Monks uncloistered【Global Times】

From:Global Times     Author:Zhang Yiqian     Time:2015-03-11 18:05:05
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In recent years, more and more monks have diverted from the traditional path and become involved in worldly matters. They have started using the Internet and keeping blogs, produced CDs and set up fashion brands, while others push for religious reforms.

Volunteers at Longquan Temple manage its Weibo and blog accounts. Photo: Li Hao/GT

After deciding to become a monk, Liang Lu didn't spend his days in the temple reading Buddhist scriptures and eating a vegetarian diet, as people would expect. Instead, he interacted with the public on Weibo, traveled around the country pushing for religious reforms, and even challenged dietary traditions, saying "If Netizens treat me to a meal with meat, I will eat a meal with meat."

Liang advocated for three things: a ban on burning expensive incense at temples, making donations transparent to the public and holding public elections for temple abbots.  As a result, he was criticized widely on the Internet, and even his own master stopped talking to him.

Liang -- or Master Guozhi, his monk name -- isn't the only monk to lead an "alternative lifestyle." In recent years, more and more monks have diverted from the traditional path and become involved in worldly matters. They have started using the Internet and keeping blogs, produced CDs and set up fashion brands, while others push for religious reforms.

Pushing reforms

Liang had never thought about religious reforms before becoming a monk in 2012. Before making his life-changing decision, he had been a journalist at multiple newspapers in Jiangxi, Guangdong and Beijing, and had been married to a colleague who shared the same interests.

When the couple got divorced in 2012, they both entered temples. At first, Liang stayed at the Baoan Buddha Hall in Shigaoshan, Shanxi Province and obeyed the traditional rules for being a monk, fulfilling duties such as reading classic scriptures.

"Some of the monks are keen to make money. Their earnings depend almost entirely on public donations and the money in the donation box isn't transparent to the public. It's always so mysterious," he told the Global Times. 

Liang said his desire to change that situation grew even stronger after he visitedTaiwan, where he saw Buddhist halls on every street, and the monks there can actively participate in social matters.

"I advocate for the active participation theTaiwanmonks have. The monks in the Chinese mainland criticize them for being too involved, but that's just a difference in attitude," he said.

There are commandments saying monks cannot participate in worldly matters, meaning becoming an official or doing business, but there are no rules against giving suggestions, Liang said.

His first choices were big temples such asShaolinTempleorHongfa Temple. He would write to them and talk to their abbots. For those with Weibo accounts, he would directly contact them online, showing them a letter he wrote giving three suggestions for changing Buddhism.

He also took a trip around the country and entered a temple whenever he saw one, asking to see the abbot. If he was refused, he lived in the temple for a couple of days and talked to the abbot whenever he got the chance.

Shidaoxin, a young monk who became popular in 2006 after a photo of him taken at the Fragrant Hills in Beijing went viral online, is rebellious in a more obvious way.

He became famous for his resemblance to Hong Kong star Nicholas Tse, which gave him an easy way into making music and producing CDs.

"I identify myself as an 'artist monk,'" he told the Global Times. "I love art, I have been working with all sorts of media since 2006, releasing albums, updating my Weibo and blog," he said.

He seems to have no restraints. In 2011, he took part in a dating show as one of the judges. He's also the spokesman for a Hong Kong-based fashion brand.

"I want the public to realize that monks are people too. So many people treat our group as gods, we don't eat worldly food and need to study Buddhist scriptures beside statues inside the temple," he said. "I hope people can understand that monks have their habits and pursuits as well."

Just like Shidaoxin, Abbot Xuecheng is known to a fair number of followers, both in person and in cyberspace. The abbot ofLongquan Templein Haidian district started keeping a collective blog along with other monks.

The volunteers living at Longquan Temple are working on sorting out Xuecheng's blog posts and interactions with the Web users into books, mostly to be given away to university libraries in Beijing, said Xianxin, a master at the temple.

A monk at Longquan Temple leads a crowd in a Buddhist rite. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Facing criticism

Liang recently stopped being a monk. He had made a vow on Weibo, saying he would return to his old life only when at least 10 temples agree to his suggestions.

