Not too much to report at present. Sometimes when wake up at night, my fingers hurt from being tensed during zhan zhuang. I’ve started using the steel rings on my wrists in some postures.
The pair of blackbirds nesting nearby are getting pretty used to me now, especially the female. She darts around my feet while I’m practising the ba mu zhang (slowly, of course). She’s even coming within a few inches of me while I dig up the lawn to become a vegetable plot, hopping here and there in search of fresh, juicy worms. The male is more cautious, and won’t come near. This evening, the female landed right in front of me, and pulled a large worm halfway out of a large clod of earth, held it for a while, and then hopped off. She was looking at the male, perched nearby on the ridge of the greenhouse, as if to say “Look, it’s OK! It’s safe, and there’s good eating!”. I think she’s mentally classified me as strange but useful type of livestock; good at churning up earth, but not dangerous. A pig, perhaps.
There are times when I’m standing in zhan zhuang, maybe in the morning with all different kinds of birds flying about, and the sun just creeping into the corner of the garden, or in the evening with the mud from the garden drying on my fingers, when I simply don’t want to do anything else. I think of the hermits that Red Pine met in China, and I think to myself, this is how they live. Meditation, martial arts, growing their own food, close to nature and in harmony with the wildlife. Could anything be better?
Well, that isn’t an option for me at this time, but I’ll tell you what: these sessions of practice, morning and evening – nothing else comes close…
Going back a couple of years, I posted about trailers I’d seen for a documentary called Amongst White Clouds. It tied up with the books I’d been reading then by Red Pine, about Chinese hermits. Coincidentally, I’ve been re-reading his books recently, just as one of my old MBA fellow-students posted a link on Facebook to this site. Amongst White Clouds has been put online in segments. I haven’t had time to watch it yet, but hopefully I’ll get around to doing so soon. It reminds me of a post on ‘Hollow Men’ that I’ve been meaning to write for at least a year! Anyway, I have no idea what the copyright situation is with these clips, so I’d better hurry to watch them in case they get taken down!
I don’t know whether you’re the same, but I tend to keep interesting pages open in browser tabs until I get round to blogging them. At the moment, I must have a dozen such pages open, and Firefox is getting slower and slower, so here’s a rag-tag of links.
More about Red Pine, aka Bill Porter. Quite apart from him being a fascinating person, he said something extremely interesting about Buddhism in China. Like most foreigners, I’m aware that Buddhist monasteries suffered a lot during the Cultural Revolution, with monks being forced back into lay life (if they weren’t killed), monastic lands being confiscated, and so on. Although there is a religious revival in contemporary China, the assumption is that there’s no longer any learning; that modern Chinese Buddhism is starting afresh, as it were. It’s natural to see that this must be the case, and the online Buddhist fora I belong to certainly assume this to be the truth.
As so often in China, though, the reality is more complicated. I’ve spoken to a monk myself whose temple survived the Cultural Revolution unscathed – because Zhou En Lai ordered the People’s Liberation Army to protect it from the Red Guards. The monk said that the temple was basically under siege for several years, with the monks inside, the Red Guards outside, and the PLA in between… There were a lot of temples in the same situation, I gather.
Furthermore, Porter has explained the relationship between hermits and monks in a way that I hadn’t considered. I suppose most of us Westerners think of hermits as reclusive, rejecting the world and society. This probably comes from the Christian tradition, especially the Irish, I guess, who sought out the most remote and inaccessible locations for solitude. Even this is an inaccurate understanding – many of the early Christian hermits, especially in Egypt, were constantly in touch with society. In Chinese Buddhism, it’s completely wrong to think of hermits in this way. Porter compares monasteries to universities, where monks learn the fundamental concepts and practices of their particular brand of Buddhism, be it Zen or Pure Land. Some then go into the hills, and can be considered as graduate students – learning to take the basic ideas, and make them their own, to truly live them. Even in the hills, a hermit is never far from other hermits; they get to know each other, and the established hermits teach newcomers the skills they will need to survive. Eventually, local villagers may help once they believe that a given hermit is truly committed.
Eventually, after years in the hills living close to nature, the hermits will often return to the monastery. The insights and experiences they have acquired in their time away from the modern world equip them to become the ‘Professors’ – those who can inspire new monks in training with the true nature of Zen. It’s this stage that Porter discusses, and which suggests that Buddhism in China today can rebound more quickly, and in a more authentic fashion, than many outsiders think. The Cultural Revolution broke up the monasteries, but those were the undergraduates. The majority of the hermits, it seems, passed through that time almost completely unaffected, in some cases completely unaware of what was happening outside their mountains, and are now re-emerging. The reconstituted monasteries are thus regaining teachers who belong to the authentic Chinese tradition, and who possess the knowledge gained before the monasteries were broken up. I find this extremely encouraging.
I went to The Bookworm this evening to catch a talk by Bill Porter, aka ‘Red Pine’. I’d been planning to go for well over a month, but hadn’t thought to pre-book a ticket. As it turned out, the talk was well over-subscribed, and I was lucky to get a ticket on standby.
He was talking about his new book, Zen Baggage – a personal pilgrimage around the significant historical sites of Zen (Ch’an) Buddhism in China. I actually bought the book about six weeks ago, and I’m not going to say anything about it now as I hope to review it at some point.
Since I’ve already read it, the readings were only mildly interesting. It was the conversation afterwards that gripped me. Porter, let’s just say, has made the hard choice to follow what he loves, even though it led to poverty. I have to respect that, especially in light of the choices I’m weighing. It turns out that he’s a friend of Daniel Reid – “He turned to Daoism, I turned to Buddhism, and we balance each other out”. Apparently Reid lives in Yunnan now. I’m vaguely aware of his work, although my friends H. and S. are big fans.
Anyway, I had a brief and enlightening chat with Porter after the talk. It seems that the book for which he is most well-known, Road to Heaven, will be re-published in September this year. I’ll look forward to getting a copy. I had planned to take my copy of Zen Baggage along for him to sign but, since I was kept late at work, I didn’t get a chance. Instead, I bought a copy of Cold Mountain.
No…. NOT the American Civil War novel that got made into a film a few years back! This is the collection of Chinese poems by a Daoist, or possibly Buddhist, hermit, made famous by Jack Kerouac in The Dharma Bums. Which is where I first heard of them, and I’ve been looking for a copy ever since….