Three Treasures and the Origins of Acupuncture

Patients often ask me…

“Where does acupuncture come from?”

Well, we know that bian shi (sharpened stones) have been found in Mongolia that date to the Neolithic period (~7,000 BC in Asia) and archeologists believe they were used for a type of acupuncture. Fish bone needles were used in Korea as early as 3,000 BC. Around 250 BC a text on acupuncture and Chinese medicine was written, The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, and the first metal needles were developed around 100 BC.

But, all of that history doesn’t really tell us how acupuncture developed. I believe that acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine, martial arts, and culture developed in large part because of the philosophical and spiritual ideas from taoism.

Taoism and Acupuncture

Taoism has been sometimes considered a religion, but is more properly categorized as a philosophy in that the focus of taoism is very detailed observation of the natural world and how to live in harmony with laws of nature.

It appears that acupuncture developed over a long span of time observing the most subtle details of natural laws in nature and in man and observing the effects of living an ethical philosophy, herbs, diet, physical treatments such as massage and bone setting1, exercise and breathing  – qi gong and tai chi, martial arts training and mediation.

Taoist Concepts


Tao translates as “the way.”  It’s meaning refers both to the way the universe works (natural law) and to the way to conduct ourselves in harmony with natural laws.


De is living a life that is intentionally focused on acting and living in harmony with the tao. This is considered virtuous conduct in Taoism.

Wu Wei

“The wise teach without telling, allow without commanding, have without possessing, care without claiming. ~Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, verse 2

Wu wei translates to”without action.” It is the concept that any act is most harmonious and powerful when it is in accord with the tao.


“When we live in complete integrity, we will be innocent like newborn babies. …Our bones will be pliable, yet our grip will be firm. …We’ll sing all day long without becoming hoarse because we’ll be in full harmony.” ~Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, verse 55

Pu translates to uncut wood/uncarved block. The principle of pu relates to a state of receptiveness and perception without prejudice, where everything is seen as it is without preconceptions or illusion. This state is considered to be our original nature.

The Three Treasures

Taoism refers to the three treasures in two ways – the three treasures of physical nature and the three treasures of emotional being.

The Three Treasures (Taoist Ethics)

“..sages dress in rags while they wear the Three Treasures deep inside their hearts.” ~Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, verse 70

“The first is to embrace simplicity and integrity. The second is to consume only the needs of our body and soul. The third is to allow our love and concern for others to define our essentiality.” ~Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, verse 19

Taoist ethics stand upon the three treasures of the tao




It is believed that all other natural human values come from these three treasures. Those who exemplify these characteristics are in harmony with tao (laws of nature).

The Three Treasures (Taoist Nature)

In taoism, there are three principles that act within the body that maintain life, action, and thought; they are also the same principles that are present and act throughout nature. These are jing, qi, and shen. Working with and refining these principles are considered central to understanding tao, practicing de, acting from wu wei, displaying the quality of pu, and exemplifying the three treasures of tao.


primordial essence, deep innate energy, reserve, constitution


vitality, circulating energy, force, breath


mind, spirit, soul

Jing is the deep reserve…

…of energy that we are born with and that we draw from to animate us and give us life. We can waste and deplete our Jing, or we can nurture and conserve it. We are born with a certain reserve of jing (primordial jing or essence).

People with a large reserve of jing are energetic, intelligent, strong, resilient, and charismatic. When we have exhausted our jing, we die.

Qi is the energy that circulates…

throughout our bodies and controls all of the processes of our cells, organs, and systems that maintains and restores us. The acupuncture meridians are some of the pathways of circulating qi.

Shen is the mind and spirit…

…and is supported by qi and represents a transmutation of qi to consciousness. This belief is behind much of the focus in taoism on developing jing and qi; they are the resources that one draws from to develop Shen through contemplation and meditation.

Developing shen is a very important aspect of taoism because it is through the development of shen that one understands tao, has the quality of pu, and is able to act in a way that represents the three jewels of the tao.

The Three Treasures and Your Health

According to the taoism, one cannot have a deep mental and spiritual life (shen) unless one has a strong reserve of jing and circulation of qi from which to draw.

The Three Treasures and Acupuncture

Acupuncture has effects that nourish, restore, and balance the characteristics of jing, qi, and shen in your body. This is how the taoist concepts relate to acupuncture. Using concepts and models from taoism can help us take care of ourselves by living in accord with natural laws and be healthier for it. In doing so, we protect our resources (jing), enjoy robust health and energy to use for manifesting our unique visions/goals (qi), have strong minds and pure spirits so that we can see the world around us clearly and without prejudice (pu), and can be examples of compassion, moderation, and humility (three jewels).


1 Bone setting my be the origin of chiropractic

2 Interestingly, the energy that flows through the acupuncture meridians can be measured with an ohmmeter, a device for measuring electrical resistance. The tool we use in the office, called Acugraph, is a sensitive ohmmeter with sophisticated software to graph and interpret the results of these measurements.

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