Sunday, 29 May 2011

Bones of the Master: A Journey to a Secret Mongolia

In 1959 a young monk named Tsung Tsai escapes the Red Army troops that destroy his monastery, and flees alone three thousand miles across a China swept by chaos and famine. Knowing his fellow monks are dead, himself starving and hunted, he is sustained by his mission: to carry on the teachings of his Buddhist meditation master, who was too old to leave with his disciple.

Nearly forty years later Tsung Tsai — now an old master himself — persuades his American neighbour, maverick poet George Crane, to travel with him back to his birthplace in the at the edge of the Gobi Desert - now in the Autonomous Region of Inner Mongolia in China.

They are unlikely companions. Crane seeks freedom, adventure, sensation. Tsung Tsai is determined to find his master's grave and plant the seeds of a spiritual renewal in China. As their search culminates in a torturous climb to a remote mountain cave, it becomes clear that this seemingly quixotic quest may cost both men's lives.

The review below is by Joan Halifax Roshi, for which grateful acknowedgement is given.

"This is one very extraordinary book! First, I must say I do admire its writer, poet George Crane. He draws us into the world of the Buddhist monk Tsung Tsai with consummate skill. In the first page of this dramatic true story, the reader feels the rhythm, flesh, and tones of Tsung Tsai's remote monastery of the 1950's as if we and the author Crane were actually there. And we never lose this feeling of immediacy as the tale unfolds, and the poet-author Crane takes us from Woodstock to Mongolia, from Hong Kong to New York City.

"Who is this monk Tsung Tsai living in Woodstock, New York? His name means Ancestor Wisdom, and we find as this tale unfolds that he is true to his name. We learn that when he was a young monk, Tsung Tsai makes a hair-raising 2000 mile escape out of China from the Red Army that was flooding and destroying China in 1959. This is a China that is swept by famine and chaos. His monastery is destroyed, its monks are killed, China is flattened, and he is a hunted man. He also has been forced to leave his beloved hermit teacher Shiuh Deng in a cave in the far reaches of the mountains.

"Pursued and starved, Tsung Tsai slips through the eye of a small painful needle to freedom. Forty years later, he with Crane return to this remote region on the edge of the Gobi to find the bones of his beloved master and to renew the spirit of Buddhism in China. They return to a still unfriendly China, and a China whose peoples are living with very little. And we cannot but feel the utter desolation of this minimalist world.

"The encounter with Crane in Woodstock, New York, has many poignant and comic aspects. Crane is definitely not a believer. Yet the old monk quietly takes him into this world with his strange and penetrating humor and big mind wisdom. Tsung Tsai,
though, is not just an ordinary monk. He is a shaman and trickster as well. I am sure that some readers will compare the relationship between the monk and Crane to Castenada's relationship to Don Juan. However, this "Don Juan", our new friend Tsung Tsai, happens to be the monk down the street. We meet him through George Crane's heart and mind, and we like him. We also know that we can find him in Woodstock, New York. He is humble, really smart, funny, wise, spare, and old. He is also a shaman, scholar, and poet. In his Woodstock hut, he sleeps on a pile of cardboard boxes and keeps the scene around him to the very basics. And whenever he opens his mouth, we and Mr. Crane are all ears.

"Their friendship unfolds through the translation of poetry. Then one day, Tsung Tsai has the chance to return to China. We know little of this journey except that when he returns to the States, he seems to be deeply disturbed by what he encountered in China. True to our hero Tsung Tsai, he has a completely unlikely vision that brings him and Crane back to China to find the bones of his teacher in order to give them a proper burial. How will they manage this, you ask? They are both dirt poor. This is a highly unpublished poet and an unknown monk. Don't worry; our monk has this all worked out. Go to New York City, auction off the book of the story of their mission, get the advance, go to China, do the deed, then write the book about what happens. And so it goes, and are we fortunate! The adventure proceeds from there.

"I do not want to spoil the tale for you. Just to say, this is one trip I would probably not want to do in the flesh. Crane amazes me in how he hung in there. He now is my hero too. I have been in some pretty remote and rough places in the world, and I could taste the cold, smoke and hunger that Crane and Tsung Tsai bring
to us. The scalding , blowing sand of the Gobi Desert scours us out. The dank rooms they stay in oppress us. The insane walk up the mountain to find Tsung Tsai's Master's bones takes our breath away. We do not know if our heroes will survive. And their relationship takes on a whole new dimension, moving from curiosity to love as this tale culminates.

"George Crane was a foreign correspondent and authored four books of poems in addition to the translations he has done with his monk friend. Tsung Tsai is a meditation teacher, doctor of classical Chinese medicine, martial arts adept, poet, and calligrapher. We hope that he has a long life ahead of him. In the end, I can say that this is a beautifully written book and an extraordinary story that inspires and teaches. I bow in gratitude to these two men whose connection has already benefited many."

So, with thanks to both George Crane - and also Joan Halifax Roshi for the review - I leave Inner Mongolia for another 'Autonomous Region' of China - Xinjiang - courtesy of "The Road to Miran" by German author and traveller Christa Paula.

Christa Paula, an intrepid young student of Asian art and archaeology, set off in 1989 to explore an area closed to Westerners as well as to most Chinese, and one which is firmly under military rule. Tall and blonde, she travelled for the most part incognito, disguised in a Pathan cap, old grey jacket and big padded trousers. Her goal was Miran, the ancient Buddhist site of second-century wall paintings. In the company of Chang, a maverick taxi driver, Christa Paula travelled through an area dotted with nuclear testing sites, forced labour camps and mines in which prisoners dig and process asbestos without protective clothing. She discovered that villages which exist on maps are now radiation-contaminated ghost towns, and she witnessed everywhere the seeds of discontent and political unrest.

So from Xinjiang I opt to fly rather than endure another lengthy train journey. I leave from Hohhot Baita International Airport (the largest airport in Inner Mongolia) taking the 'China Southern Airlines' direct flight CZ6928, leaving at 21.05 and arriving just 3 hours 20 minutes later at 00.25. The flight is a bargain at £219 on eBookers - over £100 cheaper than any other quoted flight (although a train would have been about £34 - but taking over 29 hours!). I arrive on time at Ürümqi Diwopu International Airport - a vast, modern and very busy airport 10 miles northwest of downtown Ürümqi - in the capital of the "Forbidden Zone" of Xinjiang.

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