The monk who runs China's legendary Shaolin monastery discovers enlightenment and earnings reports are not incompatible

Monks at Shaolin temple

Monks at Shaolin temple


Shi Yong Xin is not your average monk. For starters, he is said to be the first Chinese monk to hold an MBA. So at a cultural industry forum last week at Beijing University, it wasn't so surprising to hear this controversial abbot of the ancient Shaolin monastery sounding very much like your basic global entrepreneur. "Shaolin Temple owns more than 40 companies abroad in places like Berlin, London," he was quoted by the Beijing based Xinjing news service.

The abbot of the famous 1500-year-old monastery, in the central Chinese region of Henan province, admits to running the temple "with the concept of enterprise management." He first set up a registered company in 1994 to protect the Shaolin Temple's trademark and manage its intellectual property rights. He later opened the first Internet site for a temple in China.

Above all, Shi has focused his efforts on promoting the development of the Chan Buddhist philosophy -- more commonly known in the West by its Japanese name, Zen – with its focus on the direct realization of enlightenment through meditation and dharma. Shi has banked on interest in Chan to help spread the fame and legend – and dividends -- of the Shaolin monastery across the globe. In venues such as New York's Lincoln Center, London's Sadler's Wells and France's Avignon Festival, many have seen the Shaolin Kung Fu performed by the warrior monks in collaboration with a western choreographer. "Within the last three years, the Shaolin monks have performed in 50 cities of 29 countries', the abbot proudly pointed out at last week's forum.

Others attend classes at Shaolin Temple branches around the world, which teach Chan philosophy, wellness or Kung Fu and Tai chi. "Currently our developing core is overseas, all our warrior monks and Buddhist teachers speak English, German or Spanish. Only when we are strong enough abroad can we expect to have the right of being heard domestically", Shi says. He notes that Shaolin's influence has spread more rapidly abroad because of a greater Western interest in Buddhism than in China itself.

Some of the foreign branches have attracted more than 2,000 disciples, and in Berlin they've been forced to open up a new center to house the temple. "We usually rent a house first. Once we make enough money we buy a house, and furthermore, we buy our own land to build the temple", Shi says.

The most recent example is the new branch in central Taiwan announced last December, estimated to cost up to $33 million, "cashing in on the fast warming ties between the island and the mainland", as the AFP reporter puts it.

Apart from foreign expansion Shi Yong Xin is also busy reviving the Chan School of Buddhism as well as its martial arts inside Henan Province. They have cooperated with filmmakers and TV producers interested in portraying their philosophy, notably "Shaolin Temple," which propelled Jet Li to Kung Fu star status and the "New Shaolin" film arriving next spring staring Jackie Chan.

He has also set up his own Wushu (martial arts) school, pharmacy, book store, restaurant, e-store and souvenir shop for incense, tea and other products advertised as helping to improve well being. The monastery has also gone back to being a structure that houses 200 monks and another 300 sent out for missions all over the world.

Shi is also particularly good in attracting media attention, an uncommon practice for monks. For instance, he invited a large group of Taiwanese reporters to visit the monastery when one of his books was published in Taiwan, and for the announcement of plans to build a branch temple in Taiwan.

From humble beginnings

More than 30 years of persecution under the Communist regime meant most Buddhist temples in China were devastated, monks and nuns expelled, including those of the historic Shaolin monastery, first established in 495 AD and honored as the origin and cradle of the "Chan school".

Shi Yong Xin entered Shaolin as a novice in 1981 at the age of 17, shortly after the end of the Cultural Revolution with only a few dozen monks left. "We didn't eat our fill", the abbot was quoted as saying in China Daily. But he was determined to revive the Shaolin heritage, which he regards as a treasure of Chinese culture. To restore the long-decayed monastery, he was obliged to find financial resources.

Shi is constantly criticized for running the temple as a money-making institute. Like other renowned temples in China, Shaolin asks for an entrance charge, which accounts for one-third of the revenue for the local government in Songshan where it's situated. Although Shi Yong Xin has opposed the idea of an entry fee, noting that temples and churches in other countries often have free access, the Songshan government views the temple more as a cultural site to attract tourists than a sacred religious place for believers.

Indeed, the temple was officially registered on the World Heritage list last August, which will certainly help further expand the two million who already come each year. But this is still China, where religious practices and temples are still under close supervision of the State Administration for Religious Affairs and under the authority of local governments. Shi no doubt must continue to search for the perfect balance in maintaining his spiritual and financial autonomy while satisfying the demands of the government.

Laura Lin


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A tribute to the 30,000 Iranian political prisoners murdered in Iran in 1988

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Hannah Steinkopf-Frank and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Laba diena!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where Afghanistan's Taliban demand to speak at the United Nations, China takes a bold ecological stand and we find out why monkeys kept their tails and humans didn't. Business magazine America Economia also looks at how Latin American countries are looking to attract a new generation of freelancers known as "digital nomads" in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.



