Lunch with Shi Yongxin, the abbot of the Shaolin Temple.

Lunch with Shi Yongxin, the abbot of the Shaolin Temple.

Lunch with Shi Yongxin, the abbot of the Shaolin Temple.

Stories from the Financial Times. 
Sept. 10 2011 8:44 AM

Lunch With the Abbot of the Shaolin Temple

He has never heard of the Wu-Tang Clan.

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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."