On November 24, a gloomy and chilly day after America's Thanksgiving celebration, monk Shi Hengshan from the Flushing Shaolin Temple was found hanged by a couple as they put out the rubbish in New York's Chinatown. While the 27-year-old left no note, authorities ruled that he had taken his own life. The suicide has seen rumours, innuendo and allegations about his death circulate on websites and in Chinese-language newspapers, with Shi Hengshan's friends and associates blaming Shi Guolin, the founding abbot of the Shaolin Temple in Flushing, New York for the tragedy. They claim Shi Guolin, who had helped him come to the US from the mainland three years ago to work as a kung fu master in the temple, had kept his passport and hadn't been paying him before firing him shortly before his death. In response, Shi Guolin held a tearful news conference saying he was saddened and confused by the suicide - forbidden in Buddhist teachings - and denied the allegations. Shi Guolin admitted the monks did not get paid but said they received free board, food and medical expenses. While the reasons behind Shi Hengshan's death remain murky, the tragedy shows the personal and spiritual turmoil faced by the Shaolin monks when they leave the mainland to chase the American dream. And many are choosing marriage, money and an easier way of life over spirituality. Growing up in the 1,500-year-old Song Mount Shaolin Temple in Henan province , the world's spiritual heartland of Chinese kung fu and Chan Buddhism, involves tough training as well as strict adherence to Buddhist principles. There is no meat, alcohol or women, and often severe punishment for rule breaches. For most Americans, the word Shaolin first entered the vocabulary in the 1970s through popular TV series Kung Fu, in which David Carradine played a half-Chinese, half-American fighting monk. His character grew up in the Song Mount Shaolin Temple before he escaped to the US after he confronted the emperor. In reality, no Shaolin fighting monks settled in the US until 1992, when two absconded from a touring team in San Francisco. Shi Guolin was one, and he set up the Flushing Shaolin Temple, while the other, Shi Yanming, founded the USA Shaolin Temple in Manhattan. The number of fighting monks in the US has grown ever since. The influx of Shaolin monks has run parallel to the renaissance of Chinese kung fu in the US. Fighting experts such as Jackie Chan and Jet Li Lianjie have replaced Bruce Lee as Hollywood stars, movies such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon have drawn critical acclaim and a recent survey by the Sporting Goods Manufacturing Association found there were 6.9 million Americans practising kung fu in 2004, a five-fold increase on 2001. This interest has proved to be a boon for kung fu masters, especially those who can claim an association with Shaolin. 'When I first toured the US with delegations, I had heard from other Shaolin disciples who had opened Shaolin temples here that the market for kung fu was very large, but it is even larger than I thought,' said Shi Xingwei, a fighting monk who runs Shaolin Kung Fu Chan in Las Vegas. The school only opened in October 2005 and already has more than 100 students. Fighting monk Shi Xinghao, 33, is another who stayed in the US after coming with a touring delegation in 1998 and has since opened the Shaolin Kung Fu Academy in Houston. Shi Xinghao remembers the strict training he received from the masters at the Song Mount Shaolin and the high expectations of his parents. 'It was common for the masters to beat disciples to push us to work harder,' said Shi Xinghao, who also recalls his father didn't allow him to go back home during Lunar New Year in the first year he was sent to the temple. 'I was only 13, but my dad wanted me to practise more to catch up with my peers who got there earlier.' When Shi Xinghao used these tough training methods at his Houston school he found the students stopped coming. 'My friend told me if I beat students, they could even sue me. That scared the hell out of me,' said Shi Xinghao, who has become much more lenient. He now lives a more American life. 'There is almost no way to strictly follow the Buddhist disciplines in the modern world,' said Shi Xinghao, who considers himself to be half-monk, half-secular and prepared to marry if he finds the right woman. Zhang Lipeng, who became a Shaolin disciple when he was five and had been following the disciplines until he moved to Europe in 1996 when he was 22, now believes that he was never a true monk. 