Motley Topics

A.  Recently I read a truly different book:  A Journey to Inner Peace and Joy: Tracing Contemporary Chinese Hermits by Zhang Jianfeng.  It is a personal account of a visit to the flourishing phenomenon of a healthy hermit movement in China.  The earliest such account in modern times was by Bill Porter (Red Pine) about 25 years ago.  This account surprised a lot of people, even a lot of Chinese, because most people just assumed that the hermit phenomenon had died out in China.  Then there was a documentary movie made that was inspired by that work and covered some of the same ground.  Now we have this more personal, subjective account of this Chinese man visiting many hermits in the mountains south of Xian–this is one of the favorite haunts of Chinese hermits from way back.  These encounters took place just five years ago or so, and it is reassuring to see the hermit movement in full swing.  The Chinese love their hermits!

The book is not great but still interesting; the author does not get beyond the surface descriptions, but here and there you will find gems of comment and insight:  “The occupant of Baxiu Maopeng was in his thirties and the lay brother who followed him was half as old again.  The lay brother’s gaze had a radiance which I had not often seen and so had his speech, everything under his gaze seemed as penetrating and clear as spring water.  The hermit said that he had no title, that the hut was his….  He had left home to become a monk in the Southwest in 1999 and had been here ever since…..  I asked: how do you normally practice?  A: The method is unimportant.  All rules should be set aside.  The rule is that there are no rules.  Instruction is merely a path, in the way that the nourishment required for each stage of life is different….”

There are gems like this sprinkled through the book, but unfortunately a lot of it is also very superficial observation.  The subtle thing here is how the hermit undermines the “seeker’s” need for detailed instructions.  This afflicts quite a few people on the spiritual path, and it leads to a clinging to detailed step by step instructions, systems of spirituality, which practically become almost an end in themselves.  One of the things that very much characterizes the hermit approach to spirituality is a basic simplicity, taking whatever tradition of spirituality you want and applying what I call the “Thoreau rule”:  Simplify, simplify, simplify!


B. Speaking of hermits, let us turn now to some thoughts on Western hermits.  This phenomenon is not nearly as focused or as flourishing  as its Chinese counterpart.  Here we need to distinguish between two seemingly very different types:  those who seek solitude for explicit religious/spiritual purposes; and all the rest!  I hesitate to characterize the latter group because it is so varied and so problematic so often (in fact some of these folk can be much more spiritual than the first group but it is not easy to see).  There are some very fine people in the first group, both those in formal religious groups and those who are more informal in this regard; but what I find intriguing (as did Merton) are people who find their way into a solitude which is often opaque to our view, and its purpose becomes concealed behind what may be basic human weakness.  Often these folk have real human failings that are less visible in social life but which emerge in disturbing clarity in solitude.    Our neurotic tendencies/fears/gestures which become somewhat concealed in the nitty-gritty of daily modern social life and whose rough edges can be softened by human companionship, all this can come out quite starkly in solitude; and the hermit has to deal with his/her own “craziness” undiluted by social life.  This is an occupational hazard for all those who live alone in an unstructured context. And a visitor could find this a bit too much!  Especially if they have an idealized, romantic view of solitude.  For a much deeper discussion of the issues involved in all this I do highly recommend reading Merton’s essay, “Philosophy of Solitude.”

So recently I stumbled upon this story in The Guardian: “This reclusive life: what I learned about solitude from my time with hermits,” by Peter Willis.  In many ways it is both a funny and an illuminating account of one man’s journey to try and meet some “real hermits”– he tries to contact some “religious” hermits but with no success he ventures out into the “wild and wooly ones”!  Here’s how the article begins:

“A few years ago, beset by the same malaise that I suppose afflicts everyone who spends too much time in the bustle and chaos of a big city, I wondered if solitude might be the answer. I began to read about hermits and became obsessed with the idea of meeting one. As you might imagine, hermits are a difficult sub-group to track down. But I found out about a newsletter run by a couple in the Carolinas aimed at solitaries and, after posting an ad there, began writing to a few. The correspondences never led anywhere. The closest I got to an actual encounter was with a woman in rural Oregon called Maryann. We planned to meet but at the last minute she got cold feet, writing to say she could not risk letting a stranger visit her “in this crazy age of violence”.

It was winter by then. Desperate to flee the city, I flew to Vegas with a vague plan to hitchhike in to the high deserts of Arizona and New Mexico, which I had heard were good hermit hunting grounds. In the canyons of central Arizona, in Cleator, an inglorious little town of tin-roofed cabins an hour’s meandering drive west of the interstate, I heard about a man who had lived alone for 20 years guarding a disused silver mine. The next day I walked up the mountain to find him, watching the ground for rattlesnakes as I went. I had high hopes; I had read accounts of those who had gone alone into the wild and come back laden with deep personal insights. I wasn’t exactly expecting the Buddha, but a minor-league Thoreau would have been nice. As it was, I met Virgil Snyder. The first thing he asked was if I had brought beers. I had, and for the rest of the day I watched him down them, one after the other at his cabin, a ramshackle place cluttered with old birds’ nests and the bleached skulls of pack rats he had found on the trail.”


