Master Xu Yun (1840-1959) certainly understood the paradox of looking into the fabric of our minds – to ‘see’ beyond that which we look with and that which we look at and through. This process, for a Ch’an Master at least, was not considered a contradiction. This Chinese Ch’an method was and still is viewed as the true essence of the message of the historical Buddha (born in India)! Furthermore, the Chinese Ch’an School considers itself unique in preserving the ‘true’ transmission of the historical Buddha free of all the later modifications, distractions and pollutions that entered the various Buddhist communities. Contemporary Western scholars, of course, consider this attitude to be flawed and its assumption to be wrong. According to Western scholarship (which takes its cue from Japanese Buddhism), this ‘Chinese’ attitude is ‘ahistorical’ and nothing but a culturally bias fabrication. According to Japanese researchers (whose work stems from the 1868 Meiji Restoration) - genuine Buddhism ‘died-out’ centuries ago in China and has never recovered!
How strange it must seem to them then, when they encounter Master Xu Yun’s biography (amongst many other eminent Masters) who assert the exact the opposite! Indeed, Master Xu Yun considered many practices associated with Lamaism to be ‘corrupt’, and repeatedly asserted that the immorality and barbarity of the Imperial Japanese Army in China (1931-1945) was the product of the moral corruption of Buddhist practice in Japan. As most Westerners cannot read either the Japanese or Chinese script, they remain unaware of the War Crimes advocated and committed by various Japanese Zen teachers before and during WWII (much of it anti-Western in nature as well as being anti-Chinese) - who later became very famous in the US and lived lives of relative luxury after the War! How strange it seems that very few people have read of how Master Xu Yun heavily criticised a group of Chinese Buddhist monks who had been to Japan and returned home eating meat, drinking alcohol and with wives and children in tow! Although it is true that our minds should be that distracted by worldly matters, at the same time it is equally true that when engaging in worldly matters, the engaging itself must be morally pristine.
Of course, there are people living in Japan who are aware of these contradictions and who do seek to make amends and put historical wrongs right. In the heart of those dojo that teach genuine Zen-Ch'an all of it ‘dissolves’ into irrelevance when the correct Dharma is cultivated. I remember how respectful a delegation of Shaolin monks was treated in Japan a few years ago – particularly when they visited a small dojo whose founding ancestor had visited the Shaolin Temple on Song Mountain many hundreds of years ago! The visiting Shaolin Master studied the Chinese Transmission Documents carefully stored away and guarded in Japan – and finally declared them entirely genuine! The name and location of the dojo – together with its historical details – were taken back to the Shaolin Temple and entered in the Records of Genuine Transmission! Although truth maybe difficult to attain at times, this does not mean that we give-up the task of pursuing it. Truth must prevail over falsehood and that is all there is to it!
Translator’s Note: As a scholar reading Chinese texts regarding the life and times of Master Xu Yun (1840-1959), I am aware that Master Hai Deng (1902-1989) was a disciple of Xu Yun and generally very well respected at the Zhenru Temple. For a short-time, Master Hai Deng served as ‘acting’ Head Monk (Abbot). He is photographed with Xu Yun and was a very sincerely and well-respected Ch’an monk. As far as I am aware, he made no claims about his own abilities. Within Master Hai Deng’s biography, it states that he trained in the branch of the Shaolin Temple situated in Sichuan province – a point of fact not mentioned in this article. When Master Xu Yun checked Master Hai Deng’s credentials – he was satisfied that everything was in order and that no fraud was being enacted. However, another close disciple of Master Xu Yun was the Old Venerable Monk Ti Guang (体光). Master Ti Guang was with Master Xu Yun when he passed away. Master Ti Guang was also an expert in Chinese martial arts and one-day ‘challenged’ Master Hai Deng to a ‘fight’ that tests skill. When this event happened – Master Ti Guang quickly defeated Master Hai Deng who accepted the outcome without any sense of resentment. This fight took place in the grounds of the Zhenru Temple. ACW (24/1.2021)
In the 1980s, China’s domestic development entered the fast lane, and cultural life was unprecedentedly active. It was no longer the case of the dominance of a model drama – as a hundred schools of thought contended. The movie - "Sichuan Unusual Records" (四川奇趣录 - Si Chuan Qi Qu Lu) filmed by Hong Kong Great Wall Films - became an overnight sensation once it was broadcast. This Movie featured Master Hai Deng who – despite his old age – was still able to perform amazing martial feats of strength, agility and endurance! He was filmed supporting his entire bodyweight (in an inverted position) seemingly ‘balancing’ through the power of just two fingers. This became known in the West as the cultivated practice of ‘Two-Finger Zen’ (二指禅 - Er Zhi Ch’an). Even young people find it difficult to perform ‘hand-stands’ and even less could hold their bodyweight even through a single palm! As this was the case, how could this old Ch’an Buddhist monk (who was already in his 80s) still be able to perform such a feat? Of course, because of this footage and photographs – Master Hai Deng became instantly famous all over China! There were rumours that things were not as they seem even at the time – but these were viewed as the product of jealousy, disrespect and ignorance. Master Hai Deng was an old Ch’an Buddhist monk who had spent his life quietly cultivating the Dharma and training with some of the most famous Buddhist practitioners (such as the Great Master Xu Yun 1840-1959).
