Sitting outside the Buddhist temple beneath a thousand-year-old tree, monk Shun Xin feels a vibration in his pocket: his new mobile phone let's him know he's got a text message. "It's convenient," beams the 60-year-old monk, looking at the trendy new device with which he discusses Buddhist scriptures with believers and non-believers.
The 1,700-year-old Tanzhe Temple has indeed caught up with the times. Located some 40 kilometers southwest of Beijing, the temple even predates the city of Beijing by 800 years. Erected in 307 AD, during the Western Jin Dynasty (265- 316), the Tanzhe Temple is renowned for its close connections with the royal families of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) Dynasties. Covering an area of 41,600 sq. meters, the temple is built in typical Ming and Qing style architecture and is surrounded by lush bamboo gardens.
Having survived the Culture Revolution (1966-1976), when many temples were destroyed, it reopened to visitors in 1980. Both city and temple are now undergoing modernization. While Beijing is being renewed with glass and concrete buildings, the temple has used modern communication techniques to its advantage. In fact, the monks have even availed of contemporary promotional techniques to publicize the 1,700th birthday of their historic temple.
"The 1,700th anniversary is a good chance to promote the Tanzhe Temple brand," said Hao Xinjian, communication officer, Tanzhe Temple administrative office. Surprisingly, promotions of the religious place include a beauty pageant and a sports event. Xinjian said that the beauty contest, to be held this month, would be open to the volunteers of the 2008 Olympics. The winner would be called 'Faerie Magnolia' - after a trademark flower of the temple. Interestingly, Xinjian did not explain the rather strange combination of a beauty pageant in a Buddhist temple - home to celibate monks.
The sporting event will be a long-distance run from southeast Beijing to the temple, in honor of the upcoming 2008 Beijing Olympics. The number of participants in the run is 1,700 - one for each year of the temple.
The administrative office has been marketing the temple as a tourist destination for several years now. The efforts have resulted in several million footfalls and monetary gains, through the sale of tickets, souvenirs, incense and candles at the temple stores. "The development of the temple depends on tourism," said Hao, who adds that the Tanzhe Temple is more of a tourist spot than a place of worship, as many visitors, especially the young people, are not Buddhists.
Wang Yushan, an army officer, admitted that he visited the temple more for the melodious tolls of its bells and the quiet environment it has to offer. "I think many young people like me don't go there to make a pilgrimage, but to relax," he said. Of course, the rather public celebrations don't seem to have gone down too well with monks like Chang Ren. Opines Ren isolation monks need to rid themselves of desires, as per Buddhist doctrines. "Some female visitors are barely dressed in the summertime, which may lead some monks to think evil thoughts," rues Ren.