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Shaolin Temple -- Temple or Business?
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For Chinese kung fu lovers worldwide, the Shaolin temple is a special place. However, as the fame of Shaolin kung fu continues to grow at an unprecedented rate, the ancient temple itself is increasingly under fire domestically. Following the high-profile exposure of a number of commercial activities taken up by the temple, people are starting to question the justification of the monks' actions. Our reporter Ning Yan provides this analysis.

Traditionally, people's ideas about Buddhist temples are gray-tiled buildings tucked away in the mountains. Temple doors are always closed, shutting out the sound and fury of the outside world. Within the tall red walls, monks' lives are made up of chanting sutras and meditation, in addition to carrying out daily duties.

Life was that way at the Shaolin temple two decades back. But it has taken quite a different turn now.

This March, the Shaolin temple and a satellite TV station in southern China jointly organized a global Chinese kung fu star competition. Imitating an extremely popular reality TV amateur singing contest called Super Girl, the kung fu contestants relied on the support of mobile short message votes to stay in the competition. Winners of the competition were offered roles in an upcoming movie about Shaolin temple bankrolled by the same organizers behind the TV show. This marked the temple's first steps into moviemaking and grabbing a slice of the financial pie. However, the abbot of the temple, Shi Yongxin, the man at the core of all the controversy, has a different take on events.

"Nowadays, there are too many agencies making films and TV soaps about the Shaolin temple. They do them mostly for commercial purposes. Their rendition of the history, culture and the spirit of Shaolin temple are not always accurate or complete. We hope our participation this time will guarantee the truth on what is reflected through historical or feature films, although we do need investment from outside."

Before the controversy was resolved, Dengfeng municipality, where the Shaolin Temple is located, awarded the abbot a spectacular luxury sedan in August for his contributions to the local tourism industry. The abbot now drives it everywhere, a move three-quarters of those surveyed online believe is improper.

The temple's most recent extravagance was a grand opening ceremony for a kung fu festival last month involving over 6,000 performers and vast media coverage.

These contentious moves make the temple, and the abbot in particular, the focus of criticism. Those less bothered by the hubbub doubt such moves will disturb the tranquility of the ancient temple. However, extremists deem the Shaolin temple a "moneymaking machine" and the abbot a temple "CEO" stinking of money.

The abbot, who has long been used to being called the temple CEO, doesn't try to shy away from these allegations.

"Commercialization might not be a bad thing after all. Without money, there wouldn't be the circulation of products. It would be the same as going back to primitive society."

He has his reasons for going commercial.

"Henan is not a rich province, nor does it have many Buddhists. If we only rely on donations from Buddhists, we could hardly survive. It is only under the precondition that we manage tourist development well that we can save some funds for the maintenance of the temple and carry out cultural research and cultural relic protection as well as popularizing Buddhist principles. Tourism is our basic sustenance."

However, revolution has happened not only outside the temple. It has happened inside too.

Fresh from a visit to the Shaolin temple, Pan Shanzhen tells us about the new look of the 1,500 year old temple.

"Shaolin temple is now more like a business. You seldom come across a monk chanting Buddhist sutras. Monks everywhere thumb short messages on their mobiles. The temple's daily upkeep duties, such as floor sweeping, are all done by hourly workers. Security guards, not monks, guard the temple entrances. Within the temple, you can find a special liaison office, a temple affairs office and a financial department. It's just like walking into a CBD office building in Beijing."

Pan Shanzhen's hometown is not far from Dengfeng, the temple's hometown. He tells us about the Shaolin temple of his youth.

"My first trip to Shaolin temple was in 1979. It was rather shabby at the time. About 11 monks resided there. It wasn't even possible to buy a kung fu book there. Visits were free."

It remained that way until Shi Yongxin became the abbot in the 1980s. He carried out a number of reforms in the temple, helping spread Shaolin kung fu and the Shaolin temple's fame worldwide.

One of the first moves to cause a stir happened in 1993, when the temple brought a sausage manufacturer who used "Shaolin Temple" as its trademark to court. That was the first-ever case of the religious world resorting to legal means to protect its honor.

Shi Yongxin explains.

"In ancient times, there was no need for trademark registration. Inconvenient transportation limited the sales of a product within a certain region. Now with globalization, trademark infringements have become frequent. Since the name of our temple was frequently infringed, we registered our temple's name as a brand name. It was a protective measure."

The Shaolin temple has long been considered the birthplace of Zen Buddhism and the famed Chinese kung fu. Historically, Shaolin monks are renowned for their austerity and tedious transcriptions of religious classics. Considering these merits, the changes that happened to the temple were unprecedented.

However, to abbot Shi Yongxin, the changes at Shaolin are a natural outcome of societal development.

"I would say we had no choice but to do what we did. They are the product of this age. A prime example--in the past, what you did wouldn't be able to go beyond a few kilometers around you. Now everything you do can become the top headlines in mass media. Through films and the Internet, they can become known to the whole world. So what we are doing is just accommodating the times and tide of globalization."

Regardless, many people frown over whether the temple has betrayed Buddhist principles, which require Buddhists to be aloof about worldly affairs. In response, Shi Yongxin said, "Please don't alienate monks from society."

"What differentiates standing aloof from or involved in worldly affairs is your spirit. Buddhists cannot avoid communicating with people. Buddhism emphasizes four paybacks: what's given to you by your homeland, society, teachers and parents. Judging from this point, we're closely connected to society. Independence from it is impossible."

Of course, there are also people who express understanding, if not support, to the temple's actions. Pan Shanzhen, as a CEO of an e-learning company in Beijing, has mixed feelings about this issue.

"Personally I don't like to see what's happening to Shaoin Temple either. But without income from commercial activities, preservation of traditional values, culture and cultural heritage is hardly possible. Shi Yongxin has no choice. Thinking this way, what's happening there is natural."

What they are saying may be justified. Maybe the Shaolin temple needs some commercial activity to support itself and increase its cultural influence. However, the public's worries are not groundless. After all, Shaolin has been a temple for 1,500 years and it has good reasons to want to remain around for another 1,500 years.

(CRI.com November 29, 2006)

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