Celebrity monk caught up in growing list of scandals

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 August, 2010, 12:00am

One thing celebrity Taoist monk Li Yi never seems to be short of is publicity.

Renowned for running expensive longevity and health courses, the Chongqing -based priest claims he has cultivated a huge following including Jack Ma Yun, president of Alibaba.com, and pop star Faye Wong.

Now he's the talk of the nation again after being accused of falsifying credentials, a publicity scam, business irregularities and recent sexual misconduct.

Taoism - a religion native to China, whose doctrine generally focuses on nature, the harmony between humanity and the universe, health, and longevity - was dismissed as a form of superstition when the Communist Party took over, particularly during the tumultuous Cultural Revolution.

Deeply rooted in Chinese culture, Taoism has been on the revival trail as the rich and famous have turned to its teachings and practices seeking inner peace and advice on health and longevity.

Ma was reported to have spent eight days in 2008 in reclusive prayer at Chongqing's Jinyun Mountain, where Li is the chief priest.

Wong and her husband revisited the Taoist monastery at Jinyun Mountain in April 2008, spending days and nights in prayer and following a strict diet. Wong had reportedly gone there while she was expecting her second daughter in 2005.

Mainland media began to take an interest in Li, and a book about his Taoist teachings last year by a China Central Television producer further drove up his popularity by portraying him as a cult figure.

But he has been under intense media scrutiny recently after being accused of lying about his credentials, exaggerating the benefits of Taoist practices and profiteering from his expensive Taoism courses.

Although he was also accused of raping female university students, police have dismissed those allegations as untrue.

According to jysdj.com, the official website for the monastery, the monk formerly known as Li Jun was said to have started Taoist studies at the age of three, but in response to a media inquiry, the Beibei district Religious Affairs Department in Chongqing confirmed that Li had not become a Taoist monk until 2000.

Like several frauds that have been jailed or fallen from grace over unscientific claims for healthy living, Li was also discredited for claiming that people could withstand electric shocks using Taoist practices.

Li Bochun, director of the Chinese Cultural Renaissance Research Institute, said Li had breached Taoist teachings in many respects.

For one thing, he said, Li's electric shock experiment was an infamous con man's trick in the 1990s.

'But it's not a problem inherent with Taoism, as practitioners in other religions also tend to glorify their teachings or practices to take advantage of people's blind faith,' Li Bochun said.

'So this Li Yi controversy serves as another wake-up call to the media and the general public to be extra cautious over belief-related claims.'