Disabled Shaolin Monk Venerable Ch’an Master Yan Fu (释延佛禅师)
(Translated by Adrian Chan-Wyles PhD)
‘Compassion is the essence of authentic Chinese Ch’an Buddhist practice, for without it, there can be no authentic attainment of insight.' Great Ch’an Master Yan Fu
Translator’s Note: I have accessed two distinct Chinese language texts from the Baidu search-engine of Mainland China – both entitled ‘释延佛’ (Shi Yan Fu), or ‘Venerable Yan Fu’. I have also discussed Master Yan Fu with certain Mainland Chinese educators who have helped me gain a more all-round view of this extraordinary Ch’an Buddhist monk. The ordination name of ‘延佛’ (Yan Fu) can be translated as ‘Spread Buddhism’, or ‘Extend Buddhism’. Although Master Yan Fu is disabled, he continuously teaches that all external form is a changing illusion and that differences in physical structure should not be used as an excuse to propagate greed, hatred and delusion. Master Yan Fu is also a fully qualified master of Shaolin martial arts and medicine, and has learned these arts by adjusting his practice according to what his body can do, rather than be limited by what it cannot do. Needless to say, the Shaolin masters accepted him as a monk in their temple and did not discriminate against him. Master Yan Fu combines compassion and wisdom with extensive skilful means through action in the physical world, and thereby assists the growth and stability of ordinary society. ACW 22.2.2017
Ch’an Master Yan Fu’s ancestors were deeply spiritual and came from Horse Village (马庄村 – Ma Zhuang Cun), situated south of Songshan’s Dengfeng city, within Henan province. Master Yan Fu was born during the third month of 1942, and his common name was ‘Shang Lian Fu’ (尚连福). When young, he was known as ‘Xiao Hui Ling’ (小慧灵), or ‘Little Wise Spirit’. In 1946, he became a lay Buddhist disciple at the Shaolin Temple. His character demonstrated a natural filial piety that was loyal and strong, whilst in his heart and mind he had a great ambition to improve himself and succeed. After graduating from high school in 1962, he secured employment at the Dengfeng City Electric Power Bureau. He was popular amongst his fellow workers for his fair attitude, and well-known for his strict self-discipline, efficient organisation, and conscientious approach to his work, but his life changed dramatically due to an unfortunate event. In January, 1970, he was working at high altitude repairing power lines when he fell 20m to the ground, severely injuring his spine, causing paralysis in his lower-body. Since that time, he was rendered disabled and was completely reliant upon his mother for his care, who believed whole-heartedly in the Bodhisattva of Mercy – Guanyin (观音) – and her ability to cure any ills. He accompanied his mother in 1970, where they purposely climbed Songshan with the intention of performing various Buddhist practises of atonement for past karmic deeds. He eventually became independent from his mother, and moved from one temple to the next on Songshan (assisted by other people), practising as he went throughout the 1970’s, until he finally ordained as a Ch’an monk at the Shaolin (少林) Temple.
When he arrived at the temple in 1980, he was accepted as a disciple by Shaolin Ch’an Master Yong Shan (永山). This is when he received the ordination name of ‘Venerable Yan Fu’ (释延佛 – Shi Yan Fa), and the Dharma name of ‘Hong Du’ (泓渡). After ten years of bitter and difficult training, this arduous practice finally enabled Master Yan Fu to fully penetrate the ‘nameless’ (无名 – Wu Ming), where he realised that the essence of Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism was exactly the same. The key was the development of a penetrative ‘mindfulness’ and ‘awareness’ so that the essence of all phenomena could be clearly perceived through the practice of effective meditation. In the Shaolin Temple, this is the essence of Ch’an Buddhism which unites all paths without discrimination. In 1987, acting in accordance with the government’s policy regarding religion, he left the excellent conditions of the Shaolin Temple with a number of disciples, and travelled to the ‘Dharma King Temple’ (法王寺 – Fa Wang Si), which, due to vandalism, natural disasters and warfare, this once great temple lay in ruins. Master Yan Fu was distressed to see this, and tirelessly worked to raise funds and materials to fully repair the buildings and surrounding gardens. When this task was completed, the temple resumed its former function as a renowned spiritual centre.
