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Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits, Bill Porter, photographs by Steven R. Johnson and the author, Mercury House.

Part detective story, part spiritual quest, and part travel memoir, Road to Heaven chronicles Bill Porter's journey into Communist China in search of hermit holy men. The hermit has been a respected and even revered figure in Chinese culture for over a thousand years. Some of China's earliest known written records speak of hermits. But since the Communist revolution of 1949, and especially since the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, religious clergy have been persecuted, imprisoned and even slain. Porter, a student of Buddhism and the author of several books under the name of Red Pine, was told by officials of the Buddhist Association of China that there were no more hermits in modern China. But his own firsthand investigation showed otherwise.

In the Chungnan Mountains, where hermits have traditionally found a home, Porter discovered Taoist and Buddhist hermits still living in isolated huts on remote mountaintops, spending their days in meditation and prayer. He spent many months searching out a number of them, sometimes climbing sheer cliffs to reach their homes. Porter's account of his quest can be repetitive as he climbs up this mountain and down that one, speaks with one hermit or monk and then another. It can all seem to blend together after a while. But his conversations with many of these holy men--and women--along with his recounting of the history of hermits in China, is an important documentation of a religious practice known worldwide but perhaps never practiced so assiduously as in China.

Ultimately, Road to Heaven is an uplifting book because it proves the survival of a simple religious lifestyle against one of the most materialistic and bloody regimes of recent times. It is also sobering, for Porter reveals that the Chinese Communists are now reopening Taoist and Buddhist temples in a cynical bid to attract foreign tourists and hard currency. Many of the monks Porter meets complain of spending too much of their time selling trinkets to visitors and not enough time practicing their religious faith or teaching the young. The seeming liberalization of religious policy may only be the government's final effort to eradicate religion as a vital force in the nation's life.

--Thomas Wiloch