Free Content

Daoist Meditation Lesson Seven Theory: Three Treasures and the Circulation of Water and Fire

Daoist Meditation Lesson Seven Theory: The Three Treasures and the Circulation of Water and Fire.

The Three Treasures: Jing, Qi & Shen

The concept of Jing was Introduced in Lesson Two. It might be a good idea to go back and read about Qi and Jing, as it will aid the current discussion.

Jing is the material basis for the physical body, its physical infrastructure. Therefore it nourishes, moistens and fuels the body. Jing produces the bone marrow and is the foundation of the blood and fluids of the body. Jing is energetically related to semen in men and the uterus and ovum in women. According to Chinese Medicine, Jing is the basal root of the body’s energy. It is stored in the kidneys and the Dantian. The character for Jing contains the radical for a grain of rice on the left and then references the character for Sheng (life) over that of Dan as in Dantian.


This image is of an uncooked grain of rice as the seed of life being contained in the Dantian. As we saw earlier, the Chinese character for Qi also contains a grain of rice with vapors rising from it. The image is of rice cooking in a pot, producing steam. The vapor is seen as a kind of energy or force, produced by a cooking or refining process.

Qi 氣

Qi is true breath (Qi/Breath) permeating the whole body. It is the movement, change and transformation that permeates the body and is directly connected to movement and change in Heaven and Earth and in the universe around us. Jing and Qi/Breath are interdependent. Hence Jing is often referred to as Jingqi. The formation of the Qi/Breath is dependant on the Jing, and the Jing is in turn nourished by the transformative actions of the Qi/Breath. Qi/Breath, when descending, is transformed into Jing,  just as Heaven’s vapor becomes rain. When Jing rises, it is transformed into Qi/Breath (vapor), just as water evaporates to becomes clouds.

Jing and Qi/Breath must unite for there to be Shen (spirit/divine essence). Shen is an essential part of our vitality, it is our connection to the numinous, but at the same time it is both a product and a part of the ongoing bodily change and transformation that is rooted in the material body. The character for Shen references the radicals representing an altar and cultivated fields.

Shen    神

Shen combines 礻(示 shi) “altar” and 申 (shen), a phonetic related to 田 (tian) or cultivated field. [1] Stuart Alve Olsen states that the vertical line running through 申, symbolizes the connection of heaven and earth. [2]

Jing, Qi and Shen are referred to collectively as the Three Treasures (San Bao). The three treasures are interdependent, hence they are often referred to together as Jingshen (精神), Essence –Spirit (spirit derived from essence) or Shenqi  (神氣), Spirit-Qi/Breath. Jing and Qi/Breath must unite for there to be Shen. The embrace of two essences creates spirit. In nature this is called the coupling of Heaven and Earth – the essences of Heaven uniting with essences of Earth. [3] In human beings, it is the union of the essences of the parents  creating a new being: When two seminal essences strike against each other, it is spoken of as spirit. [4] Through the spirit (Shen), human beings are capable of perceiving their own experiences and all transformation and change occurring both within and without. Through the spirit, human beings are capable of perceiving the numinous.

Shen is stored in the heart and radiates out through the whole body. The radiance of the Shen, manifests through the light, the brightness (shenming 神明: “spirit brightness”) shining out of a person’s eyes. The mind-intention (Yi), is part of the Shen. It is associated with the heart and enables us to make and initiate plans. However, we need the will (Zhi), associated with the kidneys to carry out these plans and see them through. In Chinese medicine the Qi/Breath and Jing of the kidneys provide the willpower to follow through to completion. Hence the statement in the Ling Shu:

When the heart applies itself we speak of intent;

When Intent becomes permanent we speak of will. [5]

Inter-Penetration and Inter-Transformation of Jing, Qi and Shen

Jing is converted into Qi/Breath, which is refined and raised up to the brain. During this process Shen is nurtured. Shen manifests itself through the intent.  Intent in turn leads the Qi-Breath. Just as water can be transformed into steam, Shen and intention can transform Qi/Breath and blood into Jing. At conception, the meeting of the essences of the father and mother produces the Shen, which enters into the fetus, giving rise to the Qi/ Breath, which then in turn engenders Jing.  As one grows older, Daoist practices aim at reversing this order: refining Jing and transforming it into Qi/Breath which then fills, animates and  stimulates the body, becoming Shen. This process nourishes life, revitalizing one’s consciousness and very existence. [6]


In Daoist meditation, for practical purposes, we can say that there is a lower, middle and upper Dantian.  Employing this model:

1)    Jing is associated  with the sacrum, the Lower Dantian and Mingmen -Lower Dantian

2)    Qi/Breath is associated with the Middle Dantian, the breath, and the pulse. The Middle Dantian is just above the solar plexus between the breasts.

