The Triple Burner is probably the most widely discussed topic on Chinese medicine and, over the centuries, there have been many different theories on its nature. In this Clinical Tip, I will try to elucidate the main ideas on the nature of the Triple Burner and it will probably take more than one Clinical Tip.
“Burner” is a translation of the word jiao which means “burned” or “scorched”. It is also called “Warmer” while others choose not to translate it and call it the “San Jiao”. Some Chinese doctors distinguish between two basic views of the Triple Burner, one according to which is has “no form” (which is primarily from the Nan Jing) and another according to which it has “a form” (which is primarily from the Nei Jing). Although this distinction is important (and I will expand on it below), I think there are at least four different ways of looking at the Triple Burner, as listed below.
1) The Triple Burner as the activator of the Yuan Qi
2) The Triple Burner as a system of waterways
3) The Triple Burner governing movement of Qi
4) The Triple Burner as a system of cavities
5) The Triple Burner as a three-fold division of the body
6) Relationship between Triple Burner and Pericardium
1) The Triple Burner as the activator of the Yuan Qi
The view of the Triple Burner as the activator of the Yuan Qi derives from the Nan Jing, primarily chapters 8, 38, 62 and 66.
Chapter 8 of the Nan Jing says: “Sometimes the Cun Kou is normal and yet the patient dies. Why is that? The pulses of the 12 channels all originate from the Yuan Qi. This Yuan Qi is the root of the 12 channels, it is the Motive Force [Dong Qi] between the Kidneys, the root of the 5 Zang and 6 Fu and of the 12 channels, the gate of breathing and the origin of the Triple Burner. It is the spirit that guards against pathogenic factors (or evil influences). Such Qi is the root of humankind; if the root is cut stalks and leaves wither. When the Cun Kou is normal but the patient dies, it means that the Yuan Qi has been cut off internally.
This chapter establishes some very important principles. First, it talks about the Yuan Qi: it says that Yuan Qi is between the Kidneys (like the Ming Men) and that it is the root of the 12 channels, the Triple Burner and the 5 Zang and 6 Fu.
Secondly, it makes a very important statement when it says that this Yuan Qi is the “spirit” (shen) that guards against evils. This is a remnant of “demonic” medicine, i.e. the system of medicine in which disease is due to the invasion of evils spirits and the cure is effected by the shaman.
The clinical significance of this chapter is huge. Firstly, it establishes the idea that the Yuan Qi (and therefore the Kidneys) is the root of the 5 Zang and 6 Fu, of the 12 channels and of the Triple Burner.
Secondly, it establishes the relationship between the Triple Burner and the Yuan Qi (and therefore Ming Men). Later in chapter 66, the Nan Jing says that the Triple Burner is the “envoy” of the Yuan Qi in between the Kidneys. In this chapter 8, the Yuan Qi is also called Motive Force or Throbbing Qi or Moving Qi (Dong Qi).
Thirdly, this passage establishes the principle that the Yuan Qi (and therefore the Kidneys) play a role in the resistance to pathogenic factors. Interestingly, it calls the Yuan Qi the shen that protect from pathogenic factors (or evils).
This is of huge clinical significance because it means that our resistance to pathogenic factors depends not only on the Wei Qi and therefore Lungs but also on the Kidneys and the Yuan Qi (and also Jing due to the extraordinary vessels). In any case, Wei Qi stems from the Lower Burner (chapter 18 of the Ling Shu).
This is of clinical significance not only in resistance to pathogenic factors but also in the pathology of allergic asthma and allergic rhinitis, the root of which is also in the Kidneys, the Jing and the Yuan Qi.
Fourthly, this chapter is significant because for the first time it gives the view of the Triple Burner as the “envoy” of the Yuan Qi stemming from between the Kidneys. From this point of view, the Triple Burner allows the Yuan Qi to spring forth from between the Kidneys and perform its role in various parts of the body. For this reason, BL-22 Sanjiaoshu is just above BL-23 Shenshu.
Chapter 38 of the Nan Jing reiterates the relationship between the Triple Burner and the Yuan Qi. It says: “How come there are 5 Zang but 6 Fu? There are 6 Fu because of the Triple Burner which stems from the Yuan Qi. The Triple Burner governs all Qi in the body, it has a “name but no form”, it belongs to Hand Shao Yang, it is an “external Fu” [or “extra Fu”]. That is why there are 5 Zang but 6 Fu.”
This chapter actually describes four separate important aspects of the Triple Burner: first, it is a Fu organ (which brings the count of Fu organs up to 6); secondly, it stems from the Yuan Qi; thirdly, it governs all Qi of the body; fourthly, it has a “name but no form”, i.e. it is a function rather than an organ (which actually contradicts the first point).
