The World Heritage of Shaolin
Interview with Venerable Shi Yongxin, Abbot of Shaolin Temple

By Gene Ching (Xing Long)

Venerable Shi Yongxin, Abbot of Shaolin TempleTwo thousand and three marks the fourth year of the Abbacy of Venerable Shi Yongxin. He is Shaolin?s 30th Abbot, bearer of the long robe and bowl of his predecessor, Venerable Abbot Shi Xingzheng. If you do the math, thirty abbots in 1500 years doesn?t quite add up, especially since few held Shaolin's highest office for very long. Xingzheng's abbacy hardly lasted a year. He was inaugurated on December 13th, 1986, then passed on at age 74 on August 27th, 1987. Furthermore, prior to Xingzheng, Shaolin Temple lacked an official abbot for over three centuries.

Before that gap, the 28th, abbot of Shaolin Temple was Venerable Shi Haikuan. Haikuan was first appointed by the first Qing Emperor, Shunzhi (1544-1661), but due to some issue with a foot malady, Haikuan was not officially appointed until eleven years later. Haikuan was only abbot for four years. In the final year of Emperor Shunzhi's reign, Haikuan passed the abbacy to his student, Yongyu; however, Yongyu was never officially inaugurated. Haikuan passed on in 1666, the fifth year of Emperor Shunzhi?s son, Kangxi (1661-1722). Haikuan's pagoda still stands in Shaolin's Pagoda Forest, the last one before Xingzheng. Perhaps for political reasons no other Shaolin Temple abbot was officially inaugurated under either the Qing Dynasty or the short-lived Republic of China. There have been many honorary "acting" abbots, including Venerables Shi Haideng, Shi Dechan and Shi Suxi in our generation, but only Haikuan, Xingzheng and Yongxin were official.

Venerable Abbot Yongxin is of the new generation of Chinese religious leaders, the post-Cultural Revolution generation, and he is now at the wheel of one of China's most high-profile and powerful temples. Steering Shaolin Temple in the right direction is a difficult task. Many organizations have vested interests in Shaolin. The religious associations, the Sports Commission, the Tourist Board and local governments of Dengfeng City, Zhengzhou City and Henan Province all have their own agendas for Shaolin, not to mention the private schools and businesses that surround the area. At the forefront of Yongxin's abbacy has been the controversial relocation of Shaolin village. Despite the obvious influence of these other powers that be, most detractors of this project place blame solely upon the new abbot, while Yongxin's other projects, like his ambitious bid for UNESCO World Heritage status, are overlooked. But few critics really know Shaolin and understand its delicacies. Most don?t even know that Shaolin only had three abbots over the last three centuries. And fewer still really know Abbot Yongxin.

The Monk Who Would be Abbot
Venerable Abbot Shi Yongxin was born as Liu Yingcheng in 1965 to a devout Buddhist family in Yingshang, Anhui Province. He was an exceptionally bright youth, and in 1981 his parents granted his lifelong wish by sending him to Shaolin Temple to study. There he shaved his head and began studying under then Abbot-to-be Shi Xingzheng. After an intense period of study, Yongxin went on a pilgrimage to study at other Buddhist monasteries. He went to temples on the holy mountains of Yunjushan in Jiangxi Province and Jiuhuashan in Anhui, as well as Beijing's Guangji Temple. Guangji (literally "Universal Rescue") Temple is the headquarters of the Chinese Buddhist Association and believed by many to contain the finest collection of Buddhist statues in China. The experience at other temples opened his eyes as to what Shaolin could be.

With the rise of kung fu after the movie Shaolin Temple, Buddhism had declined under the wave of tourist business and private schools. In 1984, Yongxin returned to Shaolin to study under Xingzheng once again. He became one of the founding members of Shaolin's new Temple Democratic Management Association (siyuan mingzhu guangli weiyuanhui). Then, in September of that year, he made a pilgrimage back to Jiangxi Province, to Puzhao (literally "Universal Enlightenment") Temple to undertake his highest Buddhist vows.

Yongxin returned to Shaolin Temple and worked to develop the many facets of Shaolin Temple culture. In 1986 he helped establish the Shaolin Temple Martial Way Development Association (shaolinsi quanfa yenjiu hui ) of which he became vice-president. Their mission was to form a group of researchers working on recovering, organizing and publishing Shaolin martial arts. The following year he developed a warrior monk demonstration team for Shaolin Temple and became the team leader. In August of that same year, Venerable Abbot Shi Xingzhen passed on. Yongxin took over as the director of Shaolin Temple's management, overseeing the daily routine of the monks, greeting guests and personally taking charge of the ceremonies. In October he was chosen director for the Henan Buddhist Association.

