Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Richard Bernstein's "Ultimate Journey": Book Review

Can we find ourselves on the road? Or, does travel increase longing for home, loneliness, isolation? An experienced "China expert," New York-based journalist Bernstein subtitles his narrative: "Retracing the Path of an Ancient Buddhist Monk Who Crossed Asia in Search of Enlightenment." But what he finds is less fulsome than many who go East from the West.

"The Buddha's actual birthplace is marked by an uninteresting stone shrine surrounded by fields buzzing with locusts. Nearby is a fetid pond where the baby was washed by his mother. Nobody was around except for a volunteer guide who tried hard but didn't speak English. I was feeling the onset of an intestinal pestilence." (205) It's 112 F/45 C. He's tired and a long way from NYC.

Published in 2001, this account comes while he traveled through the PRC in the wake of the Belgrade bombing by U.S. forces of the Chinese embassy, which arouses animosity among many who scrutinize him at the start of his seven-thousand mile journey. He follows Hsuan Tsang's 629 A.D. trail that took sixteen years. Restless, at 55 Bernstein, childless and never married, starts with his Chinese emigrant girlfriend from Xian onto the Road of Great Events into Central Asia towards India. Yet, he does not make a pilgrimage out of curiosity about Buddhism's origins, which compelled Hsuan Tsang, but out of restlessness, to leave routine before it is too late.
"A great part of travel, especially to places where you don't know anybody, consists of fatigue and lumpy mattresses and touts who cheat you and dinner by yourself in rooms full of people who are dining together. The Chinese have a saying: The wise man is he who can hear the dogs barking in the next village but has no desire to go there. Perhaps this is the same idea as Blaise Pascal's celebrated penséé about all human evil coming from man's inability to sit quietly in a room." (9)
This report lacks a lot of purple prose; Bernstein avoids description often and the results of his journey, particularly the Central Asian stretches, surprisingly prove mundane. I was surprised he found so little of interest for long passages on his trip. He goes off instead on tangents about his youth and the lack of depth in Hsuan Tsang's own often self-effacing chronicle makes a telling comparison between today's self-absorbed trekkers and ancient stoic seekers. But, Bernstein's ideas even if sporadically engaging do enrich the telling, uneven as it may be. I'd advise sticking with it, as the text's energy picks up once he enters the Indian subcontinent.

He can sum up culture clashes well. "There are countries where the cars stop for people and where the people stop for cars." (20) Americans "are uncomfortable seeing others labor physically while we are at ease," contrasted to post-colonial societies such as England, India, and China.

Religion for him as a secularized skeptic does not matter as much as identification with his people, and exploring the philosophical paradoxes of the Yogacara school that engrossed Hsuan Tsang. "The issue for a Christian or Jew is only secondarily: is it true? Primarily it is: what does God demand of me?" While in Hinduism and Buddhism, it's not so much "belief in a Supreme Being" in its manifestations as it is "the true nature of reality, the reality that lies behind appearances and whose apprehension will enable the devotee to escape the grip of earthly attachment and experience a higher happiness." (273)

On his adventure, Bernstein's interest appears to enliven as perhaps like Hsuan Tsang he enters India. This section's the most compelling, as Bernstein follows his predecessor into the heart of the Buddhist paradox: "that if all is illusion, then nothing can be known". (224) He's read about Buddhism but his stubbornness regarding its basic teachings about impermanence and not clinging to concepts appears almost willfully obstinate. He may never solve this famous crux, but he admits at least at last that letting go and being honest with one's own character proves a reliable path. He vows to return to his life with the woman who will be his fiancée and to settle down after a life of roaming Asia and reporting about it in Manhattan.

Bernstein intersperses his own upbringing as a Jewish boy born to immigrants on a Connecticut chicken farm with his struggles to figure out his place in a rootless upbringing. He gains subtle insights. In an orphanage in Amritsar, he takes photos (none are included strangely and the volume lacks illustrations) of the boys, but of one who's blind: "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." (195)

The search with Zhongmei-- and his departure from her when he must alone go past the Chinese borders-- to find his own identity impels his outward quest. It's often a slow and routine slog rather than a thrilling adventure. It may not please those used to travel tales full of colorful characters and wry mishaps, but as with Hsuan Tsang's example (however dimly pursued) the diligence Bernstein applies on and off makes this a thoughtful-- if stumbling and erratic-- journey. (Posted to Amazon 5-9-10)

No comments: