Bill Porter is packing; he’s got a bus to catch. Having spent the last 40 years translating China’s ancient poets, he’s embarking on a pilgrimage to find their graves – 36 of them to be precise – and this trip, starting in Shanghai, is his final leg. The expedition is for a new book, Finding Them Gone – a fitting title given that most of the resting places are now built over. Not that this bothers Porter, who’s there to pay his respects. ‘Finding a grave somewhere in an old corn field is good enough for me,’ he says. ‘I do the same ritual everywhere I go: I pour out three cups of bourbon whiskey, give the poet a chance to imbibe, then I finish what they leave and read their poem, if I have one.’
This is typical Porter, a writer for whom the journey is not a means to an end but the purpose itself. His first book, Road to Heaven, published in 1993, documented his encounters with China’s modern hermits. Since then he’s become the world’s most prolific translator of Taoist and Buddhist poetry. Not that you would ever know it when you met him. Porter is profoundly modest, which has affected his sales number over the years. He doesn’t even have an agent because, as he puts it, ‘I’m not that kind of author.’
In fact, Porter is exceptional in many ways. His father was involved in JFK’s election campaign and as a child the Kennedys would regularly drop by his home. His father was prevented from entering politics by a criminal record for a bank robbery he committed as a teen. Porter junior formed a negative feeling toward ‘power, wealth and the falseness that came with it’ and, after discovering meditation as an anthropology student at Columbia University in 1972, he dropped out and moved to the Fo Kwang Shan Buddhist Temple in Taiwan.
Face-to-face, there is something tangibly spiritual about Porter. These days he has a big bushy beard, like Gandalf’s well-groomed half-brother. Above are the ruddy cheeks of a traveller. He sometimes wears a knitted black beanie that has a religious aura, like a Kippah or a Kufi hat. And when he smiles, his eyes wrinkle up as if squeezing out warm light.
While most ‘China authors’ write for people back home, Porter finds himself in the unique position of teaching Chinese people about their own history. ‘Everybody has heard of me in the Zhongnan mountains. My book has become rather well known in monasteries,’ he explains. In fact, his books are more popular here than in the US. In China, he sells between 10,000-20,000 books a year, while back home selling 1,000-3,000 makes a good year. Road to Heaven, still his best known book, has sold around 250,000 copies in China. It documents the lifestyle of the Daoist and Buddhist monks and nuns that live in the remote Zhongnan mountains south of Xian. Porter interviewed over 20 hermits in two years, sometimes staying with them for a few days at a time.
‘In the West the hermit tradition is misanthropic, for people who wanted to step outside of society. It’s just the opposite in China, here it represented an important part of society,’ says Porter, who explains that a period of isolation has always been a crucial practice for any Zen, Taoist or Buddhist master. ‘They give up what other people are afraid to give up and there’s a great deal of power that you acquire when you [do that].’
And while China has experienced a tumultuous time in recent decades, the country’s hermit community has been mostly unaffected. During the Cultural Revolution hermits were largely left alone because of their inaccessibility but also because of their status. On a recent visit, Porter found one hermit friend’s hut full of communist officials, who were there paying their respects.
Porter estimates that most hermits stay up the mountain for three to five years, with about five per cent staying for 20-30 years. Sixty per cent are women, who usually live in pairs as master and disciple, while brother hermits are usually the same age. Few hermits have little more by way of possessions than one book, which they chant from in the morning and evening. During the day they are busy trying to stay alive by gathering herbs, which they sell to collectors for money to buy food staples; wheat flour in the north or rice in the south, salt to preserve vegetables, cooking oil and kerosene. ‘It’s easy to romanticise them as sitting in the mountains by a stream with their little book of poetry,’ says Porter. ‘However in reality it is a very hard life.’
Not that this has discouraged people. According to Porter there are two or three times more hermits today than there used to be and the age range is shifting. ‘Most I knew were aged around 50; now it’s around 30 or 40,’ he says. He attributes the rise to a disillusionment with modern day society. ‘Before it was just people who were drawn to the spiritual path, but now there seems to be a noticeable number of hermits whose presence on the mountains seems to have a lot to do with what’s going on in China today.’
Some attribute the rise to the ‘religious revival’ in the country. But Porter is careful not to overstate supposed newfound beliefs – he says these never went away, it’s just that now people have more money to spend and freedom to practice. ‘[One of the first things] a Chinese person does when they have some money is send it ahead to the next life. Instead of going to the local bank, the place where you go to wire your money is the local temple or monastery or shrine. They have the fibre optic cable to the heavens. It’s not a renaissance at all in some respects, it’s just a continuation of the basic Chinese attitude, which is first you take care of your family and then you take care of your family in the next life.’
Regardless of how new this religiosity is, the disillusionment Porter describes in China’s young hermits echoes his own move to leave the US in early life. But he sees his decision to drop out of an Ivy League school and pursue a spiritual path in different light: ‘It pushed me earlier in life in this direction, but I had already made an unspoken commitment to turn my back on that other world.’