Sample text for Ultimate journey : retracing the path of an ancient Buddhist monk who crossed Asia in search of enlightenment / Richard Bernstein.
Bibliographic record and links to related information available from the Library of Congress catalog
Copyrighted sample text provided by the publisher and used with permission. May be incomplete or contain other coding.
My doctrine is to think the thought that is unthinkable, to practice the deed that is not performable, to speak the speech that is inexpressible, and to be trained in the discipline that is beyond discipline.
--The Sutra in Forty-two Sections
At first, searching for a way to satisfy the common desire to get away from it all, I thought I might teach myself to make Shaker furniture. I owned a small farmhouse in upstate New York that seemed suitable for the purpose, and I started to look at miter saws and chisel sets and flip through do-it-yourself manuals in hardware stores. I imagined myself in the workshop patiently crafting mortise-and-tenon joints while Glenn Gould played unaccompanied harpsichord music by J. S. Bach in the background.
Before I began to build my fantasy woodworking shop, however, I started, as I have before, to scrutinize maps and to think about a trip. Not just any trip, not some two-week sojourn in Italy or even a longer, farther-flung journey to, say, Angkor Wat or Borobudur. I was thinking about a particular trip, one that I had had in mind for a long time but for a variety of reasons (soon to be disclosed) had never undertaken. It was a sort of pilgrimage overland from China to India and back along the route of a Chinese Buddhist monk who went that way in the seventh century in search of the Truth.
The monk's name was Hsuan Tsang, and I think of him as the greatest traveler in history. He is far from a household name in the West, but he is certainly one in the East; in China and India he has had both historic and mythic standing for many centuries. I learned about him a long time ago, so long ago in fact that I don't remember exactly when, but no doubt at some point during the period in my life when I was what is rather grandly called a China expert. I started out in the China field as a graduate student at Harvard, where I studied the Chinese language and Chinese history under the legendary John K. Fairbank. Then, having realized that the academic life was not for me, I went to work for Time magazine, which sent me to Hong Kong in the days when that was as close as most Americans could get to China itself. China and the United States normalized diplomatic relations in 1979, and Time sent me to Beijing in 1980 to open its bureau there, the first the magazine had had in China since the Communists came to power in 1949.
It was thrilling to be in China in those years, even if the country was still a poverty-stricken police state kept down by the heavy hand of a Maoist dictatorship. China wasn't so much an ordinary country as it was an extraordinary universe, a domain of everything, from architectural ruins to moral-political theater, and because it had been closed for several decades, it was a self-contained universe due for rediscovery. I think it is fair to say that for most of the Western journalists there at the time--many of whom had studied Chinese in school before arriving--China was more a vocation than just another stop in a career as a foreign correspondent. China was all we talked about, China present but also China past, the China whose most powerful leader expectorated into a porcelain spittoon during ceremonies of state and the China of arched marble bridges and the Temple of Heaven.
When the country, under its post-Mao paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, instituted the economic reforms that are now among the wonders of the world, it quickly became clear that the China of old was soon going to vanish, and this created more than the usual amount of antiquarian interest among the relatively small contingent of foreigners who lived in Beijing then. We used to roam the city's antique shops and the small lanes of its ancient neighborhoods. We looked upon the old men with wispy beards walking their finches in cages early in the morning and the tiny ladies with bound feet and black pajamas as relics. And we created a minor cult over certain books that described what the country had been like before we got there, feeling envious of those who had known a far older China than we could know.
One of the books, for example, The Years That Were Fat by George N. Kates, described the monuments, the gates, the walls, the temples, the moon-viewing pavilions, the itinerant peddlers and their chants, the streetside operas, and the shadow puppet shows that had already mostly disappeared. Another book, less widely read, but known to a few of us, was Monkey, or Journey to the West, a sixteenth-century novel by one Wu Cheng-en. It was the highly fanciful account of an expedition to India made by a Buddhist monk in the company of a five-hundred-year-old monkey of supernatural powers. And some of us knew of the historical monk, Hsuan Tsang himself, whose actual journey to what he called "the West" took place from 629 to 645. The monk's own account of his journey, whose full title is The Great Tang Chronicles of the Western World, translated into English in the nineteenth century by a British clergyman-scholar named Samuel Beal, is regarded as one of the great classics of Chinese literature. In India, his chronicle is a major source of information on medieval Indian history. There are hundreds of stories, novels, plays, and operas based on Hsuan Tsang's journey in search of the Truth. There is probably not a single educated Chinese, and there are probably very few educated Indians, who do not know who he was.
