Ultimate Journey: Retracing the Path of an Ancient Buddhist Monk Who Crossed Asia in Search of Enlightenment
Knopf, 352 pp., $26.00
Books that “follow in the steps of” a well-known traveler are more and more ubiquitous these days, but many of them are slightly suspect. Following in the footsteps of some distinguished predecessor can look a little like a gesture of defeat, suggesting that all the world’s used up: everywhere we go nowadays, somebody’s been there before us, often with a notebook, and prose more durable than our own, and all we can do is shuffle after, comparing our perceptions with those of the earlier luminary, and presenting the reader with a kind of before-and-after tableau. We have already had “in the steps of” books following Alfred Russell Wallace, Mary Kingsley, the sixth-century Byzantine monk John Maschos, and Che Guevara; soon no doubt there will be people taking trips in the footsteps of Bruce Chatwin and Paul Theroux.
A biographer like Richard Holmes can follow Shelley and Coleridge and Stevenson so closely, and with such sympathy, that we feel he’s traveling in their shoes. But a travel writer journeying in the steps of another often seems more interested in his own journey than in the other’s, and mostly in search of a ready-made structure for his wandering reflections. Such literary remakes also tend to come with a ready-made set of motives. This can be a liability, though, in that it deprives both reader and writer of one of the main points of travel, which is the chance to be transformed. I sometimes wonder, too, how many people, other than professional historians or biographers, really want, deep down, to embark on a long and arduous trip just to see how it compares with someone else’s. The interesting travelers tend to walk in no steps but their own.
That said, Richard Bernstein’s journey across China, Central Asia, Pakistan, and India, in the footsteps of the monk Hsuan Tsang, has the sense to drop its ostensible subject relatively soon and to settle into what is at heart a coming-of-middle-age story, expertly and convincingly reported. In Hsuan Tsang, moreover, Bernstein has a spirited character, in his view “the greatest traveler in history,” who is known to every schoolchild in China and even India but has hardly been heard of in the West. In the year 629, at the age of twenty-six, this determined Buddhist monk stole out of China, whose borders were then closed, to travel to India in order to learn Buddhism at the source, and to bring back texts to be translated. His trip “to the West,” as India was then referred to by the Chinese, took him away for seventeen years, across difficult and hostile terrain, and, for a Chinese, was an act of independent-mindedness tantamount to self-excommunication. To this day many students in China read with delight the sixteenth-century novel Monkey, which is a fanciful reimagining of Hsuan Tsang’s journey, while sutras in Japan reverentially invoke the name of the Chinese man who brought the texts out of India.
The Chinese, Bernstein tells us …