The first foray into an unknown field of research is a challenge. Much of the time is spent searching out false leads and running into dead-ends. Up one hill only to notice several hills that follow in the distance. Promising lands up close are disappointing and barren. You are running half blind-folded and grasping at whatever possible trail you pick up. This was the feeling gathered from Bill Porter’s “Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits”. Anxious to find his quarry of modern mountain hermits in China; Porter’s book reads like a survey report pitched together with scraps of info from field notes and recorded conversations.
Is this sounding negative? It shouldn’t since this raw, indigestible writing agreed with me for a topic that tends towards idealization in the Western Buddhist community. “Oh! If only I could find silence and peace I could practice so much easier.” “If only I lived on some mountain, some river-side, some beach, some fucking other place.” If only I read more sutras, started younger, had the correct type of cushion, the right teacher …
In this book Chinese hermits, enigmatic as they may be, largely existed solely from the donations and support of larger monasteries or families. What was disappointing in this book was the lack of detail really spent on the lives and interviews but what information was gleamed from the wisdom of the hermits was a stark reminder that practice was practice. Taoist, Zen and Pure Land were simply labels that, when practice became organic and fluid, began to blur and blend into each other.
Q: Is Pure Land practice more appropriate for the present age?
Hsu-tung: All practices are appropriate. There’s no right or wrong dharma. It’s a matter of aptitude, your connection from past lives. Once people start practicing, they think other kinds of practice are wrong. But all practices are right. It depends on the individual as to which is appropriate. And all practices are related. They involve each other. They lead to the same end….The goal is the same. Practice is like candy. People like different kinds. But its just candy. The Dharma is empty.
Q: What sort of practice do you follow? Do you chant the name of the Buddha or meditate?
Chi-ch’eng: I just pass the time.
Te-ch’eng: I teach all sorts of odds and ends. You name it. Whatever seems to fit. A little of this, a little of that. This is what practice is all about. You can’t practice just one kind of dharma. That’s a mistake. The Dharma isn’t one-sided. You have to practice Zen. If you don’t you’ll never break through delusions. And you’ve got to practice the precepts. If you don’t, your life will be a mess. You’ve got to practice Pure Land. If you don’t, you’ll never get any help from the Buddha. You have to practice all dharmas….Its a system. All practices are related.
The wisdom of hermits isn’t austere. It is practical and rooted deeply in practice. A practice that is embedded in the Dharma but expressed in the daily working of a hard, cold and sometimes lonely life. In that way the practice of the hermits is not so far from our own practice at times. Maybe we need a tang of loneliness to view ourselves in meditation or the bite of wind to help us gasp the name of the Buddha.
Or maybe we just pass the time.
While unrelated to the book ~ Amoungst White Clouds is a documentary on contemporary Chinese Hermits…