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A Chinese (Zen) Monk And The Art Of Money-Making

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

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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