Hermits, monks and acrobats

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.

Some interviews with Bill Porter, aka Red Pine:

And now for something completely different.

Here’s a couple of parkour clips I really like, found via this Guardian article.

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