LOS ANGELES—The head abbot of the Shaolin Temple came to Los Angeles last weekend to strengthen his order’s brand and improve its profitability by opening up new markets.
Shi Yongxin, known as the “CEO monk,” heads the Shaolin Temple in China and was the guest of honor at the recent Shaolin Summit held in the Los Angeles Convention Center on May 21.
The Shaolin Temple was known for 1,500 years as a sacred and mysterious center of Chan (Zen) Buddhism that trained extraordinary fighting monks in a mountain enclave in Henan Province, China. Shaolin Gong Fu—popularly known as Kung Fu in the United States—is the traditional martial art of China from which the majority of other East Asian martial arts are said to derive.
Today, the Shaolin Temple is notorious for its turn to commercialism. While the summit offered a varied program, it also had at its core an important business matter.
Peter Shiao, the CEO of Orb Media Group and executive producer and host of the event, announced the founding of the North American Shaolin Association. The association’s mission is to consolidate all of the different Shaolin Gong Fu martial arts schools under one banner, in collaboration with the main Shaolin Temple in Songshan, China.
Inside China, the Shaolin Temple is a big money maker. According to the website China Uncensored, the temple has 1.6 million visitors a year who pay 100 yuan (US$15) to pass through its turnstiles and watch a 30-minute show. Photographs taken with performers are sold. Shaolin paraphernalia is available in gift shops, and there are Shaolin pharmacies and an online store. Incense, traditionally used by Buddhists in acts of devotion and usually provided for a minimal donation at Buddhist temples, is sold in huge, expensive sticks. One visitor reported being asked to pay US$770 for an incense stick, while the most expensive stick sold has been for 100,000 yuan (US$15,390). Troupes of monks tour the world performing for profit, and after the shows often sell Shaolin trinkets to audience members outside.
The Shanghai Daily reported last year that Shi Yongxin was looking overseas to increase the temple’s profitability. The paper reported that he “will continue to concentrate on the overseas market even after the world famous temple has opened more than 40 centers around the world to teach foreigners Kung Fu and Zen Buddhism.”
The new association appears to be part of this strategy. In announcing the association, Shiao mentioned that Shi Yongxin can now more easily oversee the development of Shaolin-related projects, and disparate groups that are not currently underneath the association’s umbrella will be less able to profit from the Shaolin name. According to Shiao, this has the potential for greater protection, control, and financial return for the temple.
The association will also funnel visitors to the temple back in China. Among those attending the summit were hundreds of students from the United Studios of Self Defense, a sponsor of the event and the largest American chain of martial arts studios (with over 180 schools). They are directly affiliated with the Shaolin Temple, and have a plaque and monument inside temple walls. The students make a semi-annual trip to the Shaolin Temple and the head instructors have been personally promoted by Shi Yongxin as grandmasters.
Over 1,300 guests attended the summit, which featured performances by Shaolin monks and two panel discussions. The participants’ interest appeared to be absorbed in martial arts matters, and many were unconcerned or unaware of the commercial ventures and political connections of the head abbot.
But martial artists and Buddhists around the world have claimed that Shi Yongxin is selling out and prostituting the Shaolin culture. Shi’s work stands in contrast to traditional monastic disciplines, which are deliberately free of material trappings or monetary pursuits (such as the Dabei monks still active in China).