Shaolin Monk Suicide Shocks New York Chinese Community
Sing Tao Daily, News Digest, Joe Xia and Crystal Feng, Translation by Eugenia Chien Posted: Dec 01, 2006
NEW YORK – The suicide of a Shaolin temple monk has shocked the Chinese community in New York, who are now questioning the treatment of monks by their temples.
Heng Shan, a 27-year-old Buddhist monk, hung himself in the backyard of a New York residence on Nov. 24. Heng Shan had been ill and fell into depression when he lost his legal status in the United States. The New York Police Department 109th Precinct has ruled Heng Shan’s death as suicide.
Heng Shan immigrated to the United States in 2003 on an H1 work visa sponsored by the New York Shaolin Temple Abbot Guo Lin in Flushing to teach martial arts. But like many monks, Heng Shan received no pay or spending money from the temple, which provided the monks with room and board.
Heng Shan’s death stunned the Buddhist community, some of whom hold Abbot Guo Lin responsible, according to Abbot Heng Lin of the Queens Shaolin Temple. She told the Sing Tao Daily that though Abbot Guo Lin sponsored H1 work visas for monks like Heng Shan, the temple did not continue filing the paperwork required for the monks to legally stay in the United States. Monks like Heng Shan came to the United States legally but became undocumented immigrants when the temples fail to file their paperwork.
The Shaolin monastery is the only Buddhist temple combining martial arts and Buddhism. It is one of the most famous schools of martial arts in the world. Monks in the Shaolin temples traditionally go through strict training and meditation. But as branches of the Shaolin Monastery developed throughout the world, people attempted to make profit from the school. The Shaolin temple has become controversial as some practitioners criticize that Buddhist discipline has been lost and others fight for the claim of being the authentic Shaolin monastery.
A woman who had donated money to the Flushing Shaolin Temple said that she had offered to help Heng Shan apply for Medicaid, which would be available even to undocumented immigrants. But Abbot Guo Lin stopped her because he felt it might attract too much trouble. She said that Abbot Guo Lin never paid the monks, who lived in poverty. With no money, family, or legal documentation, the monks could not survive outside the temples. She said that nearby residents would sometimes give the monks money so that they can send money home at the end of the year. She asked the Sing Tao Daily to withhold her name.
In response to the community’s criticism, Abbot Guo Lin said that Heng Shan was important to the temple and that the temple had been nurturing his potential. He said that he wouldn’t mistreat one of his favorite pupils and that the public should not believe rumors. At a press conference on Nov. 28, Abbot Guo Lin said that the temple does not owe Heng Shan back pay. He said that the temple had offered to mail money to Heng Shan’s parents but Heng Shan refused the offer.
According to the Sing Tao Daily, the New York Shaolin temple is registered as a non-profit organization. As a non-profit organization, the temple is bound by U.S. labor laws when it hired martial monks to teach martial arts at its temples. Immigration lawyer Zhang Zhong-yuan told the Sing Tao Daily that as an employer, the temple must honor its agreement with the monks. But Abbot Guo Lin said that monks typically are not paid by their temples, but that the Shaolin temple provided food, shelter, and medical expenses.
Zhang said that food and shelter can account for only a part of the monks’ pay. He said that payment dispute between employers and employees is prevalent in the Chinese community. If the government pursues the situation, Zhang said, there is a high possibility that employers will be sued.
A spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in New York said that the embassy has contacted Heng Shan’s parents in Anhui province but they have not made plans to come to the United States for funeral arrangements. New York Citycouncilman John Liu said that his office has received many letters about the monk’s death, but it is still too early to say whether anyone was at fault or whether a crime has been committed.
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