What really made Master Hai Deng's reputation instantly rise to its apex was his contribution to the documentary film entitled "Shaolin Temple" (少林寺 - Shao Lin Si). At that time, martial arts films were in the ascendant and were the most popular themed. Although the ticket price was comparatively small - the box office still made 160 million! This Shaolin Temple film became an immediate hit in China and throughout the world! Much was made of the abilities of Master Hai Deng’s superb martial arts abilities. It was said he fought off all evil forces that attacked China and led the resistance against Japanese aggression! These stories took on a mind of their own and were repeated far and wide - with each re-telling adding more and more layers of incredible detail! Generally speaking, Master Hai Deng was unaware of most of this additional bolstering as he was not asked whether any of it was correct. As a mature Ch’an monk - Master Hai Deng’s attitude was that ‘winning and losing’ did not matter as he maintained a ‘still’ and ‘all-embracing’ mind.
After the death of Master Hai Deng in early 1989 - a man named Jing Yongxiang (敬永祥) published a long biography "The Hai Deng Phenomenon - The God-Making Movement of the 1980s" (海灯现象——八十年代的造神运动 - Hai Deng Xian Xiang – Ba Shi Nian Dai De Zao Shen Yun Dong). This was designed to clear-up all the misunderstandings about Master Hai Deng and in so doing, set the historical record ‘straight’. What is significant about this author is that he was the first journalist to highlight Master Hai Deng’s extraordinary martial arts skills in the early 1980s! This was when he worked as a Reporter for a local Newspaper. Jing Yongxiang had heard that there was an extraordinary ‘old’ Ch’an Buddhist monk living in the area – and he decided to interview him – eventually penning a 940-character article.
Jing Yongxiang explains in his book that he is responsible for the hysteria that eventually developed around Master Hai Deng. This was never his intention when he first wrote of Master Hai Deng, his spiritual lineage and martial arts abilities despite being in his 80s – that matters would escalate and cascade out of control – so that a media blitz would be caused both in China (and abroad)! He feels that this situation is his responsibility and that he must put matters right. The question everyone asks is whether Master Hai Deng possessed extraordinary abilities or not? Master Hai Deng was born in 1902, into a family with the surname ‘Fan’ (范). This family lived in Jiangyou area of Sichuan province. His mother died when he was young, and he was brought up by his father (who was a tailor) and lived in poverty.
When he was seven-years-old, he began the study of martial arts with his uncle, and then started taking his academic career seriously. Indeed, he excelled as a scholar and at fourteen-years-old he earned a scholarship (by coming ‘first’ in the examination) to enter Mianyang Normal University. During each year of study Master Hai Deng earned first-place out of the entire class. Two years later, Master Hai Deng graduated in first-place. He felt he was too young to work as a primary school teacher – and so he travelled to Chengdu instead – where he was admitted to the Sichuan Law and Political School and Police Supervisor School – both being judicial schools. Master Hai Deng became adept in economics – but at twenty-six-years-old, he encountered two Shaolin monks who had escaped warlords (in Henan) and had come to Chengdu to hide. This was 1928 – the year the Nationalist Government in China decided to destroy the famous Shaolin Temple and kill the monks, etc. Master Hai Deng (whose lay-name was ‘Fan Wu Bing’ 范无病) saw these monks performing their martial arts and was immediately drawn to the Shaolin tradition!
As these Shaolin fighting arts are complex and difficult to learn – Master Hai Deng decided to stay with the Shaolin monk named ‘Great Master Ru Feng’ (汝峰大师 - Ru Feng Da Shi) for a number of days. However, Master Ru Feng stated that ‘Shaolin martial arts are not usually passed-on in this manner. If you sincerely want to learn, you must pay your respects at the East Mountain.’ Such an effort would require thirty-two lamps to be lit for the Buddha – which would require a very large amount of burning-oil! This might be where he acquired the Dharma-name of ‘Hai Deng’ (海灯) - or ‘Sea of Lamps’! Master Hai Deng must have passed all the required tests and acts of worship – as he was permitted to study ‘Tong Zi Gong’ (童子功), ‘Lian Jing Hua Qi’ (炼精化气) and ‘Lian Jing Huan Shen’ (炼精化神), etc. An issue here is this. The Shaolin Temple Boxing System is renown as a style specialising in ‘External’ (外 - Wai) technique – and yet according to this list – Master Hai Deng was initiated into the very different ‘Internal’ (内 - Nei) system of training.