Hsuan Tsang went on horseback, on camel-back, on elephant-back, or on foot from the ancient capital of Chang-an (today's Xian) all the way to southern India, a distance of roughly five thousand miles, and then back via a somewhat different route, crossing the harshest deserts and the tallest mountains in the world in both directions. His purpose was to search out what he called the Law, the original classics of Buddhist thought that would enable Chinese Buddhism, a doctrine borrowed from India in a language very foreign to China, to be put on an authentic footing. In other words, Hsuan Tsang wanted to shatter the illusory facade of the world of appearances and penetrate the diamond-hard innermost heart of Reality itself. When he returned to China he wrote, at the express demand of the emperor, about the countries he had visited on his journey, the emperor's purpose being to collect information of potential use in formulating China's military and foreign policies. But while the monk performed that task for his emperor, his concern was with an India that for him stood as the source of supreme wisdom. He went there to achieve the exalted understanding, what he saw as the Ultimate Truth, that alone permits us to achieve the purpose of Buddhism, which is the cessation of otherwise inevitable and inescapable suffering.
That was not my purpose, or at least not what I thought I might achieve. I too wish for a cessation of suffering, and I accept, at least in theory, the Buddhist proposition that the conventional pursuit of happiness leads to endless striving, frustration, and disappointment. But the Ultimate Truth is a more Buddhist thing than a secular non-Buddhist skeptic like me could strive for. What interested me about the monk's great pilgrimage was simply the beauty of his quest and the magnitude of his achievement. It seemed to me that his exploit was even more impressive than that of another figure of enduring fascination for me, Marco Polo, who came along six hundred years later. I take nothing away from the great Italian, but Hsuan Tsang's trip was almost as long and more arduous, and its goal, unlike Polo's, was not riches or renown but wisdom, a benefit for all humankind.
Years ago, a good friend of mine, John Wheeler, a former graduate school roommate who is now vice president of the Japan Society in New York, was talking about the great Buddhist monuments of Asia. At one extremity, he said, is the great Horyuji Temple in Nara, Japan. On the other side are Ellora and Ajanta, about eight thousand miles away in western India. In between are others, including the Mogao Caves at Dunhuang, which had just been reopened to foreign visitors. "Dunhuang stands temporally and geographically midway between Ellora in the west and Horyuji in the east," he said.
That remark stuck with me. The existence of an immensely long strand of Buddhist pearls stretching from the west of India to Japan inflamed my mind. It was magnificent, a great human achievement, the work of thousands of devotees performed over a thousand years. Here was Buddhism, founded by an obscure prince from the North Indian Plain, brought by merchants and monks across thousands of miles of the most forbidding terrain on the globe, and producing one of the most remarkable series of monuments on earth. The Buddha had seen in the Four Noble Truths that the usual strivings of humankind for pleasure and wealth inevitably led to suffering, and that the antidote to that suffering was to understand that the self, as it is normally experienced, was an illusion. An escape from suffering lay not in worldly pleasure, in sex, wealth, or power, but in the quiet cultivation of one's own mind. And here was a simple monk, Hsuan Tsang, traveling the entire geographical-spiritual trajectory that existed up to his time (Horyuji was built a century or so later) and leaving behind him a detailed record of what he saw. I thought of Hsuan Tsang's trip as the ultimate journey along a path over icy mountains and through scorched deserts that was for a millennium the most important thoroughfare of commerce, conquest, and ideas in the world. I thought of it as the road of great events, the greatest event of all being the transmission of the revolutionary doctrine of Buddhism, from India, where it died out, to China, where it flourished, altering the inner lives of hundreds of millions of people. I wanted to go to the same places my pilgrim went, to stand where he had stood, to look at the desert and try to hear the sound of his footsteps echoing down the corridors of time. It is a romantic notion, I know, and maybe it sounds naive, hokey in our cynical age. But when it comes to the history of the spirit, I am a romantic. I believe in paying homage to the figures of the past who conceived the thoughts that have endured, and Hsuan Tsang was such a person. To reproduce his journey would be the trip of a lifetime.
