Zen and the art of commercial marketing

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 July, 2007, 12:00am

Some things are sacred. But that often seems open to question in the face of the global onslaught of commercialism, such is its appetite for almost anything that is marketable, or lends cachet to marketing. Show business and sporting icons have long profited from a lucrative sideline in endorsing products with their images and names.

It no longer arouses much comment when even venerable social institutions give in to the temptation to exploit their good names and reputations for profit.

The Buddhist monks of the Shaolin monastery in Henan province have raised more than a few eyebrows, however, with an audacious plan to host an international film festival next year. As we report today, the aim is to capitalise on the fame the monastery has earned through association with many kung fu movies, notably Stephen Chow Sing-chi's box-office hit Shaolin Soccer.

Shaolin Abbot Shi Yongxin is quoted as saying a film festival could make the ancient temple a truly international venue for culture exchange. Put this way it sounds a positive initiative.

The Shaolin monastery, however, is one of the holiest Buddhist temples in mainland China. Founded in 495 AD, it is the cradle of Chinese Zen Buddhism and the Shaolin martial arts.

In modern times, thanks to the god of commercialism, its reputation as a teaching centre of Buddhism has been overtaken by its fame as a martial arts school.

While Abbot Shi envisages cashing in on that, predictable questions have been raised over whether the monastery is becoming too commercialised. He plans to soften its traditional austerity with a range of other attractions, including a 2 million yuan statue of Sanskrit Avalokitesvara made with gold, jade and rare woods.

A film festival sounds like a mocking departure from the original Zen teachings of Shaolin. A typical comment in internet chat rooms questions whether people now associate it with a sacred Buddhist place, characterised by simplicity and simple needs.

The critics have a point. Surely some things are still sacred.


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