Afterwards, Master Hai Deng visited many famous temples requesting instruction - and integrated hundreds of different fighting techniques to mature his martial arts ability. During this period, he went to the very strict Shaolin Temple (in Henan) to ask eminent monks for advice. However, Master Hai Deng’s request was refused because he was not a Ch’an monk ordained at the Shaolin Temple – and was not a lay-person (from a ‘known’ local family) registered at the Shaolin Temple. As the Head Monk had not personally authorised Master Hai Deng to receive instruction from the Great Monk Ru Feng – there was some confusion as to how he had come into possession of genuine Shaolin knowledge. During the 1950s - Master Hai Deng became famous for entering fighting tournaments and beating the local and regional champions with ease! During this time, he even trained under Master Xu Yun (1840-1959) at the Zhenru (真如) Ch’an Temple situated on ‘Yunju’ (云居) Mountain in Jiangxi province. For a short-time – at the insistence of Master Xu Yun – Master Hai Deng was the 'acting’ Head Monk (Abbot) at the Zhenru Ch’an Temple (whilst the actual Head Monk was away on a special mission). He returned to and settled in his hometown of Jiangyou during the late 1960s. In 1982, Shaolin Principal Monk Shi Xingzheng - [释行正] (appointed as Shaolin Head Monk at the end of 1983) passed through Jiangyou and had a good chat with Master Hai Deng. Master Hai Deng was invited (with his disciples) to visit the Shaolin Temple in Henan – and stay for a while as a ‘Wandering Monk’ (行脚僧 - Xing Jiao Seng)
This time period coincided with the popularity of the movie entitled "Shaolin Temple". His disciples lost no time in writing a manuscript about the origins of Master Hai Deng and his ‘mystical’ association with Shaolin. Generally speaking, what goes on deep inside the Shaolin Temple is off-limits to the media with little knowledge being in the public domain. The Shaolin Temple proper is very different to the numerous Wushu Colleges that surround it and which offer disciplined martial arts study to the general public. As the stories of Master Hai Deng multiplied and spread – the media falsely believed that he was the ‘Head Monk’ (Abbot) of the Shaolin Temple of Henan. This caused a problem in the usually tranquil temple as Master Hai Deng (and his disciples) possessed no authority or status whatsoever. They were simply ‘invited’ guests who had outstayed their welcome. To remedy this situation, the actual Head Monk – Shi Xingsheng - personally issued an ‘Eviction Order’ which saw Master Hai Deng (and his disciples ‘expelled’ from the Shaolin Temple!
After he became famous, Master Hai Deng participated in frequent social activities, starred in movies and even visited the United States - serving as a martial arts instructor. All this was vigorously exaggerated by the media, and he became famous. This was all added to by the popularity of the film ‘Shaolin Temple’ - which saw ‘myth’ and ‘reality’ become entwined. This is how a simple Ch’an monk was mistakenly believed to be a high-ranking member of the Shaolin Temple who possessed ‘mystical’ powers! It was even believed that Master Hai Deng was the only person to possess the ‘genuine’ martial art (and health-giving) exercises associated with Bodhidharma! Of the three arts he is associated with, a number of experts have expressed ‘doubts’ about the quality of transmission. These arts are 1) 'Tong Zi Gong’ (童子功) - or ‘Virginal (Yang) Purity (or ‘Young Boy’) Cultivation’, 2) 'Two-Finger Zen’ (二指禅 - Er Zhi Ch’an) and 3) 'Plum Blossom Stake' (梅花桩 - Mei Hua Zhuang) - ‘Standing and Stepping on High Logs’. (In the South of China this is often referred to as ‘Wahlum Forest’, etc).
In the famous documentary – which saw Master Hai Deng perform the two-finger Ch’an hand-stand - he was old and this accomplishment had a greater symbolic significance. In his youth he had performed variants of this exercise – changing position, altering the hands and body orientation, etc. Indeed, Master Hai Deng was very famous for this ability – but he seldom performs the exercise on one-hand whilst holding a full hand-stand! It is unclear whether he was ever able to perform this exercise – even when young! Most witnesses recall that whenever they remember seeing Master Hai Deng performing this exercise – he invariably used one-hand (and two-fingers) whilst his feet touched the floor and his body was side-on! What happened during the filming was that the director had Master Hai Deng’s feet pulled-up into position by a rope around each ankle. Once in the inverted upside-down position – both ropes were removed and 80-year-old Master Hai Deng did legitimately ‘hold’ the position (with one foot supported on the wall but cleverly hidden through camera-work). After some minutes, Master Hai Deng was helped down and back onto his feet.
Chinese Language Reference:
史海寻踪 - 发布时间：20-03-0722:59
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