Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Bill Porter's "Road to Heaven": Book Review

Porter, who translates Chinese poetry under the name of Red Pine, travels into the Chungnan range dividing the wheat from the rice, the north from the south. His visit is either well or badly timed, the late spring of 1989. He gets caught up in a pro-democracy demonstration, but departs for the hills in search of hermits before the Tiananmen Square crackdown in early June. He and his photographer partner decide to return that August. Perhaps the chill in the political air permeated those he meets, for there's less told here that delves into the fate of hermits under Mao and the PRC.

In a sort-of sequel to this account, "Zen Baggage" (reviewed 6/2013), Bill Porter relates this demonstration to a CIA operative, who wryly notes that the Agency noted Porter's spontaneous involvement. Like "Zen," "Road to Heaven" carries a wandering sensibility. Porter reveals less than in the other book about himself (not that he tells much) but lots about the dates, names, and history of the contexts for the shrines, temples, and hermitages he visits. While accessible to the non-specialist reader such as me, this material can slow the pace. Porter favors lots of detail and the result feels like a guidebook's commentary rather than a vividly conveyed, personal, rendering of sights.

However, he intersperses conversations, often terse, with often no-nonsense Taoist (and a few Buddhist, or hybrid) monks and nuns who've managed despite persecution during the Cultural Revolution to survive, on and off for some, steadily for a few, in the remote regions traditionally sought by those dropping out from the pressures of society to pursue the precepts of the Dao and the simple but demanding solitude that for them leads to wisdom, and if Taoists, to try to attain entry into immortality.

Like the Dao, this concept's pretty fuzzy even when hermits try to articulate this famously allusive ideal. I like Lao-Tzu's notebook remark, after he passed royal graves: "we can see the loss of desire/the cost of what we keep" (40). An abbot sums up the pursuit of Pure Land Buddhism or Zen as basically two paths to one goal. "Practice is like candy. People like different kinds. But it's just candy. The Dharma is empty." (96)

Not much happens during the travels Porter shares. He's off on less beaten paths, he does not have many extraordinary encounters to enliven these pages. Grounded more in historical narration and brief, sometimes stolid, interviews, there's far less of the itemized, step-by-step, price-by-price pace of his later travelogue from 2006 when he sought out Zen practitioners. But there's a similar reticence among those he talks to to reveal what life was like during their privations under Communism or during WWII. The recovery of the Zen monasteries after decades of persecution ties into the regime's wish to cash in on tourism. For Daoists, the same profit motive via the Party's control as a trade-off for monastic survival, as on fabled Huashan, appears to threaten the hard-kept and hard-won isolation that few monks or nuns can find today.

As Porter concludes after a visit to the splendid vistas of Taipaishan: "Those who follow the Tao cannot divorce themselves from others, yet to find the Tao they must retire from society, at least temporarily, to practice self-cultivation and concentration of mind." (199) Porter fittingly tries to capture what he knows he cannot, the message of the Tao that can be found by practice, and meditation, not by study or books. But, a few hermits try to explain; so must Porter. This little book may not succeed more than any other in that attempt, but it avoids the wry aphorisms or exotic packaging that commonly makes this challenging self-scrutiny too tidy for us. (6-16-13 Amazon US)

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