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Ultimate Journey: Retracing the Path of an Ancient Buddhist Monk Who…

de Richard Bernstein

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In 629, the revered Buddhist monk Hsuan Tsang set out across Asia in search of the Ultimate Truth, and to settle what he called “the perplexities of my mind.” From the Tang dynasty capital at Xian through ancient Silk Road oases, over forbidding mountain passes to Tashkent, Samarkand, and the Amu-Darya River, across Pakistan to the holiest cities of India–and back again–his sixteen-year journey was beset with every hardship imaginable. Pilgrimage complete, Hsuan Tsang wrote an account of his trek that is still considered one of the classics of Chinese literature. In 1998, Richard Bernstein, venerated journalist and Time magazine’s first Beijing bureau chief, retraced the steps of Hsuan Tsang’s long and sinuous route, comparing present and past. Aided by modern technology but hampered by language barriers, harried border crossings, hostile Islamic regimes, and the accidental U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, Bernstein follows the monk’s path not only in physical but in contemplative ways. Juxtaposing his own experiences with those of Hsuan Tsang, Bernstein has crafted a vivid account of two stirring adventures in pursuit of illumination. Inspiring and profoundly felt, Ultimate Journey is a marvelous amalgamation of travelogue and history, cultural critique and spiritual meditation.… (més)
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This book was recommended to me by my old friend Col, who has spent some years in India and presumably is familiar with some of the ground covered. Both of us had mused about "sometime" retracing the old silk road from China to the West. Alas, I think we both may have left our jaunt a little late. But this book has done quite a lot towards dampening any lingering enthusiasm I may have had for the adventure. Bernstein muses, towards the end of his book (p323) about the realities of travel..and the "vexing details of existence---- finding a place to stay, getting your underwear washed, obtaining a map, dealing with taxi drivers and street touts, and knowing whether and how much to tip". ....It kind of brings it all back to me how wearying this sort of thing can become. What he doesn't mention at this spot is the 8 hrs of travel in a bouncing jeep over hot dusty roads, the countless hours spent on hard bench seats on buses...breathing in the cigarette smoke of other passengers...etc etc.
The tale is something of a pilgrimage for Bernstein....a "coming of age" for him (at 50) in retracing (more or less) the route of a famous Buddhist priest around the years 630-645AD who travelled to India to seek true knowledge about Buddhism and to study the original holy documents. This priest, Hsuan Tsang, was really quite a guy. Apparently both a formidable scholar and with the incredible toughness to undertake this journey. If my memory serves me correctly his fame and influence reached Japan because I remember seeing in one of the famous Japanese temples at Nara (the Great Buddha) that the lotus petals around the base of the great Buddha are engraved in a style (which I was informed) could be traced back to India and there was some mention of Hsuan Tsang's pilgrimage.
Bernstein's book is a clever mixture of personal travel anecdotes:....."I sat next to a former soldier of the Soviet army who wore his medal-emblazoned army jacket. He was large, had skin like a raw beet, thinning grey hair, and plastic glasses held together with scotch tape, and he smelled powerfully of garlic. He smiled at me, shook my hand, and showed me a Russian magazine he was reading."....... and personal reminisces about his Jewishness, his (late-in-life) desire to make himself a full man in terms of the Talmud by having a wife and children and his reactions to people, food and places along the way. He's combined this with some reflections about Buddhist philosophy and the truths which the monk presumably was seeking. As he indicates, he had a hard time reconciling the self-annihilating arguments and claims like "suchness does not become, nor does it cease becoming" with his own experience of the much more pragmatic jewish laws inherited via his father. ...."The irreverent thought has occurred to me that much of Buddhist philosophy consists of slippery word-play which enables the philosopher to have things any which way". I'm inclined to agree with Bernstein on this. In fact it's relatively easy to come up with slippery word plays like: "From the void is the action and the action of the void is inaction." And it seems a bit like superstring quantum theory where you can pretty much prove anything ..but which really proves nothing.
