Jing, Qi, & Shen (精氣神)

Jing-Qi-Shen.jpgLet’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.

Heaven, Earth, & Humankind

Tien-Di-RenThe fundamental triad of Chinese philosophy is Heaven, Earth, & Humankind.  Let’s look at what these terms mean as a whole and individually, and how they relate to meditation & qi-cultivation.

Heaven (tiān, 天) in the manifest world is the wide-open sky, but in Chinese philosophy it refers to pure yang – the creative source.  Pure motivating light.  It’s not some special place where believers go but rather is the original impetus of all manifestation.  It relates to spirit/awareness.

Earth (dì, 地) in the manifest world is the solid ground beneath our feet, but in Chinese philosophy it refers to pure yin – a wide-open field.  Earth receives the motivating activity of Heaven, enabling it to manifest.  While it relates to material like the planetary earth or our body, the meaning is more like the mother that receives a seed from father and nurtures it to life.

Humankind (rén, 人) – or what I prefer to translate more broadly as “sentient beings” – is the fruit of the union of Heaven & Earth.  While in the manifest world Heaven is above and Earth is below, the understanding in Chinese philosophy is that first Heaven initiates, then Earth nurtures, then life emerges forth.

Collectively, Tian-Di-Ren represent the vertical structure of the cosmos.  But structure isn’t really the correct word, because the Chinese view of the cosmos is not material but energetic.  A more appropriate word would be process – the vertical process of how things come into being.

Heaven acts in the field of Earth, then Earth processes it and gives birth to some resultant thing.  All life springs up from the Earth below, it doesn’t just fall from Heaven.  Even birds nest on the Earth.  But just as mother must be fertilized by father, the Chinese understand this springing up of life as an upward bounce from the descending qi of Heaven.  (Hence the lines of the Zhou Yi Jing start at the bottom and then rise upward).

In Laozi’s meditation & qi-cultivation, we model our practice on Dao.  As Laozi says, “the motion of Dao is return”.  So a primary aspect of Daoist cultivation is returning human beings to pure yang.  Shifting from the generative to the returning direction is called neidan or internal alchemy.

To embody the returning motion of Dao, we first align ourselves with the vertical axis of Heaven & Earth – in sitting, standing, and/or moving forms.  Then we become empty like Earth and let the qi drop all the way down.  “Empty the heart-mind and fill the belly.”  With regular practice over a period of time, qi will eventually stir in the lower dantian and start to rise on its own.  This is the reverse bounce.  According to neidan, a true human is one who not only lives as a result of Heaven acting upon Earth, but who can reverse the generative process of Heaven & Earth – drop the qi all the way down and bounce back to Heaven.