3)    Shen resides in place behind center of the eyebrows, the Niwan (mudball) or brain: the Upper Dantian


The inter-transformation of the Three Treasures and their relationship to the three Dantian is clearly illustrated in the diagram below adapted from Qi Gong Essentials for Health Promotion by Jiao Guorui.[7]


The Inseparability of the Three Treasures

Jing, Qi/Breath and Shen are inseparable from each other. They are less individual entities than an indivisible process of transmutation. Qi/Breath lies at the very center of this process. It is the middle connecting element, the ceaseless movement and transformation, the energetic breath that fills everything between Heaven and Earth. In the Huang Di Nei Jing (Inner Cannon of The Yellow Emperor) it says:

The wise observe their sameness, the foolish observe their differences. “The wise observe their sameness” means that Essence, Breath and Spirit are a single entity and operate with each other. The transformation of the three is achieved by the transformation of breath within the human body.[8]

This close interlinking of the three treasures is illustrated in a the drawing below which is adapted  from the Hsing Ming Kuei Chih.[9]


Kan-Water & Li-Fire

Movement produces Yang-Qi. Stillness produces Yin-Qi. The yang breath  descends from the Heart or the brain and the yin breath rises upwards from the Kidneys. The Heart is associated with Fire and is represented by the trigram Li.

The Kidneys are associated with Water and are represented by the trigram Kan.


The trigrams of the Yi Jing (I Ching: Classic of Change or Book of Changes), are a way of diagramming the flux of Heaven and Earth and yin and yang. The solid lines are yang: active; full; strong; initiating, creating. The broken lines are yin: quiescent, empty, weak, receptive, completing.

In Daoist meditation the trigram Kan-Water represents the Kidneys and Dantian. Kan-Water is full in the middle (it has a solid yang line in the middle). The yang line in the center indicates that there is a yang-fire within yin-water. It also means that the kidneys are replete, full and abundant. This fire within yin-water is also called  the “moving qi between the kidneys” or the Mingmen (life-gate) fire.

Li-Fire represents the heart and chest. Li is empty in the middle (it has a broken yin line in the middle). This symbolizes the hidden yin-water within yang-fire. Normally, fire is light and rises to the chest and water is heavy and sinks to Dantian. The broken line in the center of Li-Fire represents a relative emptiness inside the heart. The heart is relatively empty, in comparison to the lower abdomen where Kan-Water has a solid (full) line in the middle. This means there is space inside the heart and that the spirit can reside comfortably inside the heart.

The spirit is said “housed” by the heart. The spirit can only be undisturbed, can only be clear in its perception, if there is space in the heart. This means the heart cannot be overflowing with emotions, and desires. When the heart is relatively empty, as illustrated by the yin line in the center of the Li trigram, then the blood and breath can move smoothly, without impediment, through the heart and chest. When the blood and breath move without impediment through this space, then intention and perception are clear. The heart and intention can then reflect and exhibit wisdom (a “knowing how”). Then one can nourish life (Yang Sheng). [10]

If the abdomen and the Dantian are relatively full in comparison to the Heart and chest, then the Qi/Breath sinks to Dantian, and the lower abdomen and the Mingmen are full. This consolidates and replenishes the Jing, which in turn generates the Qi/Breath. The Qi/Breath, if unimpeded, then nourishes the Shen. This transformation of the body’s vital energies is sometimes referred to as “internal alchemy.” Internal alchemy involves replenishing the Jing (essence) and transforming essence into Qi/Breath and Qi/Breath into Shen (spirit). This transformative process, symbolized by the trigrams Li-Fire and Kan-Water, is achieved through quieting the mind and guiding the Qi/Breath with the intention.

The Circulation and Inter-Transformation of Kan and Li

Normally, fire is light and rises to the chest and water is heavy and sinks to Dantian. This is the “post-heaven” or “after-birth” state whose trigram configuration moves temporally from birth to death. This is represented by hexagram #64: Wei Ji (Not Yet Fulfilled; Before Completion; Incomplete): fire above and water below. Because water sinks and fire rises, the two trigrams move in opposite directions; they do not integrate and harmonize.


However if fire is beneath water, it creates steam and condensation which is a rarefied energy. This process can be likened to water heated on stove, creating a vapor which rises upward only to coalesce and descend again. The two elements must act in relation, in balance, to each other. If the heat is too great, the water will all evaporate. If the water boils over, the fire will be extinguished. This balance is represented by the hexagram #63: Ji Ji (Completion), in which the trigram for water is above and the trigram for fire. Here, water and fire interact and inter-transform.