After this, Master Yan Fu dedicated his life to rebuilding and repairing Buddhist temples throughout China. He did this by travelling extensively and meeting ordinary people. He would explain that as a Buddhist monk he did not personally need or accept money – but that it was in the power of all ordinary beings to generate good karma for themselves and all humanity (regardless of ethnicity and location), by donating even a small gift to assist in repairing the temples that could teach the Buddha’s Dharma for free to the masses. He was only a co-coordinator of this nation-wide effort, he explained that the donations were used by morally upright and virtuous people who knew exactly how to carry-out the work for no personal profit or gain. As Master Yan Fu was known to be a pure Shaolin monk of the highest calibre, even the poorest people gave what they could afford to preserve Buddhist spiritual culture within modern China. Master Yan Gu always advised that ordinary people should discipline their lives, practice Ch’an meditation, and always help others for no personal gain. Although he could not walk, he learned all the Shaolin Temple skills of martial arts and medicine, despite the fact that he could only move his upper body. Nevertheless, he was able to instruct able-bodied monks in their gongfu practice and was very proficient in correcting postural efforts and poor concentration, etc. His example demonstrates that in modern China, the Shaolin Temple does not discriminate between the able-bodied and those with disabilities.
Also in July, 1987, Master Yan Fu took-up permanent residence at the Shaolin Da Fa Wang Temple (大法王寺 – Da Fa Wang Si), and was eventually appointed the head monk (i.e. ‘abbot’) of this temple in 1996. In March of 1989, however, he was invited to the Bai Ma Temple (白马寺 – Bai Ma Si) in Louyang, where he officiated over the ordination of Buddhist monks. In 1998, he was promoted to head-monk of the Yin Xian Temple (隐贤寺 – Yin Xian Si) situated in Guangdong province. After this date, Master Yan Fu was promoted into high government consultative posts, where he was appointed as a key advisor regarding authentic Chinese Buddhist practice and culture. During the year 2000, at the Fourth Session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, Master Yan Fu was appointed Henan Province Commissar (for Buddhism). In 2001, he founded the Hong Kong Yan Fu Buddhist Charitable Foundation, and in 2002, he was appointed the head monk of the Tie Fo Temple (铁佛寺 – Tie Fo Si) in Henan. Until the present time (2017), Master Yan Fu has continued to teach Shaolin Ch’an Buddhism and accepted any governmental or temple post required to preserve the Dharma. His charity work extended beyond repairing temples and into providing money and resources to the poor, the ill and those effected by natural disasters. This has included assisting the government to build thousands of new homes for the poor, providing educational facilities, and assisting China’s disabled population to live a full and productive life both as Ch’an Buddhists and modern Chinese citizens. Master Yan Fu has spent considerable time working with Chinese children who suffer from cerebral palsy (and other psychological disabilities), and has personally supervised the collection and distribution of over 12,000 wheelchairs to disabled people all over China. Master Yan Fu has also worked with able-bodied Buddhists, encouraging them to use ‘disability’ (as a distinct category of being), to be a vehicle for the further development of compassion and wisdom throughout Chinese society. This attitude has been particularly helpful on China’s National Disability Awareness Day (which falls on May the 18th each year), which has seen a dramatic increase in the understanding of disability and disability needs.
Today, Master Yan Fu is referred to as a ‘great’ Ch’an monk due to his boundless wisdom and compassion. He has stated in the past the following instruction which he advises all Ch’an Buddhists to follow in their daily practice:
‘All beings possess a body that is fundamentally empty in the ten directions. When this reality is understood, how can a discriminating mind be used to judge humanity? Ethnicity, religion or location do not ultimately matter and should not be used to discriminate against people. In reality humanity is ‘one’ in essence, and this realisation should be used to cultivate tranquillity and peace across the globe.’
'Licchavi Vimalakirti came to the foot of that tree and said to me, ’Reverend Sariputra, this is not the way to absorb yourself in contemplation. You should absorb yourself in contemplation so that neither body nor mind appear anywhere in the triple world. You should absorb yourself in contemplation in such a way that you can manifest all ordinary behavior without forsaking cessation. You should absorb yourself in contemplation in such a way that you can manifest the nature of an ordinary person without abandoning your cultivated spiritual nature.' Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra