○ An "unregistered" monk in East China's Jiangsu Province tries to persuade women not to have abortions and cares for their children
○ Many infertile couples have approached the monk and asked to be allowed to adopt a child from him, but all were rejected
○ The monk's work might clash with the enforcement of the family planning policy
Master Daolu (center) poses for a picture with several babies he saved from being aborted, his nurses and a boy that was abandoned by unwed parents at door of Wanshan Temple in 2015. Photo: Courtesy of Master Daolu
Master Daolu, the abbot of Wanshan Temple in Nantong, East China's Jiangsu Province, receives a phone call nearly every 15 minutes. Most of those trying to talk to the monk are childless couples looking to adopt one of his many babies.
"It's ironic that nearly half of the inquirers are infertile, either due to unsafe abortions or inborn defects, and 30 percent are parents who lost their only child," Master Daolu told the Global Times on Sunday.
"On one side, so many Chinese treat abortions with indifference. On another, so many couples desire a child," he lamented.
Many Buddhists believe abortion is equal to murder and the fetus has soul at conception. Like many other Buddhists, Master Daolu has campaigned against abortions and tried to convince women to take their pregnancies to full term.
In past five years, he said that he and his disciples have persuaded more than 130 women not to have abortions and then looked after their children in a nursery they run. The women were aged between 16 and 46, and most of them were unwed or had been abandoned by their partners, according to Master Daolu.
But to the monk's frustration, this is a drop in the ocean compared to the total number of abortions carried out in China.
An estimated 23 million abortions occur each year nationwide, including 10 million that are performed in private clinics or via medication, a population research institute affiliated to the National Health and Family Planning Commission revealed in 2013, according to the Xinhua News Agency.
Last week a four-minute video on Master Daolu's crusade was released on pearvideo.com, a Beijing-based video platform, attracting millions of views and thousands of comments. Since then the number of phone calls and visits Master Daolu receives daily has increased sharply. Some lonely couples have even flown to Nantong to visit his temple and offer to adopt a child.
"Abortion cannot be stopped by Buddhist beliefs alone. I hope the country improves its legislation and law enforcement," Master Daolu noted.
In China, pregnancy outside of marriage is still seen by many as shameful and abortions are legal as long as they are not sex-selective or carried out after the second trimester.
In a country with strictly-enforced family planning policies, abortion was often the only choice for women who had already had a child. The national policy has now been reformed and starting from 2016, all couples are allowed to have two children.
A simple query on search engine Baidu returns ads for several clinics that say they offer a "painless abortion" for a few hundred yuan that takes no more than a couple of minutes.
The front view of 1,500-year-old Wanshan Temple which is run by Master Daolu. Photo: Courtesy of Master Daolu
Dare to do more
Master Daolu was a businessman before entering Puxian Temple in Nantong and becoming a monk in 2010. In the temple, he discovered that many of the people coming to perform rituals for the dead were praying that their aborted fetuses would be released from purgatory.
"Usually, nine in 10 were aborted fetuses," Master Daolu said. As abortions increased, many temples in China started offering services to women to help the souls of fetuses reincarnate sooner.
Master Haitao, a famous Buddhist monk in Taiwan, said that an aborted fetus' soul will wander for years until its "destined" lifespan ends and they have more grievances and resentments than "regular" ghosts.
After beginning to persuade women not to get an abortion, Master Daolu decided to do more. In 2012, he went to Wanshan Temple and became its abbot. While spreading the message on social media that he would like to help pregnant women as long as they reject abortion, he converted his own villa in Nantong into a foster home, hiring full-time and part-time nannies and recruiting volunteers to care for abandoned babies.
Desperate women soon approached him. Master Daolu offered them money, shelter, healthcare and help raising their children. He promised that he would care for the babies till they reach adulthood and that the mothers can visit or take away the children whenever they want.
Mothers who chose to leave their kids with Buddhists like Master Daolu instead of public foster homes say they trust the Buddhists more and there is less bureaucracy when dealing with the temples.
