Ask a Master: What is a Zen Retreat?

In a traditional Chinese monastery, a ChanQi (retreat) is a very big event that is known long in advance and may attract many practitioners from all over, relative to the reputation of the monastery and its leading master. The rules may vary and adapt to a special practice or another.


You see, a week of Chan practice isn’t exactly prepared as a week of Buddha Name chanting or Sutra Recitation. But what the priest or master leading the retreat is waiting from every single participant is

a total dedication to the practice for the time of the practice. A Retreat is not something you do to attend as social meeting or like we would do at a nice workshop… a retreat is a personal vow. A vow of utmost sincerity and dedication.


We are a reformed Chan/Zen Order, a sino-american Chan/Zen Order founded by Chan Master JydIn Shakya and Zen Teacher MingZhen Shakya. We adapt our practice to our own contexts. But at the root of our practice lies that same spirit of utmost sincerity and dedication to the practice. At the center of the practice is a vow.


A retreat is meeting a personal vow. it is a time for strong dedication to unveil our True Nature. A time to only cultivate a Chan/Zen Mind and act with utmost sincerity… a totality. A time of no separation.


Traditionally, a ChanQi is lead by three priests at least: a teaching priest, a JiaoYuan/Shusso (responsible for the monks attending the retreat) and a ritual/ceremony priest. Needless to say that in most of our Western retreats these roles are reduced to what is most needed functions. it is also done for seven days in a row. Nowadays, the name ChanQi or Sesshin or retreat is given at all most any length of intensive practice even half days of practice.


What is important is just that ‘intensive’ side of the practice. Make the vow to give your total body and Mind to the practice and to unveil your Buddha Nature. It is the place and time for it. It is a time and place to be intense.


You see, the base of our practice is the daily practice of establishing a solid foundation through daily liturgy and meditation, through discipline and studying. It could be called the Calm side of the practice. A practice of harmonising with our reality of householders.


But we also may need at certain times in our spiritual life, a chance to experience a time and place to develop more intensity, more dedication. That is what a retreat is good for. Again, it is something you vow to give yourself to, because you need it in your spiritual journey. A good thing would be to ask your Zen teacher or Zen Priest before thinking about engaging in one.


Bear also in mind that this intense practice can be practiced anywhere, in a formal Buddhist setting or in Nature, alone or in a large group. What allows you to accomplish the great vow is what is needed. This is also an essential part of our Linji/Rinzai Zen Heritage: recognizing what is need and then working towards it with utmost dedication and humility! Then, just do it!


See the time of the retreat, in a big Zen monastery, a room in your family summer house, a shed or a tent in any nearby forest park, as the time of the great fire. The time of the great burning of all the small impurities that resist to the daily practice you established. It is the great burning of the self. The Great Burning of the Huatou (jp.Wato). Huatou/Wato means before the word, before even thinking, before form… before difference… it is our True Root, our True Nature.


It is the existential question: Who? In every act, Who? Such a true question doesn’t need our small answers full of words. Our Zen Path is a Path of True Questions… not a Path of giving answers. A single question, taken seriously, intimately could change our entire life and turn our world view upside down. Who?


Some words of general advice for the time of Intensive practice

  1. Be simple, harmonise with what is
  2. Be Humble, know your limits and those of others
  3. Be Sincere, only use what is needed.
  4. Every act is the Way! From the first bell to the last of the day vow to realise your True Nature
  5. Give equal importance to Zen sitting and walking meditation.
  6. Balance indoor and outdoor practice.
  7. Eat little, sleep little.
  8. Allow Yezuo/Yazo (night sitting meditation outdoor or indoor) at will.
  9. Listen/see the teacher once a day ( or read the Master’s teachings).
  10. Constantly, give your Body and Mind to KuanYin (jp.Kannon) Bodhisattva and receive her grace.


A retreat is a time for attention. Sometimes the Linji/Rinzai masters are caricaturized with their sticks, shouting Katsu and give stick blows to their students. The roots of these practices was a calling for attention, here and now, Who? Who is reading this paper?


The Katsu shouting still exists in China today, our late Ming Zhen Shakya used to talk about the few time where she saw and heard master WeiYin Shakya shout a loud KAT! As she used to say, the literal sense of ‘kat’ was ‘attention’ in English. But the master seemed to use it in a way she understood as ‘cut all things’. That is what she heard when the master shouted: CUT!


So, remember that the retreat is precisely this, a time and place to manifest Who?

