Saturday, October 29, 2011

Scott Berry's "A Stranger in Tibet": Book Review

After Colin Thubron's "To a Mountain in Tibet" reminded me of this account, I read it with pleasure. As an expat American living in Tokyo, Berry's well placed to navigate between cultures, and he retells with verve, erudition, and insight the saga at the dawn of the last century of Kawaguchi Ekai, the first Japanese to enter Nepal and Tibet, and the first non-Tibetan explorer since the middle of the 19th century to see Lhasa. Kawaguchi's priggish, hapless, and humanly unpredictable as he spends six years in the Himalayas, seeking to obtain a complete set of Buddhist scriptures to take home.

As an on-off again, but dedicated if eccentric Zen monk, Kawaguchi resists temptation by Tibetan women, resents what he regards as falls from grace by fellow monastics he meets, and reacts with honesty and bluffing both when his cover is about to be revealed by suspicious natives. They're determined to resist any incursion by a foreigner whom some regard, in their isolation, as even an "Englishman" sent via India to spy on Tibet, in a time, then as now, of international intrigue. Berry smoothly integrates details such as the evolution of the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism, or the curiosities of the language, or the feel of village life, with aplomb.

Of his first stage, entering Nepal: "there is no more glorious time of year than January on the north Indian plains: the crisp, cool nights and clear, sunny days are enough to lift the heart of even the most jaded traveler." (52) In disguise as a Chinese monk on his way back to Lhasa, Kawaguchi found himself in a place where "one can get away with virtually anything by making it seem pious." (84) This was when he stayed in shape, on his typical one vegetarian meal at noon, at twelve thousand feet, by carrying rocks as he ran up and down slopes.

He tends to look down on Tibetan monks who were his hosts, who ate meat and sometimes lived with women: "Torn between his beliefs and the ragged reality of everyday life, Kawaguchi often had to give those who did not live up to his own strict standards the benefit of the doubt." (106) Later, the going gets rough. On the way across western Tibet's wilderness: "It was almost as if Kawaguchi himself were going over a checklist: robbery, exposure, starvation, snow blindness; now what else could possibly go wrong? Well, he had not yet been attacked by guard dogs." (140) The mastiffs rear up, on cue.

The first third of the book shows his early life, his preparations, which seem few, and his scholarly and geographical approaches before crossing into Tibet. The second part brings him into Lhasa. Berry shows us what Kawaguchi would have seen in 1901: the mix of peoples around the Potala on the Barkhor market route in the holy circuit around the Jokhang. Women with their hair in 108 plaits, menacing police-monks, crazed holy men, nomads in sheepskins, babies nursing, trinkets displayed, visitors and shoppers and pilgrims or all three,  "smelling of butter and yak-dung smoke."  (175)

Berry reminds us that Kawaguchi "was the first sincere Buddhist traveling simply for the sake of his religion" (176) into Lhasa. Unlike Burton or Burkhardt sneaking into Mecca, Kawaguchi came as a real pilgrim, if necessarily in secret. There his linguistic ease, his mastery of the sacred texts, and especially his ad hoc medical skills bring him to the attention of the Dalai and Panchen Lamas, for better and worse. The harshness meted out by the Tibetan lamas and their police to those who aided Kawaguchi in his deception and his escape (amidst lots of corrupt border guards and customs officials) darkens any expectation of this tale as a carefree retreat to a Shangri-La.

After his return to Japan, Berry shows how Kawaguchi cannot fit in again: he's spent too much time among the "barbarians," and his own people seem to suspect his tales. After eight years studying Sanskrit in India, he goes back for three more years to Tibet, and finds the land already changed, from its new contacts with the British and after having expelled the Chinese. This period is rushed by comparison to the earlier stint, but Berry seems to hint that as a more tolerant repeat guest in Tibet, Kawaguchi's more placid demeanor makes for fewer moments of deceit, danger, or drama. In his retirement in Japan, before he died in 1945, his mellowness winningly contrasts with his censorious youth among his Buddhist peers, at home and abroad.

Berry wraps it up with a postscript on his subject's first published account, "Three Years in Tibet," noting its many inconsistencies and sloppy preparation, while praising its vignettes of a land few had seen as explorers, but none other, at that time, had witnessed as a participant-observer, and as a pilgrim scholar. This is a moving, clear-headed, deromanticized, and skilled re-creation of the land and its longtime visitor, at a time when almost nobody else could have told what he could, as an Asian monk among his fabled confreres.

Illustrated with drawings and period photos, a few endnotes, and an afterword, Berry blends scholarship and travel, history and biography, with ease. (Also titled "A Stranger in Nepal and Tibet," originally issued 1989. Posted to Amazon US & 2-27-11. I reviewed Colin Thubron's Tibet trek here.)


Calogero said...

Tibet should be really appealing :-).

Fionnchú said...

Calogero, nowadays I think Tibet's not so much ""smelling of butter and yak-dung smoke" as Big Macs and train exhaust, at least in Lhasa?