Venerable Heng Lin (恒林) [1865-1923] Head Monk of Shaolin Temple (1908-1923)
Translated by Adrian Chan-Wyles (PhD)
Translator’s Note: This English translation is extracted from the Chinese language text entitled ‘少林高僧、武学巨子“恒林法师、妙兴法师”’ which translates as ‘Great Martial Arts Master of Shaolin – Dharma Master Heng Lin and Dharma Master Miao Xing’. The Venerable Heng Lin was the teacher of Master Miao Xing – whose life story I have translated elsewhere. In 1920, a group of Japanese visitors to the Shaolin Temple took a number of very important black and white photographs of the buildings, statues, courtyards, monuments, monks and other open spaces. One of these photographs is of the Shaolin Militia and it is reasonable to assume that it is Master Heng Lin himself who is sat astride of the horse positioned between two groups of his specially chosen and trained Shaolin monks. This set of photographs were preserved in the ‘Bodhidharma Temple’ in Kyoto, Japan, and were only rediscovered when the current Head Monk of the Shaolin Temple – Yong Xin – visited in 1991. What is significant is that Heng Lin was able to continue the ancient Ch’an Buddhist and martial traditions associated with the Shaolin Temple, whilst simultaneously answering the needs of the local lay Buddhist community, and recruiting, arming and training a modern militia. As Heng Lin had no formal military training, he utilised his traditional martial arts training and successfully applied its ideas to a modern military formation that used fire-arms to fight bandits and keep the peace. This is a remarkable balancing of the ‘old’ with the ‘new’. The quality of Heng Lin’s mastery can be seen through the extraordinary abilities of his key student – Miao Xing. ACW 5.3.2016
Venerable Heng Lin had the lay surname ‘Song’ (宋), who came from the ‘Song Walled Village’ (宋寨 – Song Zhai) situated in Yichuan County, Henan province. He was born in the 4th year of the reign of the Qing Dynasty Emperor Tongzhi (1865) and his father was a tenant farmer. He received a basic education in the local village school, and this gave him basic knowledge of how to read books and write texts. In the first year of the rule of the Qing Dynasty Emperor Guangxu (1875), his father sent him to live at the Shaolin Temple in Dengfeng County, where he had his head-shaved and he received the Buddhist ordination Dharma-name of ‘Heng Lin’ (恒林) (which translates as ‘Enduring Forest’). Here, Heng Lin studied the Buddha-Dharma and practiced martial arts. Later, after years of training and receiving the full ordination precepts, he was promoted to the rank of ‘Temple Supervisor’ (监院 – Jian Yuan). In the last year of the reign of the Qing Dynasty Emperor Guangxu (1908), he was appointed the Shaolin Temple ‘Master of Monastic Assembly’ (僧会司 - Seng Hui Si), giving him responsibility – as ‘Head Monk’ (or Abbot’) for the welfare and training of all monastics in the temple, and the guidance of the lay-Buddhist community living in the Dengfeng County. He was renowned for being both just and impartial, whilst his explanation of the Dharma was straightforward and knowledgeable. Although the Shaolin martial arts were practiced in secret at the time, Heng Lin was well known for his martial skills. Due to the uncertainty caused by the 1911 Revolution, the Shaolin Temple and surrounding area (which was situated in an important strategic corridor) was plunged into chaos and disorder. This led Heng Lin to found the Shaolin Temple Self-Defence Regiment (少林寺保卫团 – Shao Lin Si Bao Wei Tuan) in 1912. This was organised as a modern militia and was very popular amongst the lay community, as well as the local gentry, and was officially endorsed by the Dengfeng County local authorities. Heng Lin organised the recruitment of personnel, the procurement of modern fire-arms, and personally took-charge of the martial training.
During the autumn of the 9th year of the Republic (1920), famine and drought hit Henan province, and everywhere bandits swarmed. The people were plunged into excessive hardship and suffering. Heng Lin’s militia often deployed into different areas of Dengfeng County, where they clashed with many rural bandit bands – inflicting one defeat after another upon them. Sometimes this was in open battle, whilst at other times, the militia would dig-in and create clever and very successful ambushes. When renowned bandit groups defeated or evaded the militias of other districts (as happened in the case of bandit Chief Zhu Baocheng - 朱保成), as soon as they came near the Shaolin Temple, they were always defeated. Everyone living in the area of the Shaolin Temple fully supported the militia of Heng Lin and the local government even granted a number of awards. Heng Lin was an excellent organiser of temple affairs. He would officiate at weddings and funerals, and would personally solve any problems that arose in the temple. So peaceful was the Dengfeng County area that people were able to come and go from the Shaolin Temple in peace. This was because Heng Lin was responsible for law and order both within and outside of the temple. Despite his very obvious success, he never once took any credit for what he had achieved. During the 12th year of the Republic, due to illness and over-work, Master Heng Lin passed away at the age of 59 years old, and a Dharma-age of 48 years. As the news of his passing spread, people began to mourn across the Henan area.