Eric Johns- Yan Li 衍力; W. Wales March 2016
I had wanted to visit the lion hut since I had first read about it in 1975, often wondering what it must have been like living there & how it must have felt practicing meditation in that sort of seclusion. In fact I was so inspired that I bought some secluded woodland in Wales UK & built a hut there and planted a vegetable garden myself. There I held Chan meditation retreats both alone & with friends, although unfortunately I never had the opportunity to live there full time. Imagine my joy when Bill Porter sent me the photo above, probably the only photo of the original ‘Lion hut’. I had resolved to learn mandarin and find somebody to guide me up there. However by the time I got up there it had been rebuilt, although it is larger, warmer & now has room for guests, I deeply regret not having gone earlier & stayed there alone for a few weeks. That was when it was quiet, nowadays many pilgrims climb up there as it has become a famous place among Buddhists in China, this partly because of Bill Porter’s Chinese version of the 1981 book ‘The road to heaven’.
Then one day in October 2013, while on a seven week Chan retreat at Zhen Ru Chan Monastery 真如禅寺 near Nanchang in China, I was fortunate enough in meeting a great monk who had the room next to mine; Chan Master Wu Xuan 悟宣 or ‘enlightened proclamation’ who lives near the Lion Hut 狮子茅棚 and he said he would guide me there. We became good friends during the retreat especially during one very cold evening when I discovered him standing outside his room looking forlorn having forgotten his key & locked him self out. I produced my credit card & he skillfully and with ease sprang the lock open. Triumphantly on entering his room he saw the key was on the table where he had left it! Then in October 2015, I went to his Gu Guan Yin Chan Monastery 古观音禅寺, near Xian City, where he is abbot.
The Lion Hut near Xian City was built by Master Empty Cloud 虚云 in 1901, who had gone up there to live, in seclusion. Here is the relevant passage from his story from in his own words.
Empty Cloud; my 61st year 1900 -1901
In May, the Boxer Rebellion got out of control. The Empress Dowager had secretly ordered the assassination of the Japanese and German ambassadors. On the 17th, she issued a declaration of war on the foreigners. A month later, western armies marched right into Beijing. The Princes and ministers, who were also staying at Beijing in the Bubbling Spring Monastery urged me to flee with them to Xian. Panic was widespread in the city and the Emperor and Empress fled with their entourage, they ran both day and night for their lives. There had not even been enough time to pack any food. The dignity usually shown to the Son of Heaven was forgotten. At Fubing, we were met by General Chen Chuanxuan 传宣, with his army from Jangsu 江苏 Province, and escorted us through the great wall. At Yun Men 云门 pass the Emperor met a monk aged 124 & he gave him some thin yellow cloth to make a robe. The Emperor then ordered a ‘gate of dedication’ to be erected at that place. Then marching on westward, we found a severe famine in Bingyang, where some locals gave the Emperor and Empress Taro and sweet potato leaves to eat, which they said were delicious.
After reaching Xian City they stayed in General Chen’s compound. During this time, people were so desperate they even ate the dead bodies found on the streets. The Imperial government tried to help by banning cannibalism, and so they setup eight free food distribution centers. Food was also sent to the towns and villages in the countryside, around the city.
Whilst staying at the Reclining Dragon 卧龙 Monastery, I was invited by General Chen to pray for rain and snow to help end the long drought. Afterwards, the Abbot Dong Xia 冬夏 asked me to stay on. However, as there was so much hustle and bustle, I secretly left. Then in October, I once again climbed the Zhong Nan Mountain 终南山 to build a thatched hut and live in seclusion. There in the remote stillness, behind Jai Wu Tai’s summit, I found the Lion Cave. It was at this time, to avoid any uninvited visitors, that I changed my Dharma name from De Ching, to Xu Yun 虚云 or “Empty Cloud”. As there was no water, I melted snow, foraged and ate wild vegetables.
At that time, a few other hermit monks also lived on the mountain. On Broken Rock or Poshi peak was Master Benchang 本昌, Master Miaoyuan or 妙圆 was at Guan Di Temple, and in the Wuhua 五华cave lived Master Dao Ming 道明. Also living separately, in thatched huts on the back of the mountain, were Masters; Miaoyuan 妙圆，Xuyuan修圆 and Qingshan 青山. Master Blue Mountain or Qingshan was from Hunan and, he was greatly respected by the monks on the Zhong Nan Mountain. He lived not so far from me and we often visited each other. I established a vegetable garden and planted plenty of potatoes. ( Empty cloud often chanted the Diamond sutra and practiced sitting meditation at this time, apart from that he gathered firewood to cook with. He must have had to re-thatch his roof occasionally & he had to collect water or snow & forage for wild roots, leaves berries & fruit, giant gooseberries grow there, also there was his vegetable plot to tend to & he had to cook. A hermits life can be busy.)
