"Self-cultivation of the nature is merit, Self-cultivation of the body is virtue."
-Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, Chapter 3


Shaolin "Chan Seven" (Chin.: Chán Qī 禅七)

In the West, Shaolin Monastery (Chin.: Shàolínsì 少林寺) is known as the “birthplace of kung fu” and home to the famous warrior monks. While martial arts are an integral part of Shaolin Culture, and are the tradition most often the focal point of the media’s spotlight, the warrior monks actually only account for one third of the Shaolin monastic community. Meanwhile, another rich tradition is continuing behind closed doors Shaolin “Chan Seven” (Chin.: chán qī 禅七).

Chan Qi is a 49 day intensive meditation retreat which takes place annually behind closed doors within Shaolin Monastery’s Chan Hall (Chin.: chán táng 禅堂). This centuries-old tradition was once a large part of the monks’ life of Chan practice (Chin.: chánxiū shēnghuó 禅修生活), until 1928 when warlord Shi Yousan (Chin.: Shí Yǒusān 石友三) burned the monastery, destroying the Chan Hall. Since 2005, following the completed restoration of the Chan Hall, the tradition of Chan Qi has become active once again.

Da Qi

The name Chan Qi, meaning Chan “Seven”, has a couple interpretations.

  1. The seven days of intensive closed-door practice undergone by Chan Master Tianhui of the Qing Dynasty. In Shaolin Monastery, the meditation retreat is done in 7 sevens- that is seven weeks, or 49 days, the number of days the Buddha sat under the Bodhi Tree.
  2. The practice of Chan Qi is often called Da Qi (Chin.: dǎ qī 打七). The character Da () means “to do” or “practice”, but literally means “to hit” or “to break”. So what “seven” is being struck? Seven can refer to the seventh consciousness (Skt.: manas-vijñāna)— the thinking consciousness responsible for conceptualization, the view of self, and production of karma. To Da Qi (strike seven) is to eliminate this consciousness, effectively transforming it into the Wisdom of Equality (Chin.: píngděngxìngzhì 平等性智).

The Origin of Chan Qi

Today the practice of Chan Qi imitates the spirit of determination in the Buddha Shakyamuni’s (Chin.: Shìjiāmóunífó 释迦牟尼佛 ) quest for enlightenment. Seated beneath the Bodhi Tree (Chin.: pútíshù 菩提树) he made the strong vow to not rise from his seat until he had achieved enlightenment (Chin.: zhèngdào 证道). This same great effort and vigor in practice is mirrored in the Chan Qi tradition today.

As an intensive meditation retreat, Chan Qi has its origins in the early 1700’s of the Qing Dynasty (Chin.: qíngcháo 清朝, 1644-1912) with the Emperor Yongzheng (Chin.: Yōngzhēng Huángdì 雍正皇帝 ).

Yongzheng was a very powerful emperor and devotee of Buddhism. One day, in order to select a Dharma-heir for Chan Master Yulin Tongxiu (Chin.: Yùlín Tōngxiù Chánshī 玉琳通秀禅师), he commanded the abbot of every monastery in the entire country to compose and submit a verse showing their understanding of the Dharma.

The emperor was very impressed when he received the verse of Chan Master Tianhui Shiche of Gaomin Monastery (Chin.: Gāomínsì Tiānhuì Shíchè Chánshī 高旻寺天慧实彻禅师). He still felt, however, that there was another layer the Chan Master had not yet penetrated, like a thin veil over the bright moon. In order to enable Chan Master Tianhui to thoroughly breakthrough and see the original truth, the emperor sent out for Tianhui, urging him to come to the palace for a meeting at once.

Upon arrival Tianhui did not have an opportunity to open his mouth to speak but a greeting before the emperor asked; “Since you are to be the heir to the Imperial Preceptor, do you understand the Imperial Preceptor’s objective?”

Tianhui, who had a scalp disease, blurted out in response; “I have a favus-infected head here!”

When the emperor heard this he grabbed his sword and said sternly; “How about I cut your diseased head off”, and startled Tianhui speechless. “I mean what I say”, said the emperor. “My palace has a Chan Hall. I’ll give you seven days to answer my question. If you cannot answer, I’ll cut that diseased head of yours off!”

Emperor Yongzheng then had Tianhui locked up in the Chan Hall, forcing him to achieve enlightenment. Fearing he would try to escape, Yongzheng stationed guards in front of the door at all times and hung his sword where Tianhui could see as a reminder of the fate that would befall him should he fail to find an answer. Each day Tianhui was slipped a steamed bun through the window to sustain him through his practice.

