Monday, September 01, 2014

Real monks?

An interesting news release from China this month (March 2000) states the following:

The official Chinese Xinhua news agency reported that the Dept of Religious Affairs in China, together with Abbot Shi Yongxin of Shaolin Temple, issued a statement (available in some Chinese language newspapers and Chinese TV news programs) that the recent Shaolin Monk tour to Las Vegas were not made up of genuine Shaolin monks and that any claim by performance organizers that proceeds were for "temple reconstruction" is fraudulent. It explained that the Shaolin Temple has already been refurbished by the government and that this fact is evident to any of the visitors to the temple each year. It also explained that the behavior of fake Shaolin monks have damaged "the religious sentiments and emotions" of Buddhists and that is has "tarnish the reputation of real monks." In the newspaper article, it is said that "there are many people in China and overseas that misuse and abuse the Shaolin name for commercial purposes." Also, there has been talk of a Shaolin monks tour performing in Australia recently. Abbot Shi Yong Xin of Shaolin Temple states "Shaolin temple has never sent any Shaolin monks demo tour to Australia." He states that "there is absolutely no connection between Shaolin Temple and these overseas Shaolin monk tours."

I'm definitely not surprised, having met the Abbot Shi Yong Xin a few times, and also having seen a progression towards this over the past few years. I think that there are a few ways of looking at this.

    * No doubt, there is, and has been, a schism between what we would call the martial monks and the Buddhist monks (this is not to intimate that the martial monks are not Buddhist) over the past few years. I had predicted this a while back, when I noticed that the wushu guan was becoming a "home base" for the martial monks. As we've watched the Shaolin Temple itself grow from a monastery and living quarters for both the martial and Buddhist monks, into a crowded tourist attraction, there had been many changes in the internal demographics of the place.  The Temple's living quarters had  shrunk with the increased tourism,  the end result being the  moving out of the martial monks to the wushu guan, where they were used to teach gong fu. Separating the two factions was eventually going to cause a disruption in the whole, something which we are now seeing. Then again, from an historical standpoint, might it be wrong to suggest that there were schisms between the martial monks and the others at other times in the past? I think not.

    * Shi Yong Xin has never appeared to me to be predominantly a martial monk, though he has trained extensively in Shaolin gong fu; his background seems to consist mainly of Buddhist education. Whether he as deep roots in the Shaolin Temple, or has been primarily trained at another institution, is not well known to me (but it is definitely on the list of things to do when I return). I had always wondered why Shi Yong Xin, who is 33rd generation Shaolin Temple monk, and who seems to be in his mid-thirties, became Abbot of the temple when there are still other  older and more established monks (such as Shi Wan Heng) living there. These other monks are also gong fu trained, just as monks at the Temple have been trained to some degree for centuries. I have heard, though I have not yet confirmed this, that Shi Yong Xin has trained extensively at Beijing's Buddhist college. His ties to the traditional Shaolin Temple, as we envision it, might not be as strong as one might think. No doubt some have mentioned that Shi Yong Xin's appointment as abbot has had some political overtones, but, again, from an historical stand point, it is not uncommon for the ruling parties in China to influence the Shaolin Temple's politics. The extent of this at the present time is purely a matter of conjecture, and should be regarded as such until more research is done.  As for Shi Yong Xin's interactivity with the martial monks, I've always noticed it to be cordial, and even at times, very friendly. But as for his support of the Temple's martial monks to continue the Shaolin gong fu tradition? At this time, I don't know.

    * I noticed an "attitude" that separated the younger gong fu monks from their older Buddhist counterparts in the past. Shi Wen Heng had said to me "They're not real monks", when I had asked him about the monks who lived in the wushu guan. I had met with other Buddhist monks who were living in the Temple, who really had no feelings or thoughts about it. A good deal of them did not exhibit their gong fu skills or knowledge, if they had any at all. (Shi Wan Heng is a gong fu master, and he is responsible for the training of many of the monks that I have listed here in this web site. He is also responsible for being one of the fourteen monks who "survived" the Cultural Revolution, and who passed down the Shaolin gong fu knowledge to the new masters). Now, it is quite possible that Shi Wan Heng was referring to the students who inhabited the wushu guan, as well as some of the members of the performance team. But Shi De Cheng, Shi Xing Hong, among others, were raised in the Shaolin Temple, learned Buddhism and gong fu as thousands had before over the centuries at the Temple, and had eventually been moved to the wushu quan because of space considerations. It really isn't fair to denounce them, and I don't think that Shi Wan Heng had meant to do that. The reason for this is, Shi Wan Heng is fairly close to, and has a great deal of respect for, Shi Su Gong (my chin na master). Shi Su Gong is basically in the same boat as Shi Xing Hong and others. I can see where the misperception can arise,  but as everything else in China, what you see is not necessarily what you see.

