Modern Chinese Hermits
When a Chinese elderly celebrates his or her birthday, the most common congratulatory messages would often be a couplet “福如东海长流水，寿比南山不老松”, meaning “may your fortune be as boundless as the East Sea and may you live as long as pines in Mt Zhongnan (终南山)”.
What Is So Special with the Pines in Mt Zhongnan?
Or it may should be asked what is so special with Mt Zhongnan that enables pines to live much longer than in any other places in China?
Before answering this question, let me tell you a little story.
One day in 1903 in a thatched hut at a secluded corner in the Mt Zhongnan, a monk in his 60s put a taro he grew from a vegetable field next to his dwelling into a cauldron. While waiting for his only meal of the day, he sat down cross-legged on a cushion placed on the dirt floor.
It was about two weeks before the Chinese New Year. Winter was in full swing and the entire Mt Zhongnan was covered with thick snow. In a setting that was almost soundless and colourless, the monk’s mind felt pure and clear, and quickly slipped into deep meditation.
Sometime later, he was woken up by subtle yet penetrating clatters from qing (罄), a traditional Chinese musical instrument made of stone. His monk friends came to the hut and used qing to bring him out of meditative state.
“Happy New Year!” they greeted him.
He didn’t know how to reply.
“Have you taken your meal?” they asked.
“Not yet, but the taro in the cauldron should be well cooked by now.”
One of the visitors lifted the cauldron cover, and frowned. Others stretched their neck to take a peep, all ended up staring at one another without saying a word.
“What’s up?” the host was baffled and prepared to rise to his feet.
“Since when did you begin to meditate?” one questioned.
“Are you sure?”
“Check the cauldron for yourself then.”
He did, and saw it was covered with an inch of mould.
“You must had been in meditation for half a month at least,” they concluded. And all laughed.
It turned out the monks who lived in nearby huts were concerned about his welfare after he was absent for a lengthy period. In fact, they were not the first ones to see him when he meditated. Outside his hut on the snow field, tigers’ footprints were everywhere.
This remarkable monk was no other but Xuyun (虚云, 1840 – 1959), one of the most influential Chan masters in Chinese history, and the founder and first honorary president of the Buddhist Association of China that was established in 1953.
In the next sixty years since his 18-day meditation session, Monk Xuyun repeatedly recalled his experience in Mt Zhongnan, which he believed had helped him to easily identify and purge thought junkies from his default system, the subconsciousness, through consistent and uninterrupted monitor of his mind activities.
Why Mt Zhongnan Has Such a Potent Power?
Mt Zhongnan’s power on people’s mental state certainly has a lot to do with its geographic location and physical formation. But there’s something more than that.
About 3,000 years ago, a man called Jiang Shang (姜尚) studied tangible and intangible Dao in Mt Zhongnan until he was nearly 80 when he met King Wen of Zhou (I Ching’s formulator). Together the pair laid the foundation for Chinese culture. Then he went on to become the co-initiator of Daoism, the originator of Chinese art of war, and the inventor of China’s spy techniques.
500 years later, a border guard commander called Yixi studied skies in the Mt Zhongnan and detected the arrival of Lao Tzu. When the man emerged, he got all facilities and excuses ready to persuade the traveller to stay and teach him Dao, and that is how Lao Tzu’s lecture notes were crafted and later published under the title “The Book of Virtue”.
Another 300 years later, Zhang Liang (张良), one of China’s best strategists and statesmen, retired into Mt Zhongnan after having pushed China into a golden era, Han Dynasty, and successfully reinvented himself as a legendary Daoist.
Another 900 years later, Li Bai (Li Bo), China’s most acclaimed poet, went into Mt Zhongnan cultivating Daoism and martial arts. It was there he befriended a Daoist nun who happened to be a princess and this unexpected encounter paved way for Li Bai to be appointed as the cultural consultant to Tang emperor, which to some degree helped Tang become the most advanced dynasty in poetry.
In Taoist mythology, of 100 men and women who successfully migrated from human domain to the immortals’ paradise in one lifetime without by passing death-rebirth process, 70 were completed their transition in Mt Zhongnan.
For thousands of years, Mt Zhongnan was the premium meditation ground of China’s best cultivators, it is not hard to picture how much top-quality info energies the place has accumulated.
Shennong’s Herbal Classic (神农本草经), the earliest pharmacopoeia in Chinese history, praises pine needles to be the food of immortals, because among all plants, pines are the most sensitive to the quality of the energies. Which is why pines in this mountain live longer than in any other places in China.
But how about now?
Are There Still Hermits in the Mt Zhongnan Today?
