Meet Shaolin's New Leader- Abbot Shi Yongxin

By Gene Ching (Xinglong)

Ta Mo has the most intense eyes. TaMo (or Bodhidharma in Sanskrit) is accepted as the founder of Shaolin's most precious contributions, Chan Buddhism (Zen) and Shaolin kungfu. However, another legend also attributes the creation of tea those eyes of his. As this story goes, once Ta Mo fell asleep during his nine-year meditation behind Shaolin Temple. Frustrated with his imperfection, he cut his eyelids off. They fell to the ground and instantly sprouted into the first tea plants. Since then, tea has become the Asia's drink of choice, as well as an aid for monks facing the hardships of prolonged meditation. Even though this is obviously a myth, it may interest you to know that a few archaeologists do pinpoint the origin of tea usage to Ta Mo's era. Due to this legend, Ta Mo is always depicted with huge, unblinking eyes. Beyond the tea myth, it also symbolizes his unflinching discipline and his awakened state of enlightenment. It is said that Shaolin Temple has eyes, too. When looking at the front gate of Shaolin Temple, there are two symmetric circular windows on either side of its grand double doors. To many, those windows reflect the lidless eyes of Ta Mo, relentlessly gazing upon the world and penetrating its delusions. If Shaolin Temple has eyes, it must also have a head, but until recently that was not the case. The head of a temple is its abbot. Since Shaolin Temple's previous abbot, Shi Xingzhen, passed away in 1987, no monk had been officially inducted as the new abbot to succeed him. Due to poor translations and other misunderstandings, many Westerners mistakenly assumed that various prominent senior monks were abbots. However, this was not the case. Each was only acting as abbot until the vacancy could be officially filled. The truth is that Shaolin Temple lacked an officially ordained abbot for the past twelve years. That was until August of 1999, when the 30th abbot of Shaolin Temple was officially inaugurated. The new abbot is 33rd generation Shaolin Temple monk Shi Yongxin.

Eyes of Ta Mo
Venerable Abbot Yongxin's powerful personal presence immediately invokes an indelible impression. His most striking feature is his intense eyes. He has a penetratingly sober gaze, unblinking like Ta Mo. Even in photographs, he is almost always looking straight out at you from the picture with a piercing stare. Those eyes have witnessed the rebirth of Shaolin Temple and the mind behind those eyes has meditated long and hard how to maintain the meaningfulness of his medieval monastery into the next millennium. Shi Yongxin is younger than one might expect for an abbot, but to grapple with the challenges and complexities of commanding an ancient temple in contemporary communist China requires a fresh perspective. Always busily attending to the responsibilities of his position, he seems mindful of his every movement, and responds carefully and thoughtfully to any inquiry. When questioned about his personal life, he is surprisingly humble, careful to redirect the conversation away from him personally and back to Buddhism and Shaolin Temple. Shi Yongxin was born 1965 in Yingshang, Anhui province with the birth name Liu Eng Chun. His belief in Buddhism came naturally, and now seems as if it was predestined from childhood. He became a monk in 1983 under Shi Xingzhen, and burned his forehead with the traditional "shou jie" in 1984. He furthered his studies at Guangji Temple in Beijing, China's renowned Buddhist College. There, he managed the administration during the days and practiced kungfu at night. His specialty was lohanquan, monk spade and sheep horn crutches. Eager to help restore Shaolin, he worked with other surviving old masters to recover Shaolin kungfu that had been scattered during the Cultural Revolution, publishing the fruits of his research in the martial book Shaolin Wushu Yao Ye. He has been actively campaigning to reestablish Shaolin, kungfu and Chan Buddhism, and has traveled across Asia to Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Malaysia to meet with other Buddhist monks and demonstrate. In January of 1998, he took a pilgrimage to India to visit the four sacred places of Buddha, Lumbini (where Buddha was born), Bodh Gaya (where he was enlightened), Sarnath (where he gave the wheel of dharma the first turn) and Kusinagara (where Buddha achieved samadhi.) Since his master's death, he has been acting as chief executive of Shaolin Temple, but is quick to point out that no one can match the contributions of his master. Abbot Xingzhen saw Shaolin Temple through its most difficult period, the Cultural Revolution in the 1960's. Shaolin Temple was oppressed and many of its monks were forced to return to secular life. However, according to Abbot Yongxin, many Chinese still believed in the heart of Buddhism, despite religious persecution. The government cannot kill Buddhism, not then and not today. Since Buddhism does not have to be practiced in public, few actually lost faith. It thrived in secret, hidden from the eyes of the Red Guard. The Chinese people still believed in Buddhism in their hearts. In recent years, due to China's open policy, Shaolin Temple could grasp the opportunity to actively promote Buddhism. Today, it sees a lot of pilgrims and tourists, by some count over two million annually. Not only does this provide much needed income for restoration, it also helps with the mission of all Buddhist monks, propagating the teachings of the Buddha. Despite the heavy traffic, Abbot Yongxin asserts that tourism does not disturb normal monastic life. The temple proper is still for the monks and after visiting hours it is for the monks alone. Furthermore, there are many secluded branch temples on Song Mountain that are far off the beaten tourist track. When a monk requires more seclusion, he is sent to practice there. According to traditional Chinese Chan rules, before the abbot dies, he will pass his long robe and bowl to his most successful disciple. Abbot Xingzhen passed these relics to Yongxin before he died, but still the post of abbot was vacant for twelve years. Yongxin was acting as abbot, but had not been officially inaugurated. During this period, Yongxin's behavior was welcomed by all of the Shaolin Temple monks. They felt that his morality, talent and sincere image could inspire more people to believe in Buddhism. His aptitude for Buddhism is evident in his brilliant work, Chan Lore Anthology. But only after over a decade of requests and at the insistence of the other Shaolin Temple monks, the great occasion of Yongxin's inauguration finally occurred.

