Movies

The Film Sufi: “Amongst White Clouds” – Edward A. Burger (2005), “Hermits” – He Shiping (2015), & “Searching for Monks in China with Red Pine”


Bill Porter (aka “Red Pine”, his pen name) is an American writer and translator known for his works describing his travels through China and documenting spiritual practices there, particularly that of Daoism and Buddhism.  His best-known work is Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits (1993) [1], and in this article I wish to discuss three documentary films that were inspired by that book and that provided further elaboration of its fascinating subject matter.

As a young student, Porter had dabbled in several academic disciplines before enrolling as a graduate student in anthropology at Columbia University in New York.  But there in New York he encountered Buddhism and began receiving instructions on meditation.  He eventually became so fascinated with Buddhist practice that in 1972, after two years of study, he dropped out of school and moved to a monastery in Taiwan in order to more fully engage in Buddhism [2,3].

In Taiwan, Porter met his future wife, Ku Lien Chang, and learned Chinese well enough that he could begin translating some of the classic Chinese teachings into English.  This was the beginning of Porter’s career as an outstanding translator of Chinese poetry and classic works.  In the process, Porter became fascinated with the spiritual practices associated with these classic teachings, particularly the practices of devout Chinese hermits that he had heard about, and he wondered if there were still any spiritual hermits is present-day China.  However, his interests in going into mainland China to investigate this issue further were blocked for some time by restrictive Chinese policies toward Taiwanese (including Porter’s wife) entry into China.  Eventually these restrictions were relaxed in 1987, and Porter finally first traveled to China in 1989 in order to see if he could find some authentic Chinese hermits.  

Finding hermits out in the wild, of course, is not an easy task, because the hermit does not want to be found – he or she has gone out into the wilderness in order to be alone and completely isolated from the distractions and concerns of society.  They seek to ignore the past and the future and just focus on the now in order to connect with all of conscious and subconscious reality.  Nevertheless, thanks to both some diligence and luck, Porter did manage to find some hermits meditating in caves in the Zhongnan Mountains near Xian.  These mountains have a rugged terrain and a suitable geographic location that has made them appropriate for many hermits seeking meditative isolation.  Because Porter was fluent in Chinese and presented himself as a fellow spiritual seeker, he was able to approach and converse with a number of these hermits, and their conversations make up the principal material contained in his book Road to Heaven.  

A key aspect of these conversations in Road to Heaven is that they do not much concern theological principals or abstract ideas, but are instead focused on the mundane, everyday practice of the hermits.  This gives the reader a unique opportunity to get a feel for what the daily life of the hermit is all about, and this is why I strongly recommend that you read the book, yourself.

So what did these hermits believe in?  Their source belief systems were several ancient traditions which, despite their varying origins, had a certain degree of commonality – Daoism, Zen (in Chinese “Chan”) Buddhism, and Pure Land Buddhism.  In all cases there is an interest in turning the mind away from reflection and thinking about things and, instead, getting it to embrace all of experience.  As a result, these three spiritual practices historically got along harmoniously in China, and the hermits Porter encountered were usually followers of one of them, or sometimes even a mixture of them.  

But although these hermit practices have coexisted harmoniously, they have sometimes had difficulties gaining acceptance in the wider compass of Chinese society.  This is perhaps due to a general suspicion of religious practices on the part of governmental authorities that can be traced back to the horrific experiences of the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864).  This was the civil war between the Qing Dynasty rulers and the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, a cultish offshoot of Christianity that had theocratic ambitions, and this disruption was one of the most devastating conflicts in world history [4] – Chinese society was eviscerated during this period, and the struggles resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of people (some estimates are as high as 70 million deaths [4]).  As a result, there has since been a concern that subsequent religious fervor of any kind might get out of hand.  

