Road to Heaven

After spending three years in a Buddhist monastery in Taiwan and steeping himself in stories about and writings of Chinese hermits in the Buddhist and Taoist traditions, Bill Porter began to wonder whether any hermits remained in the remote mountains of China. In 1989, when the Taiwanese government lifted its ban on travel to mainland China, Porter managed to obtain funding for a trip to China in search of modern-day hermits. His initial contact with the deputy director of the Buddhist Association of China was a disappointment: He was told that there were no hermits left. He persevered, however, and learned that there were indeed hermits practicing meditation in the mountains of China.

The story of Porter’s meetings with various hermits are fascinating; what these recluses have to say about their lives sheds much light on the traditions in which they practice, the precarious states of Buddhism and Taoism in China, and the policies of the Chinese government toward religion (basically, the government wishes to promote foreign interest in Chinese religionin order to generate income from tourism, while simultaneously discouraging the practice of religion itself). Porter’s fluent Chinese enabled him to communicate on an interesting level with most of the hermits, and the photographs taken by his sometime companion Steven R. Johnson and himself are excellent, although they are all black-and-white.

Ultimately, however, Porter’s volume is somewhat unsatisfying.It is part introduction to Buddhism and Taoism, part Chinese history, and part travelogue; it simply cannot do justice to any of the various roles it chooses to play. The heart of the book is in what the hermits—both male and female—have to say about their reasons for living as they do. One wishes that more of the book were devoted to their statements. In spite of its shortcomings, however, ROAD TO HEAVEN is a useful book that explores territory hitherto unknown to Western readers—and probably to most Chinese.