Eyes of Shaolin Temple
The inauguration of Abbot Yongxin was scheduled and managed according to the protocol of China's Buddhist College. Three very significant guests of honor were present for the ceremony. Fu Sheng Hui, the Vice Chairman of China's Buddhist College represented his respected institution, the formal training academy for the majority of Buddhist monks of China today. Also present was venerable Abbot Bin Huan. He is the head abbot of Guangzhou Temple and the Vice President China's organization overseeing all Buddhism in China. According to tradition, only another abbot may serve seat to a new abbot. It was Shaolin Temple's notoriety as the birthplace of Chan that attracted such a prominent abbot as Venerable Abbot Bin Huan, who is one of the most powerful masters of Buddhism in all of China. Most significant was the attendance of Wu Jie Ping, the Vice-Chairman of the People's Congress for the People's Republic of China. The participation of a ruling government official is also a long-standing tradition of Shaolin Temple. Throughout history, the Emperor has appointed Shaolin Temple abbots. Only the bearer of the mandate of heaven could pass the edict for Shaolin's abbacy. In modern China, only two temples have had their abbot inaugurations attended by a government dignitary of this high notoriety, the temple of Tibet and now, Shaolin Temple. According to Abbot Yongxin, Vice Chairman Wu's attendance is a demonstration of the new attitudes of the Chinese Government. It shows that the Chinese Communist Party and the People's Government support equality, freedom and belief in religion. Abbot Yongxin states that the rumor that there is no Buddhism in China is nonsense. He cites the enrollment of new monks at Shaolin Temple as an example. Accepting new monks is entirely an internal affair, in no way influenced by the government. Abbot Yongxin is quick to add that all monks love their country and love their religion. They adhere to communist leadership and the open policy. In fact, the People's Government showed great concern for Shaolin Temple and allocated special funds toward its renovation. Wu Jie Ping's presence further demonstrates the concern of the Communist Party and the People's Government regarding Shaolin Temple. Abbot Yongxin realizes that many Americans do not understand the true state of religion in China. He believes that American misconceptions hurt the feelings of Chinese religious people. The inauguration ritual has two major parts that took place over two nights. The first was the throne ceremony and the second was the welcoming celebration. The throne ceremony took place between 9:00 and 11:00 on the night of August 19th, 1999. This inauguration ritual is traditionally performed at night so only the master and students know what occurs. It is the custom of the Chinese Chan ancestral court that the throne ritual is held in secret. Even with China's open policy, the exact nature of this ritual has not been made public out of respect to the ancestors. The actual details of the transmission that occurred between Venerable Abbot Bin Huan and soon-to-be Abbot Yongxin during this serving seat ceremony are only known to them. The welcoming ceremony was held the following evening, again between 9:00 and 11:00 PM. All of the Shaolin Temple monks gathered in front of the entrance of Shaolin Temple to welcome Shi Yongxin to become the official abbot. During this ritual Shi Yongxin approached the front gate (in previous times, it was Ta Mo cave.) The monks welcomed him to come in and bow before every Buddha in all of the halls of Shaolin Temple. There was a sincere and joyful atmosphere during this celebration. An opening Lion Dance added to the cheerful and happy feeling, then an honor guard welcomed the new abbot. Sixteen hundred guests were present to witness this wonderful event, including many monks, other abbots, guests, and senior government officials. After all of the bowing, Shi Yongxin entered the abbot's room and Shaolin Temple has a head once again. In the final stage of the ceremony, Venerable Abbot Yongxin's first act was to appoint four monks as officials of Shaolin Temple. Shi Yinsong was appointed as Vice Abbot, responsible for filling in for the abbot as necessity demands. Shi Yongchan was appointed as advisor. His duty is to provide an example for the Shaolin monks. Shi Shengri was appointed as reception chief. He coordinates events such as religious festivals, meeting with dignitaries, and interfacing with the public. In fact, Shengri provided the inauguration information for this article that was not covered during Venerable Abbot Shi Yongxin's interview. The last appointment was Shi Yanying as supervisor. He holds the "jie ban," four traditional rods to punish any monks who violate the rules. Shi Yanying enforces the rules, which means he is the one to actually beat any wayward monks back on to the path. Each of the four punishment rods is used for a specific infraction: nonobservance of the rules of the supervisor, Buddhism, Shaolin Temple or the reception chief.