Fortunately, the answer is yes. And in fact, there are probably more hermits calling Mt Zhongnan home than any other time in history. Although the modern hermits come from many walks of life – among them there are writers, businessmen, college students and traditional culture lovers – the majority of them are still Daoists and Buddhists, with little to no change in their way of cultivation and their way of living from the time when Monk Xuyun did his 18-day meditation, when Li Bai wielded his sword, and even when Lao Tzu wrote his Book of Virtue.
The only supposed aberration might be that for several decades these hermits were completely forgotten by the world outside, as the nation was captured by politics, science and material pursuits.
It was until American author Bill Porter published his work Road To Heaven, documenting the lives of the Daoist and Buddhist monks and nuns in Mt Zhongshan, Chinese people began to realize there is still a strange species called hermit out there in somewhere.
Since then, Mt Zhongnan has been turned into a happy hunting ground for curiosity. Some from overseas, but majority were local Chinese, yet nearly all ended up seeing no one apart from few villagers and many hermit-hunters.
Except one man.
Zhang Jianfeng is a Xi’an native so it is quite convenient for him to keep mucking around the areas. At the beginning, like most hermit-hunters, he would walk for whole day without meeting a single soul; and when he was lucky to find a hut or cave dwelling, no one would ever answer his call.
Later he learned most hermits just dash away whenev
er they spot a visitor approaching or ignore the door knocking when it is not conducted in a pre-arranged manner.
He eventually became a hermit himself and successfully interviewed 600 hermits, which he published on his magazine Question on Dao (问道).
According to an estimate, there are at least 5,000 hermits in Mt Zhongnan by 2014, and an increasing number of young people are joining the rank.
Following is just a glimpse of the vast yet hidden hermit community in Mt Zhongnan.
Professional Hermits in Mt Zhongnan
A 100-year Old Daoist
Daoist Zhang Zhishun (张至顺道长) is the abbot of the grand Jade Toad Temple in Hainan province, but he still keeps returning to Mt Zhongnan cultivating at least 6 months each year. “In nowhere you can find such a potent qi,” he explained.
He practiced Daoism and studied Chinese medicine since the age of 17, and is the inventor of a new acupuncture technique “Five Tigers Seize the Sheep”, that is best for tumor treatment. During each session, 5 needles representing five agents and ten heavenly stems are inserted in the area corresponding to the tumor, and 12 more needles standing for four directions and twelve earthly branches in the periphery.
100-year old Daoist Zhang demonstrates medical massage
“Dao cultivators are all doctors,” Daoist Zhang asserted. It is because unless one knows his physical body structure and invisible qi system clearly, and understands how they work respectively and interact with each other and with external environment, there is no way he can practice Daoism property.
“One of my masters could tell you what kind of illness you are going to have three years later,” he recalled. In fact it is nothing uncommon for a well-cultivated Daoist to detect problems in the body of a person he just meets and know how long this person is going to live.
“No matter what kungfu you are practice (be it Daoism or Buddhism), if you die in hospital, you basically have failed your cultivation,” Daoist Zhang summoned up his observation.
An Old Buddhist Monk with New Teeth
Puguang (普光法师) became a novice since eight-month old. His parents were killed in the war and he was brought up by a Shaolin monk who taught him to recite Buddhist mantra as soon as he started to talk. When he grew older, he was trained in whole set of Shaolin kungfu, that include Virgin’s Kungfu (童子功), Golden Bell Cover (金钟罩), Iron Shirt (铁布衫) and Iron Palm (铁砂掌). Later he heard the legendary stories of Mt Zhongnan, and with his disciple he walked several months from remote northeast region to this giant meditation centre and settled in a cave previously occupied by a tiger family, not far from Monk Xuyun’s hut.
Living in total isolation with no land for them to cultivate allowed him to focus on one thing, and one thing only, that is to recite Shurangama Mantra. With 2,620 characters, Shurangama Mantra is the longest among all Buddhist mantras and considered the most difficult to memorize, but he recites 108 times each day. The intensive cultivation at a material scarce yet qi abundant Mt Zhongnan has transformed not only his mental state but his physical condition as well. He has a new set of teeth growing after his old ones lost, his white hair and beard turned black again, and he only needs to sleep two hours a day.
More Snapshots of Professional Hermits in Mt Zhongnan
A temple hidden in deep mountain
Little meditation huts on the clifftops built by Daoists
A small temple under cliff built by Buddhist monks
A Daoist nun fetching water from a pond
A Buddhist nun washing clothes in a stream
A Buddhist monk enjoys his steamed buns
A Daoist enjoys his hand-made noodle
Immortal’s Soup – a typical dish of Daoists with ingredients include black fungus, dried daylilies, mushrooms, pine nuts, potatoes, sweet potatoes and green cabbages
Two Buddhist monks meditating in their cave dwelling
In the snow field a Daoist practicing a kungfu called
Transmitting Sound through Empty Valley (空谷传音)
Transmitting Sound through Empty Valley
A Daoist meditating in a cave
Casual Hermits in Mt Zhongnan
Not all hermits in today’s Mt Zhongshan follow established paths of cultivation under the guidance of their masters. Some are just casual cultivators picking one meditation technique or another from here or there to clean up clusters in their mind and their body that they accumulated during their time living in cities. They call themselves “modern hermits”.
