ROAD TO HEAVEN by Bill Porter


Encounters with Chinese Hermits
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 Porter, who as ``Red Pine'' has written several studies of Eastern religions (The Zen Teachings of Bodhidharma, 1989, etc.-- not reviewed), now clambers over the Chugnan mountains of central China in search of solitary mystics and saints. The author sets out in the spring of 1989 with photographer Steven Johnson, and immediately runs up against Beijing's official line that hermits no longer exist in China. But of course they do, and by bumping from mountain to mountain and knocking on one monastery door after another, Porter ferrets out nearly two dozen examples of what he calls ``the happiest and wisest people in China.'' Some readers may balk at Porter's description, for while a number of the hermits--mostly elderly Buddhist monks, though a few are nuns, young, or Taoist--radiate bliss, others talk of loneliness or sorrow. And while some offer simple truths (``If you don't practice, you achieve nothing''), others bat away Porter's questions (`` `What sort of practice do you do?'... Chi-Ch'eng: `I just pass the time' ''), or slip from truth to truism (``If someone is drowning and you can't swim, it doesn't do any good to jump in yourself''). But this matters little, since the hermits are charming and, in any case, the bulk of Porter's narrative consists not of hermit-chat but of a loose blend of history and travelogue. Porter unfolds a dizzying panorama of cliffs and valleys, crumbling monasteries and canny abbots, all the while discoursing on the rise of Taoism, its encounter with Buddhism, the lives of past hermits, the outlines of Tantra. Lessons emerge: the value of silence; the need to balance inner practice with community service; the differing aims of hermits, with some of them questing after immortality, others seeking escape from illusion. As travelogue/history, cluttered; as ethnographic resource, unique--and as for those hermits, they're the salt of the earth. (Thirty-three b&w photographs)

Pub Date: June 21st, 1993
ISBN: 1-56279-041-2
Page count: 256pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 1993


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