By employing proper posture, breathing and stillness of the mind, the Dantian is like a stove that heats water, so that it transforms  into a vapor  that  rises up to the chest and heart, where it coalesces to become water and then sinks back to the Dantian. When this happens, Daoist meditation acts as a kind of inner alchemy, plucking the  yang-solid line from the center Kan-Water to fill the yin-broken line in the center of Li-Fire, thereby producing Qian-Heaven, represented by three solid-yang lines. The yin-broken line in the center of Li-Fire then moves to the center of Kan-Water, thereby producing Kun-Earth, represented by three broken-yin lines. When the middle lines of the trigrams switch places and form the Qian-Heaven and Kun-Earth trigrams there is a return to the original pre-heaven (before-birth) state, which in Daoist beliefs leads to stopping of the temporal movement and therefore “immortality” (or more practically speaking: peace and tranquility). This is  represented by Hexagram #11: Peace.


In this hexagram, yin is ascendant invoking prosperity, peace and upward progress, bearing even in its character-structure evidence of the fertilizing living waters flowing down from the sacred mountain Tai Shan.[11]

Qian-Heaven and Kan-Earth are respectively firm and yielding. Qian envelops and Kun is enveloped. The dynamic between them is one of opening and closing. As you breathe, the firm and the yielding rub against each other, so they form the image of Qian and Kun, yin and yang, opening and closing.[12]


The Story of the Weaving Maiden and the Cowherd as a Metaphor For the Circulation of Water and Fire

One day the cowherd comes across some maidens bathing in lake. He takes the clothes of one of them. When the others fly up to sky clothed in feathers, this maiden is left behind. The cowherd marries her and eventually they have a child. The maiden contributes to the household by weaving. The child later finds the hidden cloak of feathers and the maiden puts it on and flies back to sky. The cowherd is sad without the maiden. One of cows, moved by master’s sadness, has him slaughter her and he uses the cow-hide to ascend to sky. The couple is reunited and are so happy that they forget to do their work. The King of Heaven decides that thereafter, they can only meet once a month. A magpie is entrusted to deliver this decree to the couple, but the magpie makes a mistake and tells them they can rejoin each other only once a year. So once a year, on the 7th day of the 7th lunar month (the annual feast of young girls), they reunite. On this day it is supposed to rain so that no one will see them (ie: their associated constellations) meeting in the sky.[13]

Although the maiden is yin, associated with water and the kidneys, she also represents the true yang or (hidden yang) within yin – the fire within Kan-Water.  She weaves, spinning the Qi/Breath and the true yang qi upward. The cowherd is yang, but he also represents the true yin within yang – the water within Li-Fire. This is the true yin that flows downward to reunite with the Kan-Water.

On the one night a year that the lovers meet, the magpie makes a bridge across the sky to join them together. Likewise the heart-fire, and the kidney-water are separate, but can reunite through the practice of Daoist meditation. The “upper magpie bridge” relates to the tongue touching the upper palate which connects the Ren and Du vessels above, and the lifting of the anus is the “lower magpie bridge” which connects the Ren and Du vesselss below. These two “bridges” connect the circuit of Ren and Du so that circulation in these two principle meridians can flow freely. This in turn allows the alchemical transformation of Kan and Li to take place.

Chen Tuan’s Diagram Revisited

In Lesson Four we looked at Chen Tuan’s Wu Ji diagram in order to understand the progression from Wu Ji to Tai Ji and back to Wu Ji. At that time, we read the diagram from top to bottom. However Chen Tuan’s diagram can also be read from bottom to top. Originally carved into the face of a cliff at Hua Shan Mountain, the diagram had explanatory labels carved next to each tier. The labels below have been adapted from Da Liu’s book Tai Chi Ch’uan and Meditation.[14]


Looked at in this way, Chen Tuan’s diagram illustrates the process of transformation involving the Three Treasures and Kan-Water and Li-Fire. The label, “Doorway of the Mysterious Female” is a reference to a passage in the Dao De Jing:

The Valley Spirit never dies.

It is named the Mysterious Female.

And the doorway of the Mysterious Female

Is the base from which Heaven and Earth sprang.

It is there within us all the while;

Draw upon it as you will, it never runs dry.[15]

The low ground represented by the “Valley Spirit,” or “Water Spirit,” as it is known in other texts, is the place where water collects. Through absorbing the “water spirit,” plants, trees and other living things flourish and grow. This low ground, these “valleys”, are considered to be nearer to the Dao than the hills; and in the whole of creation, it is the negative, passive, ”female” element alone that has access to the Dao, which can be mirrored in a still pool. [16] Daoist meditation cultivates this stillness, transmuting the essences of the body so the heart and spirit can return to emptiness. This process is clearly illustrated in Chen Tuan’s diagram.

