Grandmaster Xuan Kong

Grandmaster Xuan Kong (玄空法師), 1920-2011

Grandmaster Xuan Kong (玄空法師) was born as Zhao Xuewen (趙學文) to a medical family in Wuhu (蕪湖), a city on the southern bank of the Yangtze river in Anhui Province in 1920, a mere 8 years after the abdication of Emperor Puyi finally ended over two millennia of imperial rule in China.  At only nine years of age he traveled to the metropolis of Shanghai to begin his studies in medicine and martial arts with some of the luminaries of the time, notably Wang Ziping (王子平) and Geng Jingfeng (耿景峰).

Details about his life at this time are scarce.  We know he traveled as widely as what was then called Manchuria, engaging in exchanges with famous physicians and martial artists.  And we know that at some point shortly after the Japanese invasion in 1937 young Xuewen retired to the Shaolin Temple (少林寺) on Mount Song in Henan Province, the birthplace of Chan Buddhism (禪宗佛教 – better known in the West by its Japanese name “Zen”), to take the monastic tonsure and was given the Buddhist dharma name “Xuan Kong” (玄空) which translates roughly as “profound emptiness”.

Xuan Kong’s years spent within the walls Shaolin are equally obscure.  In those days the temple, while deservedly famous amongst certain circles, was nothing like the world-renowned tourist attraction that it has become in our modern age.  Some ten years or so before he arrived the vast majority of the temple complex, including much of its priceless library, had been burned to the ground on the orders of the reviled warlord and traitor Shi Yousan (石友三) in the early years of the Chinese Civil War.  We do know that while at the temple Xuan Kong focused his studies both on Chan Buddhist meditation (禪坐) and on the Yi Jin Jing (易筋經), an esoteric qigong method integrating both classical medicine, meditation, and martial arts.

According to what Xuan Kong told his successor Dr. Jiang Feng, he left the temple some time in the years immediately prior to the beginning of the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” in 1966, when Mao Zedong’s “red guards” (紅衛兵) rounded up the few remaining monks at the temple and paraded them through the streets in chains as an example of the kinds of outdated traditions which they hoped in their fervor to cleanse from the motherland.  Tallying up the rough dates it would mean that Xuan Kong spent almost 30 years as a monk in residence at the Shaolin Temple, a full third of his life.

The ten year period during which the country was convulsed by the spasms of the Cultural Revolution was particularly harsh for people like Xuan Kong.  Ancient temples all over the country were demolished, books burned, intellectuals of all stripes imprisoned or tortured, and incalculable cultural treasures lost to posterity.  The youth of the country, encouraged by their revolutionary leaders, sought to completely root out the “feudal” culture which they felt had repressed the country for most its millennia-long history.  In the end several hundred thousand people were either starved, worked to death, or outright murdered.

Unable to wear the robes of a monk for fear of imprisonment or harassment, Xuan Kong grew out his hair and put on the clothes of a layman.  When necessary he and a former Buddhist nun would pose as a married couple, a common tactic used by monastics to avoid persecution.  He made a simple living wandering to and fro throughout the rural parts of south China, practicing the classical medicine and distributing alms under the guise of a common wandering physician.  He practiced his esoteric qigong and martial arts intensely but in total secret, as discovery could mean death, and he did his best to calmly wait out the storm.  He did not wear his monk’s robes again until the 1977, the year after Chairman Mao Ze Dong’s death.

These years roughly corresponded to the time when Xuan Kong began to take young disciples, the foremost of these being Dr. Jiang, and he spent much of the next few decades teaching the next generation as his fame as a medical practitioner continued to grow.  In the mid 1990’s at over 70 years of age Xuan Kong began to occasionally accompany Dr. Jiang on his journeys abroad to treat patients in foreign countries, continuing the process of passing knowledge from father to adopted son.  In 2004 he was installed as the abbot of the Silver Screen Temple (銀屏寺) in Little Nine Glories (小九華) region of Anhui Province, where he spent his remaining years before passing peacefully from this world in October of 2011 at the age of 91.

In his roughly seventy years of practicing medicine the monk Xuan Kong saved countless lives, often dramatically improving the health of those patients who had been considered incurable by others.  He very rarely accepted anything other than token payment, and what money he had was quickly distributed as alms to the poor or contributed to some other worthy cause.  He was particularly fond of contributing to the restoration of old bridges and pavilions – the structures used by those who travel the open road – and Dr. Jiang estimated he was personally responsible for the renovation of dozens of these ancient structures throughout Anhui, Zhejiang, and Jiangsu provinces.  His entire admirable life was devoted to relieving the suffering of others, and as such he is revered as having been a “living buddha” (活佛) by devout Buddhists south of the Yangtze River.