A Modern Hermit Centre
The meditation room in the hermit centre
This center is built by Zhang Jianfeng, the owner of magazine Question On Dao. People can come and go as they wish, pay or not to pay for the food and other expenses as they like, and practice meditation, martial arts, calligraphy, classic music, ink painting, medicinal herb collection or even firewood chopping as they prefer.
A former businessman preparing tea at the veranda for his fellow “modern hermits”
Group discussion on the veranda in the evening
The veranda is the “modern hermits”‘ beloved spot for meditation, tea break and group discussion. From there they have a panorama view of the sky above and the valley below, while full-length windows protect them from wild weather condition typical in the mountain areas.
A Classic School Run by Hermits
Five years ago, Chinese couple Mr & Mrs Bai closed their business in Xi’an and with their friends built a private school in Mt Zhongnan for their children. The students receive the classic Chinese education and wear traditional Chinese clothing.
Study in natural environment which they share with a goat
Girls are taking martial arts lesson
More Snapshots of Casual Hermits in Mt Zhongnan
A Daoist, a dog and casual hermits having a dinner party in the snow field
A lifestyle hermit practicing calligraphy in the spring field under peach trees
A group of lifestyle hermits holding an outdoor concert in later summer afternoon
A kungfu hermit playing his flute from the top of a cliff in a crisp autumn air
An ex-businessman engaging in a direct dialogue with the cosmos, the external manifestation of his own internal world.
There are also people who choose to stay in Mt Zhongnan to do their private projects. A research hermit works on comparison study between astronomy, Buddhism and Daoism and has carved his findings on a stone.
A Short Documentary: Entering Mt Zhongnan
The documentary is produced by a Shenzhen film company in 1999. It is so short because after two days hard searching in the mountain they only managed to find three Buddhist lodges with not a single Daoist hermit discovered.
The Following Is an Introduction of This 8-minute Chinese Film:
The film crew arrived at Jiawutai area where Monk Xuyun’s hut was located, and met a villager.
Crew: Is there still any monk living there?
Villager: Oh yeah.
Crew: Can you lead the way for us?
Villager: It’s far, very far.
Crew: We don’t mind.
Villager: Ok, let’s go then.
After two hours ride on horse and eight hours trudge on foot, they finally spotted a hut in a valley. There was no path to and from that dwelling, and when they eventually reached the house they found there was only one Buddhist nun living there.
Crew: Are you scared to live here alone?
Nun: What can be scared of? I’m not afraid of death, what else can frighten me? I read sutra during the day and recite Shurangama mantra at midnight, I know I’m safe.
Crew: What’s your purpose to stay here alone?
Nun: To learn and practice Buddha’s teaching. I’ve made a vow I will not go down the mountain before I know who I actually am.
When they climbed onto the Lion’s Cave where Monk Xuyun once lived, the sky was about to grow dark. And a novice told them the monk was in the middle of seven-day continuation meditation.
But Xuyun’s disciple’s disciple kindly broke his session and sat with the crew around a bonfire to answer their questions (because no spare bed or even mat for the guests to sleep).
Crew: What the winter looks like?
Monk A: You mean how we cultivate in the winter?
Crew: Oh yeah, that’s right.
Monk A: Winter actually is the best season to cultivate Buddhist kungfu. In Autumn, we stock enough food for the winter which lasts for half a year from middle October to March, by then snow blocks all the tracks, no one can come into the mountain and no one in the mountain can go out. The world is so quiet and we can get into lengthy and deep meditation.
They left Lion’s Cave early next morning and found one more hermit when the sun rose spectacularly from behind the mountain ranges. The monk was an abbot of a big Buddhist temple at busterling Zhejiang province along China’s east coastline.
Crew: Why did you leave your temple for Mt Zhongnan?
Monk B: Nowadays most temples become tourist attractions which are no longer suitable for cultivation. Of course, Buddhism is not hidden in this mountain but in our own heart, and whatever we do – sleeping, eating, walking and working – can be part of our Buddhist practice. But to someone like me, who is yet to gain a strong Buddhist kungfu, he can easily be swayed by the external environment, so he needs a more nurturing place to work on his mind and heart.
Crew: What is your goal here?
Monk B: My goal is to find out my true self and to be free from environmental constraints.