ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And now the story of a man engaged in a rare display of religious dissent in China. Zen Buddhist master Shengguan has angered the government with his political statements and a ceremony that he held to save the souls of those killed in the Tiananmen Square massacre. Shengguan was kicked out of his temple this past August, but he has vowed to continue to speak his mind.
NPR's Anthony Kuhn has a profile.
(Soundbite of chanting)
ANTHONY KUHN: The order to expel Master Shengguan came from the official China Buddhist Association located here in Guanchi(ph) Temple in Beijing's west side. The Association's chairman, Master Ichung, wrote the expulsion order after receiving an anonymous letter. The letter accused Shengguan of illicit relations with female members of his congregation. The Buddhist Association declined to comment on the case.
Master Shengguan denies the charges and says he's being persecuted for his political beliefs. In an interview, he's wearing a long padded robe against the cold of a Beijing winter. He recalls the hot day in August when authorities came to remove him from his post as director of the Juachung(ph) Buddhist temple in southern Jungchi(ph) Province.
Master SHENGGUAN: (Through Translator) Two hundred uniformed police and 100 plain clothes carried me out of the temple. I told them very clearly if you kill me, I'll come back in the next life and continue to push for democracy. If you throw me in jail, I'll just meditate.
KUHN: One Buddhist at Shengguan's temple said police tried to coerce her into confessing to having had improper relations with the monk. She asked that her name not be used because she feared retribution.
Unidentified Woman: (Through Translator) They asked me to write a letter clearly stating that the allegations were true. This went on for more than 10 hours. I said no such illicit relations ever occurred, so why should I write anything? It was just an effort to smear Master Shengguan.
KUHN: She said the real reason the authorities wanted to expel Shengguan was because he stopped crooked monks from embezzling donations to the temple. But Master Shengguan says the most immediate reason for his expulsion was the religious ceremony he held on June 4 of this year. He said it was to save the souls of people killed in Beijing in the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
Master SHENGGUAN: (Through Translator) We believe that the souls of people who die violent, unjust deaths are in great pain. They suffer both in hell and after being reborn, so since becoming a monk, I've always wanted to perform this kind of ceremony.
KUHN: The events of 1989 were very important to Shengguan, but in a previous incarnation, you might say. Back then, his name was Jiao Jixyao(ph). He was a publisher and pro-democracy protest organizer in the city of Shijian(ph). He was jailed for about a year after Tiananmen but was released without charge. He held various jobs, but was driven from them after being harassed by security agents.
In 2002, he took his monastic vows and became Shengguan.
Master SHENGGUAN: (Through Translator) As Jiao Jixyao, participating in pro-democracy activities in the 1980s, my heart was full of fear. But now as Shengguan, I'm much happier. There's no more fear.
KUHN: Chinese history and literature abound with colorful tales of outlaws and rebels who sought refuge in Buddhist temples. One well known figure Lu Ju Shan(ph). He's the unruly monk in "Outlaws of the Marsh," the classic novel immortalized in operas and this television drama -
(Soundbite of fighting)
KUHN: - who enters a monastery after beating a local bully to death. But religion can't stop Lu from boozing and brawling. He leaves the temple and later joins an anti-government rebellion.
Most Zen Buddhist monks stay clear of politics and other worldly matters, but for centuries, Chinese governments have put restrictions on religion to guard against dissident monks like Shengguan. In China's authoritarian system, political dissent requires plenty of moral conviction and spiritual strength. Shengguan says that Buddhists would call this compassion.
Master SHENGGUAN: (Through translator) Compassion means freeing people from suffering and helping them achieve happiness. I believe that for thousands of years, the greatest cause of the Chinese people's suffering has come from our authoritarian political system.
KUHN: Shengguan now stays with friends, as he has no temple to return to. Criminals may be able to hide in a temple, he says. But when it comes to politics, there is no place to hide.
Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.
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