As I say, I was not hoping to find Ultimate Truth. Nor does the literary device often used in the beginning of travel books apply to me, the idea that I was propelled to undertake the lonely rigors of a journey by some grave spiritual or romantic crisis, the collapse of my marriage, the loss of my job, perhaps the death of someone close to me, a life unraveling, falling apart. In truth, my life was not falling apart. I was experiencing no theatrical exigency. My yearning to get away derived from the banal conviction that I had crossed the bourn of fifty, and that some of the things I had promised myself I would do would remain undone if I didn't do them quickly. Along with that conviction came the dread thought that this was it, my life, this and nothing more, until the end, which suddenly seemed less hypothetical than it did when I was less than fifty. Among the things I had promised myself I would do one of these days were reading Proust in his entirety, sailing to Tahiti, writing a historical novel, spending a contemplative year learning to make Shaker furniture--and following the fabled Road of Great Events from China to India and back. One of my predecessors on the China-to-India route, the English writer Peter Fleming, began his classic News from Tartary of 1936 with the simplest possible explanation for his travel plans. We traveled, he wrote, "because we wanted to travel--because we believed, in the light of previous experience, that we should enjoy it." That more or less summed up matters for me too, with the important difference that Fleming was twenty-seven when he started his trip and I was twice that age, which made my situation less simple than his. I traveled because I wanted to travel and I thought that I would possibly enjoy it, surely enjoy having done it. Like many men of my age, I was experiencing a kind of quarrel with bourgeois life, bathed in its ease and pleasures but aware too of its smallness and ordinariness, its lack of excitement. Most of us middle-aged men are among that species of routinized, rationalized beings that Max Weber called "specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart." We start out idealists and we end up creatures of habit, more concerned about the state of the lawn than of the spirit. Yes, we say to ourselves, it would be nice to break away for a while, but who would walk the dog?
Working as a book critic for the New York Times, I could feel myself glued to a chair, and I wasn't reading Proust. I liked my job, which I regarded as more than a job; it was a privilege. Moreover, I come from a background that does not make it natural for me to take privilege for granted. My father and mother brought up my sister and me on a small chicken farm in a Connecticut town called East Haddam, which wasn't a bad way to get started in life. But I have no doubt that had the opportunities my parents, both of them Eastern European immigrants, made available to me been made available to them, they would have preferred book criticism to collecting eggs and feeding chickens and shoveling manure any old day. I live at that rare nexus of political freedom and material profusion wherein you can actually pay the rent sitting at home pronouncing on the quality of other people's writings. I have my gripes, including the sedentariness of it, but still, my life was pretty good, and I knew it.
The point is, do not expect any stories of personal devastation here, any tales of redemption from grief. Expect rather a story of a man whose biggest problem was an inability, having gotten to a certain point, to get further. This was true of work, where I was in danger of sliding all the way to a suddenly foreseeable retirement age without ever again doing anything physically demanding or adventurous. I liked being a book critic, but I missed getting out and discovering the world, which, when I was younger, is what I thought I would do until I got old.
Then there was love, where I was also comfortably inert. Some years before I began thinking about getting away for a while, I attended a movie screening in New York to write an article for the Times, and, looking across the proverbial crowded room, I saw an Asian woman who corresponded to my romantic ideal. She wore a satiny long skirt and a black knit top and she had long hair clipped just beneath the back of her head and allowed to cascade downward to her waist. Her name was Zhongmei Li, and she told me she was a classical dancer who had moved from Beijing to New York a couple of years earlier. We began to see each other, and when I was contemplating Shaker furniture versus the China-India road we were seeing each other still, but in the way that was pathetically habitual for me--without decisiveness on my part. I wanted to move ahead, but something stopped me, as something had stopped me before when I faced other prospects for full romantic attachment (or as this is more directly put, marriage). The result was that I remained what the Talmud calls half a man, a man who had never acquired a wife or had children.
This is such an ordinary problem for so many Talmudically defined half-men in urban America these days that it seems hardly worthy of note. But I am trying to account for myself in these pages, to explain the nature of my two-thirds-of-the-way-through-life malaise, my something-less-than-a-crisis, something-short-of-contentment state of the spirit. There was no danger that I would have a fatal accident while shaving or even that I would knock people's hats off in the fashion of Melville's Ishmaelas I roamed the island of the Manhattoes. It was not exactly a drizzly November in my soul, but I did find myself unaccountably moody, difficult to please. I was snapping at the Times's copy editors, who are probably the best copy editors in the world. On getting up in the morning, I was becoming less and less inclined to start reading a book. I couldn't shake off the sentiment that for a former foreign correspondent like myself, who had seen journalistic action in two dozen countries in Europe, Asia, and Africa, being a book critic was a bit like putting myself out to pasture.
