From Science to Buddhism: Professor Agnes Chan and Chanwuyi


Author: Venerable Shan Ci
Translator: Andrew Yang

Professor Agnes Chan is Executive Director of the Chanwuyi Society of Hong Kong. She is currently professor of clinical psychology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and heads its neuropsychology lab and the Chanwuyi Research Centre for Neuropsychological Well-being. She has received research awards from the American Psychological Association and Chinese University of Hong Kong, and has been named among the Ten Young Exemplary Persons of Hong Kong. Professor Chan’s research covers cultures of both the east and the west. Before turning Buddhist, she had been a Catholic by religion. So, what motivated her to put her heart into Chanwuyi, and become a devout Buddhist? Here is part of our recent interview with her:

First of all, what is Chanwuyi?

Chan-wu-yi, a three-word abbreviation, is three things in one: “Chan” (also translated as Zen) Buddhism, “wu” in wushu or martial arts, and “yi” meaning medicine. It is a unique tradition developed in China over thousands of years based on the wisdom, kung fu and medicine of Chan Buddhism used to heal the mind. It differs from conventional psychological treatment in that it views the human body as a vulgar skin bag and trains introspection through Dharma to improve one’s mental health. My own interest in Chanwuyi started with my profession in clinical psychology.

From a Shaolin perspective, a Chan healer must master kung fu or martial arts, and cultivate the mind, intellect and qi at the same time. The purpose is first to understand, through kung fu, the workings of one’s own vital organs and the flow of blood and vital energy, and only then to discern those of their patients. This is the essence of Chanwuyi, and its three components are inseparable.

In addition, many diseases result from unhealthy eating. Chanwuyi promotes a healing diet focused on light, fresh vegetarian ingredients.

How is it different from traditional Chinese medicine?

Indeed, Shaolin healing, also called Chan medicine, is a unique branch of traditional Chinese medicine formed by combining practices in kung fu and Chanwuyi as developed by generations of Shaolin Chan Buddhist monks. Its tenets cover pathology, pharmacology, general health cultivation and life preservation, and have their roots in utilizing the awakening of the mind and the regulating of qi, or energy flow in the body. Thus, this mode of healing starts with the mind and cultivation of one’s morals first; it takes mental health as the basis for physical health. That is where Chanwuyi is unique.

Shaolin healing stresses the mind and purging it of defiling thoughts. Human illness is mostly related to defilement in the mind, specifically greed, anger and delusion. These lead to injury or weakening of the internal organs. For example, one’s anger may hurt the liver, and excessive thoughts could hamper work of the spleen and stomach. That is why Chan medicine makes a point of healing the mind first, and from there moves on to improving the physique as well as the psyche. That is how Chanwuyi differs from traditional Chinese medicine.

Your shifu and mentor is a highly esteemed teacher of Chanwuyi. How did the karma between the two of you all start?

Well I was a kung fu fanatic when I started practicing at 16. In 1992 I went on a business trip to Henan. During the flight I read a story about Chan Buddhist Master Dejian who later became my shifu, yet there was no contact information. On another trip, this time to Beijing to attend a seminar, a friend of mine gave me a video of Master Dejian practicing kung fu, but still there is no way to get in touch. It was not until 2007 that I met him at last at the First Symposium on the Theory and Practice of Chanwuyi.

Simply meeting the master is not the same as being accepted as a disciple.

No. And after the meeting I proposed to go to his temple. I boldly asked him to teach me the famous Eighteen Palms of Arhats. But he said No.

So, I thought, in a worldly way of course, how much money would make you willing to teach me? You are obviously not worth much yourself, and the temple is really shabby. Anyway 20,000 to 30,000 dollars should be more than enough? I wondered to myself. But the master still said, No way, no matter how much money!

And I wasn’t ready to give up. So, once back in Hong Kong, I got in touch with people who work with the master. I emailed and asked them to help me get permission for another visit. I got an answer back saying the master would let me stay at the temple for a couple of days.

I am a vegetarian but have always had trouble with my tummy. At the temple the master gave me medication which looked like a bag of hand-rolled mud balls! I gobbled them down and yuck!How bitter they were! With the medication the master also advised me not to eat ginger and egg. Eventually that’s how my health problem of over thirty years was fixed once and for all.

This time you were accepted as his student?

Not yet. After that I went to the temple a third time. Again, I begged him to be my teacher and again he said No. I asked why, thinking to myself that I am nothing less than a professor! But the master told me we have no such karma in our life time!

In fact, the master was trying to get rid of my vanity and arrogance. However, at the time I said all right, but how much do you charge for teaching me the Eighteen Palms? The master wouldn’t budge, saying no amount of money would work.

