Thursday, 24 February 2011

Good Movie: Amongst White Clouds

UPDATE(27 September 2012): My review of Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits, the book that inspired this film, can be found here. Among other things, it points out that hermits have actually sat in the Zhongnans for seven thousand years; it's just the Buddhists who arrived two thousand years later.

This week I saw Amongst White Clouds, a terrific documentary on Chinese hermits. You can buy a copy at Amazon, or if you enjoy the luxury of high-speed Net access, watch the entire thing on Google Video; the quality is pretty good for livestream.

Made by American hermit Edward (Ted) A. Burger, this film is a rare jewel of multiple facets. To begin with, very few American scholars learn other languages, even those that are central to their specialities. Burger, for his part, has devoted his academic life to mastering Putongua (Mandarin Chinese), and is likely conversant in one or more regional dialects as well. (But I was unable to confirm this; Burger's Internet presence is remarkably spare, for having made such an important film.)

Burger is also the disciple of a Chinese hermit master, and though the linguistic path may seem obvious for such a person, it is actually very rare for an American to "bother" with language under those circumstances. Burger's personal investment in his tradition's cultural context invests his work with unique authority. (Unfortunately, his convictions didn't extend to the film's subtitles. Though their tone suggests an unusual grasp of the original Chinese, many flash by so fast they'd qualify as subliminal. I found this frustrating, and I read fast.)

Burger and his master.
The work itself is deceptively basic: Burger simply takes his viewers along, by virtue of video equipment, on a hike through China's daunting, breathtaking Zhongnan Mountains, seeking out whatever hermits word of mouth says are up there. It turns out to be a lot. In spite of a ban on their vocation after the Communist Revolution, a recent easing of policy has revealed that the region's 5,000-year-old eremitic tradition has not in fact died out; estimates place the number of hermits in those mountains today between three and five thousand.

The fact that Burger makes no effort to define his terms leaves some ambiguity in the work. He appears to consider a hermit someone living in a master-disciple relationship, as he himself did, though he doesn't verify that all of his interviewees walk that path. (In an excellent interview with the Kyoto Journal, Burger uses the verb "ordain" to mean "become a hermit," i.e., "She ordained at a young age." Again, he doesn't define this term.) He also considers "Buddhist" implicit in the term "hermit," though I can virtually guarantee that if there really are 5,000 of us in those hills, at least some reject such labels.

But that's my hang-up; Burger's point is simply that old-timey hermits still exist in China. On the way he films about a dozen, of both genders and all ages, half of whom he interviews in depth. Each reveals a unique personality, with a custom-designed practice. There are some wonderful moments of human warmth: a man my age laughs to think anybody would be interested in his unremarkable life; another is mystified that the hairy young barbarian introduced to him as "Edward" is called "Ted" by English-speaking friends; and my all-time favourite, the teenage monk who respectfully ignores the repeated orders of his deaf, 87-year-old master to "Speak up, boy! The man's making a movie!"

In the end, Amongst White Clouds avoids the pitfalls of pious tribute on one hand and insensitive judgement on the other, to become an authentic if maddeningly limited glimpse of an ancient Zen path. It's also an amazing feat of anthropology, and an impressive cinematic accomplishment in which the land itself, the remote, densely-forested, canyon-steep slopes of this massive open-air monastery, is a character in its own right.

See it. You won't lament the time.


  1. Indeed this is a great movie! The film maker was inspired by Red Pines book Road to Heaven. I was briefly in Port Townsend, WA last week and dropped by Bills house. Great guy and has some really good tea. He also leads tours to all the hermitage sites in China.

  2. I'll look for it for sure. Thanks.

  3. Would love to hear what a day in the life of Robin is like and ango schedule. Also about your teacher-student experience.

  4. Hmmm. I'm not sure my life has a typical day; I haven't been given a very regular path, much to my ongoing chagrin. (For a guy who's devoted his life to "surfing his karma", I have a personality that craves security and routine.) I've been meaning to upload an article about my sesshins, with an example schedule; perhaps your comment is the boot in the backside I need to do it. The teacher-student experience is dealt with in the book I'm writing, "100 Days on the Mountain", which I hope to publish in the next year. And I have uploaded a day from the log I kept during that ango, if you're interested. You'll find it here: .

    Thanks for the encouragement, brother!

  5. Incredible movie, I came across Amongst White Clouds randomly a couple years ago and it seems like every time I watch it I get something new out of it.

  6. It really is, for being something so simple. Thanks for the comment!


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