Friday, May 25, 2012

Jim Reynolds' "The Open Path": Book Review

This modest, unprepossessing diary chronicles the bicycle journey of a Southern California man, who wants to become a Buddhist monk. Before he does so, he at the age of 25 travels overland, often in disguise as a Mao-era peasant, when China still permitted independent tourists in a post-Cultural Revolution, pre-Tiananmen Square, thaw. An uprising in Lhasa after he had left there forces him again to evade the officials and their unpredictable demands. this led to a crackdown on all tourists from other lands in Tibet. His 1987 account remains blessedly free of romanticism.

After all, he makes his pilgrimage as a "dukkha-" (unease, dissatisfaction are preferable to the usual translation as "suffering") based exploration of discomfort. Reynolds seeks to immerse himself in rigor and strain, to encounter harsh terrain, petty bureaucrats, and miserable room and board along the long way. He hitchhikes a lot and relies on chance meetings often. He drinks dairy tainted by Chernobyl and sold off cheaply to the Chinese, who distribute it to such as him and his hosts. He suffers from diarrhea, understandably, but as he resigns himself to what the days and nights bring under dazzling stars at dizzying heights, he appears in often good humor.

For instance, about the people he finds in Eastern Tibet and its borders: "Khampa men have it pretty good. They are in charge of drinking tea, talking politics, looking handsome, and acting macho. All this keeps them quite busy, so the women take care of the heavy labor and the hard work." (57) He teaches kids how to sing "Puff the Magic Dragon" and "Psycho Killer," both evident favorites.

His companions that he meets, originally two Swiss women and later joined by two men from Colombia and Sweden, gain little description and Reynolds himself appears rather self-effacing. Instead, he emphasizes the mundane encounters and the tedium often missing from more polished presentations. He reasons that in such honesty will be the truer rendering of what in hindsight is often glossed over in memory, and his diary grounds him as it does the reader in the often uneventful trek as well as the highlights of sightseeing.

He quotes John Lennon and Little Feat and meets hardships on his outer path with hard-earned equanimity, no doubt good practice for his subsequent career as a forest monk in Thailand along the inner path.  He learns to confront his hedonism and he readies himself for renunciation. "No one can make my load lighter. No one can walk with me. No one can tell me when I've arrived." (134)

The basic black and white photos don't do the deserts or mountains of Tibet justice, but they remind one of the faces he meets along the way. His circuit around the holy Mt. Kailas can be compared with Colin Thubron's eloquent version over two decades later, "To a Mountain in Tibet", for how rapidly even remote Tibet and the Himalayan fastnesses are changing under the modernization that at the time of Reynolds' visit--just before the region was opened up to foreign tour groups--appear not to have taken hold much, even in Lhasa. It's an unadorned tale, but of interest for its calm, direct tone. (Amazon US 5-20-12)

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