Nantong resident Hua is grateful for Master Daolu. She kept her pregnancy secret four years ago when her boyfriend abandoned her. "I dared not tell my parents. I'm their only child, if I told them they would have forced me to abort it," Hua recalled to the Global Times.
Though society is becoming more liberal, the stigma against pregnancy outside of marriage is still deep-rooted in China.
It is seen as a disgrace for the family, and can damage the woman's reputation, ruining her chances of ever getting married. In ancient China, those who had sex outside of marriage would be killed by drowning.
"I was living in panic, worried and helpless. Luckily I got to know Master Daolu, who offered me help."
She left her child at the foster home for 18 months until her parents accepted the fact that she was a mother now. Hua then took the child back home to raise it herself.
"A lawsuit would only make the case public, and my child and I will be hurt in the end," she said when explaining why she didn't sue the father to make him take responsibility.
Master Daolu says that usually the foster home is a temporary sanctuary for the children, and most take their children away after their situation improves.
At present there are 21 children, including 20 under 4 years old, under his care, either at his nursing home or living with local families that he trusts. The costs are covered by the rent from a factory he owns and donations from the public.
But it is moral suspicion and regulation problems, rather than costs, which worry the abbot the most.
"A monk getting along with so many women is easy to criticize, let alone so many pregnant women," Master Daolu said. Rumors circulated that the children were the products of affairs he allegedly had with different women or were trafficked.
The police investigated him several times, but found nothing improper, Master Daolu said.
He said there are four major private groups engaged in abortion-related assistance and rescue in China. Yuanjue Temple in Weifang, East China's Shandong Province, is one of them. Miaoyun, a lay Buddhist in that temple, said their abbot has been offering help to women for five years.
"Through doing things from offering money to cover childbirth expenses to caring for children, we have helped several hundred women," Miaoyun told the Global Times. Now, there are about 30 kids living in Yuanjue Temple.
"Though we are women, we have faced controversies, too," Miaoyun said. To avoid allegations of money-making, they do not accept individual donations.
Although there are regulations that allow religious sites to foster children, looking after children who may have been born outside China's family planning policy is problematic.
The biggest concern the abbots face is getting the children hukou, or household registration, which are needed to access public education and healthcare.
At the beginning, Master Daolu pretended to be the father of all the babies and managed to get hukou for several kids. But after figuring out his method, the local public security bureau no longer approved his applications.
In January 2016, the State Council released a regulation, allowing single parents to acquire hukou for their out-of-wedlock births. Before that the parents' marriage certificate was needed to get a hukou for a child. But even so, few mothers dare risk exposing their situation by going to their local public security bureau to apply for a hukou.
Among the children currently cared for by Master Daolu, 14 of them still don't have hukou. When he raised this problem with the local authorities, he was told "The time for them to go to school hasn't arrived yet."
After Master Daolu's story was widely reported on, the local religious and security authorities told the media that Master Daolu is not a registered Buddhist monk and his temple does not conform to regulations, thus the way he has "fostered" the children is irregular.
"I have been applying for a certificate, but have been rejected by the religious authorities," Master Daolu argued. China launched a massive campaign in 2015 to record and check the identities of all Buddhists, including issuing certificates with a unique number to every monk and nun.
"It's revenge because I didn't follow the religious bureau officials' order to allow the destruction of the temple," Master Daolu explained.
After the protests of monks and believers, the 1,500-year-old Wanshan Temple survived a government-led demolition campaign in January last year.
Master Daolu said they have been negotiating with officials to save the temple, the oldest in the city.
"Although my work is irregular, it's not illegal," he stressed, adding that he will continue his campaign.
He said will try his best to send the kids to school and raise them until they are adults and can make their own decisions. But he also does not hide his ulterior motive.
"Honestly, apart from saving their lives, I also want them to become monks like me and be my successors. But I will not force them," he said.
Regulations say religious sites should not force religion on any abandoned children they care for.
To avoid this kind of legal-status controversy, Miaoyun said her temple's abbot is preparing to establish a charity organization, so as to better to persuade women not to get abortions and help them to look after their children.