I come across a lot of questionable information in my research. In the rush to cash in on the popularity of Buddhist topics, many writers and publishers take short cuts, sensationalize events, or project their own biases on history and dharma. What worries me is that the gems-- truly valuable information--are lost in the avalanche of mud running through libraries and the internet.
To my disappointment, I found one such article on Tricycle Mag recently and felt compelled to write a letter in response. "Consider the source: Why did Zen monks live in caves?" by Andy Ferguson is cheeky and simplistic, to say the least. At worst, it perpetuates Chinese communist re-interpretations of history.
Here's the article: http://www.tricycle.com/blog/consider-source-why-did-zen-monks-live-caves#comment-42594
Here's my response:
"This article could have been much better.
First, the notion that monks were seen at this point in history as people who were "hiding out from the government" or escaping from being productive members of society sounds to me as either a Chinese Communist re-interpretation or a projection of Western ideology unto an ancient Asian culture. In my research, I have yet to see evidence to support this, (except perhaps during times when monarchs were not Buddhists and sought to repress or expel monks). The assertion that monks were seen as tax evaders by ancient kings runs counter to the historical fact that Chinese kings and high officials were themselves patrons of Buddhism and sought to build these vast monastic complexes and monuments as a means to gain merit.
Second, in "considering the source", we should first consider that the Dunhuang monks were following a tradition begun by the Buddha himself in his lifetime and a tradition that was well established in India before Buddhism spread throughout Asia. Siddhartha spent 6 years meditating in a cave about 12km northeast of Bodhgaya before achieving enlightenment. (Known as Dungeswari in India, Tibetan Buddhists refer to it as the Mahakala Cave.) Thus, those who sought to follow in the Buddha's footsteps venerated and emulated his activities, as students like us do to this day.
The practice of meditating in caves and the royal patronage of establishing cave monasteries was widespread throughout India by 2nd Century BC. The vast Ajanta and Ellora cave complexes are just two examples that were emulated in Sri Lanka, Nepal, Afganistan, then throughout Southeast, East Asia and Tibet. By the time the Dunhuang caves, also known as Mogao Caves, were created 4-500 years later (366 CE), cave monasteries were an integral part of the Buddhist landscape. (See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ajanta_Caves.)
The Pali canon refers to meditation in a secluded place such as "the foot of a tree, in a forest or cave, on a mountain, in a cemetery, jungle, or in a peaceful and secluded open place" (from Buddhadasa Bhikkhu's writings). The cultivation of solitude in living (kaya-vivekka), during short or long periods is understood as useful in separating from mental defilements.
While initially inhabited by hermits, the Dunhuang caves eventually became quite a busy spiritual community because of the traffic of commerce--and thus pilgrims and patrons--from the Silk Road. We can imagine that, far from hiding out in isolation, the monks there served the spiritual needs of travelers and merchants and were in turn supported by them. This is why the caves were eventually abandoned when the Silk Road was no longer in use. (See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mogao_Caves)
I am curious to know where Andy gets his perspective from. This article is somewhat simplistic, and misses an opportunity to share many fascinating aspects about cave monasteries. For example, in many caves monks did not have to bring water up to the caves. They engineered sophisticated systems for directing natural springs and rainwater across the rock surface and into reservoirs (a practice passed on from monks in India and Sri Lanka.)
We must always be vigilant in what we read and write about the history of Buddhadharma.
And when we're in the business of producing knowledge, it is essential that we also "consider the source" for what we publish.
US Fulbright Fellow in Buddhist Art
Director of AKSHA
View from the monks caves in Mihintale, Sri Lanka.