Blurry Boundaries Between Breath/Qi/Ki and Buddhism: Agency for a Contemporary Chinese American Religious Healer


This conversation will consider Seng Kan Cheung, a contemporary Chinese American religious healer who uses qigongreiki, and Buddhist spells. He shares these practices and exchanges healing with a community of relatives, friends, students, and patients in the New York City area. Breathing is involuntary, yet can also be voluntarily controlled. Agency in his healing is difficult to determine because he experiences involuntary movements that trigger during the practice of qigong, application of acupressure on patients, and encounters with Buddhist temples in New York and Japan.

Questions for reflection

1. How do you define health? Did you consider mainly physical, mental, and emotional factors? What about communal, social, or spiritual health? How can we understand health differently if the focus moves from individuals (or parts of the mind-body) towards the family as a unit, or larger social units?

2. What is the difference between disease, illness, and sickness? Do you find the distinction proposed by some researchers to be helpful?

3. What is the relationship between health and religion, in and out of the Buddhist context? Where did people turn for healing before the widespread professionalization of medical doctors or if they could not afford doctors?

Further reading

Barnes, Linda L. 2004. “Multiple Meanings of Chinese Healing in the United States.” In Religion and
Healing in America
, edited by Linda L. Barnes and Susan S. Sered, 307-332. New York: OxfordUniversity Press.

Cheung, Kin. “Miracle as Natural: A Contemporary Chinese American Religious Healer.” In Miracles: An Exercise in Comparative Philosophy of Religion, edited by Karen Zwier, David Weddle, and Timothy Knepper. The Comparison Project Series 3 (volume under contract with Springer International Publishing).

Cheung, K. “Defining Health and Religion: Mindfulness and Buddhism.” Religious Studies Review 46, no. 3 (2020): 359-366.

Cheung, K. “Human Agency in Buddhism and Science.” Special Issue on Religion and Science, Religious Studies Review 44, no. 4 (2018): 395-401.

Cheung, Kin and C. Pierce Salguero. “Interview with a Contemporary Chinese American Healer.” In Buddhism and Medicine: An Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Sources, edited by C. Pierce Salguero, 241-251. New York: Columbia University Press, 2019.

Jeung, Russell, Seanan S. Fong, and Helen Jin Kim. 2019. Family Sacrifices: The Worldviews and Ethics
of Chinese Americans
. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lee, Jonathan H. X., Fumitaka Matsuoka, Edmond Yee, and Ronald Y. Nakasone, eds. 2015. Asian American Religious Cultures. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.

Ng, Edwin. 2012. “The Autoethnographic Genre and Buddhist Studies: Reflections of a Postcolonial „Western Buddhist‟ Convert.” Journal for the Academic Study of Religion 25 (2): 163–84.  

Palmer, David A. 2007. Qigong Fever: Body, Science, and Utopia in China. 1st ed. New York: Columbia University Press.
Stein, Justin B. 2019. “‘Universe Energy’: Translation and Reiki Healing in the Twentieth-Century North Pacific.” Asian Medicine 14 (1): 81–103. 

Tilley-Lubbs, Gresilda A. 2016. “Critical Autoethnography and the Vulnerable Self as Researcher.” In Re-Telling Our Stories: Critical Autoethnographic Narratives, edited by Gresilda A. Tilley-Lubbs and Silvia Bénard Calva, 3–15. Imagination and Praxis. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers 
Wu, Emily S. 2013. Traditional Chinese Medicine in the United States: In Search of Spiritual Meaning and Ultimate Health. Maryland: Lexington Books.

Yoo, David K., and Khyati Y. Joshi, eds. 2020. Envisioning Religion, Race, and Asian Americans.Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Kin Cheung is Assistant Professor of East and South Asian Religions at Moravian University. Kin researches various aspects of contemporary Buddhism. He has published on Buddhist meditation and healing, practical implications of Buddhist ethics, and Buddhist institutions’ involvement in China’s stock market. His PhD dissertation examines how meditation changes the senses of self, using both scientific studies of meditation’s effects on the brain and Chan/Zen Buddhist descriptions. Kin’s next major project is a contemporary case study of a Chinese American religious healer. Kin is a strong proponent of religious literacy. Regardless of personal identification with a religious group, the study of religion promotes understanding of human experience.