Then it occurred to me that the master had built four thatched huts with donations from a Swiss foundation, leaving water and electricity not yet installed. So, I offered to donate $500,000 and once more, the master replied No. I told him I would hate to see that in China, which the Chinese call home, people would rather go to folks from other countries for donations. I said as a Chinese it is our duty to offer help in the first place. But that’s the way the master is. And the more he rejected the more I insisted.

Without further direct contact with him, this went back and forth for eight times, until finally he took me on as his disciple.

Did you find out later why he refused to accept you at first?

I only found out later what was bothering him. Shaolin Temple has a rule not to pass on their martial arts to women or lay Buddhists who practice at home. Having accepted me however, he still maintains he does not consider me a woman. It turned out the master decided to teach me because Chanwuyi needed a scientist to help promote it to folks in the west. The research we have done in the last ten years has all taken place at our base in Hong Kong. Through our collective effort, we have accomplished the task of letting more people know about Chanwuyi.

What was your goal in setting up the Hong Kong Chanwuyi Society? What are some of its major achievements in these ten years?  

Our Hong Kong Chanwuyi Society is a non-profit organization. It’s under the leadership of Master Dejian with me as its executive director. Our mission is to preserve, research and promote Chanwuyi as part of traditional Chinese culture, so more people get to know about it to improve their mental and physical health. The society is tasked with training, publishing and product manufacturing outside of the Chinese mainland.

In the ten years since 2007 the master has provided his prescriptions to Chanwuyi Research Pharmaceuticals Co. Ltd., for research by Hong Kong Institute of Biotechnology affiliated with the Chinese University of Hong Kong. With GMP accreditation and a patent, it is making three health enhancing products: a nasal drop, powder tea and capsules. In this fashion, the master’s prescriptions are turned into ready-made products and he is able to spend less time on patient visitations and more people are benefited. Those are some of the achievements for Chanwuyi made in these ten years.

Back to Chanwuyi itself – can anyone and everyone benefit from its healing?

No, there is a principle: it does not heal non-Buddhists or those not observing abstinence from eating meat and certain spices that Buddhists don’t eat. Many people go to Shaolin Temple hoping to be treated by the master. They ask that he need only open up the two major channels for qi inside their body. That is of course impractical. To these visitors Shaolin monks would hand out A Handbook of Chanwuyi which tells them to first go home and stay away from meat, fish, egg, ginger, spring onion, garlic and pepper. They can come back for healing only after they are able to stick to that routine. If not, diseases could be triggered by noxious or toxic substances in the food they eat.

So, we ask patients to first follow a vegetarian diet and keep away from food and spices that is not suitable to eat. But unfortunately, many people won’t do it, and so for them we don’t even bother to use any medication. This is how we guide patients to stay vegetarian and away from killing in a subtle way, so we could spread Dharma through healing.

(Pointing to a scroll of Heart Sutra behind her and smiling.) This is a gift from a Christian patient who is fond of Chinese calligraphy. I gave him herbal medicine and healed him, so he gave me this in return. That is spreading Dharma through healing even before you know it!

You must have been elated!

Just imagine: when people are dying, they are desperate and don’t care whether you are a temple or a church, as long as you can heal them. Being able to make a Christian copy of the Heart Sutra – that’s a reward for helping people and enjoying it at the same time!

There was another Christian couple who could not sleep at night. At first, they only wanted to hear my lectures. But gradually they began to bow to the Buddha’s statue and pray. What a delight!

(Now pointing to a young assistant in his twenties beside her.) This young man used to be a cynic but had poor health. He had to wear three layers of clothing even when it was over 30 degrees Celsius. This went on for five years and his parents were so worried. But then he learnt kung fu from me. Now he is a healthy and happy lad!

Is Chanwuyi similar to qigong? Would you encourage patients to do cross-legged sitting meditation?

Many folks practice qigong just to improve their physical health, but Chanwuyi is a spiritual practice, and that’s where Buddhist practices with charity and austerity differ from practices by non-Buddhists. The fundamental goal of Chanwuyi is to practice Dharma to achieve enlightenment and help oneself as well as other people. This is what’s called healing with a mind of Chan. Without this Bodhicitta one couldn’t talk about healing.

I don’t encourage people to do sitting meditation if they are just starting out, because their channels of energy flow have not yet been opened up. If they sit to meditate for long, they may not encounter problems at first, but as time goes on and they get older, they could experience what’s known as the “meditator’s condition”. If they haven’t yet cleared up their channels of energy flow, they should first have a healing diet, and while practicing kung fu, go on to learn cross-legged sitting medication. That would be more appropriate.

