Ultimate Journey: Retracing the Path of an Ancient Buddhist Monk Who Crossed Asia in Search of Enlightenment
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 in a typically deft aside, have never developed an anthropological spirit, in large part because they have always believed that their own culture is the source and center of all wisdom. Until the nineteenth century, he goes on, almost the only Chinese who went abroad in search of wisdom were a few Buddhist pilgrims like Hsuan Tsang. Among the virtues of Ultimate Journey is that it shows us the links between China and Buddhism, which in recent decades have been bitter enemies, and not only in Tibet. An incidental pleasure of the book is that it reveals what happens when a highly rarefied and abstract philosophy, concerned with throwing off the concerns of the world, gets translated into a deeply pragmatic Confucian culture that is, in a word Bernstein uses often, “this-worldly.” The Sanskrit word prajna, which means “perfection,” becomes in Chinese ideograms yuan, or simply “round.”
Bernstein, a veteran foreign correspondent who first visited China in 1972 and eight years later opened Time‘s first post-Revolutionary bureau in Beijing, gives us as clear and lively account of Hsuan Tsang’s life as we could want. It is a life, moreover, rich with color—at one not untypical moment on his journey the monk traveled to the Indian town of Kanauj in a procession of twenty thousand elephants (according to a loyal biographer) to conduct an eighteen-day public debate against rival philosophers, some of whom hoped to murder him in the process. Yet these scenes sometimes have the feeling of those colorful cardboard paintings (of the Potala Palace, say, or the Great Wall) in front of which the Chinese like to pose for photographs. Bernstein refers to Hsuan Tsang as a “hero,” but in the same paragraph he calls him an “idiot savant” and a “nearly fanatical” ideologue; and two of the monk’s great precursors in his school of Buddhism, Bernstein says, delivered themselves of what can seem like “stratospheric nonsense.”
Though Bernstein greatly admires the Buddhist culture of the seventh century, he tells us, he remains a “secular non-Buddhist skeptic” who cannot be moved by some of the same sights that moved Hsuan Tsang. As he puts it, “The religion in which I do not entirely believe is the Jewish religion. The God whose existence I doubt is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Hsuan Tsang is really just a starting point, then, an excuse to get out of the office, where Bernstein is otherwise occupied reviewing books for The New York Times. At one point, the author confesses that he’d once thought of taking a year off to learn how to make Shaker furniture.
As soon as Bernstein is on the road, therefore, Hsuan Tsang is often left behind. This is no bad thing: the parts in which the modern traveler strains for connections with the Chinese pilgrim of thirteen centuries before are the weakest in the book (“The monk didn’t go through this valley, but he must have spent many nights in some similar valleys”). Most readers can guess at how China and India have (or haven’t) changed since the seventh century, and many of the similarities that remain seem largely coincidental. This is not, really, a book about Buddhism, or even about exploration, of the kind powerfully represented last year by George Crane’s Bones of the Master,1 a piercingly evocative account of Buddhist devotion (and evanescence), which follows an aging monk back to the Mongolia from which he’d had to flee in 1959. Rather, it is a busman’s holiday for a former foreign correspondent. Turning fifty, and haunted by the fact that a man without a wife and child is, in the Talmudic phrase, just “half a man”—the phrase appears twice—Bernstein takes off for Asia partly to fight off the encroachments of middle age and partly for the very American reason to which Thoreau gave most eloquent voice: he doesn’t want to die feeling he’s left lives unlived.
If he’s not a real seeker, then, anxious to turn his life around, Bernstein is an experienced traveler and writer, and at every point he evinces a professional’s gift for keeping the story moving, imparting plenty of information painlessly and presenting himself with an appropriate mixture of candor and bemusement. Most of all, he wins the reader’s trust: we feel that he’s always trying to be fair, even as his book evokes the zaniness that travel often involves—customs officials who double as money-changers, taxi drivers whose mad acceleration reflects that of the societies around them, young boys who inscribe on the dusty fender of Bernstein’s jeep the talismanic word “MONIKA” (this is 1998), and then, in quick succession, “MIKELJORDAN” and “GEORGE-KLINTON.”
One of Bernstein’s particular gifts, in fact, is his reporter’s eye for detail: the banner hanging up in Bodhgaya, the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment, saying, “COCA-COLA WELCOMES HIS HOLINESS THE DALAI LAMA,” or a sign on a Pakistani bus that says, “Good-bye and have a noice day.” At a Chinese train station Bernstein sees a sign above a ticket window that says, “A party member is an advanced model” (the window is quite empty). When he tells us that 86,000 people died in traffic accidents in China in 1998, a sobering figure in a country where most people never ride in a car, it is not just a striking statistic, but a sign of what a pell-mell rush toward the new can bring.
