Shaolin Temple has material needs too
SHAOLIN Temple has kicked up a storm with its plans to build a Buddhism centre and four-star hotel in Shoalhaven city, Australia, at the cost of A$360 million (S$380 million).
Thanks to TV dramas and films, many Chinese are so accustomed to linking monks with simple lifestyles that news of the huge commercial deal provoked many critical comments.
That is also why - even after principal abbot Shi Yongxin said the investment is being paid for with donations from Shaolin followers, and that all the temple will do is manage the centre - several domestic media outlets rushed into the furore, accusing the temple of trying to cash in on its fame, with some of them even calling for intervention from the state.
In fact, such claims reflect a severe misunderstanding of Buddhism, even religion as a whole. Like all other civil organisations, religious institutions need to cover their running costs.
Religions have never been divorced from economic needs - the institutions that spread them need money to support themselves and expand. Those that failed to gain material support have perished.
It is impossible for religious institutions to survive without some commercial operations, especially if they want to develop and prosper.
Anybody who has visited a famous temple in China must be familiar with ticket offices at the gate; most are run by local governments to generate revenue, from which the monks in the temples will get a percentage for the temples' upkeep.
Of course, the practice of religious institutions running a business is not without problems and risks.
A big problem is that temples are registered as non-profit organisations in China, so they do not need to pay tax on their revenue.
But, according to the law, the money they make and any donations they receive must be used for public benefit, not for personal gain.
Another potential risk is beliefs being kidnapped by commercial interests. There have been instances of religious institutions forcing believers to donate or consume at certain shops.
The authorities must strictly supervise and audit the commercial activities of religious institutions. This applies not only to Buddhist temples, but also to other religious institutions such as Christian churches and Taoist temples.
Having lived in a planned economy for a long time, many Chinese might not know that it is quite common for religious institutions in developed countries to participate in commerce.
In Japan, for example, being a monk is considered a job; in many countries, temples registered as corporate organisations enjoy favourable tax rates.
Thus, there is no need to worry about "commercialisation" of religious institutions yet. What is needed is strict law enforcement to prevent illegal activities.
CHINA DAILY/ASIA NEWS NETWORK
The writer is a researcher and director of the Centre on Religion and Society at East China Normal University. The article is an excerpt of his interview with China Daily.