Translator’s Note: I knew of Master Hai Deng before he became famous for his martial arts skills. Indeed, he was considered a very devout Ch’an Buddhist Master whose understanding had been tested and confirmed by Master Xu Yun (1840-1959). He happened to come from the Sichuan area which has a number of Ch’an Temples renowned for their martial arts practice. The combining of martial arts and spirituality is very common in China and does not only happen at the Shaolin Temple in Henan. However, Master Hai Deng once tested his martial arts skills against another disciple of Master Xu Yun – namely ‘Master Ti Guang’ [体光] (1924-2005) - and lost the bout. There was no ego or anger involved and both monastics behaved with humility and respect toward one another. Master Hai Deng was very grateful that weaknesses in his physical technique had been exposed so that he could work at strengthening these areas and enhance his understanding in this art. More to the point, Master Xu Yun fully trusted Master Hai Deng to run monasteries as the Head Monk and teach the Buddhist Sutras to the monastics and visiting laity! Of course, with his visit to the West, and his involvement with the modern media, rumours and misunderstandings developed that were not the fault of a simple Buddhist monk. It is the world of dust that is to blame – and the Dharma that Master Hai Deng effectively upheld all his life! ACW (6.7.2021)
Master Hai Deng was originally just an unknown poor monk. Because of a coincidence, it seems that he became famous overnight and a household name. He became a heroic figure that people talked about. This all started with a news documentary called "Sichuan Unusual Events Record" (四川奇趣录 - Si Chuan Qi Qu Lu). It reported that in 1979, the Great Wall Film Company of Hong Kong and Emei Film Studio were preparing to jointly shoot a large-scale news documentary about unusual people from Sichuan. When the film crew was shooting at Baoguang (宝光 ) Ch’an Temple, a famous temple in western Sichuan, they heard that a martial arts-practicing monk - named ‘Hai Deng’ - lived in seclusion in the mountains of Jiangyou, spending his days and nights deep within seated meditation. After searching the remote areas, they eventually found Master Hai Deng on the mountainside near Chonghua Town, Jiangyou County.
Master Hai Deng lived in a simple hut built on the mountainside. Although the thatched hermitage is simple - it has a very Ch’an-like name -"Benyuan Jingshe" (本愿精舍) - or ‘Source of the Will Abode’. This name was devised by Master Hai Deng himself. The interior space of the hut is very low, narrow and small. The only items inside are a meditation stool with a mosquito net, a small stove for cooking, a dining table, and a few bowls and chopsticks. Why is there no bed? It turned out that in order to pursue the true meaning of Buddhism and martial arts, Master Hai Deng did not sleep in a bed for decades, and sat upright in meditation at night. From this point of view, Master Hai Deng can be regarded as a generation of Buddhist monastics truly living outside the world.
Master Hai Deng was invited to the Baoguang Temple to take part in the filming of the TV show. When he finished performing martial arts, this esteemed, elderly monk granted interviews with the monks and the local martial arts-loving young people associated with Baoguang Temple – who asked his advice about meditation and self-defence practice. He was devoted to teaching, and he was not fatigued in anyway despite his age - and was able to write poems on the spot. If Master Hai Deng's posthumous work "Shaolin Cloud Water Poem Collection" (少林云水诗集 - Shao Lin Yun Shui Shi Ji) is examined, his improvised "Ten Poems of Baoguang Temple" are included, the construction style of which is considered quite high. The term ‘云水’ (Yun Shui) or ‘Coud Water’) is a term used to refer to a Buddhist monastic who wanders from place to place – like a leaf blowing in the wind – or a drop of water falling like rain. (Translator: See Hexagram 56 ‘旅’ (Lu) of the ‘Classic of Change’ (Yijing) - the ‘Wanderer’ to explain this situation).
After the release of “Sichuan Unusual Events Record", Master Hai Deng's reputation gradually became apparent. In 1982, the head monk of Shaolin Temple - Shi Xingzheng (释行正) - sent a monk to Sichuan to study at the Buddhist Academy. Since Master Hai Deng had visited the Shaolin Temple several times before, Shi Xingzheng decided to personally visit the ‘Source of the Will Abode’ to pay a return visit to Master Hai Deng. Whilst discussing Ch’an, Master Hai Deng expressed the intention of going to Shaolin and formally becoming a humble ‘Disciple’ of the famous temple. What can Shi Xingzheng say? He could only welcome such a visit. Master Hai Deng took six disciples and went to Shaolin to live and study with them for a time. Many of the Shaolin monks thought it a happy occasion to meet with Master Hai Deng – a Ch’an monk who seemed to have come from another (earlier) time! In 1983, the movie "Shaolin Temple" starring Jet Li was very popular. "Shaolin martial arts" immediately became a cultural heritage sought after and admired by the people.
