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& the Skeptic
Richard Bernstein's
Ultimate Journey

by Doug Childers

In his Ultimate Journey, Richard Bernstein follows a seventh-century Buddhist monk's five thousand mile journey from China to southern India and makes an unexpected psychological (if not exactly spiritual) discovery on the way.

A reader casually stumbling onto Richard Bernstein's Ultimate Journey, in which Bernstein follows the path of a seventh-century Buddhist monk from China to southern India, might be forgiven for expecting the book to have an overtly spiritual purpose. After all, the monk, Hsuan Tsang, set out on his five thousand mile journey along the commercially active Silk Road with the purpose of finding the Ultimate Truth of Buddhism, which he didn't believe had survived intact when Buddhism spread to his native China. But the reader's casual assumption that Bernstein's own goal would be spiritual, reasonable at face value, would be wrong. "That was not my purpose," Bernstein writes,


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

Ultimate Journey:
Retracing the Path of an Ancient Buddhist Monk Who Crossed Asia in Search of Enlightenment

Richard Bernstein
Alfred A. Knopf
354 pp.
$26 order now logo

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 mankind.


The monk's selfless goal (so to speak) and his perseverance through deserts and difficult mountain ranges particularly appeal to Bernstein's pragmatic concepts of toughness and goodness, I suppose (Bernstein calls the monk "the greatest traveler in history"). But look again at the opening line in that quote above: spiritual knowledge was not his purpose--"or at least not what I thought I might achieve." Secular, non-Buddhist, skeptic...and soon to be a convert on the Silk Road? That might be too much for Buddhists to hope for. Besides, Bernstein first has to get into China, no easy task for a journalist who had earlier managed to make himself an enemy of the state.

Bernstein has a longstanding interest in China. He went from studying the Chinese language and Chinese history as a graduate student at Harvard to serving as Time's bureau chief in Beijing--the first since the Communists seized power in 1949. (He is now a book critic for the New York Times.) He riled Chinese authorities, though, when he co-authored The Coming Conflict with China (with Ross H. Munro) in 1996, and colleagues predicted he wouldn't be allowed into China again. (The Chinese press, for its part, branded Bernstein and Munro white supremacists and liars.) Ironically, Bernstein's dilemma isn't all that different from the monk's: Hsuan Tsang himself traveled in a highly restrictive, dictatorial China, and he even faced an arrest warrant for his failure to obey the emperor's ban on travel beyond the borders.

Happily, Bernstein manages to slip into China with a Hong Kong-issued visa, and once he launches his journey from Xian, the Tang Dynasty capital (and the monk's starting point), all the delicious travails and unexpected adventures we armchair travelers relish pop up at a healthy clip. Like visiting a collection of 'dangerous' ruins (near Mogui Cheng--'Demon Town') that is said to have swallowed up an entire army in a sand storm. And sizing up the dangers Bernstein faces as an American traveler after the U.S. mistakenly bombs the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in the course of waging an air battle against Slobodan Milosevic. And--my personal favorite--facing the gastrointestinal dangers posed by eating lamb's head.

As a travel writer, Bernstein doesn't write with, say, Jonathan Raban's sardonic wit; we really should take him at his word when he says he's a relatively happy guy. (Nor does he offer Raban's amusing portraits of odd, idly met characters.) He isn't one to dwell long over scenes angst-ridden, Romantic travelers might pounce on greedily. On reaching those 'dangerous' desert ruins, for instance, he writes,


Another few miles brought us to more such ramparts and the remains of numerous other structures, an Ozymandian scene that could easily have inspired rapturous nineteenth-century-type ruminations about the traces of perished grandeur.


Nineteenth-century-minded writers, perhaps, but not Bernstein. Instead, he glides onto a brief description of the ruins' size and closes with only the briefest of Shelley-styled ruminations:


Several thousand people had probably lived in the town. It had been a vibrant place where melons grew, silk was traded, and the finer points of Buddhist theology were intensely debated. And it must have seemed to its inhabitants over the centuries that it would be that way forever.


Bernstein's book isn't wholly without its sad, introspective moments, but they tend to find expression in resoundingly pragmatic musings. Describing an old woman too poor to afford a slice of watermelon, he writes, "To have lived a long, hard life, and not even to have the minor consolation of a slice of summer watermelon for pennies--I have thought of that woman often since then." And of a blind boy he finds in an Indian orphanage, he writes,


Earlier I had photographed some of the sighted boys, who were eager and happy to pose before the camera, and I wanted to take this boy's picture too. There was melancholy in his aspect, a kind of resignation. He was the last one to start eating and the last one to finish, after which he stood up, stepped over his plate, and walked unaided into the bright square of light outside the door and down the walkway toward the classrooms. I left my camera in the bag where it belonged. To photograph him would be to announce that I could see what he couldn't--himself.


Bernstein's command of the historical material and the exotic scope of the journey--both his and the monk's--make for informative reading. He does particularly good work summarizing Buddhist tenets and defining the Chinese world into which Buddhism traveled--a pragmatic country dominated by Confucianism and yet offering a first cousin in Taoism as a means of introduction into speculative philosophy. How, precisely, the predominately practical, acquisitive Chinese mind accepted a world-denying religion as its own is a profound question, and Bernstein answers it with impressive authority.

Some of Ultimate Journey's more intriguing material, though, lies in the connections Bernstein makes between Buddhism and his own Jewish heritage--and what he personally draws from the connections. Bernstein's status as "a strangely religious nonbeliever, a devout sort of atheist" who feels the strong pull of rituals seems the opposite of Hsuan Tsang's dogma-rejecting preoccupation with looking inward. But on a larger scale, he finds striking similarities between the two religions:


The more you look at Buddhism as a system of thought, as a questioning of everything, and as a way of fashioning a systematic alternative to our futile strivings and yearnings, the more Buddhism acquires depth and richness--and the more it resembles Judaism, at least in one important respect. Both Judaism and Buddhism are intellectual religions, requiring not so much acts of faith as the study of the most difficult this-worldly questions. Talmudic Judaism is arguably the most sustained examination of the question of right behavior in history; Buddhism was the earliest and perhaps the deepest investigation into the fatal flaws in the human character, the first doctrine that said, in essence, that the truth shall set you free. Both also entail antiquity and conscience. As I traced the route of Hsuan Tsang, Buddhism never became a religion to me. 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. But my reverence for Buddhism as a manner of sifting the glitter from the substance, as a means of overcoming the shallowness of the self and of reaching for the tranquil power of the mind, increased.


Despite his protestations to the contrary, Bernstein's journey ultimately offers him significant psychological, if not precisely religious, guidance, and, perhaps fittingly, it comes as much from Judaism as it does Buddhism. The extra layer this personal 'discovery' adds to Bernstein's book completes it quite nicely, I think, and in its admirably understated way, it justifies the title's metaphorical suggestion that Bernstein found his own pragmatic brand of enlightenment on the Silk Road. Click here to find any book!


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