Lunch With the Abbot of the Shaolin Temple

He has never heard of the Wu-Tang Clan.

Shi Yongxin (right)

With my iPod headphones plugged in, the abbot of Shaolin keeps his expression perfectly neutral as his eardrums are assailed by the thumping beats of the Wu-Tang Clan.

“I don’t get it,” says Shi Yongxin in his heavily accented Mandarin, after politely listening to the pioneering 1990s rappers from the New York borough of Staten Island who, in homage to kung fu movies of the 1970s, described themselves as coming “straight from the slums of Shaolin.”

We’re sitting in the restaurant of the Shaolin Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site nestled in a wooded valley in the shadow of Mount Song in China’s central Henan province. This small monastery is the 1,500-year-old cradle of Zen Buddhism and the spiritual home of kung fu, where for centuries the temple’s monks have practiced martial arts so they can uphold justice in society and cultivate their own search for enlightenment. Outside in the warm sunshine, tourists wander the temple grounds and watch incredible displays of strength and acrobatic kung fu, performed at regular intervals by the world-famous fighting monks.

It’s hard to imagine a place less compatible with the violent tirades of one of hip-hop’s greatest ensembles. But I’m trying to explain to his eminence that, even though he is unaware of the Wu-Tang Clan, many people who came of age in the West in the 1990s first heard about his temple from songs such as “Shaolin Worldwide,” and lyrics such as:

The Jedi, only use the Force if ya force me
Shaolin What? Don’t get it f**ked up and cross me
Rappers gettin’ stuck for actin’ stuck up and flossy

“People tell a lot of tall tales about the Shaolin Temple,” the abbot says with the composed demeanor of the deeply religious. “They are not familiar with and don’t represent the real history of Shaolin, the Shaolin culture, or the inherited essence of Shaolin.”

If this sounds accurate in the case of RZA, Ghostface Killah, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and the rest of the Wu-Tang Clan, it is also a criticism that many in China have leveled against the abbot himself. The 46-year-old is a highly controversial figure. Since he became, in 1999, only the 30th monk in the temple’s long history to be ordained a full abbot, he has faced relentless attacks for accepting expensive gifts and for commercializing the ancient temple. For those who denounce him through the Chinese Internet, the abbot’s initiatives are a sad reflection of society’s crude materialism in a country where, in the past few decades, the crumbling of communist ideology and the rush for wealth have left a spiritual and moral vacuum.

Buddhism is the dominant religion in China, with as many as 300 million believers across the country. Like other forms of Buddhism, Zen emphasizes letting go of worldly cares and working toward enlightenment through meditation and practice of the Buddha’s teachings, which include a ban on harming any sentient beings. As its home, and the centerpiece of many kung fu novels and films, the Shaolin Temple has become an integral part of Chinese popular culture. In fact, it is probably one of the most famous global brands to have come out of China in any industry, thanks in no small part to the abbot, whom Chinese media have dubbed the “CEO monk.”

The temple’s business ventures include investments in its famous globe-trotting kung fu performance troupes, renting out the Shaolin name for films, cartoons, and stage productions, and an early stage investment in a possible line of traditional Chinese medicines. It has also sent monks to set up more than 40 Shaolin kung fu and meditation centers in countries across North America, Europe, and elsewhere, but the abbot says these and most of Shaolin’s other “cultural activities” barely break even. Instead, he says, the vast majority of the temple’s “few dozen million renminbi” in annual income comes from tickets sold to the roughly 2 million tourists that visit the site every year. The temple keeps 30 percent of the ticket revenues and hands 70 percent over to the local government.

The temple has registered its trademark across the world in an attempt to stop people from using its name to promote concepts that do not fit with its Buddhist precepts. But the main battleground is in China, where intellectual property protections are weak and companies making everything from soft drinks and chopsticks to electrical machinery and buses have appropriated the Shaolin brand. Even liquor producers and makers of pork sausages have taken the name, despite the fact that strict Zen Buddhism prohibits the consumption of meat and alcohol.

The overwhelming number of infringements and the weak protection offered by China’s justice system mean it is simply not worth going after every offender, but the abbot is optimistic that things will change for the better eventually. “Now if we are to engage in a lawsuit to protect our rights, we will have to spend a lot of money and time and the result will not necessarily be satisfactory,” he says. “Once Chinese citizens are like Western citizens, in an environment where the awareness of law is firm, people will naturally abandon using the name of Shaolin Temple.” I’m struck by how similar his vocabulary is to that of a typical Chinese chief executive.

Nevertheless, he explains, the creation in 1998 of the Henan Shaolin Temple Industrial Development Company, saw the temple become the first Chinese religious group to register a trademark for its name, “We’re using legal and commercial means to protect our intellectual property, protect our brand, and protect our own inheritance,” he says.

The temple has been destroyed and rebuilt many times since it was established in the fifth century and, following the communist victory in 1949 all of its surrounding farmland was confiscated and redistributed among the masses, leaving the monks with no way to feed themselves. In the disastrous cultural revolution of 1966-1976, the monks who remained at the temple were beaten, persecuted, and forced to disperse, but when the terror ended some returned and set about reviving their traditions, including the practice of kung fu.

Since his arrival at the temple in 1981, aged 16, the abbot has dedicated his life to its restoration and revival. I get the feeling he has had to make many compromises in order to protect and promote his monastery and its heritage. But, as he points out, the Vatican is a multinational corporation with its own bank, and Shaolin’s annual income doesn’t even put it in the top 100 on the list of richest temples in China.