Reverse Breathing: Connecting the Kidney and the Heart

Reverse Breathing is not really different than Kidney Breathing (see Lesson Two). It is merely a natural extension of Kidney Breathing which occurs as Qi/Breath sinks to the lower Dantian and moves back toward the Mingmen. On the inhale, the Qi/Breath sinks into the Dantian, and then moves back toward the sacrum and the Mingmen. From the sacrum and the Mingmen, the Qi/Breath then naturally moves upward to reach the chest in the area just above the solar plexus (the middle Dantian ). The lower abdomen may “feel” like it contracts slightly during this process, but generally there is no visible contraction. On the exhale, the Qi/Breath sinks, moving down the front portion of the body to return to lower Dantian. The lower abdomen may “feel” like it expands slightly with the return of the Qi/Breath, yet again there may be no visible expansion.

Because this is merely a natural development of Kidney Breathing, the  Qi/Breath rises and sinks without physical effort, just as water becomes vapor and rises to form the clouds that bring gentle rain. Therefore, the circulation of the Qi/Breath should be natural, slow, smooth and even. In his excellent book, The Way of Qigong, Ken Cohen provides a very useful image that can make this method of breathing easier to visualize.  During inhalation, the abdomen feels as though it contracts. Simultaneously, imagine the Qi/Breath being drawn back toward the sacrum and adhering to the Mingmen which is roughly opposite the navel.  During exhalation, the Qi/Breath moves forward. It may be helpful to imagine a pearl in the abdomen that rolls backward and forward with each breath. [17]

[1] Wenlin Software for Learning Chinese. Copyright 1997-2007, Wenlin Institute Inc.

[2] Qi Gong Teachings of a Taoist Immortal: The Eight Essential Exercises of Master Li Ching-Yun, by Stuart Alve Olson, Rochester Vermont: Healing Arts Press, 2002, p. 13.

[3] Rooted in Spirit: The Heart of Chinese Medicine, translation and commentary by Claude Larre, S.J & Elisabeth Rochat de la Vallee. Barrytown, NY: Station Hill Press Inc., 1995, p. 30.

[4] Ling Shu or The Spiritual Pivot, translated by Wu Jing-Nuan. Washington DC: The Taoist Center – Distributed by University of Hawai’I Press, 1993, p. 39.

[5] Rooted in Spirit: The Heart of Chinese Medicine, p. 16.

[6] Vital Nourishment: Departing From Happiness by Francois Jullien, translated by Arthur Goldhammer. New York: Zone Books, 2007, pp. 84-85.

[7] Qi Gong Essentials for Health Promotion by Jiao Guorui. PR China: China Reconstructs Press,

p. 73.

[8] Foundations of Internal Alchemy: The Taoist Practice of Nei Dan, by Wang Mu, translated and edited by Fabrizio Pregadio. Mountain View, CA: Golden Elixir Press, 2011, pp. 51-52.

[9] Science and Civilization in China: Volume 5, Chemistry and Chemical Technology; Part 5, Spagyrical Discovery and Invention: Physiological Alchemy By Joseph Needham, Cambridge University Press Cambridge  1983;1986 and 2000, p. 49.

[10] Rooted in Spirit: The Heart of Chinese Medicine, p. 66-67.

[11] Science and Civilization in China: Volume 5, p. 63.

[12] An Exposition of the Eight Extraordinary Vessels: Acupuncture, Alchemy & Herbal Medicine, by Charles Chace and Miki Shima. Seattle WA: Eastland Press, 2010, p. 78.

[13] A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols: Hidden Symbols in Chinese Life and Thought, Wofram Eberhard, trans. From German by G.L. Campbell. New York & London: Routledge & Kegan Paul,             1986 and 1996, p.272.

[14] T’ai Chi Ch’uan & Meditation by Da Liu. New York: Schocken Books, 1986, pp.28-9.

[15] The Way and Its Power, A Study of the Tao Te Ching and its Place in Chinese Thought, by Arthur Waley. New York: Grove Press Inc., 1958 p. 149.

[16] Ibid, 56-7.

[17] The Way of Qigong: The Art and Science of Chinese Energy Healing by Ken Cohen. New York: Random house – Ballantine Books, 1997, p. 122.


All material © 2013. Excerpted from the upcoming book, Decoding the Dao, Nine Lessons on Daoist Meditation, by Tom Bisio. All rights reserved.