“Amongst White Clouds” - Edward A. Burger (2005), “Hermits” - He Shiping (2015), & “Searching for Monks in China with Red Pine” - Jack Estes (mid-1990s?)

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).     

He Shiping

Films of He Shiping:

Jack Estes

Films of Jack Estes:

Edward A. Burger

Films of Edward A. Burger:

“Hachi: A Dog's Tale” - Lasse Hallström (2009)

Hachi: A Dog’s Tale (2009) is a film about a dog and its close bond to its master, and it is based on a true story.  The original dog, Hachiko, lived in Japan from 1923 to 1935, and it became nationally famous there for its extraordinary loyalty to its master, even after the master had died [1].  The story of Hachiko’s life was subsequently made into a popular Japanese film, Hachiko Monogatari (1987) by Kaneto Shindô, and the present film that is under discussion, Hachi: A Dog’s Tale, is an Americanized retelling of this same story.  The account told in this film, which was well-received on its release in 2009 [2,3], concerns a lost puppy dog that is found and adopted by a kindly man and the ensuing loving relationship that develops between the two.

This film was directed by Lasse Hallström and scripted by Stephen P. Lindsey, with cinematography Ron Fortunato, film editing by Kristina Boden, and music by Jan A. P. Kaczmarek.  The film’s producer, who also had the lead human acting role in the film, was Richard Gere.  Gere has had a long personal involvement in Buddhism and general spiritual matters, and I believe in this connection that this background helped fuel his engagement in the telling of such a story that transcends ordinary materialistic and utilitarian considerations.  

On the production side of things, it is interesting to note that Hallström adopted the somewhat unusual narrative style of attempting to present part of this tale visually from the dog’s perspective, and this is not so easy to do in film form.  Presenting an animal’s perspective is probably more easily accomplished via textual presentation (think of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild (1903)), whereas a film presentation in this manner needs to show visually what the dog is seeing and experiencing, rather than just describe it in words.  Hallström chose to do this by showing, in an otherwise color-film, Hachiko’s point-of-view shots in black-and-white.  Now it is known that the color spectrum for dogs is somewhat different than that for humans, but dogs can see colors [4].  So the black-and-white POV shots are misleading and just something of a distraction for the viewer.  These shots don’t really invoke the viewer’s empathy, as far as I can see.

The story of the film is encased as a long flashback, and the film opens in Rhode Island with a grade-school boy Ronnie (played by Kevin DeCoste) telling his classroom about his ultimate hero – his grandfather’s dog named “Hachiko”.  Then we move into the proper flashback, beginning more than a decade earlier when Ronnie’s grandfather, Professor Parker Wilson (Richard Gere), was returning from a trip and encountered a wandering puppy dog in the train station.

Parker soon discovers that the puppy is a Japanese Akita breed and was sent from Japan to Rhode Island, but its damaged cage’s destination tag has been partially torn off and lost, so its rightful owner is unknown.  All he can guess is that the dog’s name is “Hachiko” (or “Hachi”, for short).  Not wanting to leave the dog at the local dog pound, where it will face likely extermination, Parker takes it home and continues his search for the rightful owner or, failing that, a willing adopter.

But Parker’s efforts to find a proper owner prove unsuccessful, and his wife Cate (Joan Allen), seeing how much her husband likes the little dog, reluctantly agrees that they can add a new member to their household.  
 
Parker soon enthusiastically gets down on all fours in an effort to show his new pet, Hachi, how to fetch, but he gets nowhere in his efforts.  Later, Ken (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), a Japanese colleague at Parker’s college, tells him all about Akita dogs and that they can’t be taught to fetch.  I don’t believe it.  As a dog-lover, myself, I think any dog can be taught to fetch if one follows the right procedure [5].  This is something that Parker clearly doesn’t do properly in this film.

Anyway, time passes, and the next time we see Hachi, he has grown up to be an adult dog.  But  he and Parker are still affectionate companions.  Parker commutes to work by train, and every day he walks to the train station in the morning.  One day though, Hachi, not wanting to be without his master, follows Parker on his walk to the station.  Hachi is duly escorted home and confined in his yard, but he soon manages to escape and return to the train station, where he waits outside all day for Parker’s return at 5pm.  Parker tries to stifle this behavior, but he eventually gives in to Hachi’s determined loyalty.  It then becomes a regular practice for Hachi to walk with Parker every day to the station in the morning and then wait loyally outside for Parker’s return at 5pm.  

