The elusive mountain monks of China are gradually allowing foreigners to visit their shrines and learn about their harsh religious practices, says American filmmaker Edward A. Burger, the new face of global filmmaking.
“I now live in Vietnam where my wife works, but I visit China several times a year. I lived for 10 years studying Buddhism with a master in the mountains of China and was one of the first few foreigners who was allowed in. This is beginning to take off and several more foreigners are now discovering the mountain Buddhist lineage,” Burger told IANS in an interview here.
His only movie, “Amongst White Clouds”, made in 2005, on reclusive Zen Buddhist hermits living in the remote Zhongnan Mountains of central China’s Shaanxi province, has earned him worldwide acclaim. The film was screened in the national capital this weekend.
“Half-way through my studies, I decided to make the movie about the life of my master and many like him,” Burger, who is a practising Buddhist married to a Chinese, told IANS.
The young filmmaker was inspired in part by the book, “Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits” by Bill Porter, who had sought out the mountain hermits 20 years ago.
The hermits slipped out of spotlight for the next two decades till Burger’s movie.
“I read Porter’s book at a library in Bodh Gaya in India in 1992 and went to China for the first time in 1999,” he said.
Initially, Burger studied with a hermit master in small shrines in the mountains, which becomes the take-off for his movie. It opens with a shot of mountain flora and fauna before picking out Burger’s trail through the dense forest.
In the Zhongnan Mountains, the teachings of the Buddha thrive in the scattered hermitages of the masters, who practise the faith to become Bodhisattvas — the beings of light.
The retreats, mostly stone huts surrounded by little gardens hidden on the lush green slopes, serve as monasteries and schools with the masters taking in novices for education.
The film has earned acclaim for its profundity and mature cinematography that captures the natural beauty of the Zhongnan Mountains and the daily lives of the hermits.
They are happy-go-lucky people cut off from the bondages of life. A nun, among the five living in the mountains, whom Burger met, spent most of her time, when not meditating, looking for wild edible roots to put into her soup.
“There is a Buddha in each one of us,” she says in the film as she guides Burger 140 metres up the slope from her retreat to fetch drinking water from a spring.
An old Zen master, who the director says is “in his last leg of meditation before becoming Buddha — or wise” — turns out to be a master baker, noodle maker and tea maker.
The film follows Burger’s journey into the hills, his years in the mountains and back.
Around 5,000 Buddhist hermits live in austere seclusion in the Zhongnan Mountains, China Times estimates.
“The tradition of hermitages in the Zhongnan Mountains dates back to 1,000 years. I came across monasteries following the lead of some mentors,” Burger said.
Burger describes the movie as “experiences — a sort of journey to becoming a Buddhist being”.
“The Buddha taught in many ways and one of the ways important for Buddhists — or of any tradition — is to tell stories. Buddha dharma has to be experienced and hearing a story is a very Buddhist experience. It is the best method to convey something because a story is the best form of communication,” Burger said.
He said he was constantly exploring Buddhism in India and China.
“We are always talking about Indian Buddhism in China. The religion has its roots here, but we had to change some things to make Buddhism work in China,” he said.
The filmmaker, who speaks Mandarin and sings, does not have any project in mind at the moment.
“Chinese Buddhism still has so much to teach me,” he said.