Eyes of the World
Venerable Abbot Shi Yongxin assumes the head of Shaolin Temple during a peak period. Following the dark mire of the Cultural Revolution, the seeds that were silent all burst into bloom. Shaolin Temple is now like a rising lotus. Looking unflinchingly to the future, Venerable Abbot Shi Yongxin guides the course of "the first temple under heaven" with watchful care. His focus is on development. After completing the restoration of the glorious bell tower and drum tower, and building a spectacular Ta Mo statue high atop Wu Ru peak, Venerable Abbot Yongxin is setting his sights on more building. He has several projects in the queue for restoration and construction, Chan Tong (a meditation hall for the monks), Ta Mo Cave, Erzusi (Second patriarch temple in honor of Ta Mo's disciple Huike) Zizaian (Shaolin's nunnery), and Nanyuan (the southern hall). Today, Shaolin's ranks are swelling to around 100 monks, 20 nuns, several hundred organizations, and several thousand laymen disciples and tens of thousands of followers. About ten monks are outside of China now. Like everything, Shaolin's monastic body is subject to impermanence, so there are no exact figures due to the natural ebb and flow of the following. Venerable Abbot Shi Yongxin believes that the biggest challenge facing Shaolin Temple right now is to find our how to make people benefit the most from Shaolin culture and how to promote this. Facing the new millennium, he is unattached to Shaolin's recent expansion. He presumes Shaolin will expand to meets the need of the society. His mission is simple - to get more people to love Shaolin Temple. To Shaolin aficionados in the West, the Abbot offers an invitation from the heart. "Shaolin culture is based upon 5000 years of Chinese history, but the West knows very little of China, and less about Shaolin. Come to China and Shaolin Temple and see what is going on. Shaolin Temple is a palace of culture. This is what Buddhism pursues. Come to Shaolin Temple often and tell people how Shaolin changes."

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About Gene Ching (Xinglong) :
The author would like to thank Venerable Abbot Shi Yongxin and Shi Shengri for their gracious hospitality and their willingness to be interviewed during the busy period of the Shaolin International Festival.

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