depletion” as it is often called, is caused by stress, overwork, alcohol or drug intake, or excessive sexual activity.
One of the key intentions of tonic herbalism arises from an awareness of our Jing energy which is to age gracefully / prevent premature ageing. This isn't a superficial sort of anti-aging, this is about preserving our health through strong foundations in lifestyle, diet and herbal practice.
Qi (氣), or “vital energy” is the invisible life force within everything and behind all transformative processes of life. If Jing is the basis for the human body, Qi is the basis for the whole cosmos.
All movement and transformation within the Universe arises from Qi. It has many forms and functions and human life depends on its existence. We are continuously breathing Qi, eating Qi, and interacting with Qi in every moment of our lives. Our state of health depends on the condition of our Qi. Any lack or stagnation of it will cause imbalances in our body, creating dysfunction and disease in the organ systems. If Qi is depleted, we must nourish it and if there is too much, it must be moved.
Within our bodies, Qi has five basic functions: activating, warming, protecting, transforming and containing, all of which relate to one another.
It is said that Qi is the child of our Jing Essence, and when our Qi becomes strong, our Shen (Spirit) can shine bright
Shen, (神) known as “spirit-mind” manifests when the first two Treasures join together within the body, developing into the third Treasure. This is the energy behind our mental, creative and spiritual being, our consciousness and awareness, and that which connects us to the Divine. If, as the Daoists say, the meeting point of Heaven and Earth is Man, then Earth energy is the source of Jing and Qi and Heaven energy is the source of our Shen. It resides in the heart and can be seen through the eyes— as the saying goes, “The eyes are the windows to the soul.” Unlike Jing and Qi, Shen does not get passed on from our ancestors. The Shen is developed ourselves, in our daily lives, cultivated through meditation, music, dance, tea, art, writing, or any creative activity that aligns us with a higher state of consciousness.
Shen is expressed as acceptance, non-attachment, forgiveness, love, compassion, kindness, generosity and tolerance. It shows up as wisdom and grace, joy, and humility.
If Shen is weak, people become ruled by addictions and desires, or experience depression, anxiety or fears.
The way we relate to other people, or better yet, the way we relate to everything in this world creates a shift in our Shen. All thought, intention and interaction influences Shen, our spirit.
The reason tonic herbs are central to Taoist life cultivation is because the tonic herbs restore the Three Treasures (Jing, Qi and Shen).
Sun Simiao (581-682 A.D.) a prominent physician of the Tang Dynasty, consumed tonic herbs every day of his life until he died. He insisted on drinking Goji wine in the morning and at night, and he lived to be 101 years old.
Li Shizhen, arguably the greatest herbalist in the history of China and author of the "Compendium of Medical Herbs," consumed tonic herbs every day until they died. Sun Simiao lived to be over 100 years old and remained more than lucid until the end.
Xiao Peigen, the greatest herbologist of our modern era and semi-retired director of the Institute of Materia Plant Medica in Beijing was an avid user of anti-aging tonic herbs.