'I am not a monk and I have never been one,' he said. Mr Zhang said a real Shaolin monk had to know both kung fu and Buddhist scripts, but he only learned kung fu. 'I was at most a bodyguard for the Shaolin temple,' he said. Mr Zhang has since abandoned his monk name, Shi Xingpeng, married an American woman, and moved to the US. Shi is the universal surname for devout Buddhists. He has a son, Mathew, six, whom he does not force to learn kung fu, and he is reducing the size of his Shaolin Kung Fu and Tai-chi Academy in New Jersey and focusing on producing a movie. 'If you are in the US, you have to accept the American culture. It can be hard, but coming here is your own choice,' Mr Zhang said. Founder of the USA Shaolin Temple in New York, Shi Yanming, has also married and has no taboos about what he eats. But he still insisted he is not only a monk, but a higher level monk than most in the Shaolin system. 'If you have Buddha in your heart, the forms are not that important. This is the essence of Chan,' said Shi Yanming, whose six-year-old son Jinlong and four-year-old daughter Jianhong also bear the last name 'Shi'. 'Buddha gives all I have now, so my children also belong to Buddha.' But making personal decisions is perhaps easier than the ethical and spiritual questions that arise from running a business. Monks face the tricky question of how far they should go as businessmen. Shi Hengshan's death and the allegations he was exploited have been a hot topic on russbo.com, a US-based online Shaolin culture forum. One contributor using the name 'Premier' said: 'I am totally speechless about Guolin. When I joined his temple, the first thing he told me is did I pay the tuition money. I dunno, but for some reason that bothered me.' Another called 'Iron Cross' was less specific. 'All these 'monks' are total bulls*** artists. They create this impossible setups and stories [sic] no one can even really verify here and charge way too much money for basic martial arts training,' he said. The Flushing Shaolin Temple charges US$300 for a three-month membership, similar to the fees for mainstream gyms in New York, but many in the US believe the monks should not profit from the temples. 'There's this American perception, I think it's because of the David Carradine Kung Fu TV show, that monks should not make money and they should just roam around the world,' said Gene Ching, the associate publisher of San Francisco's Kung Fu magazine. 'But martial arts is a business, and every school has to pay their rent.' However, Richard Russell, a doctor in Las Vegas and a Shaolin expert who founded russbo.com, said monks who focus on going commercial often find something important missing. Dr Russell has visited the Song Mount Shaolin Temple five times for training since 1995 and has got to know many of the monks. In 2002, he helped two get working visas to the US to teach in Las Vegas for a while before returning to be replaced by others. 'The monks grow up in a society which is very rigorous. When you bring them to America, they are astonished by the quality of life, they realise they have freedoms that they never really experienced before, and their desire for material needs and to make money is particularly strong,' said Dr Russell. 'It's quite possible that they don't understand that to exercise those freedoms there comes a certain amount of responsibility, which we learned when we were growing up in this society, and that they haven't had the opportunity to learn.' But Shi Yanming claims he was not attracted to the US by the material life, even though he now works out of a renovated 5,000 sq ft temple in the desirable SoHo area of Manhattan. 'When I was in China, I was famous enough and it was easy for me to live affluently,' he said. 'But when I decided to move here, a backpack was all I had.' When he first landed in New York's Chinatown, he rented a small abandoned garment factory which was a kung fu school by day and his bedroom at night. There was no heating or hot water, he recalled. Shi Yanming is now applying for visas for three students from a Shaolin kung fu school on the mainland to help him expand with another temple on the west coast. But he said he was not worried about the newcomers having problems fitting in and believes the Chan philosophy will help them cope with the new environment. He cited a well-known story about Da Mo, the Indian monk who brought the sect to China 1,500 years ago and founded Shaolin. 'Da Mo once dug four wells which he filled with water tasting bitter, spicy, sour and sweet, and asked his disciples to take them one by one,' said Shi Yanming. 'Life is just like that, if you keep going, it will turn from bitter to sweet.'