In February of 1988, Yongxin founded the Shaolin Red Cross Association (shaolinsi hong shi zi hui ) to provide medical assistance to the local suburban residents. He also established, nine months later, the Shaolin Calligraphy and Art Research Organization (shaolin su hua yan jiu yuan ). In June of 1989, Yongxin led the Shaolin Warrior Monk Team on a fundraising demonstration tour across China. They collected money for a large commemorative statue that was erected by the Yellow River in Henan. Later, he lead the warrior monks abroad to Canada, England, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Macao, Malaysia, Russia, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand, in one of the earliest friendship tours to spread Shaolin culture.

By 1993 Yongxin was spearheading a multitude of projects to promote Shaolin culture. In March he was elected into one of Henan's highest political positions as a representative at the People's Congress. Soon after in May, he established the Chinese Zen Poetry Research Center (zhonghua chansi yan jiu hui ), which published an annual collection of Chinese Zen poems. The following month was truly extraordinary. Yongxin was part of a Shaolin Buddhist Cultural Team invited to Taiwan by the Taiwan Chinese Culture University. It was the first time that Mainland and Taiwanese Buddhists interacted face-to-face in four decades. In a historic demonstration of Buddhist unity, Yongxin met with Taiwan's prominent Buddhist leaders Wuming, Jingxin, Shengyan, and others. The event was widely covered by Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese and Korean TV. By October of 1993, Yongxin was elected to sit on the board of the Chinese Buddhist Association. The following year, Yongxin established the Shaolin Charitable Benevolent Non-profit Foundation (shaolin sishan fuli jijing hui ), over which he presided. Since the foundation was established, it has provided relief for natural disaster victims and the poor. They have sponsored projects like providing medicine, education and new wells for poor villages and offering new crops for drought victims. The foundation has also organized volunteer medical aid clinics to travel around China and gathered donations for flood victims. Their achievements have received several high honors from the government and tremendous support from the people.

Shaolin celebrated its 1500th anniversary in 1995. This historic event truly helped to promote Shaolin and kept Yongxin quite busy coordinating the ceremonies. In January of the following year, Yongxin reaffirmed his devotion by embarking on one of the holiest of Buddhist pilgrimages. He visited the four most sacred Buddhist sites:

  1. Buddha's birthplace (Lumbini, Nepal)
  2. enlightenment place (Bodh Gaya, India)
  3. site of his first sermon (Deer Park, Sarnath, India)
  4. Samadhi place (Kusinagara, India)
The following May, perhaps inspired by the trip, he founded a Buddhist magazine titled Chanlu (literally "Zen Dew").

In March of 1998, Yongxin was elected to represent the interests of Shaolin's community at the 9th annual meeting of the Committee of the People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) of Dengfeng. Five months later he was also elected president of the Henan Province Buddhists Association. By now Yongxin was unquestionably the most influential monk of the Shaolin order.

The Last Shaolin Abbot of the 20th Century
In August of 1999, Venerable Shi Yongxin was officially indoctrinated as the abbot of Shaolin Temple, the third Shaolin abbot in three and a half centuries. Some of the most influential Buddhist masters of China, as well as the Vice-Chairman of the People's Congress of China, honored the ceremony with their presence. Abbots from other temples, noted monks and government officials - 1600 guests all told - attended. With the title of Abbot, Yongxin continued his campaign to recover Shaolin?s holdings and make it traditional once more.

Two months after his inauguration, Yongxin was invited to the United Kingdom by the British Royal Family and had an audience with the Queen. He returned to Shaolin in the following month and established the Shaolin Cultural Research Institute (shaolin wenhua yan jiu yuan ). The next year in February, he went back to Europe, invited by the Austrian Tourist Bureau as part of a millennial Chinese cultural celebration. There he met with the vice-president of the International Olympics Committee to discuss the possibility of Wushu becoming an Olympic event. This has been a major thrust of China ever since they were chosen to host the Olympics in 2008. In August he began working on another innovative project for Shaolin Temple - the official Shaolin Temple website. The site is a great resource, but still only in Chinese at this writing. Plans for an English version have been in construction for some time now, and Yongxin promises they will have that available as soon as possible.

Although Shaolin monks are renowned for their kung fu, there is also a scholarly side of the practice that is often overlooked by the martial community. Yongxin only allows himself five hours a day of sleep, and no matter how busy his schedule may be, he always squeezes in time to study and write. He has several publications to his credit, being chief editor for Shaolin Temple (Shaolinsi ), Shaolin Zen Forest Mind Concentration Poems (Shaolin chanlin yiqu shi ) and the International Zen Culture Symposium Articles Collection (Gouji chan wenhua yentao hui lun wen ji ). He also organized the extensive tome Shaolin Martial Arts and Medicine Secrets (shaolin wugong yizshu miji ) which was accepted into the collection of the national library. Late last year, at the 7th session of the Buddhist Association of China, Venerable Shi Yongxin's efforts were recognized with one of the highest honors for a Chinese Buddhist. He was elected to the post of Vice Chairman.