In respect of his travel writings, Bernstein demonstrates his professional skills as a journalist and book critic for the NYTimes...he is captivating and entertaining and his notebook was obviously filled with descriptive notes taken along the way. (After all he was intending all along to write a book about this jaunt...the book was not an afterthought). I had some trouble pinning down the exact time of his travels but, from a few facts in the book, plus the publishing date, one can assume that the travel was undertaken around 1999. I wonder, as China has increasingly modernised and the Uigurs have become more restive, how things have changed in the last 20 or so years. Maybe the trains are now better.
Whilst we are mentioning trains....which seem to generally be hot and uncomfortable for Bernstein....and the buses which always seemed crowded, hot and uncomfortable......one should spare a thought for the monk who seemed to be doing a fair bit of this journey, either on foot or on horseback. And, where the monk took 17 years, Bernstein seemed to have fitted it into about 12 weeks..to enable him to get back to his job at the NY Times. Also, he only approximates the monk's actual travels and, in this respect, I felt just a little cheated. I guess, in some cases....such as Afghanistan....it was going to be very difficult or impossible to retrace the monk's steps.....but the monk himself did not seem to let difficulties stop him. So although we are treated to details of a thousand grotty wayside hotels and untold meals of hot-pot ...I never really got a great feeling for what it would have been like for the monk to be travelling into the unknown. (Or was it unknown?......It seems that the monk's fame had preceded him in most places and he seemed to be given a celebrity arrival party in many places and farewelled with armed escorts and elephants along the way. Though, equally, there was lots of hardship. And I guess, it's never going to be easy crossing a mountain pass at 25,000 feet...with or without elephants.)
Clearly, Hsuan Tsang did not have a wife and kids waiting for him at home...so he was able to take the odd couple of years off in Srinigar, Kashmir to learn Sanskrit and Sanskrit grammar and the rules of Buddhist logic....before proceeding on his way.
Overall, I found the book vaguely dissatisfying; it is neither just a travelogue, nor is it a confessional "coming of age" or epiphany; nor is it a straight history of Hsuan Tsang's travels; nor is it a philosophical/religious tract. It has elements of all four woven together. Entertaining? Yes? Did I learn from it? Yes? But, I was left with the odd feeling that here was a professional writer who had taken three months off work to write a book and it all had to fit within the 12 weeks or so....and the tussles over visas were going to be as much a part of the tale as the Monk's desperate walk through the desert without water. (I noticed that Bernstein did not try to emulate the feat). And Bernstein did have the advantage of speaking Chinese; of having Zhongmei (an influential local) with him for the Chinese part of the trip and of having a number of Journalisti/correspondent contacts to draw on from time to time.....Plus he had spent years in the area as a correspondent himself for Time Magazine.
Overall, an interesting read, but slightly dissatisfying. He has, however, cured me of any lingering desire to retrace the route old silk road unless I did it with a well-oiled tour group. I would have appreciated some illustrations of the various places and the book lends itself to a much more pictorial version. I give it four stars. ( )
  booktsunami | Aug 1, 2020 |
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Wikipedia en anglès (1)

In 629, the revered Buddhist monk Hsuan Tsang set out across Asia in search of the Ultimate Truth, and to settle what he called “the perplexities of my mind.” From the Tang dynasty capital at Xian through ancient Silk Road oases, over forbidding mountain passes to Tashkent, Samarkand, and the Amu-Darya River, across Pakistan to the holiest cities of India–and back again–his sixteen-year journey was beset with every hardship imaginable. Pilgrimage complete, Hsuan Tsang wrote an account of his trek that is still considered one of the classics of Chinese literature. In 1998, Richard Bernstein, venerated journalist and Time magazine’s first Beijing bureau chief, retraced the steps of Hsuan Tsang’s long and sinuous route, comparing present and past. Aided by modern technology but hampered by language barriers, harried border crossings, hostile Islamic regimes, and the accidental U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, Bernstein follows the monk’s path not only in physical but in contemplative ways. Juxtaposing his own experiences with those of Hsuan Tsang, Bernstein has crafted a vivid account of two stirring adventures in pursuit of illumination. Inspiring and profoundly felt, Ultimate Journey is a marvelous amalgamation of travelogue and history, cultural critique and spiritual meditation.

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