BEIJING – Over the past two decades, religion in China has boomed, and no faith has benefited more than Buddhism. The number of temples has tripled, monks and abbots have become well-known public figures, and China has used the faith to build ties around the world, sending out nuns and monks on goodwill missions.
The person most closely associated with this revival is the Venerable Xuecheng, a charismatic monk who was fast-tracked for success. He became abbot of his first temple at 23 and head of the Communist Party-run Buddhist Association of China at 49.
His use of social media and emphasis on compassion attracted the sort of bright, white-collar professionals who once spurned traditional Chinese religions. Many rank him as the most important Chinese Buddhist reformer in a century.
But over the summer, all of these worldly successes vanished. Accused of lewdness toward nuns and financial misconduct, Xuecheng, 52, has been stripped of his titles in recent weeks and banished to a small temple in his home province of Fujian. Government investigators now occupying the cleric's main temple in Beijing have purged his cadre of loyal monks and are scouring his books for financial wrongdoing.
That makes Xuecheng the most important national leader to be felled in China's small but tenacious #MeToo movement, a rare case of a politically connected figure here falling to charges of sexual misconduct.
It has also prompted widespread discussion among Buddhists about whether their faith's rapid growth has come at too steep a cost.
Many worry that Xuecheng's model of a supercharged Buddhism that embraces social trends lacks the very spirituality that drew people to the faith in the first place.
"It's impossible not to feel pained and sorrowful" at recent developments, two monks wrote in a 95-page report detailing accusations of sexual and financial misdeeds against Xuecheng. They asked the government to act quickly, or "we dare not imagine where Xuecheng will lead this group of Buddhists!"
As a delegate to the annual session of a Communist Party advisory body in 2012, Xuecheng gave an interview with the New York Times in which he questioned the ability of government-run cultural centers known as the Confucius Institutes to promote Chinese culture and China's image to foreigners.
"The Confucius Institute only teaches Chinese language, which I think is far from being enough," he said. "The influence of Confucius Institutes is limited."
Instead, he said that China needed to promote Buddhism. Around this time, his Longquan Temple began opening branches and cultural centers in Los Angeles, Botswana, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and Tanzania.
It was this program of sending clergy abroad that led to Xuecheng's downfall. Most of those sent overseas were nuns. Like Xuecheng, they had taken a vow of chastity. But unlike other clergy members, who are banned by monastic rules from using cellphones, these nuns were given phones so they could communicate when overseas.
Xuecheng began sending them explicit messages, according to transcripts reprinted in the 95-page report, such as asking one if she would be willing to be caressed and have intercourse. When she said no, he said she had to "break through" this kind of thinking. He started a conversation with another nun, asking her, "Who do you belong to?" Her answer: "The Master," meaning Xuecheng, an exchange that made clear the power relationship between the two.
In late 2017, the nuns contacted two senior monks, who took up their cause. In their report, the monks also assert that donations to the temple were siphoned into Xuecheng's personal bank account.
In February, the monks forwarded their report to the government, and in August someone posted it on social media. Later that month, Xuecheng was stripped of his main titles and officials confirmed he had sent the messages.
Li Tingting, a prominent Chinese feminist activist now living in London, said the charges represent the spread of the Chinese #MeToo movement beyond relatively soft targets, such as figures in academia, the news media and nongovernmental organizations, who in China generally have little political clout.
But many of Xuecheng's followers think he has been given a raw deal and hope he will be back.
"Xuecheng did a lot of good things; he had great virtues," said one, a 25-year-old who runs an inn for pilgrims near Longquan Temple and asked for anonymity. "You can't deny him totally, even if he did it."