China’s religious affairs bureau on Thursday confirmed it is investigating recent allegations of wrongdoing by Shi Yongxin, abbot of the prestigious Buddhist Shaolin Temple in central China's Henan province.
The move came after an accuser claiming to be a former Shaolin monk and identified only by the pseudonym Shi Zhengyi posted allegations online that Shi was an “embezzler and womanizer” with illegitimate children, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
The accusations were accompanied by a number of documents claiming to show that Shi had previously been expelled from the prestigious Zen Buddhist and martial arts institution for stealing, it said.
Calls to the cell phone number on Shi Zhengyi’s post resulted in a “switched off” message on Wednesday.
Shaolin official Shi Yanzhi told RFA that the monastery is currently operating as normal.
“As for the truth or falsehood of these claims, you will have to decide for yourselves,” the monk said. “We have trust in the [ruling Chinese Communist] Party and the government.”
The monastery has meanwhile denied all the allegations and has reported Shi Zhengyi to the police for "fabricated and malicious insults and libel,” according to a statement on its website.
But the state-backed Buddhist Association of China, where the abbot Shi also serves as vice chairman, has expressed concern about the allegations, saying they have “affected the image and reputation of Chinese Buddhism” and that it has reported the case to the authorities.
Now, the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) has demanded that the Henan provincial religious affairs department investigate the allegations, which “concern the image and reputation of Chinese Buddhism,” Xinhua said.
Shi Yongxin, who has presided over the 1,500 year-old Shaolin Temple’s prominence as a contemporary international martial arts training institute, holds a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree and seems far from the stereotypical image of a retiring Buddhist monk concerned with achieving release from worldly cycles of cause and effect.
His critics have previously said he has led the temple too far from its Buddhist founding principles of poverty and simplicity, instead turning it into a cash cow as a location for kung fu filmmakers and training international kung fu students.
Henan-based scholar Shi Zongwei agreed, saying that Shi Yongxin has unleashed a wave of commercialism on the ancient Buddhist institution.
“The Shaolin Temple has been going all-out to promote itself as a tourist destination, and Shi Yongxin has become very prominent in that, with the local government presenting him with a complimentary luxury car,” Shi Zongwei said.
“The Shaolin Temple has a very flamboyant style, and its emphasis on power and money flies in the face of the Buddhist precepts of poverty and simplicity,” he said.
“They are extremely commercial, and run several martial arts schools, and they have invested in a lot of property as well."
Not limited to Shaolin
But he said the phenomenon isn’t limited to the Shaolin Temple.
“It’s just that the Shaolin Temple is very famous, and the local government has done everything it can to encourage it,” Shi Zongwei said.
A Buddhist monk who asked to remain anonymous said in an interview on Wednesday that Shi’s high profile made it inevitable that he would attract criticism.
“The taller the tree, the more likely it is to catch the wind,” the monk said. “And financial issues in temples and monasteries isn’t a problem that’s confined to the Shaolin Temple."
"Actually it’s a very common problem [in China].”
He said monasteries and temples are already subject to tight religious controls, which work against them if they try to be too “pure.”
“We should look at the issue in this way, because all temples and those who run them are quite vulnerable, so we should give [Shi] Yongxin a fair hearing,” the monk said.
Allegations go viral
The reports of the allegations against Shi Yongxin have gone viral on China’s closely controlled Internet, with many netizens appearing willing to believe them, and others lamenting the departure of Shaolin from its original principles.
“It doesn’t matter whether the allegations against him are true or false; Shi Yongxin should resign,” wrote social media user @biansaimandaoxing.”
“The Shaolin Temple is supposed to be a religious retreat for Buddhist teaching, for cultivating Chinese culture and purifying the spirit, and now it has turned into a corporation and a cash cow operating for a few vested interests.”
“The culture of Shaolin is getting further and further away from Buddhist values, and Shi Yongxin really needn’t bother wearing his robes any more.”
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA’s Mandarin Service, and by Wei Ling and Lam Yau-tak for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.