The guy turns out to be quite quirky and ornery.  Not an edifying sample of the hermit life!  Our author-seeker continues:  “He didn’t understand why I had come. When I told him I was interested in learning about solitude, he looked at me like I had just flown in from Planet Stupid…. I wrote down everything he said, poring over my notes at night, searching for some searing insight among his professed hatred of, well, everything, and the litany of insults he had thrown my way. (I was at different times called “a faggot”, “a motherfucker” and, more bizarrely, “a Tootsie Roll”.)  After several visits, I was forced to admit that he was not the mountain sage I had been looking for. He was an angry drunk.”


Ok, as “bad” as this guy was, you still have a basic choice of how you view this guy: either he is totally “out of it,” or like one of the Desert Fathers or Zen monks, putting up a “smoke screen” of unpleasant behavior to rebuff the casual and the curious, to test what is really the motivation of the “seeker.”  One thing that he said I really liked and which sums up a Merton viewpoint:  “I didn’t come here to prove a point,” he said. “I don’t do this to be unique.”  Whatever be the case here, our author leaves this guy to continue his seeking.


Our author finds another hermit who is also living a totally unaffiliated life but this guy has a religious, Christian orientation and motivation.  He is a “kinder and gentler” version of the genre of wild hermits.  Our author-seeker continues:

“The same afternoon that I left Virgil, a Catholic monk I had been corresponding with left a message on my phone to tell me about Doug Monroe, a religious solitary who had been living alone for a decade in New Mexico’s vast Gila Wilderness.  The monk described Doug as an “exceptional soul” and his hermitage as “the real thing”. There was no road or habitation within 10 miles of him and apart from a trip to Albuquerque once a year to restock his supplies, the monk said that he never left the cabin.  Buoyed by the serendipity of the timing I decided to go find him. The route to Doug’s place switched back and forth across a stream gushing with snowmelt.  I was greeted like a long-lost friend. ‘Boy, it’s such a treat to have ya here,’ Doug said in a homely southern accent, fussing over me, feeding me rice and tea.  Unlike Virgil, he understood my interest and tried to convey what the solitary life was like. He described moments when the silence around him was so profound it left him frozen to the spot, afraid that the noise of even one footstep would be deafening.  The desire to be a hermit had first come to him in his mid-20s, he said, but it was not until his late 40s that he finally plucked up the courage. When he first came here he had just $150 in cash and an 80lb pack on his back and trekked out into the forest determined to “entrust my survival to God”. For the first year, he lived in a metre-wide shelter he built below an exposed rock face using slabs of stone and fallen trees.  He eventually built himself a one-room cabin. Compared with the melancholic decay of Virgil’s home, there was a calm order here: all his supplies were arranged neatly around the room. On the shelves were boxes of crackers, bucket-sized tubs of peanut butter, dried milk and grains, tins of tuna and Spam, cocoa and powdered mash.”


This promising beginning, however, does not blossom into anything profound, at least in the author’s eyes.  He notices a distinctive neurotic pattern of behavior in the hermit:  “I had the sense that Doug was genuinely content with the path he had chosen, but there was an eccentricity I saw in him too. He talked non-stop, jumping from one subject to the next without any clear connection. At first I thought he was just excited by my presence but he admitted that it was the same when he was alone. He held imaginary conversations with absent friends, with dead saints, even with the Virgin Mary.”


Our author-seeker is a bit disillusioned, but he has an interesting conclusion:

“In other words, if you go into solitude to get away from something, your troubles will probably follow you. This, I suspect, was Virgil’s story. It was probably my own, too, and I returned to the city unhappy that my hermit encounters had not yielded more. To my disappointment, Virgil and Doug had proved all too human.  There was one aspect of the experience that had surpassed my inflated expectations: the environment where the two men lived. And as I became entrenched once again in city life, it was to the stark beauty of the high desert in winter that my mind kept returning, to the saguaros, dwarf junipers, pinyon pines and magical starlit nights.  In the 1968 race that cost Donald Crowhurst his sanity, another competitor had a very different experience.  French sailor Bernard Moitessier fell utterly in love with life alone at sea. So much so that instead of turning north towards the finishing line in England and possible victory, he dropped out of the race and sailed on to Tahiti.  In his book The Long Way, Moitessier describes sailing one night by a headland with the Milky Way overhead. It occurs to him that were this view only visible once a century, the headland would be thronged with people. But since it can be seen many times a year the inhabitants overlook it.  And because they could see it almost any night, perhaps they never will,  he writes.  It was a direct encounter with the quiet magnificence of nature that was the real gold I brought back from my wanderings in Arizona and New Mexico. It was probably what I had been looking for all along.”


