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Monks fight to keep UNESCO out

(Global Times)

08:18, April 17, 2013

Getting up at 4 am. Morning prayer. Breakfast. Studying Buddhist classics. More prayer. Master Kuanshu's daily routine is an example of that practiced in temples for millennia.

In the past few days, however, Kuanshu and other monks have diversified their habits a bit to handle interviews from the press and negotiate with the local government. This is because the temple is about to be targeted as part a government demolishment plan.

Xingjiao Temple, a renowned Buddhist site, tops a hill in the Chang'an district of Xi'an, the capital of numerous dynasties and now the capital city of Shaanxi Province.

The temple was originally built during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Its pagoda contains the remains of Xuanzang, a famous Tang Dynasty monk and translator, whose 17-year journey to bring Buddhist scriptures from India to China became immortalized as part of The Journey to the West tales.

According to the government's plan, some newer buildings which were added in the 1990s that don't fit the 1,300-year-old temple's architectural style, including the dining hall and dormitories, are to be demolished by June 30.

The move is part of preparations to apply for UNESCO World Heritage status for several sites in Shaanxi Province that formed part of the Silk Road, an ancient trade route running from China to the Middle East.

To demolish or not to demolish

For the past decade, Kuanshu, the temple spokesman, has lived in the buildings that are to be knocked down, and never imagined he would one day be asked to vacate the premises.

To demolish these buildings means to expel the monks from the temple, Kuanshu told the Global Times.

"If they demolish the buildings, we won't have anywhere to live so we have to move out. If a temple doesn't have any monks living there, it becomes a park rather than a temple," he added.

However, the monks worry that they will not be able to return even if the UNESCO application fails as the government may just turn the temple into a tourist site.

The local government has stated that it is planning to build a new block of apartment buildings where the monks can live, at the foot of the hill just 300 meters away from the temple.

"That is a ridiculous plan. How can monks not live in the temple and commute there daily like office workers?" one of the temple residents, named Kou, told the Global Times.

Yue Luping, a teacher from the Xi'an Academy of Fine Arts, who has launched an online campaign to boycott the commercialization of religious relics, told the Global Times that evicting the monks was the first step toward the temple losing its religious function and turning the monks into mere performers for tourists.

Kuanshu pointed out that all the buildings were built from donations received from visitors, and that these successes had been a result of the influence of Xuanzang and Buddhism as a whole.

"If we agreed to demolish the buildings, it would also mean letting our followers down," said Kuanshu.

The Buddhist Association of China made a statement on Thursday, requiring that the demolition plan be stopped and the will of the monks be respected.

On the same day, the country's religious affairs administration urged religious authorities in Xi'an to investigate the case and consult local Buddhists before acting.

Liu Zheng, a member of the Chinese Association for Cultural Relics, told the Global Times that most of the buildings earmarked for destruction were built by the temple without being reported to the State Administration of Culture Heritage.

Since the temple is on the State Relics Protection List, no new buildings can be built within the temple area and any repairs made to relics should be reported to the administration.

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