Controversy-plagued Abbot of Shaolin Monastery Comes under Official Scrutiny

By Craig Lewis
Buddhistdoor Global | 2015-08-11 |
The Pagoda Forest near Shaolin Temple. From nationalgeographic.comThe Pagoda Forest near Shaolin Temple. From

The Chinese authorities have launched an investigation into allegations of impropriety made against Shi Yongxin, the abbot of China’s famed Shaolin Temple, which is known for its martial arts tradition. The temple in central Henan Province has refuted the accusations as groundless.

The allegations have become widely circulated by media outlets in China after Shi Zhengyi, who identifies himself as a former disciple of the monastery, alleged that the abbot had once been expelled from the temple during the late 1980s for stealing. Chinese news media have since reported new allegations on an almost daily basis, most based on documents released by Shi Zhengyi, who is using a name that translates as “seeker of justice.” The accusations against the abbot include owning a small fleet of fancy cars, embezzling millions of dollars from a temple company, and funneling cash to a mistress in Australia.

Abbot Shi Yongxin. From buzzfeed.comAbbot Shi Yongxin. From

The accuser has told reporters that he is disillusioned with the abbot’s hypocrisy and wants to see the “grounds of Shaolin purified again.” He has declined interviews and has not appeared in public, claiming to fear for his safety following threats from people he described as Shi Yongxin’s henchmen.

“We want the outside world to know that the Shaolin abbot, using Buddhism as a cloak, is a maniacal womanizer and corrupt ‘tiger’ who brazenly exploits Shaolin’s assets and tarnishes its reputation,” he wrote in a statement calling for a government investigation. (The New York Times)

China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs confirmed late last month that it has ordered the Henan provincial religious affairs department to investigate the allegations, which “concern the image and reputation of Chinese Buddhism.” (Xinhua)

The religious affairs bureau under the Denfeng city government said that it has also been tasked by the national body with probing the claims. “Our bureau takes this extremely seriously and will swiftly clarify . . . and ensure a correct understanding of the matter,” the bureau said. (Global News)

The state-backed Buddhist Association of China, of which Shi Yongxin is also vice chairman, has also expressed concern about the allegations, saying they had “affected the image and reputation of Chinese Buddhism.” (Radio Free Asia)

This is not the first time the 50-year-old monk, who became the abbot of the monastery in 1999, has been the subject of controversy. In July 2013, Spanish newspaper El Periodico reported that Shi Yongxin had a mistress who was a university student in Beijing and a son living in Germany. The temple denied the assertions in the report.

Shaolin monks. From buzzfeed.comShaolin monks. From

A high-ranking figure in Chinese Buddhism and a representative of the National People’s Congress, Shi Yongxin has been credited with restoring Shaolin Temple, reviving Shaolin medicine, and re-establishing the ancient Shaolin martial arts tradition. But his critics assert that he has commercialized Shaolin. In 1997, he set up a company to trademark the name of the temple, and has turned Shaolin into an international commercial empire.

Shi Yongxin often travels overseas to meet political and business leaders, including Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II and Apple CEO Tim Cook. However, his focus on promoting the Shaolin brand has drawn criticism. After writing a US$3 million check to an Australian town earlier this year to build a Shaolin branch, Shi Yongxin was quoted as saying: “If China can import Disney resorts, why can’t other countries import the Shaolin Monastery? Cultural promotion is a very dignified undertaking.” (CNN)

Despite the recent controversy, the historical roots and Buddhist traditions of the Shaolin monastery remain untarnished. The Chan Buddhist temple dates back 1,500 years, and has been destroyed and rebuilt many times during its history. The name refers to the nearby forests of Shaoshi Mountain, one of the seven peaks of the Song mountain range. The monastery and nearby Pagoda Forest were listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010. The monastery’s first abbot was Batuo (Buddhabhadra), a Dhyana meditation master believed to have come to China from India or Greco-Buddhist Central Asia in 464 to spread Buddhist teachings.

See more

Shaolin abbot’s controversy and contributions come under Chinese media scrutiny (Lion’s Roar)
Money, Lust and Kung Fu: Shaolin’s ‘C.E.O. Monk’ Is Under Fire (The New York Times)
China to Probe Allegations Against Abbot of Shaolin Temple (Radio Free Asia)
Shaolin Temple abbot being investigated over embezzlement claims (ABC News)
Local Chinese bureau probes controversial Shaolin Temple abbot over online allegations (Global News)
Kung fu (in)fighting rocks ancient Shaolin Monastery (CNN)
Sex scandal surrounding Shaolin abbot raises deeper questions about faith in Chinese society (

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