One last note:  some years back GQ had an article about a hermit who had lived for decades in the Maine woods and had survived by pilfering from vacation homes.  After he was found and arrested, a GQ writer wrote about him and this was in GQ one of the most widely read articles of all time.  When the writer asked this hermit what was the meaning of life, the old guy replied: “Get enough sleep.”  Merton would have loved that!!


C.  In a completely different vein, recently we have noted two important days: the first was the anniversary of the Wounded Knee massacre, and the second was Martin Luther King Day, honoring the life and achievements of this man who was looked upon as “America’s Gandhi.”  With regard the first date, it was on Dec. 29th in 1890, 127 years ago, that American military gunned down a small encampment of Native Americans, men, women, and children, more than a hundred people.  One is somewhat reminded of the Amritsar massacre in India by British troops, so clearly depicted in the movie Gandhi.  What’s important to remember is that this was not just an isolated incident by some troops going amuck, but it represents a whole attitude and history that reveals something is very wrong with us as a nation and a culture. 

The other day, MLK Day, needs little comment except to say that so many today jump on this bandwagon to praise Martin Luther King but they do not know or repress the message that was evolving within him. So many want to remember King for his famous 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech.  But they ignore the more revolutionary King of 1967-68 just before he was killed.  It is astonishing to realize that he was assassinated before his 40th birthday–to think what he could have done and been for us!  Here’s a couple of quotes of his that don’t get that much publicity:

The greatest purveyor of violence in the world : My own Government, I can not be silent.”

When he made the famous speech at the Riverside Church in New York against the Vietnam War, the whole liberal establishment came down on him.  Both the New York Times and the Washington Post railed against him; a lot of Black leaders and famous people disassociated themselves from him.  As long as he had “stayed in his lane,” and dealt only with Black issues and civil rights for Blacks(and mostly in the South), a lot of Northern liberals supported him.  But when he began to question the whole liberal establishment in its vision for America (never mind the Conservatives whom he had lost years ago), they turned against him, and a lot of Black leaders joined in that because they did not want to lose that support.  But King’s vision had expanded to a universal concern for economic justice, for peace, for an end to war and violence.  Read his Riverside Church speech on Google.

Very shortly before his killing, King gave a sermon in his own Church, and this is from that:

“I’ve decided what I’m going to do; I ain’t going to kill nobody in Mississippi … [and] in Vietnam. I ain’t going to study war no more. And you know what? I don’t care who doesn’t like what I say about it. I don’t care who criticizes me in an editorial. I don’t care what white person or Negro criticizes me. I’m going to stick with the best. On some positions, cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ Vanity asks the question, ‘Is it popular?’ But conscience asks the question, ‘Is it right?’ And there comes a time when a true follower of Jesus Christ must take a stand that’s neither safe nor politic nor popular but he must take that stand because it is right. Every now and then we sing about it, ‘If you are right, God will fight your battle.’ I’m going to stick by the best during these evil times.”








D.  Finally.  A lot of people on various spiritual paths speak of their guru, their spiritual father, their Teacher, guide, whatever….  It is often claimed that such a figure is essential on the spiritual journey.  I don’t know about that, but I do know that my own situation is a bit peculiar: my spiritual father is a fictional character: Father Zosima from Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov.  I met this guy for the first time when I was 17 when I was assigned the novel to be read for class.  His words set me off on my spiritual path, and it is amazing to find those words coming back to me again and again, decades later, as a beacon “in the night” of this life.  If I get lost for a while, it is only for a while, and Father Zosima brings me back on the road where I am focused on what is important.  Here is a key quote from him, and if you understand this there is little else that is needed:

“Brothers, do not be afraid of men’s sin, love man also in his sin, for this likeness of God’s love is the height of love on earth. Love all of God’s creation, both the whole of it and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love animals, love plants, love each thing. If you love each thing, you will perceive the mystery of God in things. Once you have perceived it, you will begin tirelessly to perceive more and more of it every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an entire, universal love. Love the animals: God gave them the rudiments of thought and an untroubled joy. Do not trouble it, do not torment them, do not take their joy from them, do not go against God’s purpose. …

One may stand perplexed before some thought, especially men’s sin, asking oneself: ‘Shall I take it by force, or by humble love?’ Always resolve to take it by humble love. If you so resolve once and for all, you will be able to overcome the world. A loving humility is a terrible power, the most powerful of all, nothing compares with it. Keep company with yourself and look to yourself every day and hour, every minute, that your image ever be gracious. …

My young brother asked forgiveness of the birds: it seems senseless, yet it is right, for all is like an ocean, all flows and connects; touch it in one place and it echoes at the other end of the world. Let it be madness to ask forgiveness of the birds, still it would be easier for the birds, and for a child, and for any animal near you, if you yourself were more gracious than you are now, if only by a drop, still it would be easier. All is like an ocean, I say to you. Tormented by universal love, you, too, would then start praying to the birds, as if in a sort of ecstasy, and entreat them to forgive you your sin. Cherish this ecstasy, however senseless it may seem to people.”