• Taliban ask to speak at UN: With global leaders gathered in New York for the 76th meeting of the UN General Assembly, Afghanistan's new rulers say their country's previously accredited United Nations ambassador no longer represents the country, and have demanded a new Taliban envoy speak instead. Afghanistan is scheduled to give the final intervention next Monday to the General Assembly, and a UN committee must now rule who can speak.

• Four corpses found on Belarus border with Poland: The discovery of bodies of four people on Belarus-Poland border who appear to have died from hypothermia are raising new accusations that Belarus is pushing migrants to the eastern border of the European Union, possibly in retaliation over Western sanctions following the contested reelection of the country's strongman Alexander Lukashenko. The discovery comes amid a surge of largely Afghani and Iraqi migrants attempting to enter Poland in recent weeks.

• China to stop building coal-burning power plants abroad: Under pressure to limit emissions to meet Paris climate agreement goals, China announces an end to funding future projects in Indonesia, Vietnam and other countries through its Belt and Road initiative.

• Turkey ratifies Paris climate agreement: Following a year of wildfires and flash floods, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced at the UN that Turkey will become the last G-20 country to ratify the emissions-limiting accords. Turkey already signed the agreement in 2016, but has yet to hold a vote in parliament.

• Mass evacuations following Canary Islands volcano: More than 6,000 people have fled the Spanish archipelago as heavy flows of lava have buried hundreds of homes. Four earthquakes have also hit the Canaries since the Sunday eruption, which could also cause other explosions and the release of toxic gas.

• Rare earthquake hits Melbourne: The 5.9 magnitude quake struck near Melbourne in southern Australia, with aftershocks going as far Adelaide, Canberra and Launceston. Videos shared on social media show at least one damaged building, with power lines disrupted in Australia's second largest city. No injuries have been reported.

• The evolutionary tale of tails: Charles Darwin first discovered that humans evolved to lose this biological trait. But only now are New York scientists showing that it was a single genetic tweak that could have caused this shift, while our monkey relatives kept their backside appendages.


"The roof of Barcelona" — El Periodico daily reports on the latest delay from what may be the longest-running construction project in the world. Work on the iconic Barcelona church La Sagrada Familia, which began all the way back in 1882 as the vision of master architect Antoni Gaudí, was slated to be completed in 2026. The Barcelona-based daily reports that a press conference Tuesday confirmed that the deadline won't be met, in part because of delays related to COVID-19. Officials also provided new details about the impending completion of the Mare de Déu tower (tower of the Virgin), the first tower of the temple to be completed in 44 years. Although it is currently the second tallest spire of the complex, it will become the highest point of the Sagrada Familia, reaching 172.5 meters thanks to an illuminated "great cross."


Latin America, the next mecca for digital nomads

Latin American countries want to cash in on the post-pandemic changes to the fundamental ways we work and live, in particular by capitalizing on a growing demand from the new wave of remote workers and "youngish" professional freelancers with money to spend, reports Natalia Vera Ramírez in business magazine America Economia.

💻🏖️ Niels Olson, Ecuador's tourism minister, is working hard to bring "digital nomads" to his country. He believes that attracting this new generation of freelancers who can work from anywhere for extended visits is a unique opportunity for all. Living in a town like Puerto López, he wrote on Twitter, the expat freelancer could "work by the sea, live with a mostly vaccinated population, in the same time zone, (enjoy) an excellent climate, and eat fresh seafood." For Ecuador, the new influx of visitors with money to spend would help boost the country's economy.

🧳 While online-based freelancers already hopped from country to country before COVID-19, the pandemic has boosted their current numbers to around 100 million worldwide. The Inter-American Development Bank estimates there could be a billion roaming, digital workers by 2050. Some European countries already issue visas for digital nomads. They include Germany, Portugal, Iceland, Croatia, Estonia and the Czech Republic, but in the Americas, only four countries make the list, namely Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Panama and Costa Rica.

💰 In August 2021, Costa Rica approved a law for remote workers and international service providers, intended to attract digital nomads and make its travel sector more competitive. The law provides legal guarantees and specific tax exemptions for remote workers choosing to make the country their place of work. It allows foreign nationals earning more than $3,000 a month to stay for up to a year in the country, with the ability to renew their visa for an additional year. If applicants are a family, the income requisite rises to $5,000.

➡️


$2.1 billion

Google announced yesterday it will spend $2.1 billion to buy a sprawling Manhattan office building, in one of the largest sales of a building in U.S. history. The tech giant plans on growing its New York workforce to more than 14,000 people.


It is sickening and shameful to see this kind of president give such a lie-filled speech on the international stage.

— Opposition Brazilian congresswoman Vivi Reis in response to President Jair Bolsonaro's inflammatory 12-minute speech at the UN General Assembly. The unvaccinated head of state touted untested COVID-19 cures, criticized public health measures and boasted that the South American country's environmental protections were the best in the world.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Hannah Steinkopf-Frank & Bertrand Hauger

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