ROAD TO HEAVEN: Encounters with Chinese Hermits

Bill Porter
Mercury House: San Francisco, 1993.
256 pp., $14.00 (paperback).

Jeffrey Zaleski

RINGING PHONES. Crying babies. Noisy neighbors. Car alarms. It’s the rare lay practitioner who hasn’t been yanked off the sitting cushion or out of some carefully nurtured state of attention by this intrusion or that, and it’s the rarer one still who hasn’t wondered whether the path to freedom might be more easily trod alone, as a hermit.

The hermit’s way is, of course, an ancient one stretching back thousands of years in traditions both East and West. As Bill Porter relates in his congenial new book, Road to Heaven, legend has it that five millennia ago two hermits taught China’s first emperor, Huang-ti, how to conquer his enemies and prolong his life. But do to day’s hermits have lessons to offer us moderns who try to keep our balance not on a mountaintop but amid the snarl of a wired-up world?

Porter seems to think so. A Zen student who has translated, under the name of Red Pine, The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain and The Mountain Poems of Stonehouse, he himself, in the mid-seventies, logged time at a hermitage in the Chinese village of Bamboo Lake. The Buddhist monks and officials Porter first encountered when he returned to China in 1989 to search for hermits didn’t think much of Porter’s appointed task, howeverfor the simple reason that these men embraced the popular belief that China’s hermits had been swept away on the bloodtide of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. But Porter pressed on and soon enough was tramping through central China’s picturesque Chungnan Mountains, talking to approximately two dozen religious recluses. It’s a welcome irony that the first hermit Porter spoke with, an eighty-five-year-old monk who’d been living in a cave for fifty years, asked him “who this Chairman Mao” was, anyway.

The hermits Porter located were mainly Taoist, though a good number were Buddhist: mostly elderly, they were as often female as male. Their words, presented in a question-and-answer format scattered about the text, are invariably simple and sound, reservoirs of cool, clear common sense:

Q: Is it very windy here?

Chi-ch’ eng: Yes, especially in winter. Sometimes the wind blows off the roof tiles. The tiles used to be made of iron.

Q: I imagine it’s quiet here as well.

Chi-ch’ eng: If people are quiet, they can be quiet anywhere. If people aren’t quiet, they won’t be quiet here. Everything depends on you. Life is transient, like a flash of lightening or a dream. Eighty years pass like a cloud. We’re born, and then we die.

Chi-ch’eng, like many Chungnan hermits, didn’t live totally alone; this Buddhist monk shared a small monastery with three other monks. The isolation of the genuine hermit can be an appallingly difficult discipline, and not all who take it up are suited to its rigors. One young and lonely nun, Ch’uan-fu, came “close to tears” while speaking to the author: “You can’t live in the mountains if you’re still attached, if you haven’t seen through the red dust,” she said. “Life in the mountains is hard. . .” Sadness veils Ch’uan-fu’s features in the portrait of her standing in front of her hutone of thirty-three evocative blackand-white photographs taken by Steven R. Johnson, Porter’s sometime traveling companion.

For all her suffering, and perhaps because of it, Ch’uan Fu is able to sum up the message of nearly every other hermit Porter met:

“Once you’ve seen through the illusions of this world, hardships aren’t important. The only thing that matters is practice. If you don’t practice, you’ll never get free of the dust of delusion.”

Practice is what drove most of these men and women to flee to the mountain, and it is what concerns them today: their discussions with Porter about the relative merits of various schools of Buddhist practice, particularly Pure Land and Zen, are especially provocative.

Unfortunately, these give-andtakes are invariably too brief, and are separated by large swaths of travelogue and historical reference. Much of the in-depth background Porter provides on Taoism, Buddhism, and their interactions; on their relations to Confucianism; on the varied traditions’ respective historical pantheons of hermits; and on the intricacies of his physical trek up and around peaks may appeal more to the scholar of religion and the student of spiritual geography than to the general reader.

Porter, moreover, seems too enamored of his hermits to challenge them with the kind of difficult question that can elicit unusually penetrative responses. One wishes that he’d asked them whether, by entering a hermitage, they hadn’t lost as well as gained-for instance, the friction as well as the fellowship occasioned by others and seemingly so essential to self-knowledge.

Still, Porter and his hermits offer a refreshing reminder of a way that, though necessarily hidden, resonates in every tradition, and of the hermitage that tradition tells us it may be worthwhile for each of us to construct inside ourselves.

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