Chinese Hermits

For Christmas I got this beautiful book, Road to Heaven, by Red Pine (Bill Porter). What a marvelous work, so refreshing and illuminating–it’s all about modern day hermits in China and the whole hermit tradition in China which has a very venerable and ancient lineage. While making my way through this book I became aware of several journalistic pieces on Chinese hermits. So I think it would be enjoyable to visit with these folks for a while. Sometime back I referred to this article in the British paper the Daily Mail:

The photos are fascinating. And the unintentionally ironic photos along the right side of the webpage containing the images of various pop icons of our time–what a combo!

Some items to note from this article: the surprising resurgence of the hermit life in China. During the heyday of the so-called Cultural Revolution in the late ‘60s this tradition was almost totally stamped out by the Communists. Now the official line is very different but still very ambiguous. The official attitude is one of tolerance. Actually the government has rebuilt some of the temples and shrines and wants monks there as caretakers. And it pretty much leaves the hermits alone in the mountains as long as they register with the authorities. It seems that all this is to attract tourist money. And to a certain extent they have a more “Chinese” attitude toward their own cultural heritage: preservation and respect. In any case, with the economy booming for the last 20 years, the paradoxical thing is that there has been quite a growth in people withdrawing from all that toward a hermit life.

Another piece on the Chinese hermits appears on this “official” Chinese website for tourists:


The photos are absolutely precious. Not much new information here, but the photos are a good companion to Red Pine’s book because he talks about this very area of hermit resurgence, so you can picture what he is talking about.


Then there is this fascinating account in the Kyoto Journal:

Basically this is an interview with Edward Burger who lived in China for a number of years and made a film about these hermits back in 2005–“Among White Clouds.” Here is an introductory quote by him: The first time I walked into the Zhongnan Mountains I was 23 years old and I had only read Bill Porter’s book [Road to Heaven] and some thousand-year-old poems. I’d stared at the little woodcutters and zither-toting scholars in the landscape paintings at the Cleveland Art Museum. I had all these ideas about hermits. The thing that surprised me when I met Zhongnan hermits for the first time, was that most of them had very little to say about, and had very few thoughts about themselves as ‘hermits.’ I mean, they don’t care that they are ‘hermits’ and don’t do lots of things we think hermits do.”

Precisely! I am very skeptical about people who make a big deal about themselves as monks or hermits or like to wear that “badge” “very loudly.” The modern self-absorption infects religious seekers also! I always wonder about monks who are too wrapped up in their identity as monks.

The rest of this interview is an absolute must read for a real insight into this contemporary phenomenon. One thing that really struck me was how “underground” this urge was during the repression period. People lived as quiet Buddhists/Taoists, even getting married to maintain appearances. Then, when the ban was lifted, they immediately were ordained as monks and went their separate ways.

Now just a few words about Red Pine’s marvelous book. It’s an account of his journeys to China over several years, around 1990, when this phenomenon was just beginning. The book begins with a brief survey of the Chinese hermit tradition and history including its primordial roots in the shaman traditions of prehistoric China. Red Pine is fluent in Chinese, having studied it in school in the U.S. and then in Taiwan. There he spent some time in a Buddhist monastery and as a hermit for a short time. He knows the hermit tradition quite well from the classic texts, but he is eager to see what if any of this tradition is still alive in China. So he enters China in 1989 in search of real hermits. The traditional place for them is the Chungnan Mountains in Central China, and that’s where he goes to.

Here we need to point out one of the problems in reading this book for a Westerner not deeply steeped in Chinese materials: all the names are difficult to keep track of, and the spellings Red Pine uses are no longer used in current literature, but fortunately the differences are not often major…just annoying. Like the Chungnan Mountains are now the Zhuangnan Mountains…and the ancient capital of this area, Sian in Red Pine’s book, is now on all the maps as Xian. So you have to be alert, and good luck keeping track of all the personal names….!

So Red Pine and a friend begin in Beijing and are told by both some officials and some “official monks” that there are no more hermits up there in those mountains. But they still go there, and by persistence and with good luck and with the willingness to venture into some rugged territory, they meet one hermit after another. They all tell him things aren’t what they used to be but they are getting better now that the government has lifted the ban on religious practice and allows monks and hermits. (So this is about 1990 and now there appears to be thousands of hermits up in those mountains and elsewhere–for example, Han-shan’s old stomping grounds were not these mountains but ones close to the southern coast, just about 30 miles from the ocean, and that too has its own hermit history.)

