A path less travelled

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 December, 2007, 12:00am

Far from the choked cities of the eastern seaboard, where the mainland's new rich are busy buying gold bath tubs and Louis Vuitton handbags, hermit Jiyan rises every morning at first light to meditate and chant Buddhist scriptures.

After a breakfast of corn porridge, Jiyan - whose religious name, chosen himself to mark his hermitage, means 'quiet rigorous' - leaves his 8th-century, wooden cottage and walks five minutes up a steep, twisting path on Nanwutai Mountain, 50km south of the city of Xian, to tend his small vegetable garden.

His days are spent farming, fetching water, clearing the mountain path and making repairs to his cottage, built under an enormous, overhanging rock face. Jiyan's perch is about 2,000 metres above sea level and the air is sweetly fresh. Occasionally, large birds crash through the undergrowth, startled perhaps by a wild boar.

It's a lonely life but when Jiyan lifts his shaven head from his chores, his brown eyes gaze across kilometres of peaks dotted with cypress and pine trees, the valleys below filled with white clouds. This view of the Zhongnan mountain chain, in Shaanxi province, is like a traditional ink-and-wash painting, the peaks receding in layers, each a lighter grey than the one before. When night falls, around 6.30pm, Jiyan cooks a vegetarian dinner then meditates and reads scriptures to purify his heart.

For the 38-year-old Buddhist monk from Jiamusi, in northeastern Heilongjiang province, this is as close to heaven on Earth as anyone could get. 'Every day, when I get up, it's a fresh, new feeling. It's not like in the city, where things are always the same. Here is the power and beauty of nature and things change all the time,' he says in a quiet voice, his gaze intent. Then he confesses: 'I do get lonely sometimes. But when that happens I calm my heart with meditation.'

From the poor to the wealthy, among the uneducated and college graduates, fascination with religion is growing, and some of the mainland's richest businessmen are avidly reading up on a variety of faiths: Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity and even Baha'i.

Multimillionaire property developer and well-known spiritual enthusiast Pan Shiyi says that while belief is on the rise, much of it is goal-oriented and superficial. 'Often, it's about praying for a baby, or praying for a job as a government official,' says Pan. 'But what is really in their hearts?'

Pan, 44, remembers seeing hermits come down from the mountain near his home in rural Gansu province. 'My mother would use it to threaten us: 'Old Dao [the hermit] is coming!' she'd yell. They were really scary. They didn't brush their hair or their teeth. Their clothes were dirty.'

For 3,000 years, as history swirled beneath them, hermits like Jiyan have lived in the Zhongnan mountains, training their hearts and minds to take up the task of disseminating Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism to a younger generation of Chinese, who, these days, are increasingly receptive.

At times, hermits have had to travel very deep inside the mountain ranges to escape religious or political persecution. Hit hard during the Cultural Revolution, when Mao Zedong ordered monks, nuns and hermits out of seclusion and into labour camps for 're-education', tenacious, ancient spiritual traditions began to rebound after Mao's death in 1976. Today, hermits are back in their ancient cottages, praying, meditating and cultivating their minds, their very presence a subtle reproach to the new materialism of mainstream China.Unlike in the west, where they are viewed as strange and possibly dangerous, hermits are venerated on the mainland as people who willingly lead a harsh, lonely existence to seek the meaning of life and pass on their discoveries to others.

To Bill Porter, an American writer and translator who has met dozens on trips to remote mountains, hermits are like doctoral students. Porter's book Road to Heaven, translated last year into Chinese as Empty Valleys, Secluded Orchids, is an account of two trips to the Zhongnan mountains. The book has appealed to a wide audience on the mainland.

'You have to have been a hermit in order to become a [religious] teacher. In that way it's a lot like doing a PhD. No one will take you seriously as a teacher if you haven't got a PhD,' Porter says.

Jiyan echoes that. An elegant, well-built man of medium height, Jiyan likens Buddhism to psychology. 'Buddhism is about the heart. And if you want to get a degree in psychology you have to do your preparatory studies first then your degree. Then you do a PhD. This is my PhD,' he says.

Educated guesses as to how many hermits dot the mainland's remote mountains range from several hundreds to 10,000. Hermits are not required to register with the government, though regulations vary from place to place. Many are already registered with Buddhist or Taoist associations, as monks or nuns in nearby monasteries.

Ming Yao, editor of Beijing-based Zen magazine, believes the number of true hermits on the mainland today numbers about 300. 'It's impossible to know how many there are as there are so many ways of counting them, but counting in the narrowest sense, including only those who are far from human habitation, far from a monastery even, avoiding human contact, living in huts deep in the mountains and practising Buddhism or Taoism, I'd say about 200 or 300.'

Li Bing is a nun who runs a school for Tibetan children in far western Yunnan province, part of the former Tibetan province of Kham. 'If you were to include Tibet, there must be thousands, even up to 10,000,' she says. Porter too believes the figure, counting broadly, may run into the thousands.