 “We don’t have much savings in the bank but there is a lot of grain stored in the barn, enough for two years, so if there is a disaster in society the Shaolin Temple could hold out for two years or so,” he adds. It is an astonishing insight into the historical legacy that has forced him to hone his business skills.

The menu for our lunch has been arranged by the temple’s veteran chef, and as our waiters arrive with the first dish—a delicate selection of vegetarian morsels called “three treasures to welcome guests,” made from baked bran, pickled radish, and dried tofu—the abbot’s phone rings and he reaches into his flowing crimson gown to retrieve a buzzing Samsung mobile. He politely dismisses the person on the other end of the line and I notice his immaculately manicured fingernails and also that his earlobes are unusually large, a physical trait that in China is said to indicate competence and bring good fortune and riches.

As the bowls keep coming, the abbot is careful to point out that he normally eats very plain food. In fact, that morning I had been allowed to attend dawn prayers and join him and his monks for a hearty meal of rice porridge, vegetables, and steamed buns, served by trainee monks who couldn’t have been more than 10 years old. At that meal, the abbot sat with the others on wooden benches in silence as they scarfed down their food in less than 15 minutes.

Having spotted his phone, I decide now is the time to ask him about his penchant for gadgets and expensive gifts, including a Volkswagen SUV and an iPad he is often seen using in public. “The Volkswagen is worth less than Rmb 1 million [£98,000] and it was given to me by the local government because we have brought them a lot of profits,” he tells me with only the slightest hint of exasperation breaking through his Zen composure. “We attract a lot of visitors and students so the government awarded me a car to encourage me to do a better job.”

He says the iPad and other gadgets are all gifts from devotees but that he tries to use such things until they are broken and unusable before replacing them. “I’m not doing what I do for other people but for society, for the masses; it’s not for me personally or for the local government but if there is a need in society or among the ordinary folk, then I should do what I can.”

We tuck into a dish of cabbage and shredded dried tofu with the delightful name of “floating fragrance in a Buddhist pot” but I notice that the abbot is hardly touching his food. The mention of his dealings with the local government is an illustration of the difficult relationship in China between organized religion and the officially atheist ruling Communist party. The Chinese government only recognizes five official religions—Daoism, Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism—and requires that these be organized into institutions supervised by “patriotic associations,” in turn supervised by the State Administration for Religious Affairs and the Communist Party’s United Front department.

Other world religions, such as Orthodox Christianity, Judaism, Mormonism, or Baha’i, are not recognized by Beijing, nor are countless underground Catholic and Protestant “house churches.” The government tends to tolerate much of this “unofficial” religious activity as long as it is a private matter, but any hint of political organization will bring a crackdown.

The Shaolin abbot doesn’t need to worry about this. He has been a member of the National People’s Congress, the country’s rubber-stamp parliament, since 1998 and vice-chairman of the official Buddhist Association of China since 2002. Ordinarily, the abbot and other senior monks at the temple will decide who can be ordained as a monk, and the temple will then register them with the provincial religious affairs bureau. But the position of abbot must be directly authorized by the religious affairs authorities, almost all of whom are atheist Communist Party members.

I ask his eminence why he thinks he was chosen, and his answer is simple: “Because I am obedient. I’m willing to donate myself and serve the people.” To “serve the people” is a traditional communist slogan that regularly trips off the tongue of party bureaucrats. He explains that this subservience of religion to the state has always existed in China and in many other countries as well. “Throughout history it is the same: Religion must respect the emperor, respect the government. If a religion doesn’t respect the government, it will have difficulty surviving,” he says. “We have to rely on the government to publicize and promote us. The government has a lot of power and it’s difficult to promote ourselves without it.”

There he goes again, speaking like an executive from a global marketing firm.

As the waiters place a fried eggplant and tofu dish called “blossoming smile of enlightenment” in front of us, I ask him how he responds to the critics who say he is too fond of mixing the sacred and the profane.

“Our aim is to promote Buddhist culture, to baptize human souls and purify people’s minds,” the abbot says. “What we have done so far [in terms of commercialization] is actually quite conservative because we don’t want to get too mixed up in the affairs of society or overexploit Shaolin Temple.” He describes how a proposal in 2009 by the local government to list the temple on a domestic or international stock exchange was abandoned after he and the other monks voiced strong objections.

On the abbot’s instructions, the flow of dishes has slowed and most of his plates have been cleared without him tasting more than a spoonful or two. Throughout our lunch it feels as if he is trying to convince me that he is not the materialistic villain he is often portrayed as in China. More than once he mentions the fact that he and each of his monks live a plain existence, normally surviving on just Rmb 7 (70p) per day.

His explanation of the pressures he faces in a modern Chinese society is, however, persuasive. “We hope we can improve the bad atmosphere of modern society through the influence of the Shaolin Temple; over the years we have seen society pollute the earth and overexploit resources, and people’s desires continuously grow,” he says. “We wish everyone could lead a simple life like us monks and not chase after famous brands and luxury lifestyles in the way the awful nouveau riche in our country do.”

One of the last dishes is laid in front of us and the abbot breaks into a beatific smile in appreciation at the irony of its name. It is a vegetarian version of “Buddha jumps over the wall,” an oily soup that usually includes meat and seafood and is supposed to taste so good that it can tempt even devout monks to jump the monastery wall and renounce their monastic vows.

“See, that shows you how open and sympathetic Chinese Buddhism is,” he says. “In other cultures or religions, if somebody used this kind of name for such a sacrilegious dish there would be a huge fight.”

Coming from a religion where monks who have sworn not to harm sentient beings wield swords and practice cracking skulls with their fists, this too is persuasive. For the abbot, temporal dealings—including business—appear merely a necessary diversion on the path toward enlightenment.

This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.