A time and place to manifest, in our actions, our existential VOW to CUT all roots of suffering!


Images: The Desert Stag by Jiaoyuan Qian Yue

NOTE: If you’d like to comment or ask a question to Master Fa Shi Yao Xin Shakya you may contact him by email:

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Ask a Master? What is Chan Liturgy — The Simple Way is Our Way


Most members of our Hsu Yun Order practice in a private setting, a small local sangha around an ordained priest. That is our Way. It means that we root our daily liturgy and practice in our own local context.

Our Zen groups/hermitages aren’t temples and that means that it is only a place where a priest shares his or her humble daily practice.

On most occasions our chanting practice consists of the same daily liturgy. We might adapt it to special times of the year….adding a hymn to a bodhisattva, a passage of a sutra or a Zen master chant when needed which means that our humble liturgy comes from the common core of Zen liturgy.

It is important to note that our liturgy adapts and functions according to the practice needs.

There are elaborate liturgies for special ceremonies and rituals in our tradition, but I’ve seen priests try to perform a special ceremony when they were not comfortable with it or didn’t know enough. When this happens the original intent and function of the specific liturgy is hollow and full of the priest’s ego resulting in awkward worship.

Embracing our simple daily liturgy helps us keep their original intent of forgetting and transcending the ‘I, me, or mine’ in the process.

If something fancier, bigger, is wanted it may be better to attend a local temple. Traditional Chinese liturgy is wonderful but the daily version is may be too esoteric in nature for the daily liturgy. They are wonderful practices which I love to study with my students using the excellenttranslation of Ryugen Fischer (Shi Shen Long) a dharma grand, grandfather of mine in my Soto Zen Lineage.  But our founders advised us to use simple liturgies helping us to stay close to the basics of Mahayana Zen Buddhism. And staying close to simple things such as taking refuge, confession, taking vows, and the chanting the heart sutra is certainly something that most of us need more than the esoteric mantras as a daily practice.

A good example of such a simple and direct liturgy can be found in D.T. Suzuki’s widely known and freely available “Manual of Zen Buddhism.”

Our dear MingZhen Shakya liked that version, and it is one of the first books she pointed to me (with the basic book of our tradition “Empty Cloud”and her wonderful intermediate level Zen manual “The Seventh world of Chan”).

One has to understand that our Order is composed of Zen groups/hermitages centered on the shared daily practice of liturgy and meditation. It’s the shared daily practice of a Zen priest, nothing more, nothing less. That is what we practice, share and transmit. Nothing fancy, but complete in its own way but it helps the practitioner cultivate simplicity, humility and sincerity.

We make an effort to stay rooted in the common heart of our Sino-american Zen tradition which comes from our Zen Order’s unique history and legacy that allows us to embrace with a more open and warm regard other Zen traditions and their own unique history and legacy.


That being said, keep in mind that common rituals and ways are essential to every Zen group but don’t be afraid to adapt and simplify them to your own setting and life. Adaptability is part of the job of a Zen priest.

Chants, instruments and all the rest are wonderful tools, so use them with simplicity and sincerity. In this spirit, we use whatever is needed for the Dharma to be alive and nothing more!

Some good advice from an old zen teacher of mine is that what monks need for their practice should fit in a monk’s bag. Whats in there you might ask? Some sort of buddhist robe (kasa, rakasa, wakasa), a liturgy or Zen book of some sort, clappers and a hand bell, incense and maybe a wooden fish drum for the more elaborate practice. This is certainly all that is necessary. If you practice alone, do some sort of pilgrimage or lead a small Zen group/hermitage this is really the essential toolbox you should use and master.

About the use of instruments, i would recommend to keep things simple, be sincere and master the little things you do and share. Use mostly

wood instruments when chanting or calling to chant or meditation practice, don’t turn it into a music concert. Use the bell mostly as a call to true inner attention (beginnings of sitting or walking periods is a good example). When using the bell, forget about “you” and remember that the sound of the bell is the true sound of KuanYin/Kannon’s voice manifesting here and now! There is no place for “you” in Pure Attention!

Priests are not actors or performers doing a show. When a priest chants it is another way of giving all our selves to action, pure and free action.

So please remember, as our dear MingZhen Shakya used to say, Zen is Action! Liturgy!

The simple way is our Way.

May every being humbly realize his true nature!


NOTE: If you’d like to comment or ask a question to Master Fa Shi Yao Xin Shakya you may contact him by email:

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