Three Treasures (Taoism)

The Three Treasures or Three Jewels (sānbǎoWade–Gilessan-pao) are basic virtues in Taoism. Although the Tao Te Ching originally used sanbao to mean “compassion“, “frugality“, and “humility“, the term was later used to translate the Three Jewels (BuddhaDharma, and Sangha) in Chinese Buddhism, and to mean the Three Treasures (jing, qi, and shen) in Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Tao Te Ching

Sanbao “three treasures” first occurs in Tao Te Ching chapter 67, which Lin Yutang (1948:292) says contains Laozi‘s “most beautiful teachings”:


Every one under heaven says that our Way is greatly like folly. But it is just because it is great, that it seems like folly. As for things that do not seem like folly — well, there can be no question about their smallness!
Here are my three treasures. Guard and keep them! The first is pity; the second, frugality; the third, refusal to be ‘foremost of all things under heaven’.
For only he that pities is truly able to be brave;
Only he that is frugal is able to be profuse.
Only he that refuses to be foremost of all things
Is truly able to become chief of all Ministers.

At present your bravery is not based on pity, nor your profusion on frugality, nor your vanguard on your rear; and this is death. But pity cannot fight without conquering or guard without saving. Heaven arms with pity those whom it would not see destroyed. (tr. Waley 1958:225)

Arthur Waley describes these Three Treasures as, “The three rules that formed the practical, political side of the author’s teaching (1) abstention from aggressive war and capital punishment, (2) absolute simplicity of living, (3) refusal to assert active authority.”

Chinese terminology

Symbol of the Three Jewels

Symbol of the Three Jewels

The first of the Three Treasures is ci (; Wade–Giles: tz’u; lit.: ‘compassion, tenderness, love, mercy, kindness, gentleness, benevolence’), which is also a Classical Chinese term for “mother” (with “tender love, nurturing ” semantic associations). Tao Te Ching chapters 18 and 19 parallel ci (“parental love”) with xiao ( “filial love; filial piety”). Wing-tsit Chan (1963:219) believes “the first is the most important” of the Three Treasures, and compares ci with Confucianist ren ( “humaneness; benevolence”), which the Tao Te Ching (e.g., chapters 5 and 38) mocks.

The second is jian (jiǎnchien; ‘frugality, moderation, economy, restraint, be sparing’), a practice that the Tao Te Ching (e.g., chapter 59) praises. Ellen M. Chen (1989:209) believes jian is “organically connected” with the Taoist metaphor pu ( “uncarved wood; simplicity”), and “stands for the economy of nature that does not waste anything. When applied to the moral life it stands for the simplicity of desire.”

The third treasure is a six-character phrase instead of a single word: Bugan wei tianxia xian 不敢為天下先 “not dare to be first/ahead in the world”. Chen notes that

The third treasure, daring not be at the world’s front, is the Taoist way to avoid premature death. To be at the world’s front is to expose oneself, to render oneself vulnerable to the world’s destructive forces, while to remain behind and to be humble is to allow oneself time to fully ripen and bear fruit. This is a treasure whose secret spring is the fear of losing one’s life before one’s time. This fear of death, out of a love for life, is indeed the key to Taoist wisdom. (1989:209)

In the Mawangdui Silk Texts version of the Tao Te Ching, this traditional “Three Treasures” chapter 67 is chapter 32, following the traditional last chapter (81, 31). Based upon this early silk manuscript, Robert G. Henricks (1989:160) concludes that “Chapters 67, 68, and 69 should be read together as a unit.” Besides some graphic variants and phonetic loan characters, like ci ( “mat, this”) for ci ( “compassion, love”, clarified with the “heart radical” ), the most significant difference with the received text is the addition of heng (, “constantly, always”) with “I constantly have three …” (我恆有三) instead of “I have three …” (我有三).

English translations

The language of the Tao Te Ching is notoriously difficult to translate, as illustrated by the diverse English renditions of “Three Treasures” below.

Translations of the Three Treasures
Translation Sanbao 三寶 Ci  Jian  Bugan wei tianxia xian 不敢為天下先
Balfour (1884:41) three things which I regard as precious compassion frugality not venturing to take precedence of others — modesty
Legge (1891:110) three precious things gentleness economy shrinking from taking precedence of others
Lin (1948:291) Three Treasures Love Moderation Never be the first in the world
Erkes (1950:117) three jewels kindness thriftiness not daring to play the first part in the empire
Waley (1934:225) three treasures pity frugality refusal to be ‘foremost of all things under heaven’
Wu (1961:97) Three Treasures Mercy Frugality Not daring to be First in the World
Chan (1963:219) three treasures deep love frugality not to dare to be ahead of the world
Lau (1963:129) three treasures compassion frugality not daring to take the lead in the empire
English & Feng (1972:n.p.) three treasures which I hold and keep mercy economy daring not to be ahead of others — humility
Wieger & Bryce (1984:34) three things charity simplicity humility
Mitchell (1988:110) three treasures which I preserve and treasure compassion frugality daring not to be first in the world
Henricks (1989:38) three treasures compassion frugality not presuming to be at the forefront in the world
Chen (1989:208) three treasures motherly love frugality daring not be at the world’s front
Mair (1990:41) three treasures compassion frugality not daring to be ahead of all under heaven
Muller (2004:n.p.) three treasures compassion frugality not daring to put myself ahead of everybody

A consensus translation of the Three Treasures could be: compassion or lovefrugality or simplicity, and humility or modesty.

Other meanings

In addition to these Taoist “Three Treasures“, Chinese sanbao can also refer to the Three Treasures in Traditional Chinese Medicine or the Three Jewels in BuddhismVictor H. Mair (1990:110) notes that Chinese Buddhists chose the Taoist term sanbao to translate Sanskrit triratna or ratnatraya (“three jewels”), and “It is not at all strange that the Taoists would take over this widespread ancient Indian expression and use it for their own purposes.”

Erik Zürcher, who studied influences of Buddhist doctrinal terms in Daoism, noted (1980:115) two later meanings of sanbao: Dao  “the Way”, jing  “the Scriptures”, and shi  “the Master” seems to be patterned after Buddhist usage; Tianbao jun 天寶君 “Lord of Celestial Treasure”, Lingbao jun 靈寶君 “Lord of Numinous Treasure”, and Shenbao jun 神寶君 “Lord of Divine Treasure” are the Sanyuan 三元 “Three Primes” of the Lingbao School.

See also

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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