It is, of course, unreasonable to expect or demand that daily life, and especially making a living, be an ongoing rhapsody. Yet I was beginning to feel that even the occasional possibility of a rhapsodic moment or two, a modest, occasional touch of the sublime, was eluding me. In addition, despite Zhongmei's welcome presence in my life, I was making no headway in resolving what in the conventional psychobabble is called commitment-phobia. I tried to deal with my normative unhappiness by lying on a couch and draining my brain in the presence of a psychoanalyst. But while the experience did not make me an opponent of Freudian therapy, it seemed an expensive indulgence. Cheaper and maybe more effective to buy a table saw and a drill press and a few books on woodworking, or to pick up a plane ticket to Xian. I knew that if I didn't do one or the other pretty soon, it would be too late. The question was: Which should it be?
My interest in Shaker furniture should not be underestimated. Nor, for that matter, should anyone think that I am especially enraptured by the idea of travel itself. When I was twenty-seven, like Peter Fleming, I wanted to do nothing else. But by the time I contemplated another long trip I had done enough of them to be aware of an almost inevitable disjunction between the romance of travel expectations and the loneliness and hardship of actual travel. A great part of travel, especially to places where you don't know anybody, consists of fatigue and lumpy mattresses and touts who cheat you and dinner by yourself in rooms full of people who are dining together. The Chinese have a saying: The wise man is he who can hear the dogs barking in the next village but has no desire to go there. Perhaps this is the same idea as in Blaise Pascal's celebrated pens?e about all human evil coming from man's inability to sit quietly in a room. Making Shaker furniture would be sitting quietly in a room; traveling through Central Asia along the route of a seventh-century Chinese monk would be going to see the dogs in the next village. On the other hand, there is Robert Louis Stevenson, who said, "The great affair is to move." Travel is hard, especially when it involves, as it did for Stevenson, the permanent relinquishment of the place where you belong. But travel that does not lead to that relinquishment can be, despite the reality cited above, the greatest escape from the mundane, from the oblivion of routine, that I know.
I had escaped before--wenty-nine years before, to be exact. In 1970, when I was still a student, I went overland from Paris to India, crossing Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan on the way. It was the great adventure of my early adulthood, and involved grievous suffering, from homesickness and horniness and dysentery and mouse-sized cockroaches and hard wooden seats and anxiety about money and the solitude of the long-distance traveler. But I became, as it were, a man of the world on that trip, and I set my life on its future course, since it was then that I wrote my first published articles and was able to move, after some delays and false starts and a good deal of wasted time, toward fulfilling my ambition of becoming a journalist and a writer.
Here is where Hsuan Tsang seemed more pertinent than making a Shaker table. What appealed to me about woodworking was what I imagined to be the tranquillity of it, the concentration on the physical object--very different from the sedentary mental work that now occupied my professional days. But I knew that what I really wanted was another experience of foreign climes and distant shores, perhaps my last such experience. To reproduce Hsuan Tsang's journey, and to write my own version of his Chronicles, represented an opportunity for me to turn the clock back on myself, to recapture some of the freshness of my earlier years when, anxious and ambitious, I was just starting out. There was nostalgia in this, but there was also a test, a kind of dare that I could fulfill a promise I had made to myself, that I would never, even when I got older, get so settled that unusual adventure would become impossible. Not believing in reincarnation, believing that this is the only time I will exist on the planet, I wanted to go.
And yet for a long time, I didn't. This was for some years due to the simple fact that the mountain passes one needed to cross to go west from China were closed. They had served merchants, missionaries, pilgrims, diplomats, and armies for millennia, but for the first several decades of Communist rule in China they were shut. This was the case for the northern route through the Ili River Valley between China and Kazakhstan, as it was for the southern route via Tibet to Ladakh in what is now the Indian part of Kashmir; the same for the Oxus River route through the Wakhan Pass (which Marco Polo is supposed to have taken), for the Torugart Pass north of the historic city of Kashgar, for the Kunjerab Pass between China and Pakistan, and for the Bedel Pass to Kyrgyzstan, the pass the monk probably took on his way west.
In 1982, China and Pakistan opened the Kunjerab Pass for commercial traffic, and four years later they began allowing tourists and other travelers to cross between the two countries on that route. That was when I realized that for the first time in decades it was possible to go, as Peter Fleming had, overland from China to India. Still, the Kunjerab Pass was the wrong pass for me. It was not far south of the Wakhan Pass, which the monk took on his return to China, but it was very far from the Bedel Pass, his most likely mountain crossing point on his way west.
Then, in the mid-1990s, China and Kyrgyzstan opened another of the historic east--west crossings, the Torugart Pass, and that made a difference to me. The Torugart Pass, east of the Bedel Pass, is not the route that Hsuan Tsang took, but it covers almost identical terrain. Geographically it was close enough. And the Kunjerab Pass was close enough to Hsuan Tsang's actual return-trip route to make for an authentic reincarnation of his entire journey. In both cases, the geographic and the ethnic terrain would be basically the same as experienced by the monk.