What is certain is there are more today than there were 40 years ago, when the mainland was in the throes of savage repression, says Ming. 'But if you compare with 100 years ago, there are very few nowadays. Though I believe that the numbers are slowly climbing again.'

In 1975, Cheng Bo climbed Nanwutai Mountain on a day trip from Xian with a few friends. There and then, she decided to stay on the mountain and become a hermit. She was just 20.

'It was really hard in those days. We had to practise Buddhism in secret,' recalls Cheng, now 52. Today, she lives in a valley below Jiyan's in a pretty, bright hut called Pure Land Straw Hut, in a nod to Pure Land, the branch of Buddhism she practises. The other major branch is Zen. Cheng's hut, on a small ledge overlooking the valley, has gardens and fruit and walnut trees. Scarlet and yellow flowers nod their heads next to knee-high, plastic-covered greenhouses, in which she grows vegetables.

Cheng was out the day we paid a visit - on her annual trip down the mountain to register with religious officials in Xian. But 'visiting a hermit and finding him out' is an old theme in Chinese poetry and anyway, Cheng, like other Buddhist hermits, is not averse to a bit of comfort - she has a telephone, even though she doesn't like to talk much, preferring to save her energy for meditation. True to form, Cheng keeps the phone conversation brief but her parting shot is a sharp one: 'People's lives cannot be separated from Buddhism,' she says. 'I believe it is even more important to us today than high-level science and technology.'

Porter, a translator of ancient Buddhist texts and poetry who goes by the name Red Pine, first travelled to the Zhongnan mountains in 1989. His interest was piqued by accounts in Taiwan - where he had lived, translated and meditated for nearly two decades - that the mainland's tradition of hermits, dating back thousands of years, had been wiped out by the Cultural Revolution and the communists' hatred of religion. The picture, he found, was very different.

While their numbers are down from the 1950s, 'all the sacred mountains of China are littered with hermits', says Porter, who divides his time between Port Townsend in rural Washington state, in the US, Taiwan and the mainland.

Many hermits, like Jiyan, will stay on their mountain for only a few years before rejoining a monastic community and continuing to learn and, ultimately, teach. Others, like Cheng, have no plans ever to come back down.

Jiyan began studying Buddhism seriously at home in Jiamusi in 1992, aged 23. Like many hermits, he does not talk much about his life before he chujia, or left home, to become a monk. He will say only that his parents are dead and his first wanderings in search of enlightenment took him from the far north to the south, to Guangdong province.

He has lived on the mountain for three years, but is sure that one day he will xiashan, or go down, and rejoin society. When? 'I will know in my heart when I am ready,' he says, gravely.

Chances are that Jiyan may become a respected teacher. For one, he has done well to be assigned a hut by his Buddhist master, who visits from Guangdong once a year. Not everyone is considered to have what it takes to become a hermit and get a hut as historically rich as Jiyan's.

Called Xiangzi dong, or Xiangzi cave, the hut was once the home of the Taoist Han Xiangzi, a nephew of Han Yu, justice minister of the Tang dynasty (AD618-907) and an ambitious Confucian. Han Xiangzi finally succeeded in converting his uncle to Taoism after Han Yu fell from favour with the Emperor. Han Xiangzi later became one of the Taoists' Eight Immortals.

That a hut should pass from the hands of a Taoist to Buddhists is not surprising - Jiyan, too, follows the Pure Land school of Buddhism - China's religions have always co-existed peacefully, bar friendly sparring. Usually, specific monasteries have relationships with certain mountains and lay claim to the huts on them.

Jiyan is convinced what he is doing is of worth, not just to himself but to society. 'China has become very, very materialistic. People's desires are limitless. In reality, though, what a person needs in terms of material possessions is limited. We don't need that much. But people cannot control their desires, today more than ever, and that causes them terrible pain.'

The solution lies in walking away from worldly attachments and cultivating a calm and pure spirit. Hermits do this by meditating and reading sutras, such as the Lotus or Diamond, again and again. The texts are scores of pages long. 'They like to have something substantial to work on,' says Porter.

Jiyan's hut may be 1,200 years old, but it has an under-floor heating system supplied by the electricity cables that snake up the mountain on old, wooden pylons. He even has a laptop computer, for writing his thoughts and poems, though he does not have internet access. Many hermits, as well as being religious figures, are poets. Cheng's doorman, a darting, lively man who cooks, chops wood and feeds a wildly barking dog that lunges violently at visitors, proudly recounts that they have a television. None of this is a surprise to Porter.

'Hermits are not escapists. They don't find this a contradiction,' he says. Nor are they freaks or outcasts from society hell-bent on revenge.

'In the west we view hermits as people who are antisocial misanthropes who want to live outside society, who have guns and a sex slave in the closet, that kind of thing,' says Porter. 'In China it's different. They're actually an extension of society.'

Mirroring that, hermits depend on the outside world for certain goods. Most will descend from their mountain to local villages once or twice a year to buy cooking oil, flour, salt and perhaps kerosene. They sell walnuts harvested from trees in their garden. Some receive money from relatives in distant cities. Alms are gratefully received, though never asked for.

