Saturday, 6 September 2014

Ambitious and enterprising monks

At Henan's Shaolin Monastry 
Each time when I visit China and expressed my wish to visit certain temples, I’ll always be reminded by my local Chinese friends or guides that if I am looking for a real “temple” to pray, I can easily find it in Malaysia than in China. Then I will be told of the story of unscrupulous monks, ambitious monks and even fake monks. Therefore it is not surprising that one have to pay a hefty entrance fee to visit any temple, anywhere in China because temples were treated as tourist destinations in the officially atheist China.

When I was in China recently, one of the interesting topics of discussion among my Chinese friends is that famous temples across China are looking for “public relations and media director. I thought I heard it wrongly but yes, I didn’t hear it wrong, and temples are looking for public relations and media director. However, I didn’t pay much attention to it until I read that the famous Shaolin Temple in Henan is looking to hire media directors to build brand. Branding? To my humble opinion the famous Shaolin Temple is itself a brand name famous for its kung fu practicing monks, thanks to the many Chinese drama and films that promotes it. Nevertheless it was reported that the enterprising abbot Shi Yongxin thinks that his temple needs further promotion besides the hefty RMB 110 entrance fee. (There is also another Shaolin Monastery in Fujian Province which is said to be a branch of the original temple in Henan Province, commonly known as Southern Shaolin Monastery).

Family trip to Southern Shaolin Monastery in Quanzhou, Fujian. 
Very often, some of my friends and I are left wondering are ambitious monks or more precisely, chief abbot of a monastery or temple spreading the right message about the teachings of Buddha be it the monastery or temple is in China, Taiwan or Malaysia. Even the act of some senior monks are leaving us wondering if material wellbeing is even more important to them than to us, mere lay people. We have been educated that monks are mortals who denounce material wellbeing and worldly pleasures to live a simple life with the aim of emulating Lord Buddha to attain nirvana. Their chief duty is to spread the teachings of Lord Buddha and to be a living example of Lord Buddha.
Tea, calligraphy, Zen and Buddhism are hard to be separated and as someone who frequents the tea shop, I have ample example to get to know some of the monks who are tea connoisseurs and some whom calligraphies command tens of thousands. There is also a monk who is well known for his (Zen) calligraphy and he had writtenin 500 fonts on 500 Yixing purple clay teapots that are now available at a particular teashop in Malaysia. Those teapots don’t come cheap and this monk got a certain percentage from every teapot sold.
Aside from that, this monk has built a reputation in Yixing that everyone who wishes to get his calligraphy must present a teapot made by famous masters. He will not write anything if there is no exchange in return. When I was in Yixing, I was asked if this is the practice of monks and it left me dumb folded.  Back in town, it was well known that this monk has a huge collection of old pu erh as well as purple clay teapots by various famous masters, some of which he bought with a hefty amount. I have not personally seen his collection but friends who have the “luck” to see his collection told me that his collection can make the Yixing Purple Clay Museum in China looks like a third rate museum in Europe compared to the Louvre.  
Out of curiosity I asked a friend who is also an owner of a teashop how did this monk amass such an expensive collection, some which are bought through auction houses in Hong Kong. Are they gifts from his followers? My friend told me that some are gifts in exchange for his calligraphy while some he bought it with proceeds from donations to his temples as well as from selling his calligraphy. Adding to my surprise, I was told that this monk do have a large collection of antiques as well as old Rolex watches.
Monks are supposed to show a good example but it is sad that this particular monk is not the only one that possesses worldly material with great zest but there are a few other monks that have a huge collection of aged pu erh tea that a house is needed to just store these teas. Where all the monies needed for these material pursuits do comes from if not from donations either by “force” or by blind followers.  
For us mere mortals to have high ambition are something great but for monks or abbots to be enterprising and ambitious, what message does it send to the rest? The philosophical mind in me just can’t help thinking that if they can’t let go worldly material pursuits, what is the purpose of becoming a monk?

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