The famous Shaolin Temple, cradle of the Chinese Martial Arts, recently rolled out the red carpet and arranged their most courteous reception, including resonant drums, gongs and traditional Buddhist music, for an extremely honored guest. Greeted on arrival by the abbot of the temple, Shi Yongxin, this visitor was none other than the Russian President Vladimir Putin, who on the afternoon of March 22, 2006, became the first state leader of Russia to pay a visit to the Shaolin Temple.
In 1987, former Abbot of the Temple, Xingzheng, passed away. Since then Shi Yongxin, who had joined the temple only six years before, has adopted the long robes and bowl of the venerable abbot, and stepped up to the post of director of the Shaolin Temple Management Committee.
Becoming an abbot at the age of 22, earlier than any other monastery head in China, Shi Yongxin has constantly caused people to re-evaluate their traditional notions about Buddhist monks with his business-minded transformation of the temple and its arts, and promotion of Buddhism throughout the world over the past two decades.
Since 1986, he has led Shaolin monk delegations across China and abroad to perform Shaolin kung fu shows, and has himself participated in the performances. In 1994, he played a leading role in the Chinese religious community in applying for "Shaolin" and "Shaolin Temple" to be registered as trademarks with the General Administration for Industry and Commerce of China, and established a company for the management of the relevant intellectual properties. In 1996, when the Internet was in its first stages of being introduced to China, he established the official Web site of the Shaolin Temple.
During recent years, he has devoted much effort to the largest ever renovation project in the history of the Shaolin Temple, all at the expense of the temple's self-collected funds, and has tirelessly worked on the preparations necessary for applying to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), for Shaolin kung fu to be listed as a World Intangible Heritage.
Additionally, Shi also compiled the book Secrets of Shaolin Kung Fu and Medicines, which may be deemed a National Treasure, and presented it to the National Library.
As the young abbot of Shaolin, Shi Yongxin has led the temple forwards in realizing many important achievements, characterized by a series of significant events:
— At the invitation of the Macao Special Administrative Region, Shi Yongxin led a 25-member delegation to Macao to perform Shaolin kung fu, and donated the entire profits of 1 million yuan from the performance to the Project Hope and the Educational Fund of Macao, earning respect and acclaim from many citizens of the region.
— Shi Yongxin headed a Buddhist cultural delegation of the Shaolin Temple on a visit to Taiwan, playing an active role in promoting exchanges between Buddhist communities across the Taiwan Straits.
— In 1999, at the invitation of the United Kingdom, Shi Yongxin attended an evening party of the British royal family held at Buckingham Palace, including an audience with the Queen.
— On behalf of the Shaolin Temple, the Chung Hwa Book Co., and the Cultural Research Center for National Treasures, Shi Yongxin presented the book Secrets of Shaolin Kung Fu and Medicines to the King of Sweden. Swedish Ambassador Kjell Anneling accepted this gift on behalf of the king.
— Shi headed a Buddhist cultural delegation of the Shaolin Temple to Australia and participated in a large art performance in celebration of the Spring Festival. Kevan Gosper, vice president of the International Olympics Committee, entrusted by former IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch, watched the performance and commented that the Shaolin Temple had played a convincing part in China's winning bid for the 2008 Olympic Games.
Originally named Liu Yingcheng, Shi Yongxin was born in 1965 to a devout Buddhist family in Yingshang, Anhui Province. Due to the influence of his family, the exceptionally bright Yongxin developed a strong interest in Buddhism during childhood. Instead of playing outside with the other children, he often preferred to stay home alone to read books about Buddhism. It was during this period that the novels and historical documents on the Shaolin Temple began to have a decisive influence on the young child, influencing the whole of his later life.
In 1981, the 16-year-old Shi Yongxin bid farewell to his parents and made the long journey from Anhui to the Shaolin Temple in Henan Province. When he finally became accepted as a Buddhist monk, his ceremony coincided with the visit of Abbot Haifa from Baima Temple. Hearing about the young but extremely dedicated efforts of Shi Yongxin, Abbot Haifa became the introducer leading him into the realm of Buddhism, and Abbot Xingzheng tonsured him (shaved his head as part of the initiation ceremony). It is very rare that abbots of more than one famous temple to attend the conversion ceremony for a new monk.
