Peripatetic journalist and translator Porter (Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits, 1993) ventures again deep into the mountainous reaches of China, seeking the remote paths of the first six patriarchs of Zen Buddhism.
The author’s folksy, seemingly spontaneous day-by-day travelogue invites the reader along on an arduous ten-week trek into China, where during the first century CE Buddhist monks sought refuge from persecution. From the Yunkang caves near Tatung, 225 miles west of Beijing, to various monasteries in Loyang, Wuhan and Shaokuan, by bus, train or taxi, the author revisited the places sacred to Chinese Buddhists. Although his style is casual, the history Porter explores is dense. He traces the growth of Zen from the spiritual roots planted by the Prajnaparamita scriptures, which arrived in China in the second and third centuries, to its establishment as a separate school of Buddhism by the Indian monk Bodhidharma, the First Patriarch, who brought it to China around 475. Traveling to the places associated with these historic developments, Porter offers intriguing glimpses of a stunning and (to Westerners) little-known countryside and monuments, including the Nanhua Temple near Shaokuan, where Hui-neng lived for 40 years after he became the Sixth Patriarch in 677. The author penetrated many working monasteries severely repressed during the Cultural Revolution that are only now making a comeback. Porter titles his chapters to reflect the concept of “the life of no-mind” dear to Buddhists—and difficult for others to grasp—such as “No Home,” “No Dust or Mirrors,” “No Day Off” and so forth. Fluent in Chinese, the author brings a freshness to the snippets of ancient texts he translates here.
An erudite backpacking journey by a true dharma bum.