Monday, September 5, 2011

Road to Heaven

 Yuan- chao on her k'ang, waiting for the transforming fire by Steve Johnson.

"Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits" is a delightful and lucid account of the distinguished translator, Bill Porter/Red Pine's visits to hermits (both Buddhist and Taoist) in central North China in the late 80s.

Their survival was greeted with skepticism by Porter's Taiwanese friends (and by his mentor, John Blofeld, who had visited them in the 30s). They must have been swept away by sustained Communist hostility to religion, and especially by the terrors of the Cultural Revolution.

But no, as Porter found, and his companion, Steven Johnson, photographed, not only had a significant number survived, some had returned (after an enforced exile in lay life) and were being joined by younger, often better educated recruits (in the world's terms).

The book is both an account of the 'hermit tradition' seen through the lens of key past figures and meetings with living representatives of a central Chinese cultural and religious tradition. Many of these meetings lead to fascinating, if always brief, interviews both on the practical challenges of following the tradition, and of the person's core practice. This latter is usually described with a compelling modesty and directness.

The photographs both of the hermits and their surroundings are haunting. Faces of great composure, charm, humour and insight claim your attention, as do the mist shrouded peaks, the shadowed gorges and the buildings speaking of an ancient tradition and a modern fulfillment simply embodied.

Sadly, if the authorities have exchanged indifference for active hostility with regard to religion, they have succumbed to a modern vice, namely the promotion of tourism, that is eroding the opportunities for silence. The hermits are having to retreat - either deeper into the mountains or, as the last chapter discloses, ironically into the anonymity of the city!

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