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

FT
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.

(Continued from Page 2)

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.

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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.

Jamil Anderlini is the FT's Beijing bureau chief. 

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