August 11, 2006

China’s Super-Competitive Monks Learn New Skills

SHANGHAI -- Piety and a knowledge of Buddhist scriptures used to qualify one to be a Chinese monk. Now, add computer skills, foreign language ability and a degree in financial management.

Three decades after temples were destroyed and scriptures burned during the Cultural Revolution, Buddhism is making a comeback in China.

And like most things in the super-competitive, rapidly developing country, it's become both big business and a field in which people are eager to get ahead.

That's creating a new breed of multi-tasking, tech-savvy, upwardly mobile monks.

"Our recruiting process is highly competitive," said Hui Jue, deputy general manager of the 120-year-old Jade Buddha Temple in downtown Shanghai. With his head shaven and dressed in long, orange-brown monk's robes, he recently completed a master of business administration degree at prestigious Jiaotong University.

Fifteen monks from the temple have been sent to take foreign language courses at the Shanghai International Studies University, and a second batch have started MBA studies in the business school of Jiaotong University.

Such skills are necessary, Hui Jue believes, for the temple to spread Buddhist teachings in the modern world and manage its growing business interests.

In addition to the temple grounds, Jade Buddha owns a vegetarian restaurant, a four-star hotel with uniformed security guards to protect VIP guests, a seven-floor office building and a food factory.


Many of China's temples have been little touched by time, especially in remote areas of the country. But Jade Buddha Temple's modern approach is no longer unusual.

Buddhism, introduced into China around the first century, is the biggest religion in China with as many as 100 million adherents, over eight percent of the Chinese population, according to some estimates.

The persecution of the Cultural Revolution is long gone and while the government is not very enthusiastic about any religion, in recent decades it has given more support to Buddhism than other faiths.

That has permitted the rise of a string of outward-looking and ambitious temples in recent years. China now has 13,000-some Buddhist temples and about 200,000 Buddhist monks and nuns, according to the State Administration for Religious Affairs. The number is believed to be rising.

Lucrative, fast-growing temples have also sprung up elsewhere in Asia, such as in Taiwan and Thailand. But China's size and entrepreneurial flair may be unmatched.

The ancient Shaolin Temple in Henan Province, for example, has capitalized on its reputation as a birthplace of the martial arts to host glamorous international guests and stage kung fu performances around the world.

In July, its abbot flew to Germany to watch the World Cup soccer final at the invitation of FIFA president Sepp Blatter. Both soccer and martial arts can help to promote world peace, the abbot was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua news agency.

Shaolin Temple has launched a money-making martial arts training school and Shaolin Development Ltd., a company producing vegetarian snacks and Zen tea. The temple also cooperates with entertainment companies in film-making and online game production.


The Internet is key to many temples' expansion plans. Guangdong Province's Guangxiao Temple, which claims to be the oldest and biggest temple in south China, has launched an online worship system (, through which users offer virtual incense, fruit and flowers to a variety of electronic Buddhas.

"The first thing in my daily work is to open the laptop to check e-mails and surf the Internet," said Hui Jue at Jade Buddha Temple. "Everything in the temple is now processed online. No paperwork. Those who failed to pass the computer test were laid off and reassigned non-office jobs."

Surfing the Internet may seem a dangerous activity for people who are meant to be sequestering themselves from the world for spiritual contemplation. But Hui Jue has thought of that.

"Only certain people such as we managers and those in charge of public relations can get access to the Internet. Others can only use the Local Area Network, because it is hard to control what they will read on the Internet," he said.

Hui Jue concedes that the lifestyle of a modern monk does not always permit much focus on the spiritual realm.

"We are very busy, no weekends or vacation. Interacting with the outside world occupies most of our time, so many monks have to use the noon break if they want to do meditation," he said.

But overall, he does not regret the change.

"Before, everyone including the abbot had to clean the temple, and old monks were assigned to check tickets and guard the temple," he said.

"But they often smoked and fell asleep, causing bad influences. Now, we have hired professional service companies to be responsible for temple security and cleaning. This works very well."