Sitting comfortably in front of the newly-opened Hall of Sakyamuni in the glow of the sunset, Shi Yanshuo wistfully envisions the completion of the Towers of Bell and Drum on the busy construction site sprawling southward.
"It's exciting thinking of the future. In ten years, the Donglin Temple will probably resume its glory under the flagship of the Shaolin Temple," beams the 27-year-old monk.
Behind the renovation of the Donglin Temple is a well-designed cultural map of the Shaolin Temple, which has risen in the past two decades from a state of decay to a giant complex.
Geological expansion underway
Shi Yanshuo feels grateful to his master Shi Yongxin, the abbot of Shaolin, as "he defines the right orientation for Donglin".
Located on the southwest edge of Zhengzhou, provincial capital of central China's Henan Province, Donglin has a 1,800-year history that dates back to the Eastern Han Dynasty.
Important to Buddhist tradition, Donglin was once regarded one of the four major temples in Henan, along with Shaolin, Xiangguo and Baima (White Horse) Temples.
But its reputation has declined sharply since late Qing Dynasty. When General Feng Yuxiang governed Henan in the 1920s, heordered that Donglin be stripped of its religious functions and transformed into a public school.
During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), the temple was destroyed with the exception of the Palace of Heavenly King and a pagoda built in the Ming dynasty.
"It is sorrowful to see such a recognized temple in ashes," sighs Shi Yanshuo. In recent times, the temple has hosted neither visitors nor worshippers.
The temple's fate was reversed after the visit of Shi Yongxin in the late 1990s, who was invited to serve as Donglin's abbot.
In 2005, Shi Yongxin unfolded a plan to rebuild a brand-new temple on the ruins of Donglin, covering a space of more than 200 acres, or ten times larger than the original one.
The estimated cost of the construction reaches 300 million yuan (44 million U.S. dollars).
To Shi Yanshuo and his fellow monks' greater joy, Donglin will be developed into the largest school of Buddhism studies in China, enrolling 10,000 students per year.
The expansion of Shaolin has gone far beyond Donglin. In the past decade, Shaolin has incorporated or established 26 branches both in China and foreign countries.
In 2007, Shaolin signed a contract with Jixian County of Tianjin to build a new North Shaolin Temple at a cost of 160 million yuan (24 million U.S. dollars).
In mid-November, Shi Yongxin and his disciples advanced into Kunming, provincial capital of southwest China's Yunnan Province, at the invitation of the latter.
According to a contract signed by Shi Yongxin and Liu Yuejin, director of Kunming's Guandu District, Shaolin monks will take over the operational management of Tuzhu, Fading, Miaozhan, and Guanyin temples.
In exchange, all revenue generated over the next 20 years through donations, tourism, and the sale of religious items will belong to Shaolin over the next twenty years.
Shaolin has also set up branches or martial arts centers in Russia, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia.
But Shi Yongxin denies that he is deliberately seeking expansion. "We are simply helping push the religious cause in those areas where the appropriate conditions permit."
Marching off the boundary
Literally meaning "monastery in the woods of Mount Shaoshi", Shaolin got known for its "integration of Zen and martial arts. It is the home of Zen in China.
During the 6th century, Bodhidharma, the 28th successor of Buddha, came to China for exchanges on Buddhism studies. After facing a wall for nine years in a cave of Mount Shaoshi, the Indian monk created Zen. A prevalent teaching of this school of Buddhism is the practice of meditation to ward off worldly distractions.
But Shi Yongxin, the 30th abbot of Shaolin, has persisted in breaking from the established norms and is connecting the temple more closely with the secular world.
In the early 1980s, Shaolin became a household name in China, mainly due to the success of a film called Shaolin Temple that launched martial arts film star Jet Li's career.
The impact of the film was immediately felt by tourism. The number of visitors to Shaolin climbed from 200,000 per year in late 1970s to three million by 1985.
But the internal situation of Shaolin was not favorable. Before Shi Yongxin became the director of the management committee of Shaolin in 1987, there were only a dozen permanent monks in the temple. Adding to the woe was the boom of martial arts schools, which posed a challenge to the temple.
"We were short of both people and space. Everything waited to be improved," he recalls while sipping a cup of tea.
With a pragmatic mindset, the monk was determined to make reforms to the ancient temple by conforming to the rapidly changing era.
Initially, he expanded the surrounding area of Shaolin by tens of thousands of square meters and enlarged the rank of Shaolin to more than 200 monks.
After this, Shi Yongxin pondered the cultural essentials of Shaolin.
"During its 1500-year history, the very livelihood of Shaolin has always relied on its openness to other cultures, as the temple itself is a product of dynamic cultural exchanges. We must let the guests in while walking out of our domains with courage," he says.
In his mind, Shaolin has been supported by three pillars: Zen, martial arts and medicine.
"Preaching the empty concepts is meaningless, and these values must be represented by concrete cultural products," he says.
Shi Yongxin turned his boldness into a flurry of actions.
The first experiment was the establishment of a fighting monk team, which has since toured extensively at home and abroad. In 2002, Shi Yongxin applied for non-substance cultural heritage for Shaolin martial arts.
"We must turn to the intellectual property rights for the preservation and promotion of Shaolin culture," claims the 43-year-old monk, who has achieved a Master's degree of business administration.
In the next few years, Shaolin Pharmacy Bureau was reopened to the public and an outpatient department was established.
In 2008, Shaolin stepped up the pace of its commercialization. On May 12, Shaolin opened Huanxidi (State of Joy), a business complex made up of a shop, a restaurant and a meditation center. It is actually a subsidiary of Shaolin Intellectual Property, a fully-owned company of Shaolin.
"I try to combine the traditional culture of Shaolin with modern elements, so that the seeds of Shaolin are accessible to the greater public, especially the young people," says the chief designer, Mi Xiong, from Taiwan's Kaohsiung City.
For instance, students of Shu-Te University of Science and Technology, Taiwan will soon have a boot camp in Shaolin and their artistic creations will be turned into commercial products, explains Bonus Wang, executive manager of Huanxidi.
Shi Yongxin hopes that more people will come to Shaolin to experience Zen, but they have to pay a price. Earlier this year, Shaolin held four sessions of walking meditation catering to businessmen and CEOs with a charge of 2,000 yuan (290 U.S. dollars) for two days.
Promoting walking meditation will be one of the main tasks in 2009, and Huanxidi may extend its business footprints globally if the initial operation runs well, says Wang.
"We must keep alive and boost our own culture to counter the negative impact of globalization on traditions, and Shaolin has proved to be successful in its model of cultural development," says Shi Yongxin with pride.
"Commercialization or industrialization, whatever term you use it, is a path leading up to the truth of Zen. My vision is that Shaolin will eventually become a source of consolidating Chinese people's confidence and wisdom."
But Shi Yongxin's ideas and acts have given rise to wide criticism. Long Jinghong, an expert of tourism at Zhengzhou University, says the practice of Zen requires detachment from the noisy world and seclusion into a peaceful environment.
"Zen can hardly be disseminated through industrialization," he says.
However, the determined abbot is firm in extending the cultural map of Shaolin. "The soul of Zen is aimed at liberating the mind," he says, pointing to a pamphlet of Huanxidi that reads "moving the body, saving the heart".