After a year of lobbying, about 10 small temples, mostly in the countryside, agreed to his terms.
But most turned him down. The abbots wrote back asking him to focus on cultivating his own virtues, as the Buddhist commandments required. His own master stopped talking to him, and many called him "demon monk" on Weibo.

According to a Nandu Daily article, a high-level member of the religious world frowned upon Liang for pushing democratic elections among abbots, saying there shouldn't be an abbot every few years, and the post should be for life. 

Shidaoxin first grew popular when the blogs he wrote were recommended for the front page of When he did photo shoots, they were forwarded a great deal on the Internet as well. He believes Buddhism can be fashionable or high-tech.

A search of Shidaoxin on will turn up many criticisms. "Have you seen a monk who reads scriptures and acts in movies at the same time? Have you seen a monk who worships Buddha and sells his voice at the same time?" the post asked, calling for Shidaoxin to "correct his mistake."
Shidaoxin admits he almost gave up amid the flood of criticism and name-calling but "my fans supported me," he said.

Even Master Yancan, the abbot of Panlong Temple in Handan, North China's Hebei Province, can't escape criticism.

Yancan, who became immensely popular online in 2012 for promoting dharma on Weibo and in books, was adored for his Hebei accent and the fact he explained Buddhism doctrines in endearing ways. A famous video of him praising the beauty of nature at Emei Mountain while a monkey climbed on top of his head went viral in June, 2012.

He attempts to distinguish himself from Shidaoxin, according to a Southern Weekly article in 2012. While discussing being on TV shows, he said, "Shidaoxin would've brought an iPad and iPhone, but we wouldn't." He emphasized that he's always reading and writing and prefers the name "monk bestselling author" to "Internet sensation."

But some said it's hard to tell if everything he did was to gain fame for himself or not.

Cultivating oneself

In Buddhism, the concepts of chushi (being socially aloof) and rushi (being socially active) are often discussed. For the public, "alternative style monks" don't fit the stereotype.

Compared with monks from other regions, such as Taiwa nor Southeast Asia, those in the Chinese mainland may seem not active enough. Master Xingyun is a famous monk inTaiwan who joined the Kuomintang in 1949. He also started a Buddhist TV station in 1997, established a journalism contribution award in 2009 and often comments on political issues.

Xingyun is often criticized for being too involved in politics, but he argues that being concerned about politics doesn't mean he's involved in worldly matters. 

"As monks, they should follow Buddhist doctrines as their main principle of words and actions," Xiong Kunxin, a professor with the Beijing-based Minzu University of China, told the Global Times. "If they are involved in the market economy and use Buddhist products to make money, then it must be going against their own doctrine."

Xiong believes that some monks produced CDs or asked for donations in the name of spreading religious thought.

In response to this criticism, Yancan said in an interview with the Mango Pictorial that there isn't a definitive line between the concepts of chushi and rushi. Some people might wonder whether it goes against Buddhist doctrines for monks to hold cameras, drink Coke, or even lie down to sleep.

"We advocate for 'worldly Buddhism,'" he said. "We serve society and the public, and participate in social activities and life."

In Shidaoxin's defense, his commercial activities do not contradict the teachings of the Buddha.

"It doesn't matter whether you are on the stage or behind the curtains. As long as you can share your wisdom, share your opinion about Buddhism, there can be more communication among people," he said.

He said people question whether he is attracted to worldly pleasures and if he is even a true monk, but he questions the stereotypical ideas people have about monks in general.

"Should monks only know how to chant sutras? Their value of life isn't that simple," he said.

The monks atLongquan Templeare by far the most traditional among those discussed. Xianxin said their main goal as monks is still to cultivate their own virtues.

The temple has become an Internet sensation for recruiting members with higher education degrees, including Liu Zhiyu, a 2010 Peking University graduate who declined an offer by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in order to become a monk there, as well as for its use of high technology.

Xianxin was spotted at several information technology conferences in 2011. He set up the Longquan Temple IT group. With the help of volunteers, the group carries out projects such as a management system for the temple's guest houses and an open platform of Buddhist scriptures. These actions caused quite a stir when they were exposed.

But he denies attempts to consciously be "socially active" or involved, even though these actions may not be perceived as "ordinary" for monks.

"In the end, what matters most is the intention with which one does these things," he said, and his intentions were to promote Buddhism.

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