That winter, Master Blue Mountain asked me to go to Xian, to buy some things. However on the way back there was a heavy snow fall & before I had climbed back up to his new thatched hut I slipped off the path. Falling into deep snow I shouted for help. Luckily Master Yiquan 一全 came from a nearby hut with a rope and rescued me. My robes were soaked through and it was now dark, but I thought that more heavy snow would soon block my path and so I pushed on to Master Blue Mountain’s hut. Arriving there, he saw me and laughed teasingly at the state I was in, saying that I was useless. Nodding, in agreement I smiled and hurried on up back to the Lion Hut, to pass the New Year.
My 62nd year 1901-1902
All that spring and summer, I lived alone in my stone walled, thatched hut. My mind and body felt pure and clear. The Mountains were all covered with snow, and the severe cold got right into your bones. Then one day, I was cooking taro in a cauldron & whilst waiting for it to cook I sat in the lotus posture & slipped into a deep Samadhi state, quite unintentionally. I totally forgot all about my surroundings and there far above the ‘red dust of the world’ I completely slipped away from the realm of people……….
My 63rd year 1902-1903
The hermits, who lived nearby, were surprised I had not been seen for a while; so they came to the Lion Hut to wish me a Happy New Year. When they arrived, they noticed tiger paw prints in the snow.
On entering, they saw me sitting in a deep Samadhi. By ringing a small bell in my ear they invited me out of my meditation. They asked me if I had eaten and I replied, “I have not, but the taro should be well cooked by now”. Lifting the lid on the pot, we saw half an inch of mold growing on the cold taro. Master Fuchung was so surprised and said, “Surely, you must have been in Samadhi for a couple of weeks!” We melted some ice and cooked some more taro, eating until we were all full. After which we chatted & shared a few jokes before parting.
(the news spread from the hermits down to other places, of his deep Shamadhi & so) In the following days I received visits, from both monks and laymen, who came from far and wide both day and night. So one night, I stole away, with just a backpack, to find some peace and quiet elsewhere.
The climb up, 22nd Oct, 2015.
That morning, some of Master Wu Xuan’s students drove a small group of us in three cars, to a small mountain hamlet. There we parked & then crossing a stream started on our way up, it was quite steep at first, then soon became an actual climb over boulders. In my excitement, I pushed ahead of the others & it wasn’t long before I met Master Benxu 本旭, one of the the two resident monks, on his way down, he curious to know where i was going. As we exchanged greetings the others caught up introduced them self’s & we all took photos. Again in the excitement of realizing my long held dream I rushed ahead of the others quite oblivious to any danger.
I had to stop a couple of times to take a rest & regain my breath, once i drank water from the mountain stream until my heart stopped pounding, the excitement was overwhelming, it was one of the happiest moments of my life. When I arrived at the hut after a demanding three hour climb, I was drenched in sweat.
I had been in training for this before the trip, by jogging up the large hill behind my house in Wales UK on many evenings for over three mounts, with a back pack, It paid of or it would have been a difficult climb for me. One of the women in out group who was not fit, got in to difficulty arriving just as we were leaving & we had to hire a mountain porter to carry her back down piggyback that evening after returning to the cars parked in the hamlet next to a very convenient small family restaurant where we had supper, whilst waiting for the porter to sprint up & help her down. He was very fit as he made a living climbing up every day delivering things like building materials to the hermits. It took him around three hours to sprint up & carry her back down.
On arrival at the hut I introduced myself to the other resident Monk there. His presence was clear & radiant, but ordinary and down to earth. He expressed absolutely no surprise at a foreigner suddenly turning up alone. I told him that my dream had now come true & why. Warmly agreeing he invited me inside and offered me a seat by his warm wood burning stove. He told me how he had lived there alone many years previously, I wished I had been there then. He busied himself giving acupuncture to a woman who was up there with a boy.
I slipped out side alone to soak up the atmosphere & sat in the tower in meditation until the others arrived. I managed to snatch about 45 mins alone in the stillness. My goal had been achieved. The others had brought a picnic lunch , as well as vegetables, to give the two resident monks.
There was no toilet, only a rock to go behind. It seemed they mixed everything with soil & recycled it into the well maintained vegetable gardens. There was only the water they collected when it rained from the roof in large drums. There were solar-panels & good batteries, as well as a collection of solar gadgets. We stayed there sitting in the sunshine enjoying the view for a few hours, savoring the atmosphere, eating, chatting and taking photos, and then we held a short Buddhist ceremony ending in circulating the memorial tower whilst chanting the Buddhas name. It was almost time to leave & suddenly getting chilly, back at the bottom we eat supper in the family restaurant, it was all ready dark when we drove of. I imagined what the atmosphere was like back up at the hut where all must have fell silent since we left. I wished I was able to stay on alone but had to reluctantly leave & return to Hong Kong because my visa was up. If I ever get the chance to return I plan spend a few days & nights up there.