Let’s look at the basic concepts of “jing”, “qi”, & “shen”. These are collectively known as the “Three Treasures” (sānbǎo, 三宝) of internal alchemy. They are often translated as “body”, “breath”, & “mind”, which is a good trio but not really a complete translation. It’s helpful to understand these terms, and the view behind them, to effectively practice Daoist cultivation.
Jing (精) is vital-essence – the tendency for form & substance to appear in the world, our tendency to become embodied creatures. We receive jing from our parents at conception and from our mother during gestation. Jing is associated with fluids and contains our ancestral DNA; the Chinese consider it to hold our fate or destiny – “Heaven’s command” regarding our unique capacities and pre-dispositions. The quality of our jing depends on the quality of our parents’ jing during conception and gestation, as well as our own conduct in life, particularly our movement and nutrition.
Qi (氣, pronounced “chee”) is vital-energy – movement, breath, time, change. The ever-revolving walk of Dao. The unfolding movement of our jing. Qi is associated with wind and fire. But it is also often used as a shorthand for everything, including jing & shen. Qi can refer to different kinds of energy in different contexts. In internal alchemy it generally refers to heat and movement. We have internal qi, and there is also the qi of the environment and cosmos.
Shen (神) is vital-spirit – awareness. The experience of jing-qi. According to Daoism, we have 5 kinds of shen, associated with the 5 phases/elements (Wood, Fire, Soil, Metal, & Water). The 5 shen are different aspects of consciousness. In the Daoist view, shen is not entitative in nature but is more like drops from a boundless ocean. Our original shen emerges fresh and pure from the unborn origin, but as it splits into 5 it takes on conditions based on our jing & qi, as well as how we manage our mind.
Jing, qi, & shen are all really the same “stuff” – just different parts of a tripartite spectrum. Jing is the most coarse, shen is the most fine. These correspond to Earth, Humankind, & Heaven, respectively.
Jing, qi, & shen exist in two states, known as xiantian & houtian. Xiantian (先天) translates as “before Heaven” or “pre-celestial” and refers to our innate nature before being shaped by the winds of Heaven. Houtian (後天) translates as “after Heaven” or “post-celestial” and refers to our acquired condition based on how the winds have shaped us and how we have conducted ourselves.
The Three Treasures collectively comprise our life. The three traditional deities of ritual Daoism – San Qing (三清) or Three Purities – are simply symbolic representations of the Three Treasures in their pure, unmanifest form. What appears to be deity worship in Daoist ritual is actually a way of re-calibrating our post-celestial jing, qi, & shen to their original, pure condition.
There is a lot more we can say about these terms; this post is simply intended to present basic definitions for reference in future discussions.