And, of course, the later Chinese Communist Revolution (1945-1949), which led to the installation of an officially atheistic government, put further anti-religious pressures on Chinese society.  In this connection, the rejection of religion and traditional Chinese cultural practices was also an underlying motivation behind the Cultural Revolution (1965-1976), the depredations of which led not only to intense suppression of traditional practices, but also to the destruction of a great many Daoist and Buddhist monasteries and architecturally symbolic stupas.  All of these disruptive phenomena and anti-religious social policies undoubtedly put further pressures on would-be spiritual practitioners to isolate themselves in the wilderness as hermits.  

And so all of these effects add further to our respect for the humble hermits.  However, in addition to reading about conversations and commentary describing everyday hermit life in Porter’s book, it can be nice to get visual imagery showing these people and their environments.  And this is where three documentary films related to Road to Heaven can contribute:

All three of these films involve trips to the Zhongnan Mountains in search of the hermits Porter had interviewed for his book, and all three films are currently available for watching on YouTube.    

Searching for Monks in China with Red Pine was produced and directed by Jack Estes and shows Porter visiting hermits sometime in the mid-1990s.  The film is narrated, presumably by Estes, throughout, but it also includes commentary by Porter, as well as the interactions he has with the various people he meets in China.

Amongst White Clouds was written and directed by Edward A. Burger, a convert to Zen Buddhism who was inspired by reading Porter’s Road to Heaven to come to China and study under a Zen monk for four years.  This film does not show Porter directly, but it is very much influenced by Porter’s work.  It traces Burger’s journey through the Zhongnan Mountains looking for and talking to hermits that he meets [8].  Although the film is a bit marred by some too-brief subtitles of translated comments from Chinese speakers, nevertheless, this is an interesting film that is accompanied by some contemplative background music, and it is worth seeing.

Hermits is a film written, directed, and filmed by He Shiping, Fu Peng, and Zhou Chengyu that shows Porter’s visit to the Zhongnan Mountains twenty-five years after his first visit in 1989.  This film is particularly interesting, in part because it shows more of Porter and more details of his encounters with hermits, some of whom he had seen twenty-five years earlier [2].  The vérité virtues of the film can be traced back to the film’s interesting “Director Statement” [2,9]:

Director Statement – 13 Commandments

It took us 3 years and 14 trips to Zhongnan Mountains to accomplish this documentary. It was difficult to communicate with the hermits. Our requests for interview were mostly rejected, but when some of them agreed, we got the precious opportunities. Due to our humbleness, sincereness and patience, about ten hermits finally agreed to be filmed and might be willing to have further communication with us. Unfortunately, our author/leading character–Bill Porter was only allowed to stay in China for a short while this time. However, with three years’ hard work and preparation, we’re quite ready for the revisit.

1. Zen. Everything moves except the camera position. The dynamic state of men, wind, water, birds, grass and trees contrasts with the static state of the camera. No zoom shots, no pans and tilts, no dolly or crane shots. The balance of composition is pursued, with the steady scenes to reveal inner peace and quietness.

2. Humility. For shooting the hermits, we adopt only low angle and the static camera position. The camera should be no higher than the cameramen’s heads when they are shooting on their knees. We do our best to avoid the disrespectful high angle shots, and while shooting the conversations between Bill Porter and the hermits, the cameramen step back or leave the scene once the camera is set and rolling.

3. Moderation. We use mainly medium shots for shooting characters instead of close-ups, so as to avoid the dramatic effects. The frames of interior shots and exterior shots of dialogues are limited to one zhang (c. 3.333 meters) wide, symbolizing Fang Zhang (square zhang, or 11 1/9 m2), as in “The room of one square zhang can contain all.” in Vimalakirti Sutra. Static camera position is required for the scenes of people sitting in meditation, apprehending the doctrines, practicing martial arts, living, etc. Following shot or other kinds of moving camera shots are prevented.

4. Selection. The unnecessary gorgeous scenery is left out. Just the simple life of the hermits is filmed. This documentary is to show both the elegant, poetic, leisurely and carefree aspects, and the impoverished, choice-less, agonizing, and sometimes dirty sides of the hermits’ life.