In November 1982, Xiao Dingpei (肖定沛) - a disciple of Master Hai Deng - wrote an article about Master Hai Deng practicing Ch’an in the Shaolin Temple, and had it published. Outsiders did not know that Master Hai Deng was only a visiting ‘Disciple’ of the Shaolin Temple. This misunderstanding was compounded by the fact that many had seen Master Hai Deng perform three extraordinary qigong exercised in the “Sichuan Unusual Events Record" documentary – and mistakenly believed he had learned these abilities at the Shaolin Temple! This led to the further confusion that Master Hai Deng was a Ch’an monk ordained at the Shaolin Temple (he was not) and that his martial arts skills were learned at the Shaolin (they were not). It has to be made clear that Master Hai Deng never personally claimed any of this and was usually the last to hear about each rumour!
Furthermore, a well-known author concocted a biography of Master Hai Deng – which described him as a Shaolin monk – and even that he was the ‘Head Monk’ (Abbot) of the Shaolin Temple! Then, in 1983, the Beijing Evening News added to the flames, serializing this so-called ‘biography’ of Master Hai Deng Master! Master Hai Deng was said to have only ‘reluctantly’ taken the post of Shaolin Abbot whilst he became the focus of media attention. Master Hai Deng was also invited to attend the 2nd Spring Festival Gala held by CCTV in 1984, where he performed qigong stunts. In 1984, the Central News Film Studio found Master Hai Deng and produced the documentary "Dharma Master Hai Deng of Shaolin" (少林海灯法师 - Shao Lin Hai Deng Fa Shi). .
Needless to say, this film was a big success. The photography team was very excited and decided to continue to encourage others to organize the staff to write a script about the legendary life of Master Hai Deng! Unwilling to be left behind, CCTV quickly joined forces with the Chengdu Foreign Affairs Office and invited Master Hai Deng and his disciples - Fan Yinglian (范应莲), Li Xingyou (李兴友) and others to shoot the TV series "Buddhist Careers" (佛门生涯 - Fo Men Sheng Ya). With all this publicity, Master Hai Deng became a defacto Shalin monk, Shaolin Dharma-Master and Shaolin martial arts expert! As he was quiet and humble, he did not take any notice of what was happening in the outside world – but merely ‘responded’ to circumstances as matters arose, He neither confirmed nor denied all the rumours but remain detached from it all. Although sometimes criticised for this ‘silence’ in the face of this disinformation, Master Hai Deng’s behaviour was ‘correct’ from a monastic point of view, as he remained ‘non-attached’ from the ignorance of others and never made any false claims about his own history or abilities.
In 1985, he accompanied a Chinese film delegation when visiting the United States, setting off a wave of "Shaolin martial arts euphoria" in throughout America; he was also invited to teach the Dharma in the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas in the USA... In the meantime, the Shaolin Temple monk - Shi Xingzheng - expressed his dissatisfaction at these developments. This view was supported in many areas around Dengfeng County, where the Shaolin Temple is located in Henan. The Shaolin Temple emphasises the Cao Dong lineage and is very strict. Only a few hundred men are chosen as fully ordained Shaolin monks at any one time, and they must go through a vigorous selection process far more difficult than anything hinted at in the movies! The Shaolin colleges surrounding the Shaolin Temple are places for sharing a certain strata of Shaolin Ch’an and martial arts knowledge – and are not considered the Shaolin Temple proper. There is a clear distinction. Master Hai Deng was not an ordained Shaolin monk of the Shaolin Temple – although he had been allowed to worship in the temple grounds – and he had not learned the ‘inner’ martial arts of the Shaolin Temple. The rumours suggested that he had – and herein lies all the subsequent trouble!
Due to all the confusion and trouble caused by these misunderstandings, the Education Department of the Dengfeng County Party Committee issued a statement that according to their records - Master Hai Deng is not the ‘Head Monk’ (Abbot) of Shaolin Temple. This was handed to the Head of the Chinese Buddhist Association - Zhao Puchu (赵朴初) – for clarification (just in case the government records were out of date or otherwise incorrect). Chairman Zhao Puchu wrote a reply on December 16th, 1985. His evaluation of Master Hai Deng in the letter is very objective. There are three main points: first, Master Hai Deng is a highly respected and fully ordained Ch’an Buddhist monk from Sichuan and is the Director of the Chinese Buddhist Association; second, Master Hai Deng is a genuine Master of martial arts; third, the news media's publicity is disrespectful and misleading. The solution proposed by Zhao Puchu is to understand the misleading propaganda, and correct it over-time through education. In this way the mistaken views will come to an end.
