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Shaolin's kung fu monks make a killing

By Pallavi Aiyar
Saturday, 20 May 2006
Asia Times Online

From high up in the misty Song Mountains of central China's Henan province, the Shaolin monastery and its kung fu monks have held a peculiar fascination across the centuries. Shrouded in a swirl of myth and mystery, the temple's fame has long crossed Chinese borders thanks to Hollywood and Jet Li.

In the popular imagination, Shaolin is synonymous with the rigid discipline and deep spirituality of the cryptic Zen Buddhism school practiced at the temple. But in keeping with the spirit of contemporary China, Shaolin today has been reborn as a well-oiled corporation, with holding monks with master of business administration (MBA) degrees sorting out temple management issues on cellular phones, presided over by an abbot the local media call the "CEO of Shaolin".

Shi Yongxin, the temple's abbot, may be clothed in the yellow robes of the monk, complete with weighty rosary draped around the neck, but the bulge of his mobile phone is unmistakable through the folds of his robes as he hands out business cards sporting the temple's website address (www.shaolin.com). In Shaolin, Buddhism is big business, and the abbot is unapologetic for its blatant commercialism.

"In the past, monks relied on farming to make a living. Today we have to rely on tourism," he says. "Advertising and publicity has always been integral to Buddhism. How else can we diffuse Buddhist philosophy into society at large?"

Among Shi's innovations was the setting up of mainland China's first temple-based website in 1996, when few in the country had even heard of the Internet. In 1997 he hired lawyers to fight trademark violations, to protect the Shaolin "brand", which had been much exploited, used to sell everything from colas to bicycles.

The abbot went on to dispatch hitherto-cloistered monks to perform martial arts all over the world and encouraged others to learn foreign languages and go abroad to study for MBAs and PhDs.

"In a globalized world we need our monks to be able to communicate in different languages," says Shi. He adds that about half of the temple's 200 monks speak a foreign language. English, Korean and Japanese are the most popular, and a few have even learned Farsi. Currently more than 10 monks are taking degrees abroad.

The abbot's latest commercial venture is the production of an international, televised martial-arts contest, the winner of which will star in a series of movies the temple is investing in.

"Shaolin has been the subject of so many films, but none of them portray the real spirit of our temple," says Shi. He claims that the reason for the temple's foray into filmmaking has to do with revealing the spiritual side of Buddhism rather than the boom-bang of martial arts that Hollywood usually focuses on.

But in the temple itself, this spirituality is tough to come by. Armies of tourists swarm around Shaolin, where an entrance ticket costs 100 yuan (US$12.50). Ticket fees from the more than 1 million visitors last year, combined with the temple's other business interests, amounted to "several tens of millions [of] yuan", according to Shi.

A group of shy but curious novices confesses in a gasp of giggles that they have little interest in Buddhism. "I am here to learn martial arts," says one 17-year-old. "I'm not sure I will want to stay here all my life."

Apprentice monks in Shaolin have to choose at 18 whether or not to stay on at the temple as confirmed monks. Those who stay are divided into two groups: monks with a yen for performance and kung fu, and those of a more spiritual bent who wish to focus on theology and meditation.

Shi Yanjie, 22, who came to Shaolin at age 12, chose the former, more popular option. He says he enjoys being a monk because it allows him to travel. He has performed in England, Italy, Switzerland and the United States over the past few years. The young monk usually spends five to six hours a day practicing kung fu. Meditation time is usually an hour, but it depends on his performance schedule, he says.

Dengfeng, the nearest town to the temple, is jam-packed with more than 80 martial-arts schools, where more than 40,000 students from across China and abroad study Shaolin-style kung fu.

At Epo Shaolin Training College, portraits of Josef Stalin and Karl Marx adorn the rooms. The 6,500 students here range in age from four to 21 and dream of becoming movie stars, although it is more common for them to end up as security guards. The majority are from humble backgrounds, but their parents pay up to 10,000 yuan ($1,250) a year to send them here for a shot at stardom.

"Do you believe in the Buddha?" a correspondent asks a 10-year-old from a rural area of northern China's Shandong province. "Who is that?" he answers.

Back at the temple, Shi Yongxin himself is as comfortable quoting Mao Zedong as he is the Buddha. In what is still officially an atheist country, it is impossible for a successful religious figure to remain apolitical. Shi is thus a deputy in China's parliament, the National People's Congress. He is also fond of talking about the role of Buddhism in promoting a "harmonious society", the Chinese government's current favorite catch phrase, coined by President Hu Jintao.

As China is riven by widening gaps between the beneficiaries and losers of its economic liberalization, the authorities have made it their priority to try to balance the interests of different sections of society. The idea of a harmonious society is thus an effort to glue together its fraying fabric.

As part of this attempt, the government has taken to encouraging a revival of religion, in particular Confucianism and Buddhism. "Buddhism helps people to be content with what they have instead of hankering for more," says Shi. "It also gives them strength to face adversity." A perfect recipe, it would seem, for China's political and social woes.

Thus the same temple that was severely damaged by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, when Buddhism was seen as inextricably bound up with China's feudal-imperialist past, is today being renovated by the provincial government. Millions of yuan are being spent to restore Shaolin's buildings to their former glory.

Monks that were once dragged through the streets to receive public flogging are feted, and kung fu, which had been banned as a decadent practice, is now being seen as the way to a better life by thousands, as evidenced by the training schools in Dengfeng.

In many ways this latest turn of events is just one more spin of Shaolin's wheel of fortune. Throughout history, the temple has been repeatedly razed to the ground, rocked by civil strife, mauled by invaders and played with by capricious emperors. It was originally built in AD 496 in honor of the Indian monk Bada, called Batuo by the Chinese. A couple of decades later, in 517, another Indian monk, Bodhidharma (or Damo in Chinese), founded the Chan (Zen) school of Buddhism and developed the unique Shaolin-style kung fu that has made the temple famous across the world.

"We have Indian roots," says Shi Yongxin, "but over the centuries our style of worship mixed with Taoism and Confucianism and developed its own identity."

Nonetheless, the abbot asks your correspondent to recommend an Indian sculptor. He wants to commission a bronze statue of Bodhidharma for the temple and doesn't think a Chinese artist will be able to render an Indian face with accuracy. "Please make some inquiries and e-mail me," he smiles.

Shaolin today, then, is a hodgepodge of the religious and commercial - simultaneously brash and Buddhist. Some may think this contradictory, but then, paradox has always been the essence of Zen Buddhism.

source: http://www.atimes.com/atimes/China/HE20Ad01.html

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