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Our Style of Retreats – 2nd draft 2017

Shifu leading retreat

“I took a different approach to teaching Chan in the West, adapting it to the lives of my followers, laypeople who could only stay in retreat for a few days. […] My approach is different from the approach used in China’s Chan Halls. In Chinese Chan, there is no exercise other than periods of fast walking to break up longer periods of still, silent sitting meditation. I have combined in my teaching this Chinese technique of fast walking with the Theravada practice of slow walking. I also use yoga from India and Taiji and massage from China in my teaching. Westerners seem to like and respond well to this variety and the mix of stillness and motion.”


– from Footprints in the Snow by Chan Master Sheng Yen

Our Style of Retreats

Dharma Drum Retreat Center (DDRC) offers meditation retreats in the style of the Dharma Drum Lineage of Chan Buddhism, balancing serious, strict practice with flexibility and gentleness. While maintaining the spirit of traditional retreats held in Chan monasteries of ancient China, these retreats also incorporate a variety of activities suited to contemporary people’s needs. We provide a variety of retreats to suit people’s different requirements. You can apply to those retreats which match your needs and interest. Retreat applications are reviewed by DDRC staff and teachers to ensure applicants are suited to attend the designated retreat.

Foundation Retreat


Dedicate your weekend to practice. On this retreat, you have the chance to engage in a relaxing schedule of mindful activity from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon.

Harmonize your body and mind, by engaging in healthy living and Chan meditation–balancing all of the five aspects of diet, sleep, body, breath, and mind. Either in stillness or in motion, cultivate a clear and stable mind amidst all that you do. This is the very essence of Chan practice.

Settling into the weekend routine, you will experience greater relaxation of body and calmness of mind. Hear Dharma talks about meditation methods as well as basic principles of Buddhadharma and the unique approach of the Chan school. In this way, you’ll be able to establish a solid foundation of understanding both methods and concepts of practice.

Beginner’s Mind Retreat


A “Beginner’s mind” is a mind open to experiencing life in the present moment, free from preconceived notions and expectations — a mind open to genuine understanding and self-realization. If you are new to meditation practice, or have never participated in a retreat, this is an ideal way to begin your spiritual journey.

In addition to sessions of seated meditation, this retreat features interactive workshops such as: The Art of Sitting, The Art of Walking, The Art of Questioning, The Art of Self-Massage, The Art of Perception, and The Art of Listening.

Western Zen Retreat

(five days)

“Who am I?” Thoroughly confronting this question can take us directly to the center of our being. Over the course of this five-day retreat you will investigate the question “Who am I?” within a standard retreat framework, using silent meditation in conjunction with a unique method of verbal inquiry. This format allows you to use words to go beyond words and thereby enter the main gate of Chan.

The intensive nature of this process of inquiry drives each practitioner into a self-presentation that is difficult to experience in other ways. To guide and support you, personal interviews with the teachers are offered regularly throughout the retreat. With whole-hearted engagement this retreat may lead to the acceptance of self, the experience of “self at ease,” and may even provide an opportunity for direct insight into the ground of being.

Because numerous private interviews are included in the design of this retreat and the teachers want to ensure that each participant receives adequate attention, admission is limited, so please apply early.

This retreat was developed by the Western Chan Fellowship (WCF) founded by the late Dr. John Crook, an English Dharma heir of Master Sheng Yen. The retreat is designed for individuals who have received a Western education, and are currently led by Dr. Simon Child and the WCF faculty.

To learn more about the Western Zen Retreat, please download the audio files of Simon Child’s talks and participant retreat reports.

Intensive Retreats

Intensive retreats are the entry point for serious Chan practice and study. They follow the traditional Chan monastery retreat schedule, starting early in the morning and making the most efficient use of time in intensive group practice. They are designed to allow you to wholeheartedly devote your energies to using the method, and minimize all potential distractions.

Intensive retreats are usually 7-10 days long, with numerous sitting periods each day. Participants should be mentally and physically prepared for the rigors of such a regimen. Daily interviews with the teacher are available for you to receive direct guidance regarding use of the method of practice, and Dharma talks are given daily to elucidate on the details of investigating one’s mind.

We offer four types of intensive retreat:

Silent Illumination Intensive Retreat

(seven or ten days)

The above comes from the poem “Silent Illumination,” composed by Master Hongzhi Zhengjue, a 12th century lineage holder of the Caodong (Jap. Soto) school of Chan Buddhism. They describe the mind of someone who has left behind all attachment to thought and conceptualization. Doing this, they clearly know the nature of things through the direct experience of enlightenment. Master Hongzhi wrote many beautiful poems describing his deep insight. While today we can read these poems for inspiration and encouragement in our practice, they also function as guidelines for a method known as silent illumination. With this method, the aim is to develop and maintain relaxation, clarity and openness of mind. Ultimately, the goal is to see into the nature of the mind. One who has achieved this insight establishes a solid understanding and confidence of how to cultivate freedom and ease in dealing with all situations. Naturally, they know how to resolve their remaining vexations, and use wisdom and compassion in their daily lives.