    * Shi Yong Xin is correct that not all of the "monks" at the Las Vegas tour were monks. No, they definitely were not. I had recognized some of the "monks" as students of the wushu guan, as well as some students from other schools. but without a doubt, Shi Xing Xi and Shi De Jiang, along with Shi Yan Wen, were, and had been, monks of the Shaolin Temple. They lived and trained at the wushu guan, and taught, at the wushu guan (which remember, is government run), but they still had masters at the Temple, and had lived there at some point in their lives.  Why Shi Yong Xin said that the Vegas tour had "no Shaolin monks" is a little beyond me, but then again, one has to look at the pressures he is under from the religious organization that oversees the Temple. From what Shi Xing Hong, and Shi Xing Xi has told me, the Temple is under the control of the abbot, but he has to answer to a higher authority, which is some sort of religious organization in the area of Dengfeng. How much government control is part of this religious organization is not known to me, but I had been assured by Shi Xing Hong and Shi Xing Xi that the government plays a smaller role in the Temple affairs than most people would think. I guess that to put this into perspective, if you consider the abbot to be like a cardinal in the Catholic church, he is a man of power in his realm, but one must always remember, there is a pope out there somewhere. (And as in every other aspect of life, there always seems to be someone or somebody that everybody has to ultimately answer to. And it seems that the higher you go, the more you have to answer to. To put this into a New York perspective, the higher up the ladder you climb, the more shit you get thrown at you...) The abbot, in his defense, is no doubt playing one hell of a balancing act in this situation.

    * The "monks" who live and teach at the wushu guan inadvertently do things that make them look "un-monk-like". But then again, many of these guys are not monks; they either are teachers at the school, having themselves come up through the ranks in gong fu schools, and are hired by the wushu guan to teach more students, or they are members of the wushu guan's performance team. They have not taken taken vows to the Temple or to a master. And they do things which is contrary to the beliefs of many Buddhists, such as eating meat, drinking alcohol, and pursuing members of the opposite sex. (Remember, Shaolin monks can eat meat, but they don't do it commonly; it is usually done when they feel a need for better than tofu protein). Watching a group of them play basketball outside the wushu guan does not bring to mind the concept of a devout Buddhist monk who studies and devotes his life to Buddhism and gong fu. But then again, remember, many of these guys are not monks. The problem arises because, well, some of them are. Remember, they all live and associate together. As for the personal non-Buddhist activities of some of these real monks, I can't testify, because I just never watched them closely enough. I can attest to the abilities and devotedness of the monks I have listed in the web site. As for the other wushu guan "monks", I don't list them. But, you get the idea. The abbot is struggling with a situation whereby various "members" of his "related organization" don't act as true monks do, well, because they aren't, but they can be easily mistaken by outsiders as being "real monks". It isn't an easy situation.

    * Without a doubt, there is a schism forming between the martial monks who live and teach at the wushu guan, and the officials of the wushu guan. When I trained with Shi Su Gong in 1998, we trained up in the mountains for two reasons: one, and the official one, is that the chin na training was secret, and could not be done in front of other people; two, and the unofficial one, is that he didn't want to be seen teaching outside the confines of the wushu guan. Remember, these guys ended up being employed by the officials of the wushu guan; Shi Xing Xie confirmed that to me a few weeks ago (Feb 2000) when he offered to be my master upon my return to the Temple, as long as it didn't interfere with his teaching schedule at the wushu guan. Many of the monks have made it perfectly clear to me, over the past two years, that they are not at all happy with the wushu guan experience, that it has diminished their stature of being a Shaolin Temple monk, and that it has interfered with their abilities to travel and spread their doctrine of Buddhism and gong fu. Remember, the wushu guan "rents" these monks out to other schools all over the world, for a few thousand dollars US a month; the end result being that the monk ends up with his usual salary of around a few hundred dollars a month, and, inadvertently, ends up in an "indentured servant" relationship with his foreign "keepers". The situation is not a good one for these highly talented and dedicated individuals.

