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Kung Fu Monks Go Modern

Amid China's growing interest in religion, an abbot uses TV, films and the Web to market an ancient temple made famous by a Jet Li movie.

December 04, 2005|Ching-Ching Ni | Times Staff Writer

SONGSHAN, China — Shi Yongxin wears a bright yellow robe and heavy prayer beads and lives in an ancient shrine high up in the mountains of central China.

Yet he spends a lot of his time traveling in a chauffeur-driven jeep, jet-setting around the world and hobnobbing with Hollywood types.

No wonder some people call him a CEO in a monk's robe.

As abbot of the world-famous Shaolin Temple, the holy land of kung fu, Shi indeed plays multiple roles. His latest is executive producer of a $25-million movie about the life and times of the legendary fighting monks that is set to hit cinemas in time for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He also has a reality TV project in the works, a kind of "American Idol" for kung fu masters.

To critics, Shi's lifestyle and projects prove how far the Shaolin Temple has strayed from its roots in an increasingly commercial society. But its controversial abbot says it's no crime to keep up with the times in order to preserve the past.

"Movies, TV shows, the Internet -- these are all modern communication tools," said Shi, sitting in the dark chambers of his office in the Shaolin Temple as aides with shaved heads buzzed around arranging his busy schedule on their cellphones. "We are monks living in a new era. We should take advantage of these technologies and use them to serve Buddhism and traditional culture."

At 40, Shi is one of the youngest leaders in the history of the 1,500-year-old shrine. Perhaps because of his youth, he has presided over some of the boldest moves at the birthplace of Zen Buddhism.

Among his innovations were setting up the country's first temple-based website back in 1996, when few in China had heard of the Internet. The next online move was more of a head-turner: He revealed some fighting sequences previously considered top secrets passed only to true disciples.

Shi flung open the doors of Shaolin further by sending cloistered monks all over the world to perform and promote the temple's Zen-inspired martial arts.

He knew physical prowess was not enough. He set up a corporation to defend the temple's "brand name." He was also among the first to send yellow-robed monks to take MBA courses and get doctorates.

No idea seems too far-fetched. He created a broadcasting company enabling the temple to produce film projects and oversee the selection of scripts and stars. He has been contemplating the possibility of taking his martial arts disciples to the stages of Las Vegas.

"We used to be isolated from the world. Our outside contact was only with the land, through farming," Shi said. "Now we must deal with people, it's not as simple. We need to gain knowledge, learn new skills, like study English, know about computers and study overseas."

In many ways, the Shaolin Temple is riding the wave of a Buddhist revival in China. After years of decline, it is back and more popular than ever. Thanks to the country's growing wealthy class and a yearning for spirituality, people are increasingly turning to religion and opening their wallets to show their faith.

Communist China is officially atheist, but it is home to an estimated 100 million believers of all faiths. Though hard to quantify, many are thought to be followers of traditional faiths such as Buddhism and Taoism, while an increasing number are converts to Christianity.

Old temples are rising from the ashes and being restored to their former glory. New temples are popping up from cities to the countryside. Demand is so high for religious services that sending monks to business school has become a growing necessity in the quest to better manage these thriving houses of worship.

"We are learning about communication skills, client psychology, marketing, human resources and strategic management techniques," said Chang Chun, a monk at Shanghai's Jade Buddha Temple. He is one of 18 monks taking a half-year course in business administration at Shanghai's Jiaotong University.

Located in the heart of a vibrant metropolis, Jade Buddha Temple has a wealthy clientele. That means a need for creative ways to link its modern lifestyle with an ancient religion. A colorful brochure near the entrance advertises opportunities to invite monks to bless newly purchased automobiles and real estate -- for a fee, of course.

"Some people think monks should do nothing but sit around and read scriptures," Xue Ming, another monk taking the business course, said as he sat in a newly built conference room with leather sofas and computer cubicles. "The times have changed -- we have to change too. If we stay the same, we can't survive."

By the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, Chinese Buddhism seemed to teeter on the brink of extinction.

Temples across the country were either destroyed or forced to serve the people in secular ways. Some morphed into factories, storage facilities, residential units and schoolhouses. Precious scriptures were burned; Buddhist statues were smashed or had their faces hacked out. Many monks were kicked out to seek new livelihoods.

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