I read this book right on the heels of Victor Klemperer's diary, "I Will Bear Witness," chronicling the day-to-day life of a German Jew during the Third Reich. Tsung Tsai lived in China, a world apart from Victor Klemperer, but it seems that the heroism of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances transcends boundaries. As a child, Tsung Tsai watched as the Japanese fed poison to his mother and burned his family. After becoming a Ch'an Buddhist monk in Inner Mongolia, he narrowly escaped the Red Army's destruction of Buddhist lamaseries and literally walked to Hong Kong during the Great Famine. He was picked up, starving and near death, by some boat people who nurtured him to health despite his dangerous monkhood. Then he crossed a Hong Kong border teeming with red Army soldiers, spending the next 40 years in exile as an ordinary citizen of New York. This is the story of his return to China, at age 70, in a spiritual quest to honor his master, whom he had left in a cave on Crow Pull Mountain and who died during the Cultural Revolution without a proper Buddhist burial. His quixotic journey is enabled by George Crane, author, friend, journalist, poet and self-styled Zen Jewdist, who joins him on the trip as his spiritual Sanch Panza, full of Western vinegar. Together they both encounter and reflect the imbalance of China as it teeters between modernity and old customs, between heartless Maoism and a reawakened spirituality, between collectivism and family.
Ancient hills echo
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The determined journey of Tsung Tsai, against real danger and the advice of all concerned, is awe-inspiring. Throughout this book, he becomes its and China's centered soul, giving life a perspective worthy of the Master Himself. He has visited death and has no fear of it. He is concerned only with that which is honorable and morally right. His selflessness is palpable. For example, he gives to the needy all of the equipment he brought to protect him on his arduous mountain climb. And his sense of self is equally palpable. Revered, almost worshipped, as a surviving Buddhist monk, he takes the time to minister to the people, to fulfill their long-ignored desires for Buddhism. Do not miss this book. It will move you.
And be sure to read the book to the end, right through the acknowledgements. There you will find that George Crane sent a physician back to China to reconstruct the face of a burned child they had met. As an adept, George Crane has learned from Tsung Tsai just as Tsung Tsai learned from his master. And so it goes, throughout history. We can learn as well, just by reading this book.
First, let me say that this is a very well written, sad, poignant and occasionally funny book. Author George Crane brings life to his subject, Tsung Tsai, by presenting this story in a very "conversational" style. He captures Tsung's broken English in a way that is not only charming, but becomes curiously congruent with Zen philosophy -- great meaning with few words. Thus, this book is a quick read, but you may need to go back and re-read passages and reflect upon them, for the profundity may escape you the first time.
A reader may be a bit disappointed if expecting a travelogue type book that is rich in historical and cultural explanation. While Crane does introduce a bit of that, almost in a "teaser" sort of way, the story is firmly anchored in his relationship with Buddhist monk Tsung Tsai, and their the oddly moving friendship that manages to break through various cultural barriers. Because of this aspect of the book, I have thought of using it as supplemental reading in one of the sociology classes that I teach -- it does more to promote cultural understanding (NOT mere "tolerance") than many books with a direct goal to that effect.
Crane is honest, that's for sure. He documents his ongoing troubles trying to be a worthy "disciple" of Tsung Tsai, and even in the end, describes incidents that reveal that he has not yet harnessed his impatient desires. Yet, he has at least, through his part grueling and part amusing journey with Tsung Tsai, begun to see that the Path is there. Excellent storytelling that will motivate many readers to seek out more knowledge on Zen (especially the Cha'n tradition) as well as recent Chinese history.