    * I find it interesting that Shi Yong Xin is appearing to denounce members of his organization, especially with regard to gong fu, which, like it or not, is the aspect of the Shaolin Temple that the rest of us in the world look up to it for. True, in China, it is revered as the birthplace of Chinese Buddhism, but I can assure you, from my travels in China, and the response that I get from various Chinese throughout all the areas of China I was in (including Tibet), the mention of the Shaolin Temple brings forth imagery and comments about gong fu. Buddhism is important to the Chinese, but from what I can see, Shaolin Temple means gong fu. That is what brings forth most pride, in my opinion. It is tradition, and a very sacred one at that. Shi Yong Xin is definitely playing with the veritable fire with this comment. It certainly appears, that regardless of which way he swings on this issue, he's bound to get into trouble with one faction or the other. He's in a tough situation, between the veritable "rock and a hard place", and I think that at this time, the best thing is to just give him some time to see how he manipulates this delicate situation.

    * The abbot, Shi Yong Xin, is about to give certificates to some out of China martial artists, a move which is being celebrated here as 'the first time in the 1500 year history of the Shaolin Temple that such an honor will be awarded to a foreigner', or, something like that. Interesting, that he acknowledge a school which no doubt will publicize and "commercialize" it's day and a half experience with the Shaolin Temple for it's own good, while he appears to be denouncing monks of his own Temple. There is no doubt that Shi Yong Xin is going to continue the gong fu relationship with the Temple, but there definitely seems to be a different bent here. Are "finances" playing a role in this? Other external market forces? Potential desired future alliances? Or just a pure publicity stunt on the abbot's part? Who knows. (Who cares?) Denouncing the Shaolin Temple monks who are in Europe and here in the US (predominantly because some of them do not send money back to the Temple/wushu guan?) while promoting a school which does not teach pure Shaolin gong fu is really beyond me. It definitely does not make any sense, though one might suggest that there is some sort of external intervention here (government or some other authority).  These actions definitely go against the statement that he publicly made. Again, reason falls to the wayside when external forces become manifest. And, to be cynical,  there isn't a more powerful external force than money....

    * Which brings me to the government. Shi Xing Hong, and Shi Xing Xie have both told me on multiple occasions, that the government plays a role in the running of the Shaolin Temple, but that it's significance is, well, moderate. The abbot is the ruler of the place, in both a managerial and a figurehead sort of way, of both the monks at the Temple and of the monks at the wushu guan, but that he does take some direction from some other higher authority. Granted, one might assume that Shi Yong Xin had to play the part of political pawn so that he could get significant monies to rebuild the Temple, among other reasons. Granted, the government has pushed traditional gong fu training more towards competition-like wushu (see above, What is the difference between "wu shu" and "gong fu" and "kung fu"?).  It would not surprise me to see the government's hand in this latest news release, not only to support Shi Yong Xin's place in power (I get the impression that feelings are "mixed" on this issue), but also to impede those monks who are currently in other countries (and who are not financially supporting the wushu guan) trying to spread their doctrine.
 
    * Which brings me to the last point. The monks that I know are trying to expand their areas of influence, or, to put it in a more sullen way, to "get out". I had always thought that it was because they had finally gotten a taste of life in the western world, and had realized that there were greener pastures there. But, there is more to it than that. Having spent quite a bit of time with Shi Xing Hong (he just visited me here in the US March 2000), I sincerely got the impression that many of these guys strongly believe in spreading their doctrine of gong fu and Buddhism, just as many of the Shaolin Temple monks had done for centuries before. And, to make this even more interesting, I've heard that the Shaolin Temple now, as it has for many centuries, teaches their monks to leave the Temple and spread the Shaolin doctrine of gong fu and Buddhism, a concept which seems to contradict the above mentioned news release. Making money for self-improvement does not seem to be their raison d'etre, making money to further their self-appointed and Temple directed goals seems to be of paramount importance. And I definitely got the impression from Shi Xing Hong, that the abbot, though not overly enthusiastic about the monks teaching in other countries, had no problem granting his blessings on such ventures.