There are further colorful depictions of life in the Wilson household, including Hachi’s enthusiastic participation.  On one occasion, Hachi and Parker have a rude encounter with a wild skunk, and they both get “skunked” as a result.  We then see both Parker and Hachi together in the bathtub trying to cleanse themselves from the stink.  

One morning Hachi brings his rubber ball with him to the station and shows Parker that he knows how to fetch.  That same day, Parker dies of a stroke while lecturing to his class.  Hachi waits faithfully at the station all day and night for his beloved master, who is now gone forever.

After Parker’s funeral, Cate moves out of the family house, and Hachi is adopted by their  married daughter Andy (Sarah Roemer) and her husband Michael (Robbie Sublett), who take the dog to their house.  Hachi’s new home is not so close to the train station, but he still manages to escape from the yard and intelligently follow the train tracks to his familiar train station.  There Hachi assumes his usual position in front of the station to wait for Parker’s return.

Although Andy and Michael find Hachi there and bring him back to their home, Andy eventually recognizes Hachi’s fervent passion for his master, and she lets the dog out so he can rush back to the station.  From this point on, Hachi lives at the train station, sleeping under a boxcar on a rail siding and waiting all day for Parker outside the station.  Hachi gets food every day from the local train station master (Jason Alexander), a fast-food street vendor (Erick Avari), a local butcher, and others, so he is able to maintain his daily vigil indefinitely.

Eventually, Hachi’s faithful waiting for his master becomes famous, especially after a newspaper article is written about the dog.  The years go by, and Hachi becomes an old dog, but still he waits for Parker every day outside the train station.  About a decade after Parker’s death, Hachi has a vision of Parker returning to greet him, and the faithful canine passes away.

So ends Ronnie’s film-length saga about his hero, the loyal Hachi.  If you’re not into dogs, this tale might not offer much to you; but if you are a dog-lover, you are likely to have an appreciation for the almost ethereal devotion that dogs can have for their human masters.  Dogs are often more than just loving; they sometimes seem often to devote their very lives to their masters, whom they almost revere as gods.  For them, their love can be more important than life itself.  

And that is the point of this film.  Animals are typically characterized as just wild, ruthless beasts, and yet, in stark contrast to such an image, a dog can manifest a love so deep that it can serve as a model for all of us humans. This extraordinary feature of dogs has long been recognized.  Consider 13th-century Persian poet Jelaluddin Rumi’s poem “Love Dogs” (also quoted in Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat’s review of this film [2]), which pays tribute to the limitless love that a dog can feel [6]:

“Love Dogs” by Jelaluddin Rumi (translation by Coleman Barks)

        One night a man was crying Allah! Allah!
        His lips grew sweet with praising,
        until a cynic said, “So!
        I’ve heard you calling our, but have you ever
        gotten any response?”
        
        The man had no answer to that.
        He quit praying and fell into a confused sleep.
        He dreamed he saw Khidr, the guide of souls,
        in a thick, green foliage.
        
        “Why did you stop praising?” “Because
        I’ve never heard anything back.”
       
        “This longing you express
        is the return message.”
        
        The grief you cry out from
        draws you toward union.
        
        Your pure sadness
        that wants help
        is the secret cup.
        
        Listen to the moan of a dog for its master.
        That whining is the connection.
       
        There are love dogs
        no one knows the names of.
      
        Give your life
        to be one of them.

If you see Hachi: A Dog’s Tale, you will probably be moved to recollect your own experiences with a loving dog.
★★★
 

Notes:

  1. “Hachiko”, Wikipedia, (11 December 2020).   
  2. Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, “Hachi: A Dog's Tale”, Spirituality & Practice, (n.d.). 
  3. Stefan S, “Hachiko: A Dog's Story”, (A Nutshell) Review, (24 January 2010).  
  4. Harriet Meyers, “Are Dogs Color Blind? Side-by-Side Views”, American Kennel Club, (29 August 2019).   
  5. Sassafras Lowrey, “How to Teach Your Dog to Fetch”, American Kennel Club, (11 August 2020).   
  6. Sunada Takagi, “‘Love Dogs’ by Rumi”, Mindful Purpose Coaching, (7 March 2011).