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RELIGION | BOOK REVIEW

An Unlikely Pair on a Mystical Mongolian Quest

BONES OF THE MASTER: A Buddhist Monk's Search for the Lost Heart of China; By George Crane; Bantam Books $25.95, 304 pages

March 25, 2000|MARGARET RAMIREZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tsung Tsai is no ordinary Buddhist monk.

After George Crane meets Tsung Tsai outside his home in upstate New York, he discovers "a poet, philosopher, house builder, scientist, doctor, and when necessary, kung fu ass-kicker." In conversations over tea and noodles, Tsung Tsai recounts his tortured past, how he fled his Chinese monastery, Puu Jih, in the famine of 1959, how he escaped the murderous Red Guard and trekked thousands of miles, mostly on foot, from Inner Mongolia to Hong Kong, and how he arrived to loneliness and exile in the United States. Of the 13 monks of Puu Jih, he was the only one to survive.

As their friendship grows, Tsung Tsai tells Crane of his wish to return to Inner Mongolia to find the bones of his deceased master and honor the teacher with a proper Buddhist cremation and burial. That invitation sets the stage for "Bones of the Master: A Buddhist Monk's Search for the Lost Heart of China." This fascinating book traces a mystical journey with the unlikely pair into the soul of an ancient religion and inside the mind of a Buddhist master.

Crane, a former correspondent for overseas news agencies and author of four books of poetry, provides a compelling prose narrative weaving the history of Ch'an Buddhism with the suspenseful search through China for the master's bones. His impressions and encounters with Inner Mongolia's people and customs are some of the richest and most vivid portions of the book.

Tsung Tsai and Crane are both poets who share a love for written verse. That mutual affection is used as a device that transports the reader effortlessly into Tsung Tsai's world of sadness, suffering and unshakable faith. The result is a book that is three stories in one. For theologians, it is an explanation of Ch'an Buddhism, which is little known. For historians, the book provides a humanistic account of religious persecution in Communist China and the faint signs of an emerging spiritual revival. For the general reader, Crane provides a gripping and sometimes humorous account of two unlikely friends and their devotion to each other.

Ch'an Buddhism originated in China in the 6th century. In the 12th century, it was taken to Japan by Chinese and Japanese monks and became known as Zen. But, as Crane explains, Ch'an Buddhism had scarcely a toehold in Mongolia, and its history in the region is sketchy at best.

Indeed, experts at Harvard and Columbia whom Crane contacted before the trip had no knowledge of Ch'an monasteries in Inner Mongolia and were curious about what he would uncover. The Puu Jih monastery, with its 13 monks, may have been the only such monastery north of the Yellow River.

Tsung Tsai provides some of the funniest dialogue in the book. Often the old Buddhist becomes annoyed with his American friend, whom he calls "Georgie," when he cannot understand "monk power." In one passage, Tsung Tsai describes how he escaped the Red Guard by hanging beneath a train. How could you? Crane asks in disbelief.

Crane writes of Tsung Tsai: "He shrugged. 'I just do it. No choice.' He gave me one of his forgiving yet exasperated I-am-Ch'an-monk looks. 'Aii, Georgie. Monks have special power.' "

When Crane presses him, Tsung Tsai answers dismissively. "Simple. I do. At this time I am close to invisible. I disappear. You know me. I am monk."

The adventure through Mongolia seems magical as the pair meet a wild driver named Gun-gun, a beauty named Fang-fang, an old lama and a medicine woman. It is in these villages that we come to understand what Tsung Tsai means to China.

Crane writes: "Everywhere we went, no matter how remote, people were waiting for his help; for healing herbs, for the spiritual guidance he was always willing to give. And everywhere, they knew he was looking for information about 'The Barefoot One,' as his master was known."

As for the cynical Crane, who begins the book by saying meditation makes him nauseous, he undergoes a spiritual awakening. But in keeping with the refreshing tone of the book, Crane never becomes preachy, and he steers away from the politics and moralizing that sometimes color Western accounts of Buddhism in China. Instead, Crane leaves us with a better understanding of Buddhist philosophy and provides a prism through which it might be applied to one's own life.

Though their journey took place in 1996, Tsung Tsai's crusade continues. Proceeds from the book will go toward his dream: rebuilding the monastery in his homeland.

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