    * Word from other interested parties has been informative, to say the least. The following is a response to this whole issue, from Shi Xing Xue and Björn Javefors, of the Shaolin Temple school in Scandinavia:

          o Other interesting reading was the abbot-lawmaker news report. Hadn't seen that one before. I spoke to Shi Xing Xue briefly about the abbot's statement. He mostly agreed with him, but disagreed in the way that the Shi Yong Xin's words had been portrayed. He said that this wasn't a black and white situation as the media would have us think. He also mentioned (as I understood it I might add!) also that Shi Yong Xin, as newly appointed abbot, is trying to move over the Wushu Guan training to be under the authority of the temple. This is interesting, as early last year Shi Xing Xue mentioned that there were plans in expanding the actual temple area, but that they had run into difficulties with the surrounding land owners. If the temple grounds were to be expanded, it would be very interesting to see training areas for "outsiders" there. Oh well, rumors and hearsay, but I must say that I think that the next decade or two has potential in giving birth to a new golden age in the history of Shaolin...
          o It's tough for the abbot, being at the top. It's hard to do what has to be done and please the masses at the same time - just as it is for any other manager! I talked to Shi Xing Xue and he said that expanding the temple grounds with 100 meters was in the temple's new 10-year plan. Now, I don't know if the temple presents it's own 10-year plan of if the authorities do it for them. In any case it's just still a plan for the moment, and it is good a sign that things are going well (for the) temple. Now, I'm not 100% on if Gong Fu training grounds will be moved/expanded to the temple, just the fact that Shi Xing Xue also mentioned: The abbot is trying to get the Wushu Guan and the temple working in the same direction.

It certainly appears, from the above, that the latest news release has more to do with politics, money, media misinterpretation and god knows what else than it does the truth. There are goals and hidden agendas in the abbot's mind no doubt, and until some of us can actually get to him to discuss this issue, we will not know the truth. I think that at this time, the best course to take with respect to this news item, is one of ignorance. The truth eventually comes out, and one must not be swayed by the usual smoke and mirrors that emanate from the news media, and it seems, from China itself. (For more on this topic, and other related news items, go to Shaolin Temple News).

And from the gut feelings that I derived from my multiple encounters with the abbot, even then I doubt we'll get to bottom of this. He is a shrewd and wise man, sitting in a position both powerful and insecure, navigating these so-called stormy seas as he best sees fit. Getting more information is on my list of things to do.

See Shaolin 2000 for more information on this topic. Also, go to Identity,  Rhetoric, and Intellectual Property in the Fugue section.

July 2002: There appears to be a change of heart with respect to the abbot's thoughts about the martial monks and about Shaolin gong fu, in general. His initial sway, away from the gong fu roots of Shaolin, and more towards the Buddhist roots, has changed a bit, possibly because of feedback that he might have been getting. Or, because he realizes that what brings visitors to Shaolin (and therefore, money), is not the Buddhist aspects of it, as much as the martial arts aspects. So, what we've seen over the past year or so, is an increase in martial arts presentation in the Shaolin temple (the east side of the temple houses some martial monks who are available for daily gong fu performances), and, a move to rebuild the Shaolin temple wushu guan, into a more modern usable facility. Also, the abbot is promoting Shaolin monk tours worldwide, consisting of Shaolin temple wushu guan performance team members, Which, is a good thing, because over the past few years, many of the local schools were getting on the veritable band wagon, doing their own tours worldwide, and promoting themselves as "Shaolin monks". The abbot finally realized the money making potential of promoting Shaolin not only as the Buddhist heart of China, but as the martial arts heart of the world. Or, he's just more concerned with holding on to the Shaolin intellectual property, as he is rightly justified in doing.
Category: Monk FAQ

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