Zen Baggage by bill porter (red pine)Posted: July 2, 2010
This review is scheduled to appear in The Kyoto Journal.
Zen Baggage: A Pilgrimage to China by Bill Porter. Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 359 pp., $16.95 (paper).
You wonder how a book like Zen Baggage could be written. First, who would have guessed that China’s legendary Zen temples would rise from the ashes of the Cultural Revolution and prosper in the new century? And second, what Western writer could pull off a history of Zen in China and then go on to paint a vivid picture of contemporary life in China’s most legendary Zen temples and monasteries?
The only writer I know who could do that justice is Bill Porter, also known as Red Pine, the éminence grise of translators and commentators on Zen and Taoist poetry and texts. In this latest, most personal, travel book, Porter is back on the fertile ground he covered so well in Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits.
Thanks to that book, we know that Taoist hermits continued to practice and live in their remote huts in the Chungnan Mountains throughout the era of China’s Red Guards. The book was a revelation to Westerners and it seems to have fascinated many Chinese as well: the Chinese translation is now in its sixth printing under the title Hidden Orchids of Deserted Valleys.
Porter makes it clear that the average Chinese doesn’t quite know what to make of the legendary Zen temples and monasteries that have become heavily visited pit stops on a sort of Zen Tourist Highway running from Beijing to Hong Kong. Most of the temples are thriving: attracting more monks, building academies, expanding zendos, and refurbishing, enlarging, and promoting themselves in close—maybe too close—cooperation with the Chinese authorities, all under the auspices of a program that seems more intent upon raking in tourists’ money than in preserving the cultural legacy of Zen. The current government’s new relationship with Zen temples seems to be motivated in part by a desire to be more respectful and tolerant than the Communist regimes of the past, and its view that Zen is a non-threatening, home-grown, institution that promotes responsibility and discipline.
Zen being Zen, the abbots of these ancient temples are only too happy to accept whatever benefits accrue from the government’s new view of things. They remember all too well the days when monks were rounded up and abused, and temples were gutted or shut. Now abbots can easily meet the government’s modest expectations while also scooping up hoards of badly needed yuan from the bus loads of Chinese tourists who flock to the temples’ trinket shops to buy T-shirts, tea sets and kitschy souvenirs. The money is wisely used to build sub-temples in remote locations where monks can practice without being put on public view.
Porter’s personality comes through vividly in Zen Baggage, and it contains sketches of his earlier life in Taiwan, his frequent travels to China, and, most revealingly, his on-the-road personae as he makes his six-week, 2,500-mile, temple-hopping pilgrimage, which was largely a catch-up journey to supplement his many previous visits. He is on intimate terms with many of the temple abbots and others that he meets on his trip. In contrast, in Road to Heaven, during his forays into the rugged Chungnan Mountains (home of the hermits), he was on new ground ferreting out the names of hermits and the mountains where they were living, and then he tracked them down. What was most surprising about his first encounters with these Taoist solitaries, both men and women, is how seldom they showed surprise at the appearance of this bearded foreigner–if, indeed, they perceived him as a foreigner. He seemed to have been expected.
Zen Baggage is soaked in wisdom so subtle it is almost invisible. I was three-quarters of the way into it, for example, when I realized I’d easily absorbed a chronology of the major Chinese Zen patriarchs along with the distinctive swerves and turns that collectively make up Zen’s birth, its crucial philosophical debates, its divisions, its flowering in the sixth century, its slow decline, and its diffusion in the world.
Porter’s personal Taoist/Zen style of travel gives his journey an interesting edge. Whether he’s interviewing the abbot of a legendary temple or eating sweet cakes at a truck stop, he lashes it all together in a bundle of concrete details that help illuminate the tales, metaphysics, koans, and esoterica of early Zen. He has read so deeply in Zen, Taoism and Buddhism that he could be the abbot of any of these legendary temples––to the benefit of the temples and monks––but it’s clear that most, if not all, of the abbots and monks he talked with would laugh at such a suggestion. Throughout Asia, Zen too often remains the “property” of individual countries, whereas in the West it’s readily perceived as open to all equally. In all his encounters, you get the feeling that in only a few cases was there a true meeting of minds. Many Chinese sized Porter up as just another Westerner who spoke good Chinese, and had no knowledge of his translation work or of his life (not that he cared), and most probably weren’t interested anyway. The prevailing orthodoxy seemed to be: “We’re the only ones who can translate the texts, who understand Zen––Westerners can’t get it.” But as history reminds us, Buddhism is international: the Chinese texts the abbots depend upon were carried back to China from India by Chinese pilgrims and translated from Sanskrit and other languages. In Porter’s many trips to China over the past two decades, we have an apposite addition to the history of Buddhism: a Western pilgrim who traveled to the East to get Chinese texts to translate into English.
On this latest trip, he bounced down China’s buzzing highways in buses to report to the world (or the English-speaking West), on what grew from those early Chinese translations into Zen. This recounting of how Zen was born and thrived in China (for a while), then died out, and is now being reborn closes China’s Buddhist/Zen circle, for the time being at least.
Along with his translations (11 so far), Porter’s two travel books are singular achievements that break new ground in our understanding of Zen and Taoism in contemporary China. My guess is that we can expect more travel books from him that will flesh out the on-the-ground story of Zen and Taoism, and that they will showcase his two greatest assets as a writer: his independence as a scholar and his practical knowledge of whatever he calls his personal blending of Taoism and Zen.
The travel books most closely resemble the work of his mentor John Blofeld (1913-1987), the British writer and translator of Buddhist texts, who gave Porter the encouragement that led to his first translation in 1983, Cold Mountain Poems. Like Blofeld, Porter uses his unique skills as a translator and his talents as a travel writer to bring to life Buddhism’s past and present.