The relationship between the Triple Burner and the Yuan Qi is explained also in the rather obscure chapter 62. This says: “The Zang [channels] have 5 jing, ying, shu, jing and he points; but the Fu have 6 [points], why? The Fu are Yang, the Triple Burner moves in the Yang channels, hence it has an additional shu point called Yuan.”
I personally think that the influence of the Triple Burner on the fact that the Yang channels have an extra shu point is due to the relationship between the Triple Burner and the Yuan Qi and to the fact that the Triple Burner “moves among the Yang” as this chapter says. In other words, as the Triple Burner is the envoy of the Yuan Qi and it moves among the Yang, it could be said to “seed” the Yang channels with its Yuan Qi (deriving from the space between the Kidneys). In fact, the Nan Jing says that the Yuan Qi comes out of the space between the kidneys through the envoy of the Triple Burner and goes to the 5 Zang and 6 Fu and the twelve channels. The reason it seeds only the Yang channels is due to the fact that it “moves among the Yang”.
Chapter 66 of the Nan Jing is the main one that discusses the relationship between the Triple Burner and the Yuan Qi. It says: “Below the umbilicus and between the kidneys there is a Throbbing Qi [Dong Qi] which constitutes a person’s life [sheng ming ]. This [Throbbing Qi] is the root of the 12 channels, also called Yuan Qi. The Triple Burner is the envoy of the Yuan Qi [or it allows the Yuan Qi to separate into its different functions]. It is responsible for the passage of the three types of Qi in the 5 Zang and 6 Fu. “Yuan” is a honorary designation of the Triple Burner. Hence the places where its Qi comes to a halt are called “Yuan” [points]. When the 5 Zang and 6 Fu are diseased, select the respective Yuan point.”
This chapter is the main source for the view of the Triple Burner as the “envoy” of the Yuan Qi: it allows the Yuan Qi to emerge from the space between the Kidneys and it facilitates the Yuan Qi’s differentiation into its different functions in different places.
Thus, the Triple Burner “mobilizes” the Yuan Qi by making it differentiate into its different forms to perform different functions in different places and organs. It is through the Triple Burner that the Yuan Qi can perform its functions. The Yuan Qi is closely related to the Ming Men and shares its role of providing the heat necessary to all the body’s functional activities.
The following are examples of functions carried out by the Yuan Qi which are aided by the Triple Burner:
• The Yuan Qi provides the heat necessary to the Spleen to transform and transport food essence and to the Kidneys to transform fluids. The Middle Burner makes sure that Yuan Qi reaches and assists the Spleen to transform and transport food essences and the Lower Burner ensures that Yuan Qi warms the Kidneys to transform fluids
• The Yuan Qi facilitates the transformation of Gathering Qi (Zong Qi) into True Qi (Zhen Qi). It can do this through the action of the Upper Burner in transporting Qi through the various passages in the chest.
• The Yuan Qi facilitates the transformation of Food-Qi (Gu Qi) into Blood in the Heart. The Upper Burner ensures the smooth passage and transportation of Qi in the chest for this transformation to take place.
Thus, the Triple Burner helps the Yuan Qi to differentiate itself into different forms to perform different functions in different places.
The relationship between the Triple Burner and the Yuan Qi of the Kidneys is reflected in the location of the Back-Shu point of the Triple Burner (BL-22 Sanjiaoshu) just above the Back-Shu point of the Kidneys (BL-23 Shenshu).
From this point of view, the Triple Burner has “no form”, i.e. it is a function and not an actual Fu organ. The Nan Jing says succintly: “It has a name but no form” (you ming wu xing).
The relationship between the Triple Burner and the Yuan Qi has important clinical applications. It means that the Yuan Qi performs its warming and facilitating function through the Triple Burner. Thus, if we want to activate the Yuan Qi in the different Burners we need to activate the Triple Burner as well and the points I use are as follows:
- Upper Burner: Ren-17 Shanzhong to stimulate the diffusing and descending of Lung-Qi and warm the Lungs
- Middle Burner: Ren-12 Zhongwan and Ren-9 Shuifen to stimulate the descending of Stomach-Qi, the transportation and transformation (yun hua) by the Spleen and the rotting and ripening by the Stomach.
- Lower Burner: Ren-5 Shimen and BL-22 Sanjiaoshu to stimulate the transportation, transformation and excretion of fluids in the Lower Burner.
For example, in case of Dampness in the Lower Burner and specifically in the Kidneys and Bladder causing urinary problems occurring against a background of Kidney-Yang deficiency, one can use Ren-5 Shimen and BL-22 Sanjiaoshu to activate the Triple Burner (or specifically Lower Burner) and Ren-4 Guanyuan and BL-23 Shenshu to tonify the Kidneys and the Yuan Qi. Note how Ren-4 and BL-23 (related to Kidneys) are just below Ren-5 and BL-22 respectively (related to Triple Burner) reflecting the view that the Yuan Qi emerges from between the Kidneys through the Triple Burner.