For scholar-hermit Zhao Wenzhu, 52, money is never a problem. 'I don't have a bank account. I don't have any life or health insurance. I have no income. And it doesn't bother me. This way, I am completely free,' says Zhao, who lives in Baihe village in the mountains north of Beijing.

Also a practising Buddhist - Zhao built a stone-and-concrete, dome-like hut in which to meditate, in the courtyard of his cottage - Zhao's hermitage is in the same tradition as those of countless literati officials who have retired from fame and riches to pursue an untainted life of the mind.

A successful painter from Yantai in Shandong province - 'near where Confucius came from,' he says, proudly - Zhao found fame and growing fortune with his paintings and illustrations in the early 90s. He moved to Beijing. In 1995, he gave it all up.

'I was being offered good jobs at art schools and universities. And money. But I still didn't know what life was about. It was a time when I didn't know if anything I was saying was true or not. So I had to retire. I came here to try and find out.'

These days Zhao, whose only son, Zhao Yan, aged 27, is a monk at Gaomin Monastery in central Jiangsu province, earns small amounts of money from penning sketches and poems satirising contemporary life. In one, he mocks corruption among officials. The acerbic, humorous lines could have been written thousands of years ago by any of a number of scholar officials who chose seclusion over the corruption of the court. In another, he warns good people may do evil while bad people may unintentionally do good - a warning to those who want to see the world in black and white.

Zhao's dress - he wears an olive-and-black silk shirt with traditional patterns and olive cotton trousers - and his grey beard set him apart from the blue or grey-clad villagers in Baihe. He says when he first arrived here 12 years ago, locals viewed him with suspicion. Nor did his friends in town understand him.

'A lot of people said, 'If people like you retire from the world, then how is society going to develop and prosper?' But in reality, my being here, this is how culture is transmitted, so I am making a contribution. I believe everyone has to make a contribution to society. I don't seek out people, but people come to me. The same with money.'

Zhao's presence is changing the small village.

He keeps a large Buddhist shrine to the goddess Guanyin in the main room of his cottage, which he has named Fragrant Grass Hut, the words engraved in green calligraphy in traditional-style characters over the wooden door arch. Zhao was born in 1955, the year of the sheep, and likes to joke that he eats grass. 'When I came here, no one believed in anything. Now some of the villagers have become Buddhists. We even built a temple in the village that I got the local officials to give land for, and friends in town donated the money.'

All hermits - Zhao, Jiyan, Cheng and those who won't give their names or run away when approached - express one wish: to be left alone to meditate in peace. And while they are polite to visitors, they are also glad to see them off. 'I often check people out when they knock and decide whether they look polite or not, before I open,' says Jiyan. 'There are a lot of people who come up here to hike and think it's fun to knock on the door. But actually we need to be undisturbed.'

For Jiyan, being on the mountain is a privilege, even in the deepest winter, when temperatures regularly drop to minus 20 degree Celsius. 'It's warmer than Heilongjiang, where I'm from,' he comments wryly.

Undoubtedly, life is lonely. But it is also peaceful, with comfort in the daily rituals of farming, cleaning, lighting a fire to boil water, cooking and other chores essential to survival.

'It's not really a hard life,' says Porter, 'though it might seem to be to outsiders.' Sickness is the main threat. 'Hermits do get sick and they die all the time. They all practise qigong to better focus on generating heat and staying warm and in good health.'

Another challenge hermits face is urban sprawl.

Even in the Zhongnan mountains, once so remote, the city is encroaching in the form of luxurious mountain villas built on the lower slopes by wealthy Xian residents. Often, hermits simply pack up and walk further into the mountains when that happens.

Zhao's Fragrant Grass Hut was remote 12 years ago, when he moved here, but the local government plans to build a 200 million yuan, blacktop road through Baihe village, linking it to a national park. That will bring in the tourists but will ruin Zhao's sought-after solitude. But is it essential to be physically lonely to be a hermit? China's Confucians, ever pragmatic, would say no.

'You can be a hermit and live in the big city,' Zhao concedes. 'For me, though, I need the quiet. I try not to go into Beijing; I go at most twice a year. It's too noisy, too dirty. I can't think there.'

To the Confucian riposte that 'only small hermits need solitude, big hermits find peace in the city', Porter is quick with a reply: 'I would say to be a big hermit you have to have been a small hermit first.'

For Jiyan, the peace and solitude is non-negotiable. 'Being up here is like being above a big bowl of water, with sand in the bottom. You can see the sand, the surface of the water is smooth, that's how quiet it is. The mountains make people smooth.'

Like hermits, monks and nuns - some of whom will do a stint as a hermit - are growing in number. Yao estimates there are 50 million to 60 million Buddhists on the mainland who have undergone some kind of commitment ceremony, with the Taoist community smaller, at about 5 million.

Whatever the faith, Jiyan sees all human striving as the same. 'In the end, whether you believe in Jesus or Buddha, what they want for humanity is the same: to reduce human suffering,' he says, before putting his hands together in a traditional Buddhist farewell and seeing his visitors out of his red-painted door.