Some of these hermits are recent arrivals or only there for a few years; others have been living there for decades. There is this one famous quote from the book which makes you think of our Desert Fathers: “A Buddhist layman we met on the trail led us to a cave where an eighty-five-year-old monk had been living for the past fifty years. In the course of our conversation, the monk asked me who this Chairman Mao was whom I kept mentioning …. His practice was the name of the Buddha, Amitabha, Buddha of the Infinite. After so many mountains and so many hermits, we were finally feeling at home.”

Interesting that there are also many women hermits, by some estimates almost half the hermits are women! I once quoted one of these women hermits: “I won’t come down from this mountain until I know who I am.” Also interesting is that there is often a blending of Buddhism and Taoism (new spelling would be Daoism), though they also tend to their respective traditions. There is a whole controversy about the relationship of Chinese Buddhism to Taoism, but we won’t get into that here. Interesting also how universal the problems are in teaching monastic life to people today. Here is a Daoist master telling his story: “To find people who truly believe is the biggest problem we have. Taoism teaches us to reduce our desires and to lead quiet lives. People willing to reduce their desires or cultivate tranquility in this modern age are very few. This is the age of desire. Also, people learn much more slowly now. Their minds aren’t as simple. They’re too complicated.”


Here’s a lovely account of Red Pine meeting one of the women masters:

“One of the nuns at Lungwang Temple told us that Yuan-chao was living in an adobe hut on a small plateau that had been leveled off…. We followed the nun up the slope to Yuan-chao’s hut. She was sitting cross-legged on her k’ang, an adobe bed with a built-in oven….(!) As I walked in, she said, ‘You’re back. Good. Now we can talk. Last time I wasn’t sure. Now I know you’ve come back for the Dharma.’ I was glad I had made the effort to visit her again. She was eighty­-eight, but I’ve seldom talked with anyone as alert…. From my bag, I took out a sheet of calligraphy paper and asked if she would write down for me the essence of Buddhist practice. She put the paper aside, and I didn’t raise the subject again. Two months later, back in Taiwan, I received the sheet of paper in the mail with four words: goodwill, compassion, joy, detachment. Her calligraphy was as strong and clear as her mind.”


Red Pine tells us about Empty Cloud (love that name!), probably the most respected monk in modern Chinese history. He died in 1959 at the age of 120 during the period of repression. He lived in deep solitude in a very remote area of these mountains. But his reputation spread far and wide.


Then there’s this marvelous concluding account. Red Pine has returned to the big city of Xian and is visiting this obscure temple:

“The metal gate creaked. The front courtyard was deserted…. The temple buildings were old and in such sorry repair, I almost turned back. Past the inner courtyard, I went inside the main shrine hall. After lighting some incense and paying my respects, I noticed a small stone Buddha. The attendant told me it had been carved at the end of the fifth century. He also pointed out a T’ang dynasty painting of Kuan-yin. Incredible treasures for such a dilapidated temple. Just as I was leaving, several monks appeared at the door. When they asked me what I was doing, I told them I was visiting hermits. They laughed. One of them said, ‘Then you have come to the right place. We’re all hermits here.’ I couldn’t help but laugh too. The monk’s name was Ju-ch’eng. He was obviously the abbot, though he denied it–he said he was too dumb to be an abbot. Then he explained that Wolung Temple refused to have an official abbot. He said, ‘If we choose an abbot, he has to be approved by the government. We prefer to be left alone. That’s why we don’t fix up the temple. The government has offered us money to repair the buildings. But this is a Zen temple. We don’t need fancy buildings…. He told me there were fifty monks living at the temple. Two of them were in their eighties…. He said they got up every morning at three and didn’t go to sleep until shortly before midnight. They spent most of their waking hours on their meditation cushions. I asked Ju-ch’eng who their master had been, but I should have known the answer. He said, Empty Cloud. We talked for half an hour about Wolung Temple and about the Chungnan Mountains. The temple, he said, had four seventy-day meditation sessions every year. Then he started listing all the hermits he knew in the mountains. I knew all of them. I smiled and told him this was the first time I had met city hermits. He laughed, and so did I. And then I remembered the Chinese saying: ‘The small hermit lives on a mountain. The great hermit lives in a town.’ Having nothing left to say, I bowed and said good-bye.”