5. Micro-Budget. Total cost is under $92k(€65k). To reveal a way of low budget life, we adopt a way of low budget shooting. Instead of professional movie cameras, we shoot the whole documentary with Canon EOS 5D Mark II, using only prime lens and telephoto lens.

6. Keeping it natural. Absolutely no props, setting, or artificial lighting are added. Everything you see is the actual living condition of the hermits.

7. Simplicity. During post-production, no special effects — fade-in, fade-out, dissolve or blank screen — are added. Scenes are directly connected by the footages of Bill Porter’s journey.   

8. Silence. There may be awkward situations when the hermits refuse to let our crews in, or are not willing to talk with us, which, however, lead to precious scenes that definitely need to be captured. Moreover, we let such shots last, in order to brew interesting and profound impression.

9. Slowness. Slowness is the rhythm of the hermits’ life, and the style of this documentary. Bill Porter is required to speak slowly, as he’s thinking. The hermits talk slowly, with pauses, or even sit in silence from time to time. In addition, streams in the documentary are slow and soft ripple instead of water pouring down.

10. Vitality. We do not peruse intentional vitality so as to get rid of the tediousness. In fact, the spontaneous self-mockery and movement are of vivid eastern wisdom and humor. Besides, Bill Porter’s body language is vivid enough.

11. Quietness. No score. No narration. Only the hermits and Bill Porter’s sound recorded on location, with occasional birds’ chirping, dogs’ barking and water babbling.

12. Freedom. We did not direct any of Bill Porter’s topics.

13. Fast. After going into the mountain, our crews were forbidden to have alcoholic drinks, meats, scallion, or garlic.

As I watched these three films, I was struck by how humble and austere were the living circumstances of the hermits that were visited.  Porter had to climb up very steep, barely visible trails and cliffs to get to the hidden, often hand-excavated, caves where the hermits lived.  The hermits would grow their own food, and they would only every month or so make the arduous climb down mountain peak to a local village in order to buy some meager supplies.  And yet the hermits that Porter would meet (at least the ones that are shown) were extraordinarily hospitable and would invariably offer him a meal from what little they had.  One thing that surprised me in all this was the number of women hermits that Porter met in his searches.  These nuns would usually look after themselves in the same way that the male hermits would.  There seemed to be no gender discrimination in these outlying quarters.

Overall, over the course of the book and the three films, one can only have respect and admiration for Porter’s remarkable perseverance, as well his general understanding and sensitivity towards his subject matter.  But my greatest appreciation is for the hermits, themselves, many of whom are in their seventies and have been living as hermits for fifty years.  They are truly humble, compassionate, and dedicated spiritual seekers.  We can see that they are not cutting themselves off from the world, but are instead seeking to embrace all of it with love.

 ★★★★ 

Notes:

  1. Red Pine (William Porter), Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits, Mercury House, (1993)
  2. H. E. Tsem Rinpoche, “Hermit – A Profound Documentary by Bill Porter”, TsemRinpoche.Com, (21 August 2018).    
  3. Robin Dudley, “’Red Pine’ talks translation, fluff and writing”, The Leader, (18 October 2016).
  4. “Taiping Rebellion”, Wikipedia, (2 January 2021).   
  5. Jack Estes, Searching for Monks in China with Red Pine”, (“Hermits1″ on Youtube), (mid-1990s?, posted on YouTube on 19 June 2018).      
  6. Edward A. Burger, Amongst White Clouds (Documentary – 2005 – Zen), (2005, posted on YouTube on 27 March 2018).      
  7. He Shiping, Fu Peng, and Zhou Chengyu, Hermits, (Chinese monks / Documentary Movies 1080p), (2015, posted on  YouTube 9 May 2020).    
  8. Marwood Larson-Harris, “Amongst White Clouds”, Journal of Religion & Film: Vol. 12 : Iss. 2, Article 7,  (October 2008).    
  9. “Hermits (87min_1080p)”, FilmFreeway, (14 January 2015).     



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