Searching for solitude: Bill Porter talks of his journeys with Chinese hermits
On Tuesday afternoon in Trimble Forum, Bill Porter gave a lecture called “The Quest for and Cultivation of Solitude by Chinese Hermit Practitioners of Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism.”
Porter is the author of the book Road to Heaven: Encounter with Chinese Hermits.
The lecture was given in conjunction with the showing of the film Amongst White Clouds which was based on Porter’s book.
Inspiration for this lecture came from Professor Elisabeth Benard, who read Porter’s book last year.
“Ideas about searches always appeal to me because you wind up in a place, but you aren’t always sure how you got there,” Benard said.
When Porter was younger he was a student at Columbia University. At the time, Columbia gave scholarships to students learning a rare or endangered language and Porter, who needed the money, elected to study Chinese. He left Columbia and traveled to a monastery where he spent four years with the monks.
“After four years the Abbot came to me and said ‘so you’ve been freeloading here for years, it’s about time you became a monk.’ I left the Abbey that week,” Porter said, laughing.
During the lecture Porter described his travels to China in search of hermits. The history of these people dates back several thousand years.
“China has a history of hermits. There are [still people] in China who live like the monks [did] a thousand years ago,” Porter said. “[Hermits] represent a tradition that we don’t have in the West. [In the] West hermits are misanthropes, people who don’t like others or are crazy. In China the hermit is a very respected person. [Long ago] emperors would go [into] the mountains to find a hermit to take over the throne.”
In Chinese culture, mountain hermits would often be Confucians or Buddhists. “[Being a] hermit [is the equivalent of earning a] spiritual Ph.D. because the average stay is three to five years,” Porter added.
However, not all mountains are hermit mountains. The specific mountains where hermits live have been the same mountains for thousands of years.
In 3500 B.C., China’s first capitol, Huaiyang, was founded on the banks of the Yellow River.
“Instead of Adam and Eve, Eastern cultures have Fushi and Niwa. Fushi was the earliest known Taoist, while Niwa saved everyone from the great flood by giving them giant gourds to float in,” Porter said.
Taoism is different from Confucianism or Buddhism in the sense that Taoist monks practice the art of moving chi, the body’s natural energy.
Taoist hermits will often meditate for hours—even days—at a time on their Kangs (stone beds with a space underneath for a fire).
Porter often found that when two male hermits were living together, they were brothers who had studied under the same master. When two women were living together, however, one was a disciple and the other was a teacher.
Even the Chinese government leaves these people in peace. Being a hermit is considered a truly a respectable occupation; it shows dedication to a spiritual path.
“Different monasteries have different mountains they send their disciples to; some places will be close by, while others are five hundred miles away. [In some cases] monasteries have been using the same mountains for several thousand years,” Porter said.
To survive, Porter has estimated that hermits need to make about $10 (or the equivalent) a month in order to purchase things. That would be rice—wheat flour in the north—salt, kerosene and a bolt of cloth every couple years.
Each mountain community has its own unique ‘hermit network.’ That means that what one hermit knows often they all know. Porter also discovered that hermits also need what he calls ‘hermit buffer zone,’ meaning that each hermit needs to be at least fifteen minutes away from his neighbors in every direction in order to have enough space for several small vegetable patches, and some hunting ground.
“Whatever they have is yours. This tradition generates a lot of happiness,” Porter said.
“Hearing him talk from first hand [experience was amazing] ‘cause most westerners don’t try to have an experience like this,” sophomore Lydia Hollingsworth said. “It was surprising that most hermits were women because I know historically that Buddhism favored men.”
Sophomore Heather Stepp was fascinated by Porter’s talk.
“[It was surprising] when he talked about communities of hermits, how solitude does not equal complete seclusion [because] they look after each other. I’m really interested in Buddhism and Eastern religion and philosophy. I want to go explore and have a direct experience [like Porter did],” she said.
And as Bill Porter says, “the most interesting part of life is the part you don’t plan.”