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A visitor asks a temple staff to give her chance to take picture with robot Xian'er which is placed in the main building of Longquan Buddhist temple for photograph, on the outskirts of Beijing, April 20, 2016.
Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon
Longquan Temple was previously better known for developing its own robot.
SPEAKING UP

#MeToo has hit one of China’s biggest Buddhist monasteries

By Echo Huang

China’s #MeToo movement keeps rolling on, with a famous Buddhist institution now accused of sexual harassment.

Yesterday (Aug. 1), a letter accusing the abbot of Beijing’s Longquan Temple, one of the most famous Buddhist monasteries in the country, of sexual assault began circulating on Chinese social media. Xianjia and Xianqi, two supervisory chancellors of the temple, detailed in the 95-page letter (link in Chinese) how Shi Xuecheng, the abbot, had been sending sexually suggestive messages to six female monks.

The revelations are the latest in a week of frenetic activity for China’s #MeToo movement, which, after a months-long lull, resurfaced in recent weeks as Chinese women came forward with accusations of sexual harassment against well-known figures in philanthropy, literature, and media.

The letter included messages from the abbot asking the female monks whether he could touch their hands and breasts, and to imagine having sex with him as a way of “following their mentor.” Xuecheng also asked the monks to delete the messages afterwards. One of the female monks came to Xianjia and Xianqi in late June and said she was raped by Xuecheng. The female monk and the chancellors later reported the case to local police.

“A common way that cult organizations control the minds of female believers is to arouse those sexual desires which are supposedly suppressed by morals or teachings, and then to have them imagine having sex with the leader of the cult in order to make the female followers not only religiously, but also emotionally reliant on the leader,” read the letter. ”Xuecheng has borrowed such methods… to build up… his control over female followers.”

The accusations came as a shock to many, not only because celibacy is one of the tenets of Buddhist monasticism, but also because the monastery in question, Longquan Temple, is well-known for accepting monks who are graduates of prestigious universities (the temple is known in particular for its technological prowess). Xuecheng is also president of the government-backed (paywall) Buddhist Association of China and a member of China’s top political advisory body. He has more than 1 million followers (link in Chinese) on the social media platform Weibo, where he gives advice (link in Chinese) to ordinary people seeking help.

Xianjia and Xianqi, graduates of prestigious Tsinghua University, confirmed that they co-authored the letter in order to make the allegations known to religious authorities. They sent the letter to the Buddhist Association of China and other Buddhist leaders on July 15, according to interviews with local media outlet Sixth Tone. Authorities called Xuecheng in for questioning but soon released him, the two authors said. The Sixth Tone report was later taken down, according to the author of the article who later posted screenshots of it on Facebook.

In a statement issued yesterday (link in Chinese), Longquan Temple denied the accusations made in the letter and said the co-authors “fabricated material, distorted facts, spread false reports to defame the great virtues of Buddhism, and misled the public.” Longquan and the Buddhist Association of China didn’t immediately reply to further requests for comment. The abbot didn’t reply to comment requests sent through Weibo.

China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs said it has launched an investigation into the allegations against the abbot, according to a statement (link in Chinese) released late Thursday (Aug. 2).

As in previous instances when sexual harassment allegations against public figures flared up, censors were quick to act. Some observers noted that the original letter was censored on chat app WeChat and on Weibo. Many noticed that Xuecheng turned off comments on his Weibo account.

Update: The article has been updated with a statement from China’s religious affairs authority.