Yet one of the curious features of the travel book is that a writer is often at his strongest in describing the places he knows least: writing about a foreign country depends on a sense of discovery as much as on a flourishing of knowledge, and the best travel writers are those who can approach a place as if they’ve never seen it before, but have been reading and thinking about it all their lives. In China, one rarely feels that Bernstein is surprised, in part because it’s largely familiar ground to him; and his journey is set against the backdrop of the country’s official, and age-old, suspicion of all foreigners (in this case, perhaps, not entirely misplaced, since the foreigner in question is pretending not to speak Chinese, and is the coauthor, most recently, of a book called The Coming Conflict with China).2
In Central Asia, by contrast, Bernstein runs into the opposite problem as he makes his way from the Kyrgyz Republic through Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. He is certainly brave to venture into such remote and inhospitable territory; but he is even braver to venture into ground already covered with such eloquence and historical depth by Colin Thubron in Behind the Wall, and with such antic erudition by Robert Byron in The Road to Oxiana, and, more recently, by William Dalrymple in In Xanadu. Bernstein is traveling, as he often tells us, not just in the footsteps of Hsuan Tsang, but also in those of Peter Fleming, who went from Peking to New Delhi in 1935, and wrote of it in News from Tartary, and it seems a safe bet that the glories of the region are no better, and little different, than they were in 1935, even as the modern incongruities keep increasing.
It is therefore in South Asia that Bernstein’s book really comes into its own, and as soon as the author crosses into the subcontinent you can feel the prose quickening and coming to new life: “After the bleakness of the former Soviet Union, Pakistan comes at you like something detonated, a plenitude of color and mass, weirdness and catastrophe.” It’s hard to write badly about India and Pakistan, in part because these cultures come at you from all sides and refuse to leave you unengaged. You can have a good time while having a miserable time in India (as is not the case in China), and though many other distinguished travelers have covered this ground, too, Bernstein is undaunted. Indian trains, he writes in a typically striking phrase, “are iron rickshaws, underpowered and overburdened, their dark interiors glowing with patient faces.”
It is in India, in fact, that the tenacious and enterprising journalist in Bernstein really takes over, rising to the challenges of a culture that has taken both reality and theorizing about reality to their most intense extremes; he seems as ready to muse on the nature of desire as on the nature of those men who are persistently thwarting his own desires. Buddhism on paper often relies on paradox, sometimes to explode the very process of cerebration—“Suchness does not become,” Bernstein quotes the Buddha as saying, “nor does it cease becoming”—and Bernstein grapples with the intricacies of Buddhist philosophy more gamely than many a full-time Buddhist might. About the Buddhist readiness to question the existence of everything, he asks, “If there is nothing, then what is it that apprehends that nothingness? Is it mind? And if the mind exists, then there is something, isn’t there?”
Not surprisingly, he comes to no resolution of this question: a Zen monk, faced with such abstractions, would likely tear the paper in two (and then blow his nose in it for good measure). But at its best Ultimate Journey has the air of a reporter’s tough and very fair-minded cross-questioning of an entire Buddhist tradition—a tradition, besides, that often stresses questioning and empiricism. In Bodhgaya, in eastern India, Bernstein seeks out two Buddhist monks, a German and an Australian, and debates the nature of the Buddhist concepts of emptiness and ignorance with commendable rigor. Later, in south India, recalling how Hsuan Tsang observed Hinduism as well as Buddhism, he follows the Shankaracharya of Kanchipuram, one of the great wise men of Hinduism, all the way to Bombay and questions him about the “the reality that lies beyond appearances.”
At such moments his book becomes a notable contribution to the growing field that could be called the literature of spiritual tourism, best exemplified recently by the book of the British journalist Mick Brown, who traveled from Dharamsala to Tennessee, asking questions of religious figures with an impressively open mind.3 The Buddhism and Hinduism that Bernstein tangles with are largely theoretical—he hardly mentions the compassion that is at least half of daily Buddhist practice—yet the questions he asks do feel like real ones. When the Shankaracharya pauses at last for an interview, he tells Bernstein, “The ‘I’ is an illusion, but that illusion needs to be experienced, and it is only by experiencing it that it can be known as illusion.” It is, as the book all but concedes, a good answer.
As Bernstein’s account goes on, indeed, it begins to read more and more, often in the best ways, like one of Paul Theroux’s travel books—quick, sharp, and driven by a skepticism the more persuasive for its readiness to be moved. Like Theroux, Bernstein works hard in the service of his curiosity, seeking out the maharaja of Varanasi, for example, to ask why the rivers of the holy city (many of which the maharaja controls) are so polluted. The maharaja’s elderly spokesman gives him an answer: “Because he has no businesses, only properties. Because he’s a very religious man… Because there’s no money.” In Calcutta, Bernstein tracks down a synagogue and takes part in the Saturday morning ritual with nine aging Jews:
While the service continued, one of the assembly introduced himself to me as Mordecai Cohen. He was a swarthy, substantial-looking man in a suit and tie and said he came originally from Dacca, the capital of Bangladesh.
