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Xinyi's life at Fayuan Temple, a Tang Dynasty (618-907) Buddhist hub for worship nestled in Xicheng district, begins at 5:30 am daily when most of Beijing still sleeps. Briskly walking a path lined by fragrant clove and gingko trees, Xinyi follows in the footsteps of his predecessors as he heads to the main hall of Beijing's oldest temple for morning scripture chanting.
Apart from his smoothly shaved scalp and intricate gold robe, Xinyi - his Dharma name acquired when he was ordained a monk - resembles most other 22-year-olds. He has a smartphone, a Weibo account and a fondness for sports. But the young monk is also a sophomore at the Buddhist Academy of China (BAC), which since 1956 has been based at Fayuan Temple.
Built in 645, Fayuan Temple is more than just the BAC headquarters. It's a temple where Beijing's Buddhist devotees worship in peace and a historic attraction for tourists lured to cultural and religious relics displayed in a museum.
On a giant plaque outside the main hall are four Chinese characters: fa hai zhen yuan, literally authentic origin of Buddhist doctrines, symbolizing the academy's authority over Buddhist theology in China.
Life on a temple campus
In stark contrast to most other university students in China, BAC students are quiet, introverted and unworldly. Almost all share an expression of serenity that can seem eerie in a city as chaotic as Beijing.
Life at the academy is simple and austere. All the professors and students live and study inside the temple, and everybody is dressed in their school uniform - gray, gold or brown robes. Students' expenses are covered by the academy, and each monk's monthly allowance is 100 yuan ($16.05).
Students have strict schedules. Their religious activities include an hour of chanting Buddhist scriptures from 6 am, followed by an hour-long meditation session in the afternoon starting at 4 pm.
Additionally, three 90-minute classes are held daily for subjects including sutra studies, history, politics, traditional arts and foreign languages, such as English, Japanese, Korean and Buddhism's scholarly language of Sanskrit.
To outsiders, it's easy to imagine the student monks leading lonely lives at odds with those of their peers. But Xinyi insists his journey is one of enlightenment.
Once one derives wisdom from the scriptures, one will know how to arrange his life. Learning here is bliss, not burden, said the native of Central China's Henan Province.
Much like all prestigious Chinese universities, enrolling at the BAC is difficult. Due to limited resources, only 45 to 50 new students are admitted every two years - roughly a quarter of the 200 monks aged between 20 and 28 who apply from different temples and academies nationwide. The academy also has a dozen graduate students, and about 30 teachers who are senior monks.
Sutras and smartphones
The academy's academic year is the same as other universities, meaning students have summer and winter vacations.
Xinyi and his fellow novice monks lead a healthy life away from their studies, with many enjoying badminton and Chinese chess on campus. They might not be at the Shaolin Temple - the cradle of kung fu - but some students even indulge in martial arts. Two of Xinyi's favorite hobbies are calligraphy and performing tea ceremonies. A couple of his schoolmates, 23-year-old twin brothers Hongxiang and Hongrui, enjoy mountain climbing during weekends. The brothers also spend their free time studying traditional Chinese medicine and Japanese, and have even tried to get their driver's license.
Despite spending most of their time at the temple, young monks enjoy a reasonably active social life, making friends with Buddhist devotees and handling queries from visitors seeking spiritual enlightenment. They also receive foreign delegations from time to time.
Centuries ago, Chinese monks traveled on foot on international pilgrimages to learn about the outside world. Today, it's easier due to social networking platforms such as QQ, Weibo and Weixin, all of which allow monks to remain connected with the swipe of a thumb.
Some BAC students and professors even share their path of enlightenment to tens of thousands of Weibo followers, although the sight of young, robed monks wearing beaded bracelets as they gaze into their smartphones still turns heads of visitors at Fayuan Temple.
Lijing, a 48-year-old monk, professor and BAC alumnus who has lived at the temple for 22 years, believes religion and education can go hand in hand.
The academy combines the strict religious disciplines of a Buddhist monastery with the modern education system, he said.
However, the reputation of Buddhism in the country has been tainted somewhat in recent years due to scandals. In 2010, photos emerged online of several monks at the China Joy Expo in Shanghai posing with scantily clad women and browsing the latest high-tech gadgets. Asked whether such scenes are concerning, Lijing sternly noted: They are not real monks.
Monks are forbidden to marry or have girlfriends. Even today, the academy has no female students. Some other Chinese Buddhist academies have separate campuses for monks and nuns, but not BAC.
Only by leaving one's home and forgetting about oneself can one strive for the true virtues that carry Buddhism forward, said Lijing, noting that monks can only talk about Buddhism to temple visitors and cannot lecture in public. I hope one day we will be allowed to go out and talk about scripture classics to propagate Buddhism in non-religious places, such as college classrooms.
Finding karma in life
But his idea of studying Buddhism instead of enrolling at a regular school was brushed aside by his parents. Xinyi persevered, however, and became a monk after graduating from high school.
Hongxiang and Hongrui, who were born into a Buddhist family, had their parents' full support when they said they wanted to become monks.
Usually, BAC graduates settle at temples all over the country after graduation. Some pursue further education, with a small minority leaving the monkhood to resume their secular lives.
It's not surprising. Leaving a religion can be just a part of someone's karma as entering it, Lijing noted.
Xinyi said that joining the monkhood for him was part of his karma.
When I was in junior high school, I read a novel in which a master's kung fu skills were greatly improved when he heard chanting of the Diamond Sutra. It sparked my interest and I eventually decided to become a monk, he said.