Ive seen television programmes and videos of buddhist shaolin monks who perfom incredible techniques such as breaking iron bars with their heads, impaling themselves with spears, throwing needles through glasses windows etc.

It was said that these monks create, harness and use Qi Energy which makes it possible for them to perform these techniques. I have two questions:

  • What is this Qi Energy?

  • Is it a strong and profound level of concentration like the Jhanas in Theravada Buddhism?

Thank you for your time.

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    -1 Because I think that this a traditional Chinese concept and not a Buddhist concept, and so I'm not sure that it's on-topic here. Questions pertaining to the martial arts aspect of Shaolin might be better asked on Martial Arts.SE.
    – ChrisW
    Commented May 31, 2015 at 20:16
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    Why isn't this related to Buddhism then? At least with an edit such as "How is Qi Energy used in Buddhist practice?"
    – Robin111
    Commented May 31, 2015 at 20:45
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    You don't have to delete: I was just voicing my opinion that it might be off-topic. If you leave it open then you might get an answer, perhaps from Ahmed for example if he sees this (and in fact you could guarantee he'd see it, by posting a comment under his answer to reference this question, saying that you'd like to know more about the "chi" he referred to in his answer).
    – ChrisW
    Commented May 31, 2015 at 20:49
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    @Robin111 I suspected that it wasn't related to Buddhism, because in my (limited) experience it's more related to Traditional Chinese Medicine, also to Chinese Martial Arts, perhaps especially Tai Chi, not to mention Qi Gong, also Daoism. I admit I know less than I'd like to about Chinese Buddhism so I don't want to close this question. I withdrew my downvote after the recent edit.
    – ChrisW
    Commented May 31, 2015 at 21:01
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    if anything, this question is on topic because a newcomer might look here thinking chi is a Buddhist concept. As a bonus, Ahmed's answer below provides a Buddhist perspective on the subject.
    – Anthony
    Commented Jun 1, 2015 at 3:51

5 Answers 5


"How is chi used in Buddhist practice?"

Buddha ignored the fascination people had with all this and classified it as "the five elements" knowing that even the slightest attraction to these low physical phenomena would waste people's time and detract from the many more worthwhile goals. You don't have to know anything about chi in Buddhism because in Buddhism the method of true awareness is enough to dissolve all blockages and problems that might come up.

This is why so many uneducated Buddhist monks who didn't know anything about any of the other traditions still won the prize of Enlightenment! One of them was the patriarch of the Zen school, whom other jealous disciples tried to hunt down..

In those times, monks would be all too interested in those things, at the expense of understanding one's True Mind, which is beyond body and mind... If Buddha even mentioned the word chi, there would be a million and one distracting questions popping into people's head at those times--that would probably derail people's focus entirely... which is why Gautama supposedly returned as Padmasambhava and created the Tibetan school--much much later after the heart of Buddhism was established. (Tibetan school by the way is still aligned with Buddhism but has an integrated focus on the wisdom-energies.)

Nonetheless, chi is related to different karmic habits that we have and once these energies are dissolved the personality characteristic is also transformed--and vice versa.

Buddhism aims at a much higher target than physical perfection, beyond even physical immortality, and this is why it is possible in Buddhism to go beyond the body to transform the mind at its root, attaining things that are definitely Buddhist ("non-common supermundane achievements") and other things that are beyond form but common to all spiritual schools ("common supermundane achievements").

Buddhism aims at the highest possible level: transforming the 8th consciousness, the storehouse of karmas from our endless lives... becoming a radiant actualized Buddha helping all beings win Awakening, becoming free from cycles like birth-and-death and suffering. To Buddhism, these super-powers are nothing but wasting time developing tricks, totally distracted from our human and spiritual problem. That is, unless it is for skillful means (see the parable of the burning house).

With that Buddhist warning aside, to answer your first question, there are many different types of chi, based on various organs. This falls within the realm of TCM and there are many uses to knowing such things, especially in diagnosing one's body. I would love to have an intuitive TCM doctor analyze my sitting posture--lots of constructive advice can be gained from that!

So what is chi in related to Buddhist practice and meditation? How can we make use of such learnings to motivate our Buddhist practice?

The Taoists have mapped out a timeline for what the excellent cultivators and Buddhists go through:

jing > chi > shen > emptiness >> Tao

When one practices Buddhism 100% correctly (celibacy + samatha-powered vipassana), this process happens automatically all the way to "seeing the Tao"/bodhisattvahood.

Due to one's celibacy, one has stored up jing (semen) which after 3 months of jhana eventually starts to transform into chi. One will feel less hungry and can fast for a long time. One is qualified to do the things posted in the picture. Eventually after at least a year like this, one's chi will transform to shen. For several years this process will continue, one's sleep needs will drastically reduce. After even more refined letting go, one will be at the stage of "emptiness" free from dualities and one step away from turning around and "seeing the Tao"

Also, the Taoists have fancier, more interesting names than this - I'm just summarizing.

I recommend the dense book "How to Measure and Deepen Your Spiritual Realization" for a complete understanding of this subject of energetics and where your concern on energetics absolutely must stop in order to progress and not subconsciously focus on lower things and hold yourself back from awakening the formless, nondual prajna wisdom.

