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Not Very Zen: How A Shaolin Monastery Turned Into A Chinese Soap Opera

Liu Jinsong

DENGFENG - Three years ago, the local government of Dengfeng City in central Henan Province ceded their controlling stake in the “Shaoling Monastery Scenic Area” to China National Travel Service (CTS). The price was very low in order to attract greater investment, and the CTS vowed to carry out several major construction projects around the ancient site, the birthplace of Chan (Zen) Buddhism and symbol of Chinese marital arts.

But as time has passed — with CTS pocketing huge profits via the monastery — the projects it promised have never come to fruition. On July 1, the Dengfeng government finally and forcibly took over control of the entrance to the scenic area. But just one day later, thanks to the intervention of higher authorities in Beijing, CTS had reclaimed managerial rights over the site.

This is but the latest plot twist in the ongoing Shaolin soap opera. Since this famous monastery was declared a national scenic location (and UNESCO World Heritage Site), and became a for-profit entity, all parties that have anything to do with the temple want a slice of the money-making pie. In the name of discovering Kung Fu stars, martial arts matches are organized; beauty pageant candidates appear, in bikinis, at the sacred monastery to attract extra media coverage; new businesses every day use the holy name as their brand, including Shaolin Automobile and Shaolin Hotel.

Protesting monks

Of course, the local government and the monastery remain the greatest benificiaries of this ready source of revenue, the Shaolin itself. Ticket sales of all attractions around the temple make up the considerable sum of 150 million RMB (about $25 million) annually, allocated at 70% and 30%, respectively.

But conflicts exist even between the two biggest winners in this free-for-all. Shi Yongxin, the Shaolin abbot, once complained to a newspaper, “We are the passive party of the ticket sales and take whatever the local authority deigns to give to us. As to how many tickets are really sold, we don't have a say.”

Seeking outstanding payments from the Dengfeng government, Shaolin monks once even petitioned at 2 a.m. in front of Henan Provincial Government's doorway. “Monks are there to chant their scriptures,” one official retorted. “What do they want so much money for!?"

There are also moochers who exploit the monastery, which was founded in the 5th century. These freeloaders include operators of kung fu shows and matches, hotel owners, crooks who build fake shrines nearby for “incense money” donations, or even fortune tellers pretending to be monks.

Many even regard the abbot as a businessman-at-heart. When he appeared at the monastery's gate to receive the kneeling homage of the hundreds of foreign disciples of kung fu from America, the local crowd applauded with admiration: “Yongxin has got the goods!”

Buddhist divo

Naturally, fame and wealth also bring trouble. A while ago, one rumor was circulating that Shi Yongxin was accused of possessing tens of billions in savings as well as having a young female student from Beijing University as his girlfriend. Several cameras were discovered in Shi's bedroom, and certain Shaolin staff believe that the spying devices were installed because the monastery had managed to halt a hotel project.

In addition to the direct financial interests, Shi's frequent media coverage has also been the source of local jealousy and disharmony. Some government officials say privately that he is self-centered and pompous, and always winds up standing in the middle whenever group photos are taken with VIP visitors, including the first time a head of state, Russian leader Vladimir Putin, paid a visit to the temple to watch a kung fu demonstration.

The birthplace of Zen seems incapable of learning its own ancient lessons about inner peace.

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"These are from Spain," says the commanding officer, introducing himself as Maga. "Short for Make America Great Again," he adds with a laugh.

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