During his period of study at Shaolin Temple, Shi Yongxin diligently followed Abbot Xingzheng's instruction and practiced his tasks, both scholarly and menial, with an unremitting determination. Later, he went on pilgrimages to study at other Buddhist shrines, including Mt. Yunju in Jiangxi Province, Mt. Jiuhua in Anhui Province, and Guangji Temple in Beijing.
Shaolin Temple was constructed in 495 as a residence for an eminent monk from India, as ordered by Emperor Xiaowen of the Northern Wei Dynasty. Over the last 1,500 years, the temple has been damaged several times by warfare. Taking the rejuvenation of Shaolin Temple as a duty of his responsibility, Shi Yongxin, with the encouragement and support of Abbot Xingzheng, initiated the renovation project for the constructions inside the temple, including Doctrine Hall, Bell Tower, Drum Tower, and Baiyi Hall. From fund-raising to design and renovation procession, Shi Yongxin worked tirelessly on the projects. Meanwhile, as deputy director of the Shaolin Temple Democratic Management Committee, he organized the association staff to conduct the locating, sorting, and publication of books on Shaolin kung fu, also establishing the Shaolin Temple Martial Way Research Institute-an organization to spread the Shaolin spirit and ensure that future generations may also be able to share in the profound cultural connotations of the Shaolin Temple.
The process of Shi Yongxin becoming the 30th abbot of Shaolin is described by writer Zhen Binghao:
In his late years, Abbot Xingzheng decided to choose a reliable disciple as his successor, and his eyes finally focused on Shi Yongxin.
One night, Shi Yongxin appeared before the bed of Xingzheng, and an historical dialogue commenced.
"What do you come for?" Xingzheng asked.
"Recently, I found Master suffering from illness and incapable of fulfilling all his works," Shi Yongxin replied. "I am willing to share the burden for Your Honor, and wonder if it is acceptable." "How many kilograms can your shoulder bear?" Xingzheng asked, revealing no facial expression.
"I can bear however many kilograms Your Honor shouldered before," Shi Yongxin answered.
"Do you have any other words for me?" Xingzheng asked, trying to conceal his gladness.
"In your time, Your Honor had no such words to say, and so it will be on this day" replied Shi Yongxin in a respectful manner.
Abbot Xingzheng mumbled to himself, "It's time for the peony to blossom..." He then stood up and took Shi to the Pavilion of Bodhi Dharma, asking him to bend over before the statue of the eminent Indian monk. Thus, Xingzheng formally handed over the power of management to Shi Yongxin.
Six months later, Abbot Xingzheng passed away. Shi Yongxin, then only 22, became the head of Shaolin Temple. In August 1999, he was formally inaugurated as abbot.
The Shaolin Temple welcomed Russian President Putin with a grand ceremony: Nine pairs of monks in yellow robes stood along both sides of the temple's gate holding up streamers, and Abbot Shi Yongxin stepped forward on red carpet to greet President Putin.
Shi was deeply impressed by Putin's knowledge of the Shaolin Temple as well as Chinese history and culture. In front of a stone tablet engraved with the legend of how 13 Shaolin monks rescued Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), Shi explained that in appreciation of the monks' help, the emperor granted 40 qing (a traditional unit of area and equivalent to 6.667 hectares) of land to the Shaolin Temple immediately after he succeeded the throne.
"It was the most prosperous period for the Shaolin Temple," said Abbot Shi. "Yes, I am quite familiar with that period of history," nodded Putin.
Passing another stone tablet, Abbot Shi pointed at the depiction of a tortoise-shaped sacred beast, explaining how it was the son of the dragon and was here especially for carrying the tablet. "It was born in the year of the dragon," replied the Russian President with a smile.
"For more than 1,500 years, Shaolin Temple has never ceased communication with other countries," said Shi Yongxin after the grand visit. "Putin's visit was just one of the landmarks in the international cultural communications of Shaolin.
"At present, we have dispatched 'standing martial monks' to more than 20 countries, whose function is to spread the word of Buddhism and the Shaolin way, and the martial-art performing delegations of the Shaolin Temple have visited more than 60 countries and regions. Their displays have instilled a respect and genuine interest in Shaolin culture across the world."
(China Pictorial June 30, 2006)