Whether one is a monastic or a layman, in this day and age there is a lot of confusing bioenergetics fascination so it is important to clear up this matter for yourself because even if I say "just study Buddhism, and keep noting, all that fancy stuff is nothing they will lose it after they die"... you are still curious and vulnerable to false information--especially since you want to be able to do cool things like be free of sexual desire (when your jing is full), no longer need to ingest food (when chi is full), and no longer need to sleep (when shen is full)... at the best false information + fixation might lead to nonbeneficial/retarding practices and at the worst, a painful fiery death (I refer you to the Buddhist story of Hakuin).

2nd question: yes, it is a result of staying in that state. After achieving the 1st jhana on a mental level, one must reside in this state until the body completes transforming. After one's body and mind are in sync (this may take a few months if one achieved jhana/insight quickly), one's state will stabilize (and one can go to even higher states more easily)... and one can feel and train one's chi to do various tricks--beneficial and harmful. One can also ignore those lateral pathways and continue on the Buddhist journey.

Go here for more nondenominational info and definitions. Also read "Master Huai-Chin Nan - Internal Martial Arts Nei-Gong" to have all your chi-related questions answered, especially related to Buddhist practice. The dense book I mentioned earlier has excellent case studies as well on how chi manifested in different practitioners' lives.

  • The words "Jing, qi, and shen" are introduced e.g. here: Three Treasures (traditional Chinese medicine)
    – ChrisW
    Commented May 31, 2015 at 23:23
  • @Ahmed. Thanks a lot for the insights and references. I appreciate it.
    – user2424
    Commented Jun 1, 2015 at 7:22
  • @Lanka Pleasure to answer, thanks for an excellent question. I also recommend Tao & Longevity by Master Nan as a primer on this subject, it is an easy read with many direct answers on bioenergetics.
    – Ahmed
    Commented Jun 1, 2015 at 16:32
  • @Ahmed. Thank you that sounds great:) I suspect this stuff should be practiced in order to fully understand, right? Im a theravada buddhist d i stick with this method only, so i guess my understanding of Qigong and Qi energy will be merely "intellectual".
    – user2424
    Commented Jun 1, 2015 at 18:46
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    @Lanka 16 stages is a larger "map" so to speak that has not yet been mapped the taoist stages of physiospiritual development. I recommend "mastering the core teachings", a hardcore theravadin book to understand this concept of maps and interrelation
    – Ahmed
    Commented Jun 3, 2015 at 14:36

Many people will tell you that so-called Qi doesn't exist: that it has never been observed scientifically.

The "superhuman" performances you saw or heard about came from Chinese street performers' gimmicks in the old days. For example, A bulky guy would have a heavy slate laid on his belly and let people smash it with a hammer. Then he would stand up and start selling elixirs to the audience that were supposed to give you super human strength. It's just tricks plus physical conditioning. Not sure why the monks picked up and carried on this "glorious" tradition. I guess it's because that real martial arts the monks used to practice were for killing or maiming your opponents. That's why they practiced weapon-based martial arts styles such as sticks and spears. However, the dawn of of the age of gunpowder-propelled weapons rendered their martial arts obsolete.


In Zen, it's actually quite important. The whole purpose of deep, abdominal breathing is to raise qi in the lower dan tien/hara. This allows for deeper concentration and the ability to sit through discomfort. At it's core, what a monk does on the cushion is really no different than what you see martial artists doing (the authentic ones, anyway). All that differs is its application. In martial arts, cultivated qi is used externally. In meditation, it's directed internally.

Now all this isn't to say that there is some magical substance known as qi that allows people to perform superhuman feats. Personally, I'm of the mind qi is just a convenient umbrella term for some of the phenomenology associated with meditative practice. Be that as it may, it still plays a roll in some forms of Buddhism.


Hello here Ahmed seems to be saying that the Taoist goal and Buddhist goal are the same or at least the practice of either leads to the same goal which here Ahmed says in reference to the Taoist map as Tao. I am a little confused here. It would depend obviously on how to is defined and what practices are done but buddha clearly stated that vipassana is the only way. There are many variations of vjapshyana but do the Daoists have this practice at all? Their Tao is more like that of an eternalism view whereas when I was told by my teacher that when Buddhists talk about Tao that is free from these two extremes. Their lack of right view is also characterized by incorrect views in rebirth, realms, role of deities and so on which obviously would not be the case if they were enlightened as per Buddhist way.

  • 1
    That's a reasonable question, but please re-post it (perhaps copy-and-paste it) as a new question (not post it here because it is not an answer to the current question). Use the Ask Question link to post a new question. When you write the question, you can start it using text like this In [this answer](http://buddhism.stackexchange.com/a/9335/254), Ahmed seems to be saying that etc. so that your question is linked to Admed's answer (or I can edit it to fix the link after you post it). When you do that, give your question a title as well.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Mar 23, 2017 at 14:21
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    There's no way (no place) for people to answer your question if you post it here as an answer; and people are more likely to notice that there even is a new question, if it's posted as a question instead of as an answer.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Mar 24, 2017 at 12:55

Qi Energy can be compared to mechanical pneumatic equipment that uses air to lift, move or destroy heavy & hard objects.

Where as the Jhanas refine the breathing until the breathing completely disappears.

Therefore, the Jhanas in Theravada Buddhism are not related to Qi Energy & are in fact the opposite of cultivating Qi Energy.

In-&-out breaths are the body fabricator

MN 44

He trains himself, 'I will breathe in calming body fabricator.' He trains himself, 'I will breathe out calming body fabricator.'

MN 118

When one has attained the fourth jhāna, in-and-out breathing has been stilled.

SN 36.11

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