Monday, Nov 24, 2014, 3:44 PM CST – China

Culture

Bill Porter

THE HERMIT HUNTER

A student of Buddhism with a keen interest in China’s few remaining hermits, American author Bill Porter has spent the past 40 years in search of spiritual tranquility and literary fulfillment

Photo by IC

With a shaggy beard, a mop of unruly gray hair and a yellow cloth bag draped over one shoulder, 70-year-old Bill Porter looks more like a vagrant than a popular author. But then again, given that he has made a career out of writing about his encounters with Chinese hermits, his appearance makes more sense.

Since his search for inner peace brought him to a Taiwanese Zen Buddhist monastery as a PhD dropout 40 years ago, writer Bill Porter has remained relatively obscure in his native US. Meanwhile, his writings on China’s hermits have garnered a strong following in China. While his first book Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits failed to generate much attention when it was published in the US in 1993, its 2006 Chinese translation sold over 100,000 copies.

Porter first set out in search of hermits in Zhongnan Mountains in 1989, and has trekked all over China in search of its ascetics ever since, compiling his experiences into books – he now has 15 publications to his name. This month, Porter returned to China once more, to pay his respects at the gravesides of his beloved ancient poets. The story of this particular journey will be recounted in a new book, Finding Them Gone, which will also be his final book, he told NewsChina.

In Search of Zen

Born in 1943 to a well-to-do Los Angeles family that fell on hard times when Porter was in his early teens, he went on to graduate from the University of California Santa Barbara, majoring in anthropology. After a stint in the army, Porter enrolled in a PhD program at Columbia University to continue his studies, and picked Chinese for the degree’s language requirement. He developed an interest in Buddhism, and after practicing Zen under the guidance of a Buddhist monk in New York, decided to drop his academic career and set off in search of enlightenment.

Porter bought a one-way ticket to Taiwan, and made his way first to the famous monastery at Foguang Mountain, and then to Haiming Temple near Taipei, where he became a full-time Zen practitioner.

“[The monks] had never seen a foreigner in the monastery and they didn’t know what to do with me, so they said ‘just do whatever you want,’” he told NewsChina. After two years of Zen practice, Porter declined an invitation to become a monk in order to pursue his interest in poetry and his promising relationship with his future wife.

Porter landed a job as an English anchor for the International Community Radio in Taipei, and in his spare time immersed himself in translations of the work of the Buddhist hermit poets Hanshan (c. 9th century AD) and Shiwu (1272-1352). Something of a wanderer himself, he developed a keen interest in Buddhist hermits, and began to inquire about whether or not any still existed in the Chinese mainland.

He decided to answer this question himself. Together with Steven Johnson, a photojournalist who was also curious about hermit culture, he began his search in 1989, setting out from Beijing and heading down through the ancient settlement of Datong, into the Wutai and Hengshan mountains. Initially, the only vagrants the wilderness yielded were herb-pickers – until the pair encountered a monk, who told them that they were more likely to find what they were looking for in the Zhongnan Mountains.

They made their way to Xi’an, the province’s capital, and after an extensive search, found a colony of over 100 hermits, both male and female, living on top of a mountain.

“They were the happiest people I had ever met. It suddenly occurred to me that I should write a book about them,” Porter said. It was this encounter that inspired his first book, Road to Heaven, which in turn inspired a growing number of travelers from both China and abroad to retrace his footsteps to the Zhongnan Mountains.

Porter revisits the hermits he befriended every two or three years. “There are [now] more hermits than there used to be. What’s more, there are more younger hermits, 25 to 30 years old,” he said.

Finding Them Gone

In 1993 Porter returned to the US with his Taiwanese wife Ku Lien-chang, and their two children, where he continued with his translations of traditional Chinese poetry and Buddhist sutras under the pen name “Red Pine.”

Having all but wrapped up his upcoming book, Porter, 70, said he felt it was time for him to stop writing, and that his recent visits to graves of some of his favorite poets were a fitting way to bring an end to his publishing career. The collection, which includes the work of 36 poets, spanning pre-modern work by Confucius (551-479 BC) to the writings of Hanshan. It is expected to be published in both English and Chinese in 2015.

“I enjoy reading their poetry and wanted to pay my respect,” he said. “Most foreigners translate Chinese poetry sitting in libraries, but if you don’t go to the place and know nothing of the background, how could you know the meanings of the poems?”

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