Taking Refuge: The Three Treasures of Ritual Daoism

As ritual Daoism developed over the past few thousand years – blending ancient shamanic practices with Laozi’s insights and coming into contact with Buddhism – the concept of “Three Treasures” or San Bao (三寶) emerged.  As with any three-fold concept in Daoism, these relate to Heaven, Earth, & Humankind – or yang, yin, & the union thereof, respectively.

The Three Treasures of ritual Daoism are Dao, Jing, & Shi.  These roughly translate as way, scripture, & mastery.  (Note there are also Three Treasures of alchemical Daoism and Three Treasures of Laozi – I’m not talking about those).

Dao (道) or way refers to the primordial origin – the hidden wellspring that gives birth to myriad worlds & creatures.  Where we come from and where we go.  It also refers to the eternal procession of birth, growth, maturation, decline, & death.  The character implies grass growing by itself – the spontaneous emergence of worlds & creatures.

Jing (經) or scripture refers to the teachings of Dao – the views & methods that our lineage ancestors have passed down to us as guidance on how to encounter & embody Dao.  The character implies woven thread, referring to written teachings and also implying fundamental principle – the common thread running through the fabric of Daoist practice.

Shi (師) or mastery refers to our resulting experience when we practice and conduct ourselves according to the teachings of Dao.  It often refers to our teachers or practice community, or even hidden immortals who bring us insights.  The character implies accumulation and exaltation.  In the view of Laozi’s Daoism, mastery is abiding continuously in the wellspring amidst myriad phenomena.  Laozi sees such abiding as our natural condition.

Dao-Jing-Shi correspond respectively to Buddha-Dharma-Sangha, and the notion of taking refuge (拜) probably comes from Buddhism.  The starting point of Buddhism is the recognition that life brings discomfort (dukkha) so let’s find a way out.  Laozi doesn’t suggest we need any refuge from reality – we’re just there, perpetually, ever-embraced and supported by the primordial origin.  But he does acknowledge that human beings have a tendency to lose our way – so the Daoist approach to the Three Treasures is, to the extent that we lose touch with reality (Dao), it’s nice to have guidance (Jing) pointing us back to our natural condition (Shi).  The character for taking refuge or paying homage shows a hand placing crops on an altar – a sacrificial offering.  Giving to receive.  Daoists don’t worship deities but in ritual practice do place Dao-Jing-Shi on a pedestal to sanctify them and place ourselves in a position to receive energy and inspiration.

A traditional ritual gesture for taking refuge is to light three sticks of incense at our altar, hold them up, and recite: “I take refuge in Dao; I take refuge in Jing; I take refuge in Shi”, then bow three times and place the incense in our burner.

Real stuff comes through when we take refuge in Dao, Jing, & Shi.

Hygiene, Meditation, & Ritual

As we’ve discussed, Daoism is a highly complex and elaborate system of cultivation.  In my 25 years of practicing with numerous teachers in different traditions, I’ve observed that most, if not all Daoist practice methods, fall primarily into one of three broad categories: hygiene, meditation, or ritual.  Although these distinctions may ultimately dissolve, as most methods are in fact forms of all three, I nevertheless think this breakdown is helpful as we approach the gate, particularly given our Western cultural context and the fractured nature of the transmission of Daoism to the West.

Hygiene.  Hygiene refers to Daoist health practices, including qigong, martial arts, acupuncture/massage, herbal medicine, and diet.  Even arts like painting, music, gardening, and fengshui can be considered ways of supporting our health and well-being.  One of the features that distinguishes Daoism from Buddhism is its greater emphasis on healing practices.  So Daoists are often known for good health and long lives.  The Daoist term for hygiene is yangsheng (养生), meaning “nourishing life”.  The majority of Daoist arts we see in the West today are various forms of yangsheng fairly disconnected from any orthodox tradition of meditation or ritual.  Westerners are increasingly interested in health & healing but not so commonly interested in ritual, so “non-religious” Daoist hygiene practices have found broad appeal here.  Traditionally yangsheng arts are indeed intended to help everyone live a better life, but for Daoist cultivators, yangsheng is more a matter of supporting and empowering our base of jing & qi so that our practices of meditation & ritual are effective.

Meditation.  There are many Chinese words for meditation, the most broad being “da-zuo” (打坐), which just means “sitting”.  There are endless methods we can undertake when sitting, from counting breaths to focusing on energy centers or pathways, reciting mantras, or visualizing deities.  There’s also the non-conceptual wuwei meditation of Laozi, which we emphasize in our school.  Many Westerners view meditation as a remedy for some problem – from high blood pressure to original sin – but for Daoists it’s either a way to enhance the power of ritual, a process of alchemical transformation, or simply a platform for appreciating our natural luminosity.  In the West today, there’s a great deal of interest in non-denominational, indeed medical meditation.  This is viewing meditation as merely a form of hygiene, which is fine, but such approach is far removed from what meditation has been in numerous traditions for millennia, and it really misses the central point.  Daoist meditation is about coming face to face with our nature – our true nature before birth.  So I distinguish it from hygiene & ritual as it has a distinct purpose.

Ritual.  Ritual – daojiao (道教) – is what many Western observers consider the “religious” aspect of Daoism.  The vast majority of Daoism throughout the ages has been a form of ritual practice.  Maintaining altars and temples, keeping precepts and chanting scriptures, casting spells and crafting talismans, and interpreting the calendar and divining auspices are central Daoist practices.  These methods are largely ways to benefit the lives of people or communities, to pacify the dead, and to help communities thrive with healthy harvests or peaceful relationships.  But they also provide a means of supporting and expressing the contemplative and alchemical experience of Daoist cultivators.  The robust traditions of Daoism have developed and maintained highly elaborate and complex ritual practices throughout the ages.  And yet there has also been a robust yet less visible hermit tradition of personalizing and distilling ritual down to its basis.  Fundamentally, ritual is a formal expression and engagement in the Dao.

From the perspective of our tradition, all human beings practice each of these categories to some extent.  Hygiene is simply taking care of ourselves – breathing, moving, and eating to support our base of jing & qi.  Formal yangsheng practices work with these natural systems to normalize and optimize jing & qi.  Meditation is also a natural inclination, driving us to find various ways to get out of our head and into the “zone”.  Daoist meditation follows this natural inclination to open us into a stable contemplative experience.  We’re also already undertaking ritual, be it conscious or not.  What we do repetitively each day, how we mark special occasions.  Daoist cultivators ritualize our everyday activities as a way of observing Dao.  Daoist ritual is an act of formally embracing the cycles of nature to acknowledge or evoke a shift in qi.  Having a focused, formal daily ritual ceremony is such a wonderful practice, it’s unfortunate how scarce it has become in our society.

Our formal engagement in each of these categories is up to us.  None of these areas is necessarily central, but certain traditions or individuals may treat one as more central than another.  Most important is the view we take into our practice methods – why are we doing this and what do we intend to “get” out of it?  There’s so much to be unpacked in the sections above – this is such a shallow scratching of the surface, but I think the context it sets is important.  I’ll be unpacking these areas a bit in future posts, but much is really more the purview of in-person training.

I hope this discussion helps to set some context about the array of methods out there and how they fit into the larger picture of Daoist cultivation.