The word "hermit" is pregnant with implied meanings and cultural assumptions. When one hears the word, “hermit,” many of us imagine people who want to run away from society, to be alone and separated from others. Some think this is a selfish pursuit, while some others believe it is a noble path to take. So which is it? My teacher, a bit of a hermit himself, would probably say, “both and neither.”
But what I want to talk about is what it means to be a hermit here, in China. Not anywhere else, as I can't speak to that. I started to visit the Zhongnan mountains in 1999. Up until that point, the only hermit I knew anything about was Han Shan, a man who lived in the very remote reality of the Tang Dynasty. I envisioned his tattered robes and his wild, joyful gaze, leaning against a pine tree over-looking the mountain forest. I imagined him writing poetry by moonlight and passing away quietly on the mountain.
And though I have discovered some such literary and romantic moments, the reality of hermit life was different than I had imagined. What surprised me early on was that the population of monks and nuns living as hermits in the Zhongnan mountains was a very fluid and changing population. For those of you that have seen Amongst White Clouds, a few years after finishing the film, I returned to the valley and found that some of the hermits had moved on. Some huts laid empty, while others had new hermits living in them. In some ways, I felt that this made the moments with the characters in the film that much more precious as they were “like clouds passing by” as Han Shan would say. Very few hermits are hermits for life. Most monks and nuns see hermit life as a practical choice to support their practice at a specific time when it’s needed. After a period of time (typically anywhere from three to ten years), most return to life in a monastery.
As it’s highly impractical to live a life totally severed from society, you’ll actually find that most hermits, as the crow flies, don’t live that far from us. Though it is true that there are some hermits that live deeper in the mountains which can take days to reach on foot, most hermits are as close as a couple hours hike from a local village. The reason for living in closer proximity to village life is practical - sometimes hermits need supplies or laypeople who support them may come to visit the hermitage. Although some hermits do live in caves, many actually live in hermit huts which are often converted shepherd’s shelters or simple structures built out of stone, brick and wood. Some hermits build these shelters themselves, like the nun and the ascetic monk in Amongst White Clouds. While for others, the shelters were already in place when they arrived.
To say that hermits are completely isolated and alone is a misnomer. The hermits tend to live from just 30 minutes to a few hours hike from each other. They check in on one another and care for each other when they get ill. They share the fruits and vegetables from their gardens. At one shared water-well in the Zhongnan mountains, my teacher told me that the hermits would hang their water dipper on the well when they were on the mountain, so that when any one visited the well for water, he/she would know exactly who was on the mountain at any given time. It's a “hermit community”. And that's not an oxymoron.
So what purpose does living as a recluse serve? It is true that practice is strengthened by the stuff of life and living among others in family and community. The hermits are not strangers to this notion. It is at the heart of Buddhist practice. But there are certain esoteric practices which serve to take that experience to a deeper, more profoundly transformative level which require extended, uninterrupted periods of time. So they head to the hills for a time, so to speak. It's a practical gesture, supported by an ancient tradition accepted by society, and even exalted.
And few would argue the importance of cultivating these illuminated states of awareness, as they are not just an experience, determined by conditions, but are actual changes in the makeup, the alchemy, of perception which allow us to understand, in life, the truths of nature and existence. That is why much time is devoted to these practices - we need these people, as this cultivated wisdom is seen as beneficial for all beings. I sleep better at night knowing that there are hermits out there. And when the right time comes, most of these hermits return to life in community at a monastery. There they will help guide others on the Path. Bill Porter once told me that if monks are the undergraduates of the Buddhist world, then the hermits are like the PhD students.
I believe that in the end, in our modern world, we are in fact the masters of isolation. Our collective cultures, for all the beauty and complexity, we must admit, have cultivated a myriad of ways to distract us from one another, from our society’s issues, and from ourselves. With so many tempting distractions, it can be difficult to just be there and be present, mindful of ourselves and others. There is always a TV to turn on, a link to click, or another update in our inbox. Not to say these things are necessarily bad (as I am also a frequent user of this technology), but I think they often can be used to distract ourselves from facing what really matters to us.
If this impulse to distract ourselves is at the root of our inability to resolve our own collective suffering, then hermits might be among the most responsible members of our society! Because, though they take time out to leave our society, they return to their humanity. And the hermits have chosen to make this a full-time pursuit. They return to their human-ness, and they stay there, without distraction, for better or for worse, comforting or painful, dark or light. We have to ask ourselves, honestly, do we have the courage today to return to our humanity, and to stay there face-to-face with it for a long moment, a breathe, an hour, a day, a lifetime?
Edward Burger, edited by Agnes Lam