Cohen recited for me the names of some of the prominent Jews of India, with particular emphasis on Jackie Jacobs, the governor of the Punjab and a cousin of Cohen’s wife. He also spoke of a General Mordecai who, he said, had arranged the secession of Bangladesh from Pakistan in 1972. Cohen…had that stout, proper, vaguely exotic but hard-to-place look of Sydney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon. He told me that one of his parents was from Persia, the other from Aleppo, Syria. He said in his perfect English that he spoke nine languages, including Nepalese, which he learned from the family’s household servants in Dacca.
“I left Dacca in 1968,” he said.
“Why?” I asked.
“There was nobody left,” he said.
Bernstein is too much the professional to give way to very much soul-searching; but he tells us quite openly that he’s taking the trip in part because he worries that he’s missed the boat domestically speaking, and when his émigré Chinese girlfriend, who accompanies him through China, has to return to New York, we feel her absence a little as he does. His writing grows stronger after she leaves—such are the sorrowful ironies of the form—and his traveling grows more intrepid. Yet it is her presence more than Hsuan Tsang’s that lies at the heart of the book. What changes Bernstein on his trip is not the exotic scenery but the long days and nights alone, looking at happy families all around him.
At some point, Ultimate Journey turns a corner from thinking of home as the opposite of adventure to thinking of adventure as the opposite of fulfillment, and from then on the trip becomes what Bernstein frankly calls an “ordeal.” Every travel writer since Wordsworth has voyaged at times toward anticlimax, and this is all the more evident in works like this one, which make a point of frankly acknowledging their disappointments. Visiting the Golden Temple at Amritsar, the center of Sikh worship, Bernstein wants to be moved, “but what I felt mostly was a philistine stirring in my bowels.” At the Buddha’s birthplace, in what is now the Nepalese border town of Lumbini, he comes across nothing but an “uninteresting stone shrine,” a “fetid pond,” no one to help him, and “the onset of an intestinal pestilence.” One of the virtues of travel writing is that it can turn even misery into material; and yet the person without a very strong reason to embark on a trip is also the person without a very strong reason not to end it.
As Bernstein returns to China in the final seventy pages of the book, his grumpiness begins to eclipse almost everything, which is especially unfortunate insofar as it was his grumpiness at The New York Times office, he tells us, that moved him to take off in the first place. He gets up to see the sun rise over the Hunza Valley and reports, “There was no sudden illumination of the black mountain by a mystical line of dawn red, no sense of the earth tilting crazily in the void of space.” The Karakorum highway is to him “not so much magisterial as magisterially ugly.” Even in the caves of Dunhuang, which he has been dreaming of for years, Bernstein is “feeling emotionally and aesthetically flat,” while his girlfriend finds herself transported. Traveling too long, she tells him, has left him “rude and short-tempered.”
In some of the promotional materials for the book, Bernstein’s publishers liken Ultimate Journey to Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard, yet to do so is to perform a disservice to them both. Matthiessen, in his luminous work, is so steeped in Buddhist teachings, the more poignantly acute because the wife who introduced them to him has just died, and he travels so deeply into remote Himalayan places seldom seen by Westerners, that at some point his narrative ascends into myth. Every bird heard calling in the distance, every odd ruffian met along the path, acquires a larger meaning, so that they seem at once themselves and something more, and the book becomes a parallel account of an extraordinary landscape and an allegory of the soul. Bernstein, a “this-worldly” journalist who is more realist than romantic, is not trying for any of that: he is, rather, an intelligent and well-read skeptic, inviting us to join him on an escape from New York and from the deadening effects of habit. His philosophical conclusion at the end of his journey is “You do have to go home.” Hsuan Tsang’s last words were “Unreality is unreal.”
Chinese xenophobia becomes more and more a theme even in River Town (HarperCollins, 2001), Peter Hessler's often beautiful and deeply humane account of the two years he spent teaching English literature in the small Sichuanese town of Fuling. A model of the other school of travel writing—"stationary travel writing," as it might be called—in which a foreigner, often young, settles down in a remote place for a year or two and give us, in effect, his letters home, the book glows with a sense of discovery, and an unusually sensitive openness to the Chinese people Hessler befriends. But as his two years go on, even Hessler finds himself more and more put out at being stared at, heckled, and solicited everywhere he goes until finally, by his own admission, he's reduced to picking a fight in the street with an unlettered shoeshine man.↩
The Spiritual Tourist (Bloomsbury, 1998).↩
Chinese xenophobia becomes more and more a theme even in River Town (HarperCollins, 2001), Peter Hessler’s often beautiful and deeply humane account of the two years he spent teaching English literature in the small Sichuanese town of Fuling. A model of the other school of travel writing—”stationary travel writing,” as it might be called—in which a foreigner, often young, settles down in a remote place for a year or two and give us, in effect, his letters home, the book glows with a sense of discovery, and an unusually sensitive openness to the Chinese people Hessler befriends. But as his two years go on, even Hessler finds himself more and more put out at being stared at, heckled, and solicited everywhere he goes until finally, by his own admission, he’s reduced to picking a fight in the street with an unlettered shoeshine man.↩
The Spiritual Tourist (Bloomsbury, 1998).↩