Chanwuyi means putting oneself in the mode of practice every minute and every second, including when one is standing, sitting, lying down or even just breathing. This is all part of practicing kung fu while regulating qi. Beginners especially should learn to clear up passages of vital energy, plus their nasal passage. Whether they are standing or sitting they should put their palm over dantian, or the centre of vital energy on their abdomen. They should keep a clean and pure mind and make the practice of Chan part of their life.

It must be hard for ordinary people to follow this kind of practice. Please tell me about the Dejian Mind Body Intervention technique that your society is promoting.

Sure. Chanwuyi is so profound and esoteric that it’s hard even for the medical profession to accept. Therefore, we need to find a simple way to help heal patients, even non-Buddhists, a way that’s easy to understand.

The Dejian Mind Body Intervention technique is areligious and is convenient for doing research work at hospitals. It is based on both Chanwuyi and on clinical practices developed by modern psychology and science. We call it Dejian where “de” means morals and “jian” means foundation building. This technique incorporates cultivating the mind and inner virtues, eating a proper diet plus opening up channels of vital energy. It is based on the Chan Buddhism tradition and other elements of traditional Chinese culture. Master Dejian is an heir to Shaolin Chanwuyi. That’s why we named it Dejian Mind Body Intervention.

What illnesses is this method of healing most effective for?

It is effective for many conditions common with urban dwellers, such as stress, losing sleep, neck and back ache, headache, sore throat, digestive problems, tiredness and fatigue, constipation, overweight, irritation, or inflammation of the nose. It could even help those suffering from Alzheimer’s, autism, hyperactivity, depression, epilepsy, numbness and cramping, women’s menstruation problems, or urinary problems for seniors etc. Working with a proper diet and cultivating inner virtues, conditions such as these could be significantly improved.

It looks like potential patients for Dejian Mind Body Intervention technique could include those living in North America. Do you think it might be useful to promote the Mind Body Intervention in non-Chinese societies

People nowadays are generally health conscious. So, if they can heal without taking medication or getting shots, wouldn’t that be a dream for everybody? Also, people hope to have a healthy body, joy and wisdom, so they can sleep better and focus better at work to increase productivity. If that’s what everyone is hoping for, then Dejian Mind Body Intervention can help them reach their goal!

Dejian Mind Body Intervention technique is a natural Chinese therapy. How are you going to make it appreciated and valued by the conventional western medical profession?

This healing method has Shaolin Chanwuyi as its base for research and promotion. Research findings about its efficacy have been published in American academic journals. They are already being applied in the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong and the U.S. by medical care practitioners and educators.

What we did was to use the case control methodology accepted in the west, i.e., using experiments to contrast patients under the Dejian Mind Body Intervention and those not under it, to see how differently they were improving. As a matter of fact, we found that those under this intervention technique were improving much more significantly. So, what we are doing is using samples and empirical data acceptable by western standards, in a language that is western, to have the intervention technique recognized and valued.

Lastly, let me ask you, Professor Chan – as a prominent expert in western medicine as well as a one-and-only female Shaolin disciple, you have come to embrace Buddhism with the background of a scientist. Now your work strides over two cultures and you are working hard at promoting the precious Dharma of Buddhism in both the east and the west. Please tell us how you feel about all this.

(Smiling.) All fame and gain in this world is meaningless. The biggest thing that makes me happy is my good luck to inherit and pass on Chanwuyi. As a scientist and psychologist, I also want to thoroughly see and understand things. My view is we could incorporate Dharma into psychology but not vice versa.

Although I have received education in western medicine and western culture, it was only Dharma and Chanwuyi that healed me through proper eating and cultivating inner virtues, and freed me from the afflictions that have plagued me for decades. That has led to a complete change in me. Cultivating the mind this way gives me the pleasure that science doesn’t, and a joy that is unspeakable!

One single thought, whether kind or evil, could have consequences that could be unthinkable. So, thoughts and the mind are crucial. We should think about what we give to the world, rather than what the world gives us. Dharma is not something science can give us. It is as vast as, and at the level of, the immense universe of Buddha lands as explained in the Dharma.

It is Chanwuyi that has entirely changed myself. Learning the Buddha’s compassion is the biggest joy for me. My practice and the challenges I have experienced in these ten years are for me good fortune and sheer joy. Chanwuyi is such a gem of Dharma, I hope to continue to preserve and cultivate it in Hong Kong.


Note: For more information on Chanwuyi Society, please visit (in Chinese). For information on the Dejian Mind Body Intervention, you may also visit (in English).


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