Although a statement was issued stating that Master Hai Deng was not the ‘Head Monk’ (Abbot) of the of Shaolin Temple – this fact did not affect his continued “popularity”. In 1986, he was invited to the Shanghai Armed Police Command School to instruct students in the practice of martial arts; He was hired as the general instructor of the PLA Scouts martial arts training team; in 1987, he participated in 20 episodes of the TV series "Dharma Master Hai Deng" filmed by Sichuan TV; In 1988 he settled in the ‘Martial Arts Dharma-Hall Dedicated to Master Hai Deng’ built for him in Jiangyou... But in January 1989, he fell ill and passed away. The ashes of Master Hai Deng were not yet cold when a reporter from Sichuan Daily – named ‘Jing Mou’ (敬某) , published a long report in Beijing’s "Reportage" magazine and Hainan’s "Gold Island" magazine. This article was highly disrespectful and wrongly claimed that Master Hai Deng was a ‘Liar’ and a ‘trickster’ who lived a life of only ‘making money’ out of those he fooled!
Fan Yinglian - a disciple of Master Hai Deng- took Jing Mou to Court in August 1989 for “infringement of reputation”. After investigation, it was found that Master Hai Deng followed the Vinaya Discipline carefully lived a very hard life – this pure and virtuous lifestyle was fully maintained even after he became famous throughout the country. All the offerings sent to him by sincere believers were immediately donated to the local temples and hospitals, and there was nothing left for him personally. However, one of the filmmakers of the "Sichuan Unusual Events Record" documentary came forward and revealed that Master Hai Deng was suspected of cheating when performing the one-finger Ch’an hand-stand where is legs were suspended from the rafters by cloth straps. As a result, the people were in an uproar, and Master Hai Deng’s personal reputation collapsed and he became the object of criticism. Master Hai Deng became both a comedy and a tragedy.
He was originally a poor monk who had left the world of dust, and was without power and money. The reason why he became a "god" was because of the wishful thinking superstitious attitudes of the people who held him up as something he was not; the reason why he was made a "demon" was also because of the same people who had become angry when they discovered their own stupidity in this matter. However, in all fairness, abandoning the dramatic changes in the last ten years of Master Hai Deng’s life, let’s just look at the majority of his life previous to his fame. He did indeed live a legendary life. He was an eminent monk who integrated Buddhism, martial arts, medicine, and literature. All these great achievements are ‘true’ and represent far more than most people achieve in a single life-time. The most commendable thing is that in the last ten years of his life, although he was praised as a god by the people, he could still maintain a hard life of pure and virtuous self-cultivation. He never once broke the monastic rules or abandoned the Vinaya Discipline.
These observations alone deserve the respect of future generations. Of course, the most controversial aspects of Master Hai Deng are of two aspects: 1. Is his Dharma Correct? 2. Is his martial arts authentic? First, is the Dharma of Master Hai Deng correct? Old Tan (老覃 - Lao Tan) thinks it was very high. Furthermore, Master Hai Deng was a disciple of Great Master Master Xu Yun (虚云大师 - Xu Yun Da Shi) [1840-1959] - the ‘True Dharma-Eye of this Generation’! Old Tan added here, that Master Xu Yun was one of the first people who advocated the establishment of the Chinese Buddhist Association. He later became the first honorary president. Master Hai Deng visited Master Xuyun at Zhenru Temple in Yunju Mountain, Jiangxi, and was appreciated by Master Xu Yun. He soon became the ‘Head Monk’ (Abbot) of the Zhenru Temple, with Master Hai Deng being considered an expert lecturer on the the Shurangama Sutra, the Lotus Sutra and so on, by Master Xu Yun. Master Hai Deng was certainly of a generation of very highly accomplished and virtuous Buddhist monks!
Was Master Hai Deng's martial arts of a high quality? Lao Tan again believes that Master Hai Deng was a very great martial arts master! This being the case, then how should we view his legs being suspended from the roof when performing his famous hand-stand? Well, it is to be expected as the Master was 80-years-old at the time! The fact that he could do any of these stunts is truly remarkable! How many 80-year-olds could be turned upside down and suspend their bodyweight on one or two-fingers? Hardly any! Furthermore, Master Hai Deng explained to the film crew that at his advanced age he could not perform the stunts of his youth – but that he had taught his disciples how to do these qigong movements. However, the film crew continued with their disrespectful attitudes and behaviour and literally ‘forced’ Master Hai Deng into performing the stunt himself – and as they wanted him to ‘hold’ the posture for far-longer than was normal – it was their idea that his legs be suspended to the rafters by strips of cloth! Ironically, the head of the film-crew who abused Master Hai Deng in this manner even came forward years later in an attempt to make money by falsely accusing Master Hai Deng of suspending his own legs! According to people who were there – Master Hai Deng was still able to assume the hand-stand on his own prior to his feet being secured to increase the length of time of the demonstration. This is despite the fact that as people naturally age their energy levels change and increase in their profundity and depth. Master ‘turn inward’ and abandon the world of dust!
Chinese Language Article:
Shifu Adrian Chan-Wyles (b. 1967) - Lineage (Generational) Inheritor of the Ch'an Dao Hakka Gongfu System.