The sound of silence is the height of seclusion
China's economic rise has brought a raft of benefits to the population, but that rise has also led to increased pressure as people strive to compete and become successful. Many may quietly dream of giving up and embracing a simpler lifestyle, but the common perception of a life of peace and tranquility is often far removed from the reality. 'People say we are running away from our problems. We are not,' said Zhi Jun, a lay practitioner who lives in the Zhongnan Mountains in Shaanxi province.
In the Arabian adventure tale Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, 'Open Sesame' is the secret code that unlocks the door of a treasure-filled cave. For visitors to the Zhongnan Mountains, the recluses who reside there are so secluded that they may as well be hidden behind that famous cave door. They are China's modern-day hermits.The mountains, an hour's drive from Xi'an, the capital of Shaanxi province and home to the legendary Terracotta Army, have reputedly been playing host to hermits since the time of the Yellow Emperor, Huang Di, some 5,000 years ago. Many famous ancient scholars and even emperors have shared the Zhongnan hermit experience.The range, also sometimes known as the Taiyi or Zhounan Mountains, are said to have become popular with Taoists in the time of the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC). Meanwhile, the introduction of the Buddhism from India in the early part of the first millennium AD saw the arrival of Buddhist monks. Moreover, the Quanzhen School of Taoism, often known as the Sect of Complete Perfection, is reputed to have been founded somewhere in the mountain range.
That legacy has made the mountains the top destination for those who desire isolation and peace at a particular phase in their spiritual development. The majority of the residents are monks, nuns or lay practitioners of Buddhism or Taoism. They come and go according to the needs of their practice.
Historically, the hermitic tradition has been one of the most important aspects of Chinese society. People almost always think of hermits as outcasts, because they want to step out of society and have nothing to do with it, according to Li Jiwu, a researcher in religious studies at the Shaanxi Academy of Social Sciences. 'Chinese hermits have always sought to attain wisdom with which they can help to guide society.'
Li, who has been studying the mountain's hermit culture for five years, believes these reclusive people perform. vital work on behalf of the society they've shunned, both by setting an example to others and by passing on the wisdom they've acquired. 'Although these people live far away from modern society, they are actually helping it. They're like a mountain stream that brings fresh water down into the
town - the water eventually reaches it one way or another,' he said.
Estimates vary on the number of people in residence, but Li said there are currently about 1,000 hermits living on Zhongnan. Over the past few years he has seen a significant increase in the number of people adopting the lifestyle. 'Society puts too much pressure on people,' he said.
'Some of us recite sutras all day, while others meditate. Sometimes it could be a combination of everything,' said Zhi. 'It doesn't matter what we do as long as it helps us find inner peace and the true self, which is really easy to lose, but hard to find again in the city.'The very nature of their calling means that by definition hermits don't like to be disturbed, that's why they live in areas that are difficult to reach. It took an hour of hiking on narrow ice-covered paths to get to where Zhi lives, even though it is relatively close to the entry point for the mountain.
'We don't open our door to visitors who are just curious,' said Zhi, pointing to a sign hanging on the door that reads, 'Meditating. Please don't disturb.'
'Zhongnan's hermits don't knock when visiting each other. Instead, we call out 'Amita Buddha', which is one of our secret codes,' Zhi said.
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