Planned Shaolin temple in Australia draws criticism over reported commercial purposes

By Yuen Yeuk-laam Source:Global Times Published: 2015-3-4 19:03:16

A student from a martial art school performs in front of the Shaolin Temple in Dengfeng, Henan Province on October 13, 2013. Photo: IC

China's Shaolin Temple, famous as the cradle of Chinese kung fu, has for many years captured people's imaginations with its history of martial arts and meditative Buddhist culture. Situated on Shaoshi Mountain, Henan Province, the temple has long been a popular attraction for domestic and overseas visitors.

More than 40 Shaolin culture centers have been built overseas to teach Shaolin kung fu and Buddhism, as part of the temple's drive to expand its influence around the world.

However, after the media reported on a new temple that will be built in the Australian state of New South Wales, along with a golf course and a hotel, the Shaolin Temple, which has been dogged by controversy for its commercial operations in recent years, has again drawn public criticism.

Spreading Shaolin

According to the Shoalhaven City Council, New South Wales, Shi Yongxin, the abbot of the Shaolin Temple, paid a visit to Australia in February and personally handed over a bank check worth about A$4.1 million ($3.2 million) for the final mortgage payment on the over 1,000 hectares of land at Comberton Grange where the new temple will be built.

The Mayor of Shoalhaven, Councilor Joanna Gash, told the Global Times in an interview over the phone on Tuesday that the project has been approved by both the state and local governments, and that the construction plans include a temple, a meditation area, an education center and a 500-room hotel.

She also said it is a great tourism proposal with many economic benefits, including creating job opportunities for local people.

"A majority of the local residents cannot wait for the project to be completed," she said. Gash denied media reports that there will be a golf course included in this project.

Huang Kun, a Shaolin spokesman, did not comment on the project, but told the Global Times that they will publicize the details of the plan when it is ready.

Shi Yongxin Tuesday told the Xinhua News Agency that the reported plan for the golf course and hotel has nothing to do with the Shaolin Temple.

Shaolin will only manage the facilities for meditation, farming and the martial arts, and the other parts of the land has been opened up for lease by investors wishing to build their own developments, according to the abbot, who is also a member of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, the country's top political advisory body.

Shi said he expects the center to open next year.

Mad at monks

Although the project has been welcomed by Australia, many people in China do not feel the same way. The news became a heated topic as soon as it came to light. Many netizens argued that the Shaolin Temple is becoming too commercialized and that it has betrayed the spirit of Buddhism.

A commentary published by New Express, a newspaper based in Guangdong Province, said it is legitimate that the Shaolin Temple uses its own resources to operate itself like a company, but it is "schizophrenic" that Shaolin on one hand promotes the Buddhist idea that "all is vanity," while on the other hand actively engage in secular businesses.

The Hainan Province-based news site also warned the Shaolin Temple to be careful about its overseas promotional strategies and its development because the Shaolin Temple and Shaolin kung fu does not belong to a specific person or organization but is part of Chinese cultural heritage.

It is not the first time that the temple and its abbot encountered controversy because of their "modern" operation strategy and overseas promotional efforts.

The temple established a touring kung fu performance group in 1989, the Shaolin Temple Industrial Development Company in 1998 and a Chinese traditional medicine company in 2007. It also runs an online food store on

In 2010, the promotional work of the Shaolin Temple reached Europe when the Shaolin Europe Association was established. The association has since opened branches in more than 10 European countries.

Neil Genge, an instructor at the Bristol Shaolin Academy in the UK, explained to the Global Times that Shaolin kung fu is popular in Europe and the school teaches about 100 students each week and does demonstrations around the UK.

"Studying Shaolin kung fu and Buddhism are great ways for people to improve their health, both physically and mentally," he said.

Regulating religions

Some analysts have maintained that those who claim Shaolin has gone too far in its business operations do not understand the relation between religions and its finances.

"All religions in the world have a level of financial power and they all need money to sustain themselves," said Li Xiangping, a professor of religion at East China Normal University.

"The key question is where the money is spent," he said.

"All religions have an obligation to promote their beliefs overseas and Buddhism is similar to Christianity in this respect," he told the Global Times. "As long as the religion holds an appropriate aim when making money and the money is spent correctly, it should not be a problem."

At the moment, it is not known how the new temple in Australia is going to operate or how much it will charge for its services, or whether there will be an entrance fee.

Councilor Gash stressed that the project is certainly not a commercial enterprise but a place that will encourage visitors to travel to both Australia and China.

Li said that if the Shaolin Temple could be operated like an NGO and therefore be regulated by the local government, its use of money will be better monitored while the public will not have to worry about it straying from its Buddhist ideals.

Wei Dedong, a professor of Buddhist studies at the Renmin University of China, told the Global Times that given that Shaolin Temple is facing so much criticism about its operations the temple may need to reconsider how to make money without giving the public the impression that it is being too commercial.

The Shaolin abbot is apparently not too concerned about the naysayers.

"If Disney can be introduced to China, why can't the Shaolin Temple be introduced to foreign countries?" Xinhua quoted Shi Yongxin as saying. "It is an honor for our culture to go abroad."

Newspaper headline: Marketing martial arts

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