Yongxin's current campaign is to establish Shaolin as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. UNESCO stands for United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. It's an extremely prestigious honor and would bring Shaolin under the auspices of an international protective and preservation organization. China, being one of the world's oldest cultures, already has 28 sites. UNESCO permits one new application per country every two years. If everything goes according to Yongxin?s plan, Shaolin may be given World Heritage status in the next two to five years.

Interview with Shaolin Temple Abbot Venerable Shi Yongxin - April 8, 2003
GC: Tell us about the Shaolin?s bid to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Abbot: We began our most serious work on this project last year. All the documents for our bid have been submitted to the Cultural Department of the People's Republic of China. Shaolin?s bid to be a World Heritage Site has received great attention by all the appropriate officials. In December of last year, UNESCO held a conference in China for the presentation of World Heritage Sites. I was invited to attend the conference and formally addressed the meeting. My talk aroused the interest of UNESCO, the Chinese government and all other concerned departments. Thankfully, we have had a lot of support from the media, both in China and abroad. There has also been great support from people worldwide. Everyone recognizes that Shaolin kung fu is a world heritage. It is accepted by people of different religions and creeds. This bid is worthwhile. After the bid passes, we will be able to bring our full attention to promoting the heritage and traditions of Shaolin kung fu.

GC: With all of the commotion of this project, is the Shaolin Temple order growing?
Abbot: There are about 200 monks and 20 nuns at Shaolin Temple now. We have expanded the temple by developing many of our small branch temples. But we have also ejected some wuseng (warrior monks) for misconduct. Wanheng is an example. Yinguo is another.

GC: How is trademarking the name of Shaolin going?
Abbot: Recently, some businessmen and companies had been engaging in using the Shaolin name to further their product. This influenced the image of Shaolin culture in a negative way. Now Shaolin Temple is attending to this matter. Abuse of the Shaolin trademark will diminish the influence of Shaolin Temple and create misunderstandings of Shaolin in the public eye. Shaolin represents the best of traditional Chinese art in kung fu and Chan Buddhism. As we know, some products and services provided by these companies were outlawed by the rules of Buddhism. So we have begun to administrate the trademark of Shaolin, not for the sake of profit, just for the sake of preserving our culture and religion.

GC: What is happening with the Southern Shaolin Temple?
Abbot: Historically, there is mention of a Southern Shaolin Temple and a Northern Shaolin Temple. As for the real location of the Southern Shaolin Temple, no one can make it clear. Now in Fujian province, there are three Shaolin Temples under reconstruction. But all those temples should have enough material and historical evidence to prove themselves.

Now we are preparing to revitalize the Northern Shaolin Temple. For the Northern Shaolin Temple, only one pagoda still survives. Most of the buildings are in ruin. The site of the Northern Shaolin Temple is in Jinshang County in Tianjin, about one hour from Beijing, as far as Tianjin City. It?s very beautiful. I have inspected the site of the Northern Shaolin Temple two times. We are planning to unveil the Northern Shaolin Temple before 2008.

GC: Many non-Chinese claim to be "official" representatives of Shaolin Temple. Some have gone so far to claim that they are Shaolin Monks. Have you ever accepted a non-Chinese monk?
Abbot: So far, we have not received any foreign people to be a monk, but perhaps in the future, when our facilities improve, perhaps we will. According to Buddhism, every being has the wisdom of Buddha and this has no nationality.

GC: Now that Shaolin valley is cleared out, will the temple offer more Buddhist studies for foreigners?
Abbot: We are preparing to teach more foreigners Buddhism, but first we must clear everything and rebuild with traditional Asian architecture.

GC: Do you have any advice for practitioners who can?t come to Shaolin and cannot train with the intensity of the monks?
Abbot: A lot of people misunderstand the role of practice in their daily life. When they think of practice, they think they must go to a club with lots of equipment or a park to practice. For us, Shaolin practice exists in every move of every moment of your life in every day. It exists in dressing, eating, sleeping and walking.

GC: What?s the most important part of Shaolin practice?
Abbot: Most important is to foster your belief, your confidence.

Click here for Feature Articles from this issue and others published in 2003 .

Written by Gene Ching (Xing Long) for KUNGFUMAGAZINE.COM

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