The Three Treasures

The Three Treasures

Briana and I have spent the last year developing the curriculum for our coach training program, and I was recently fine-tuning the section on applying the wisdom of the Five Elements when it occurred to me to share the “three treasures” mentioned in the Daoist classic, Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching). I’ve written about these treasures in the past, but after speaking about them to our future coaches, decided they’re worth revisiting.

Like the rest of the words in this 2500-year-old book, the names of the three treasures have been translated in a variety of ways, but I think the most accurate terms are: compassion, simplicity, and humility. These qualities can help us lead lives of greater joy and deeper peace.
Before we get into them, I’d like to share just a few words on what I feel is the overarching message of Daoist philosophy. Dao is most literally translated as “way,” as in “the way of things” – AKA, reality. Daoism is primarily concerned with (1) perceiving this reality with great clarity and (2) abiding by it. That is, living in harmony with reality rather than trying to avoid it, fight it, or manipulate it.

The first treasure is Ci (“tsuh”) which means compassion, gentleness, benevolence, or love. Life is sweeter and easier when we practice compassion for ourselves, other humans, and the world. Grievances, which often comprise a large portion of our thoughts and speech, dissolve in the presence of compassion. Compassion implies an openness to our shared experience with another; in practicing compassion, our world becomes less fragmented. The pieces, formerly viewed as separate and unconnected – or even adversaries – are seen instead as a unified whole.

When we’re dominated by the scared, animalistic mind, we frequently seek to attack and assign blame – ourselves, others, and the world. Consequently, it’s only natural to expect retaliation. Somewhere in a mind that attacks lives a vigilance for the counterattack. But when we embody this treasure of compassion and gentleness, there is neither attacking nor fear of counterattack. When we recognize that change needs to occur, there is no blame, just compassion and purposeful action.

The second treasure is Jian (“jee-ehn”) which means simplicity or frugality. It’s the antithesis of the trend in the West (and increasingly in the East also), where there’s ever more stuff, more complexity, and more information. We tend to believe we need to acquire more – of whatever we think we’re lacking – in order to be safe, in control, and happy. In actuality, however, it’s usually a subtractive process to clear away the veils that cause us to forget that happiness and freedom are our native state.

Chapter forty-eight of the Dao De Jing (DDJ) starts, “In the pursuit of knowledge, every day something is acquired. In the pursuit of the Dao, every day something is dropped.” Frugality isn’t just a matter of being economical with money. It means not seeking to acquire what we already have. It means curtailing useless expenditures of energy. It means not doing more than what is needed to make our lives work. It means utilizing the currents of life to get where we want to go. Dao, like water, takes the simplest path – the path of least resistance; and like water, says the DDJ, “It is content with the low places.”

The third treasure is called Bu Gan Wei Tian Xia Xian (“boo gahn way tee-ehn she-ah she-ehn”), which literally means “not daring to put oneself ahead of the world.” A common interpretation is that this is simply a pragmatic survival tool: if we don’t stand out in a crowd or take the lead, we will stay out of harm’s way and therefore avoid premature death. But this is inconsistent with the other parts of the Dao De Jing which advise on how to be a superior ruler. If everyone held back out of fear of death, there would be no leaders.

Instead, I believe that “not putting oneself ahead of the world” is an admonition to stay humble and innocent, and internally, not allowing one’s thoughts and judgments to become more important than reality itself. It is a reminder to see the Truth beyond our labels and beliefs. To always engage with the world in the present, with fresh eyes, rather than being a backseat driver. It’s a call to transcend our little personality and open to the whole that encompasses us.

A hundred years ago, the Russian philosopher G. I. Gurdjieff lamented that in the humans of his modern world he saw “more personality than essence.” He explained that through our imitation of others and their intentional influence over us, through our resistance against what we see, and through our attempts to conceal from others what is our own or real – we hide our essence. And I feel this is exactly what bu gan wei tian xia xian is advising us to get back to. If Gurdjieff had worded it, perhaps it would have said, “not daring to put the personality ahead of the essence.”

This week, I encourage you to start with one of these treasures and try it on. What is your life like when you practice radical compassion? How do things flow differently when you choose the simple course? And who are you when you relinquish the know-it-all self and instead experience life with innocence, from your essence?

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