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Road To Heaven: By Bill Porter.
on 9 July 2011
This is a magical book. It transports the reader to an appreciation of old China - that existed thousands of years ago, and continued to exist up until 1949. The author, Bill Porter, whilst living in a Buddhist monastery in Taiwan, decided to travel to mainland China in May of 1989, in search of any still existing hermits of the Chinese religious systems. In so doing, inadvertently, Porter witnessed the political turmoil of the time, that culminated in the tragic events surrounding the student pro-democracy demonstrations in Tienanmen Square of the same year. This book does not dwell on these events, but meanders through valleys and climbs mountains throughout central and southeast China in search of the isolated holy ones. Porter is assisted on this quest by photographer Steven R Johnson.
The paperback (1993) edition contains 220 numbered pages, numerous photographs and illustrations, a list of Chinese dynasties and republics, and 12 chapters:
1) Hermit Heaven.
2) Mountains of the Moon.
3) If the World is Muddy.
4) On the Trail of the Tao.
5) Sound of the Crane.
6) Road to Heaven.
7) Cloud People.
8) The Bird That Is the Mountain.
9) Crossing Heartbreak Ridge.
10) Home of the Evening Star.
11) Visiting Wang Wei, Finding Hime Gone.
12) When the Tao Comes to Town.
This book firmly establishes the fact that despite the political upheavel China and her people have experienced over the last 100 years, and despite the changes in ideology, nevertheless, the tradition of the Chinese hermit still persists. Porter describes how he encountered an old man living in a cave who had been there since 1939, and had never heard the name 'Mao Zedong'. The local villagers supported him with food and clothing. It is unlikely that he is the only one. Porter also visits the government established temples, and talks with their inhabitants. By and large, many of these temples have been allowed to recruit monks and nuns in recent years, to serve in the tourist trade, and as a consequence, seldom experience the required solitude to work on their meditation or read the scriptures.
However, the situation is not lost. Porter's research shows that China's deep spirituality has had to adapt yet again to a new set of physical circumstances, and as a consequence, there is much to feel hopeful about. Throughout the book, Porter references both Buddhist and Daoist philosophy, and quotes liberally (and correctly) from ancient Chinese texts such as the Daodejing, Zhuangzi and Shanhaijing, etc. His numerous interviews are fascinating in a number of ways, and the diversity of opinion shows clearly that China can not be easily summed-up in a simple either/or format. Porter's physical journey is in fact a spiritual journey in disguise. As such, there is a bit of everything to interest the general reader. A very good and uplifting book.