Shaolin controversy

I don’t travel much in China.

I would love to, don’t get me wrong – but obviously, I’m working in the week, and my martial arts classes have always been on the weekend, and that means I’ve been afraid that going off on trips on the weekends would just totally disrupt what little training routine I have…

What this means is, I’ve never visited any of the martial arts ‘destinations’ such as the Shaolin Temple, Wudang Mountain, Chen Village etc etc…

Still, I’m disturbed by a recent article in the UK Independent, which was brought to my attention in a blog post by Dojo Rat.

The issue is the policy taken by the Temple’s Abbot, Shi Yongxin, to aggressively reclaim the Temple’s brand, using the legal tools of intellectual property protection, and so on – leading Dojo Rat to comment “Damned Capitalists“. This worries me, since it reflects what I think may be a seriously misguided understanding of what is likely happening there (and, again, I must emphasize that my views are also speculation, since I don’t know anyone at the Shaolin Temple).

I’ve written about this before, at this blog’s old home, but I need to explain my thoughts in more detail.

Ask yourself: “what is the purpose of a Buddhist monk?”.

The answer only takes one word…. ‘meditation’. That’s it. A monk takes his vows in order to retreat from the world, so that he can obtain the seclusion necessary to focus on meditation and thus achievement of Nirvana or Enlightenment (for the Theravada and Mahayana branches respectively). Of course, this is not universally true, but it’s the ideal.

Thus (influenced particularly by a very famous monk from the Himalayas, who I won’t name because I don’t want my blog to be blocked again), the Western public thinks that Buddhist monks should be unworldly, unconcerned with things like wealth and and profit and property management etc etc.

And they’re right to think so.


How do you think all those meditating monks get food to eat?

How do you think that the walls around them are kept sturdy, and the roof doesn’t fall in on their heads from neglect?

The fact is, a temple or monastery is a complex organisation, and it needs a lot of monks who don’t meditate – in order to support those who do. What’s most relevant is that this is not a modern thing, it’s always been the case.

In The Zen Monastic Experience, Robert Buswell Jr has this to say about the job of Abbot in a Zen monastery:

While the position of abbot would seem to bring with it much prestige, the monks typically view it as an onerous one. The heavy workload and constant responsibility do not endear the position to many of the monks qualified to serve, and the monastery family may have to go through considerable machinations to cajole someone into accepting the job.

[There follows a long anecdote on the extreme lengths some monks will go to in order to avoid being appointed abbot]

I noted among the meditation monks a muted feeling that they are above the dictates of the abbot, since he is only an administrator, not a meditator. The abbot is, as often as not, relatively inexperienced in meditation, and some of the practice monks are patently supercilious toward him. The rector, who is superior in rank to the abbot, is the director of the meditation unit, and the practice monks place their respect more in him than in the abbot.

Buswell was writing about his time in a Zen monastery in Korea rather than China, but to my limited knowledge the difference is not great. He has a great deal more to say about the economy of the monastery which, having been gifted land by devotees, is landlord to many farmers who pay rent to the monastery’s administrative branch – which is how the practice (ie meditation) monks are fed.

In China, of course, there was the Cultural Revolution. The temples were closed, or destroyed, and the monks were forced back into lay life. Over the last couple of decades, of course, things have become far more tolerant, and religion is acceptable again. Old monks have returned to the temples, and a new generation of monks has emerged from those too young to remember the days of the 60s and 70s.


As Red Pine points out in Zen Baggage, although the Chinese government has returned the temples to the monks, it hasn’t returned the farmland. As a result, these monasteries are left high and dry, financially unable to maintain themselves.

This is the context in which we have to look at what’s happening in Shaolin. As I understand it, the abbot there is reclaiming the Shaolin name, and getting rid of all the hangers-on who were trying to exploit it – with the purpose of generating a revenue stream that will allow the temple to return to its proper role as a centre of Buddhist contemplation….

Even monks need to eat… and that means that even monks (via their despised administrative officers) need money…

I rather feel that we should be feeling sorry for Shi Yongxin in his thankless role, rather than accusing him of selling out….

[See also: Chinese Buddhist monks enroll in MBA programs]


  1. I have heard that in Japan, the Shorinji Kempo folks have trademarked the word “Shorinji” (i.e. Shaolinsi, or Shaolin Temple), so perhaps the real Shaolin folks have reacted to this sort of thing in their own way.


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