For the first few days Tianhui could not sleep. Instead he vigorously meditated to pursue enlightenment for he knew the emperor meant what he said. As the days slipped by like water through his fingers, Tianhui became increasingly worried that he would not be able to manage the challenge. He wanted to sleep but was running out of time and risked losing his head. In order to drive away his sleepiness, he stood up and began walking circles around the Chan Hall. Nearing the seventh day without finding an answer his pace quickened as he practiced even more strenuously. Around and around he walked until he was almost running. The more anxious he grew, the faster he ran.

Finally, the morning of the seventh day came and Tianhui had yet to find an answer to the emperor’s question. In frustration he gave up his quest thinking it was just not worth it. As he went to lie down, just before his head hit the pillow the bell suddenly struck three o’clock. Tianhui jumped startled by the sound and banged his head on a pillar. At that precise moment he had a flash of understanding.

Tianhui jumped up, pushed his way through the door and ran to see the emperor who had not yet awaken. Bursting into the room, Tianhui stood before the emperor who laughed and said; “Haha! Congratulations for having understood the Imperial Preceptor’s objective!”

Chan Master Tianhui immediately spoke a verse; “A fist is not to be called a fist. It is in the eye of the seer. All the great sages are like a flash of lightening, like froth in the sea of the great universe!”

Hearing this verse thus spoken, Emperor Yongzheng conferred the purple robe upon him and commanded him to be abbot of four great monasteries- Gaomin Monastery (Chin.: Gāomínsì 高旻寺), Shengyue Monastery (Chin.: Shèngyuèsì 圣月寺), Zifu Monastery (Chin.: Zīfúsì 资福寺), and Chongfu Monastery (Chin.: Chóngfúsì 崇福寺).


Not everyone is eligible to enter the Chan Hall and take part in the Chan Qi meditation retreat. There are many strict rules and regulations to follow. Participants must first meet several requirements before being granted access, such as having a healthy body and strong legs, so as not to disturb fellow practitioners during meditation. The meditator must also have reached a certain level in practice in order to maintain such a strict schedule, eating habit and silence throughout the entire 49 days. There is no natural light to distinguish night and day, and the only sounds heard are the clapping or ringing of Dharma instruments (Chin.: fǎqì 法器) that signal the start and finish of sessions.

However, there are two kinds of Chan Qi. One is called “Convenient Seven” (Chin.: fāngbiànqī 方便) and the other is called “Effortful Seven” (Chin.: jīngjìnqī 精进七). In the former, monks still attend the daily services in the main hall with the rest of the assembly, and the rules are much less strict. It is the latter in which a very ardent mind is adopted and placed wholly on the practice.

Emulating the effort put forth by Chan Master Tianhui, monks participating in the Jingjinqi sleep only four hours each night, going to sleep by 11pm and waking the next morning at 3am, just like Tianhui when he had his realization after hitting his head with the strike of the three o'clock bell.

In fact, the entire practice system of the Chan Qi retreat draws from Chan Master Tianhui’s experience. Participants must alternate between seated and walking meditation, called “sitting incense” (Chin.: zuòxiāng 坐香) and “walking incense” (Chin.: xíngxiāng 行香), so called because the duration is determined by the burning of an incense stick. Daily, participants must sit for 12 sticks of incense, and walk for 12 sticks, altogether 24 sticks of incense per day.

Xingxiang (walking incense) is done in a clockwise circle around the Chan Hall, starting very slowly and gradually increasing pace into a trot, sometimes called "running incense" (Chin.: pǎoxiāng 跑香). This practice draws energy from the effort of Chan Master Tianhui. Monks in Shaolin Monastery have walked this path so much the finish is worn off the wood floor of the Chan Hall in the shape of a circle around the center altar. However, it is not merely running or sitting. What you cannot see is the actual method of practice- the practice of “Investigating the Word-Head” (Chin.: cān huàtóu 参话头), questions designed to draw one back to before the arising of thought.

During the retreat and at the end, participants are challenged by the head master to test their progress. The master holds an Incense Board (Chin.: xiāngbǎn 香扳) shaped like Emperor Yongzheng's sword, prepared to deliver a blow to the cultivator.

"Who is chanting the Buddha's name!" the head monk shouts. "Answer!"

-少林禅城 Shaolin Chan City

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1 comment:

yss said...

Finally another great Article!! I was already missing your writings ..
A very good introduction to this part of Shaolin Culture which is not easy to talk about. Thanks a lot!