Lost to the Chan tradition for generations, this method was neither being taught in monasteries nor was it being openly taught to lay practitioners elsewhere. Only recently was it revived by Chan Master Sheng Yen (Shifu), who has systematized its use by drawing on the writings of Chan Master Hongzhi and the teachings of the Caodong school (traceable back to the Sixth Patriarch, Bodhidharma, and ultimately to the Buddha himself). Although silent illumination is similar to the Zen practice of “just sitting” (Jap. Shikantaza), there are subtle differences between the two. During this retreat you will learn how to practice silent illumination, starting with foundational methods to stabilize the mind, and gradually entering into what is known as the “method of no method”.

(read an article by Chan Master Sheng Yen on silent illumination practice)

Master Sheng Yen Intensive Retreat

(seven or ten days)

Our respected founder and teacher, Chan Master Sheng Yen (“Shifu”), passed away in 2009. Although he had been leading Chan retreats across the world for 30 years, many people regret that they did not get the chance to practice under his guidance. However, his precious teachings live on in our “Master Sheng Yen Retreat” where we utilize videos of his talks from past retreats. In this way, we hope to preserve and continue to share the Dharma Drum Lineage’s Chan practice with the world, and give practitioners an opportunity to hear these teachings on intensive retreat, as spoken directly from the founder himself.

In addition to receiving instruction from Shifu’s video lectures, you will also have guidance from an experienced Chan teacher who will lead the practice in the Chan Hall. Also, you will receive personal instruction through one-to-one interviews, where the teacher will ensure that you have a firm grasp of the concepts and methods of Chan.

This retreat format is offered as an intensive silent illumination or huatou retreat. Please see the online calendar for further details.

Essentials of Chan Intensive Retreat

(seven or ten days)

The purpose of Chan practice is to clarify our mind and see into our self-nature. To do this, we must clean up the impurities that make our minds muddled, cloudy, and opaque. These impurities are the illusory thoughts, or wrong perceptions, which we attach to, causing ourselves suffering and distress.

Our self-nature is the wisdom that is characteristic of a buddha, an awakened person. Actually, at heart, all people possess this wisdom, as our very own nature is identical with awakening. If we can leave behind our attachment to thoughts and perceptions, then we will wake up to the wisdom within us, and be able to resolve the problem of our stress and anxiety.

On this Chan retreat, you will be presented with two methods of Chan meditation; silent illumination and huatou. You will learn how to use these methods to cultivate wisdom on intensive retreat as well as in daily life. It’s up to you to choose one as your main method.

If you would like to learn more about huatou practice, read Shattering The Great Doubt by Chan Master Sheng Yen.

If you would like to learn more about silent illumination practice, read The Method of No Method by Chan Master Sheng Yen.

Investigating Huatou Intensive Retreat

(seven or ten days)

“Huatou” in Chinese, literally means “the origin of words,” or that which precedes words and language. This refers to the state of the mind before the arising of conceptualization or, more precisely, before the arising of a single thought. Thus, huatou is the source of all words and of all thoughts, the fundamental nature of the mind. But, it is also a method that we use to point directly at this mind while putting aside all other concerns. When we investigate huatou, we utilize questions such as: “What is my original face?” and “What is Wu?” These puzzling, seemingly illogical questions produce a deep sense of self-questioning which is called “the doubt sensation.” If you can succeed in penetrating this doubt, you will discover that which you have always had. As a result you’ll find real peace and ease within yourself and together with others, generating wisdom and compassion.

Widely in use since the 12th century, huatou is a method unique to the Chan school, popularized by Chan Master Dahui Zonggao of the Linji Sect and advocated in the last century by the great Chan Masters Xuyun (Empty Cloud) and Laiguo. In more recent times, Chan Master Sheng Yen made a unique contribution to Chan by systematizing the application of this method, making it clearly comprehensible even to the beginning practitioner. During this retreat you will receive guidance from the teacher that will enable you to practice in a manner most suitable to your current condition. Instruction in this method may be gentle or vigorous–depending on the style of the teacher and the causes and conditions of the student. Thus you are encouraged to attend this retreat with no expectations and “simply pick up the huatou.”

(read an article by Chan Master Sheng Yen on huatou practice)

How to Choose the Right Retreat

If you are not sure which DDRC retreat is suitable for you at this time, here are suggestions:

If you are relatively new to the practice, and looking for a retreat where more instructions will be given on various forms of meditation in motion and stillness, you may like to look into the:

If you have done some meditation and want to check in with a teacher on your practice, establish or re-establish a meditation regimen, or strengthen your current routine, you may want to attend:

If you are interested in getting more deeply acquainted with Chan methods such as silent illumination and huatou, as well as basic methods of using the breath, you may want to attend:

If you are looking for a longer and more intensive retreat experience where you will immerse yourself in applying Chan methods of practice: