Road to Heaven Encounters with Chinese Hermits
Berkeley, California: Counterpoint, ©1993
By Steven J. Rendina
Mr. Porter presents a fascinating account of his journey to China in the 1980's to seek out Taoist and Buddhist hermits living in the remote mountains. He traveled for part of that time with a friend, Steven Johnson, who documented the trip with photographs. Mr. Porter's book is dedicated "for those who walk the path of solitude". His is a singular experience at a unique historical time and it is both quite sad - depicting what has been lost in China due to post-revolutionary political upheavals and it is also quite surprising - those men and women who have continued to seek a hermit life apart from the usual cares of the world appear ordinary and their insights are not presented as profoundly earth shaking but rather humble and simple. The profundity is in their simplicity which genuinely embodies the mystery of the Tao. I must admit that although the humility and simplicity of their lives is attractive, the mundane austerity and privation is not. There is something to be said for creature comforts – especially as one gets older! As an experience that can shape one's spirit and form a foundation for deep meaning, I believe that a hermit's path can teach one much and be of great usefulness in self-development. But I also see that too great a retreat from the world may not be the best possible long-term use of one's time. This critique may seem a bit harsh, what I mean is that if one spends all their time and effort gaining insight but remains aloof – apart – from the larger world, then those insights do not benefit anyone but one’s self. My sense is that to remain apart for a time, then return to serve with new wisdom about the workings of nature would be of great benefit to the society. Indeed, many of the hermits did do this historically and also became poets and other sources of great cultural influence. It is a modern testament – like so much else in nature – that the Taoist hermits have become an endangered species. Like other endangered species, their range has been continuously restricted and they have had to retreat further and further into the remotest mountain retreats. The arrogance of the communist takeover and particularly of the Cultural Revolution which had ended less than 10 years before Mr. Porter’s trip are evident in the following conversation from his book. Here is part of an interview with the elderly hermit, Master Hsieh:
“Q: In the last twenty or thirty years, the political situation in China has been difficult. What effect has this had on Taoism?
Hsieh: I’d rather not talk about it.
Q: Were Taoist monks and nuns able to continue their practice
here in Huashan?
Hsieh: Please, I’d rather not talk about this.
Q: When you were living on the mountain, you must have needed certain things from down below. How did you get them?
Hsieh: We had to carry everything on our
backs. I made quite a few trips
when I was younger. Nowadays,
visitors sometimes give monks money, and the monks pay others to carry things
up so they can concentrate on their practice.
Q: Has there been much change in the number of Taoists living here?
Hsieh: When I first came here, there were forty or fifty old masters on the mountain, more than two hundred monks and nuns, and too many novices to count. Now, only a few of us are left.
Q: What happened to them all?
Hsieh: Some died. Most left. Most
returned to their families.
Q: What about the temples?
Hsieh: They’re for tourists. Everything has changed. The tourist officials are in charge now.”
This conversation encapsulates the story of loss both in real terms of people but also in terms of the loss of a culture and tradition.
When I was twenty years old I built a raft out of oil barrels and scrap lumber and set sail down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers in search of myself. I wrote a book about that journey many years later. When I was researching my book, I had the occasion to go to Trimble County Kentucky to look for an elderly couple I had encountered on my journey, Harlan and Anna Hubbard. They were no longer alive but their biographer, the outspoken environmentalist and writer, Wendell Berry agreed to see me and talk about the Hubbard’s. Each of us had encountered them in a serendipitous fashion, drifting along the Ohio River. The Hubbard’s were well known in those days, the late 1960’s and early 70’s when so many young people were seeking new ways of thinking, living, and being. They were modern Thoreau’s – and had lived “off the grid” for more than forty years in a home built from stones from the creek running alongside their property into the Ohio River. Harlan was a prolific artist whose works decorate many libraries, churches, banks, and schools today. As a couple they were engaging and full of life, playing music together for their evening entertainment. In the 1980’s the electric power company decided to build a nuclear plant on the Ohio River almost directly across from their home. Wendell Berry was quite active in opposing the construction of this project. During my interview, I became curious as to how Harlan and Anna Hubbard responded to the protests. Did they get involved? Did they write letters to the editor? Did they help? The answer was not what I expected, but very true to the life that the Hubbard’s had chosen to live. According to Mr. Berry, Harlan had said “If you don’t want the nuclear power plant, don’t use the electricity”. His way of life was his protest, it was his statement and it was thoroughly consistent with who he was. Hubbard is akin to an American Taoist hermit and fellow traveler on the path of nature.
Mr. Porter is also a scholar and a well-known interpreter of ancient Chinese Buddhist and Taoist literature under the nom de plume Red Pine. I was inspired by this book and his experiences to some of his translations including The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain, The Clouds Should Know Me By Now, and his translation of the Lao-Tzu’s TaoTeChing. (More on these books for later reports). I made an attempt to visit him while in Washington State last summer but unfortunately he was not at home. It is my understanding that he has led trips to China for many years – that would be a great opportunity for learning!
Another example from the book that I wish to discuss is an excerpt from an interview with a blind Taoist named Master Yang. Lao Yang had collected many books on Taoism only to have them confiscated by the Red Guards and burned. Later he collected more but gave them away when he went blind. When asked what books on Taoism did he like the most, part of his reply follows:
“But the most important, the most precious of all Taoist books is the Jade Emperor’s Hsinyiching, which is the most essential part of the Huangching. We use it in our morning and evening services. It’s the teaching transmitted by the Jade Emperor. It’s not about external things. It explains how we’re all miniature universes, how we all have the sun, the moon, the stars, and space inside us. It’s about how we use our ch’i to nourish and protect our mortal body and how to concentrate our ch’i to create an immortal body. If our ch’i only comes from the outside, we’re easily exhausted. It teaches us how to cultivate our inner ch’i. Cultivating the Tao isn’t easy. Some people cultivate all their lives without success. The key is to concentrate your ch’i. Once you concentrate your ch’i, your wisdom will arise naturally, as easily as a flame rises and the rain falls.
I see a Chinese doctor, he is a D.O. and an acupuncturist who trained in Taiwan and has lived in the US for many years. He recently came to a change in his manners – a notable shift in compassion and caring for his patients. He attributes it to a new way of life he has embraced – ascetic Buddhism and meditation. Dr. Chen meditates on transformative values such as compassion, kindness, and caring and then when filled with these qualities through his daily meditation he has manifested them in his medical service. I had a conversation with him about qigong and Taoism and he laughed and dismissed the practices. “Breathing right, exercising properly, attuning with nature are only for yourself. Loving others is the way to go.”
So the development within me will continue, self-cultivation, nature and the Tao alongside the path of service to others. The yin – to breathe and reflect, to separate from the world. The yang – to engage with others in dynamic service and compassionate care.
 Porter, Bill, Road to Heaven, (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2003): 67
 Porter, 2003: 216