Porter was born in Los Angeles and raised in mountainous Idaho. After serving three years in the U.S. Army (refusing assignment in Vietnam and subsequently being reassigned as a clerk in Germany), he took a degree in anthropology from University of California, Santa Barbara and went on to graduate studies in language (Chinese) and anthropology at Columbia University, but dropped out in 1972 to go to the Fo Kwang Shan Buddhist monastery in Taiwan.
His book Road to Heaven prompted Edward A. Burger to seek out and study with Buddhist hermits in the Zhongnan mountains of China and direct the 2005 film Amongst White Clouds.
In 2009, Copper Canyon Press published his translation of Laozi's Tao Te Ching. One of the most noteworthy aspects of this translation is Porter's use of excerpts from China's vast and rich commentarial tradition.
In 2012 he published a translation of the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra (Lankavatara Sutra: Translation and Commentary.Counterpoint, 2012.) It is based on several early Chinese and Sanskrit translations including the Chinese translation made by Guṇabhadra in 443.
2014 brought a re-translation of The Mountain Poems of Stonehouse.Stonehouse was a fourteenth century Zen master who wrote his poems late in life while living alone in a Chinese mountain hut.
Yellow River Odyssey is an account in photographs and text of Porter's early 1990s travels along the Yellow River from its mouth at the Yellow Sea to its source in the Tibetan Plateau. Along the way, Porter visited historical religious sites related to Confucius, Mencius, Laozi and Zhuang Zhou. The Chinese version was based on 1991 radio scripts for Hong Kong radio station Metro News.
"The Silk Road: Taking the bus to Pakistan" details the author's overland journey with his friend Finn Wilcox from Xi'an to Islamabad by bus, train, and plane. It's a first-person account of scenery, artifacts, and people along the northern route of the Silk Road.
Poems of the Masters: China's Classic Anthology of T'ang and Sung Dynasty Verse Copper Canyon Press, 2003. (translator) (see: Three Hundred Tang Poems)
The Heart Sutra: the Womb of Buddhas Washington: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2004. (translator with extensive commentary) (see: Heart Sutra)
Zen Baggage: A Pilgrimage to China Counterpoint, 2008. (author)
In Such Hard Times: The Poetry of Wei Ying-wu Copper Canyon Press, July 1, 2009. (translator). Awarded 2007 PEN Translation Fund Grant from PEN American Center. Winner of the American Literary Translators Association's inaugural Lucien Stryk Asian Translation Prize in 2010. (see: Wei Yingwu)
Lao-tzu's Taoteching: Translated by Red Pine with selected commentaries from the past 2000 years revised edition, Copper Canyon Press, 2009.
Guide to Capturing a Plum Blossom by Sung Po-jen Copper Canyon Press, 2011 (translator)
The Lankavatara Sutra: Translation and CommentaryCounterpoint, 2012, (translator)