Still I didn't go, or I couldn't go. I had a job, and it was not easy to leave it for the time required for such a long trip. Then, in 1996, a colleague of mine and I wrote a short foreign policy polemic that predicted a long period of conflict and rivalry between the United States and China. The book angered the Chinese authorities, who were just then trying to warm up the Sino-American relationship. Their response was so heated and vociferous that many diplomats and journalists whose opinions I trusted predicted I would never be allowed to travel in China again. The press in China instigated a mini--propaganda campaign against my coauthor, Ross H. Munro, and myself, declaring, among other things, that we were white supremacists who had fabricated evidence in our book. Some articles explicitly said that neither of us would ever get a visa to China again. Sure enough, a year or so after the publication of the book when I applied for a visa to travel to Xian and points west, I was turned down at the consulate in New York.
There are two ways to go to China. You can apply for a visa at a consulate, which means filling out a form giving a lot of personal history, your occupation, your place of birth, your previous visits to China. Or you can go to a travel agency in Hong Kong, where, for a somewhat elevated fee, you get a visa, no questions asked. No forms, no disclosures about the books you've written or your past history with China. But because these Hong Kong visas are issued without the approval of the Public Security Bureau in Beijing, there is always the possibility that your name will flash red on the computer screen at your point of entry in China and you will be sent packing. The visa problem was intensified by the fact that I needed to get into China twice to accomplish my purpose, once to begin the journey and again for the return trip via the Karakorum Highway from Pakistan.
Another problem: Whether I could get into China or not, all journalists were banned from what is officially called the Xinjiang Uigur Autonomous Region, a vast stretch of Chinese territory that includes the oasis towns at the edge of the Takla Makan Desert that the monk passed through on his journey. The Chinese were coping with a Muslim independence movement. Terrorists had bombed buses; arrests had been made and executions carried out. And, as is often the case in China, where there is trouble, foreign reporters are banned. In the summer of 1998, two reporters from Taiwan attempting to travel incognito in Xinjiang were picked up by the security police and jailed for a week before being expelled. If Taiwanese journalists were unable to escape detection, how would a sore-thumb Caucasian like me manage in Xinjiang?
Still, at a certain point, as the sports shoe slogan has it, you just have to do it. When I made my first global backpack expedition twenty-nine years before, I had had so much less hesitation. In those earlier times I didn't think so much about potential hazards or try to gather all of the answers to every conceivable question before I departed. Looking back on it, I was amazed at my boldness, and I wondered: Is it one of the characteristics of getting older that you feel you have to have absolute certainty about everything before you put your foot out the door? Life accumulates a kind of weight, like the pound you actually do put on every year. Maybe, I thought, retracing the route of my favorite pilgrim, I would make myself lighter, at least for a time. I asked myself the Existential Question. When I lie on my deathbed, what will I regret more: not having risked running into trouble or not having at least tried to take the Road of Great Events from China to India and back along the route traveled by a seventh-century Buddhist monk who was searching for the Truth?
The answer to that question is that I sent my passport to Hong Kong and got a visa to China through my usual travel agent there. My employers at the Times gave me just enough time off to complete the journey. I bought a cheap, nonrefundable round-trip ticket to Hong Kong. I had a six-hour layover there, during which time I bought a one-way ticket on China Northwest Airlines direct to Xian, Hsuan Tsang's starting point. At the last minute, and to my great joy, Zhongmei decided to travel with me for the first Chinese leg of the journey. She wanted to be in Xian to attempt to run interference for me if I ran into trouble with the Chinese bureaucracy. She would fly into China ahead of me and would meet me at the airport after passport control. It was an offer of amazing, eye-opening generosity, an act of love.
The plane from Hong Kong was nicer, newer, more up to international standards than Chinese planes in the days when I lived in Beijing as a journalist. But it still had something about it--a certain stiff formality among the service personnel, the solemnity of the Communist bureaucrats who were my traveling companions--that made me sense I was entering a different world. Going to China was always entering a different world. We took off, and I saw the glistening ribbon of the Pearl River below, and Guangdong Province, a darkening green in the twilight. It had been twenty-seven years since I made my first trip to China in the days when you had to walk across the bridge at Lowu between China and Hong Kong and you went through passport control in a kind of farm shed placed within earshot of a commune pigsty. A lot had changed, most conspicuously the heralded opening of China to the outside world. Whether China would be open to me was what I would find out in just a few hours.
Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Xuanzang, ca, 596-664, Priests, Buddhist China Biography, Silk Road Description and travel