‘Hui-yuan was sitting in bed with her legs crossed under a blanket. Two glass-paned windows let in light, and against the whitewashed adobe walls were calendar scenes and several old photos. Hui-yuan was from Harbin in northeast China. She was seventy-one years old, and had been a nun since she was sixteen. She came to Nanwutai in 1955 with another nun, Hui-ying. Soon after they arrived, they moved into this hut, which had been vacated by a hermit who had moved to Chiawutai. They lived here until the Red Guards came and forced them to leave. After a brief period in the Buddhist work crew down at Mito Temple, they returned and went back to work in their garden, chanting the Buddha’s name. Hui-ying died in 1982.
Hui-yuan asked me to join her on her adobe bed. I told her all the hermit news from Chiawutai and the Feng River gorge…
Q: The last time I visited, you told me you hadn’t been down the mountain in over ten years. Have you been down recently?
Hui-yuan: No. I don’t plan to go down the mountain again. First, I’m too lazy. Second, I’m too ill. I can’t walk so far anymore. I don’t want to go anywhere. I just eat and sleep and sit here all day.
Q: What do you do when you need to buy things?
Hui-yuan: I have a sister who works in Canton. She came here once. She sends me money from time to time. I don’t need much. I grow my own vegetables and I use the money she sends me to buy things like flour and cooking oil. My disciple goes down the mountain to bring things up. We don’t eat much, just breakfast and lunch. We don’t eat supper…
Q: What sort of practice do you follow?
Hui-yuan: Trying to stay alive keeps me pretty busy. But I get up every day before dawn and chant the Lotus Sutra and the Titsang Sutra. At night, I meditate and chant the name of the Buddha. Practice depends on the individual. This is my practice.
Q: Why do you live in the mountains?
Hui-yuan: I like quiet. Anyone who becomes a monk or nun prefers quiet. Monks or nuns who can preach live in the city. I can’t preach, so I live in the mountains an practice by myself.
Q: How is your health?
Hui-yuan: Not so good. I’ve worn myself out carrying things up the mountain and clearing this slope to plant vegetables. Last year I started spitting up blood. A laywoman brought a doctor to see me and he gave me some medicine. I’m better now. But I’ve had a chronic illness since I was thirty. Now I’m just getting old.
Q: How do you survive the winters?
Hui-yuan: I don’t mind the winters. It gets cold outside, but there’s enough wood. The wind doesn’t come in the door, and my bed is a k’ang [a brick bed with a built-in stove]. I like the winters. They’re a good time to meditate.’
The quote about hermits I posted recently reminded me to bring the book I had first seen it in down from the shelf: Bill Porter’s Encounters with Chinese hermits. It is full of amazing stories like this one, and practitioners whose simple vitality leaps off the page.