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Seeing Buddhism in the Context of Competing Faiths

ULTIMATE JOURNEY: Retracing the Path of an Ancient Buddhist Monk Who Crossed Asia in Search of Enlightenment; By Richard Bernstein; Alfred A. Knopf; $26, 354 pages


By one of those no-coincidence coincidences, I was reading the passage in "Ultimate Journey" on the Bamiyan Buddhas when news arrived about the Afghanistan government's intention to destroy these magnificent monumental icons. International hostilities made it impossible for Richard Bernstein to visit there a couple of years ago on his mission to re-create the path of the 7th century Chinese monk Hsuan Tsang, who undertook a momentous pilgrimage across Asia in search of answers to fundamental questions about his Buddhist faith. Yet the tragic cultural vulnerability of these centuries-old sacred images is an apt metaphor for the core experience of Bernstein's book: the vanity of attachments and the impermanence of all things, from a personal life's journey to the tectonic shift of religious, political and cultural establishments through the centuries.

Long a foreign correspondent in the Far East and more recently a book reviewer for the New York Times, Bernstein is clear that his own purpose differed from Hsuan Tsang's. The monk, he writes, traveled "to achieve the exalted understanding, what he saw as the Ultimate Truth, that alone permits us to achieve the purpose of Buddhism, which is the cessation of otherwise inevitable and inescapable suffering." Fascinated by the monk's story, and awed by "the beauty of his quest and the magnitude of his achievement," Bernstein at first disclaims any spiritual intent. "I traveled," he says, "because . . . I thought I would possibly enjoy it." At a deeper level, however, we soon discover that he also needed to exorcise a personal demon that drove him always to keep moving, to escape the dreaded stasis of a conventional home life and the commitment of a love relationship. Monk and author, it turns out, may not be so very far apar In part this book is a travelogue, the story of one man's adventures along the fabled Road of Great Events from China to India--a passage that marks the often tortuous history of Asian peoples between China and the Middle East, from ancient times to present-day regional conflicts. Bernstein's peregrinations include traumatized areas where ideologies are still in conflict, from Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan, Pakistan and India.

A keen observer and a writer who easily shifts from the lyrical notation of a colorful urban scene to the epic breadth of great historical upheavals, Bernstein engages us in the details of a journey for which the religious themes provide the bass line, sometimes subordinated to the melodies of geographical detail, historical notes and philosophical reflections, but never far from the surface.

And while Buddhism remains the major focus, it is presented in the historical context of competing religions that vie, often in violent conflict, for the hearts and minds of people. Islam, Taoism, Confucianism and Hinduism are seen in the inconstant geological and cultural flux of the centuries.

To all this, Bernstein brings the perspective of his own background: "In matters of the spirit," he tells us early on, "I am a Jew, not a Buddhist, though even there the word 'spirit' might be misleading. The truth is that I come to all religion as a skeptic . . . a strangely religious nonbeliever, a devout sort of atheist."

This is a familiarly Jewish perspective that aligns him precisely with the spirit of Buddhism, as Bernstein is quick to point out: "Both Judaism and Buddhism are intellectual religions," he says, "requiring not so much acts of faith as the study of the most difficult this-worldly questions. Talmudic Judaism is arguably the most sustained examination of right behavior in history."

As for the monk whose journey he emulates, Bernstein presents him as a sage and scholar whose need to answer ultimate questions sets him forth on his unbelievably arduous pilgrimage through deserts, mountain passes and bandit country to the source, the birthplace of the Buddha in Lumbini, Nepal, the place of enlightenment and the intellectual wellspring of the dharma.

It was there that Hsuan Tsang went, as Bernstein sees it, to debate the Great Question that follows all other questions (and a Talmudic one, to boot!): "If all is illusion, then isn't the very belief that all is illusion an illusion as well?"

Around this paradox swirl the elements of Bernstein's narrative of the great vanities of human history: Religious beliefs harden into intolerance and hatred; the lust for temporal power transforms into violence, conquest and genocide; and the dark side of the quest for beauty and the sacred manifests as the desecration of great works of art in the name of fighting idolatry.

On the more intimate scale, the journey allows him to resolve his inner battle, surrendering to a calmer embrace of life and love on his return.

"Ultimate Journey" is an engaging read, a trek that rewards with its richly tapestried background and its refreshing pauses for thoughtful historical and aesthetic insight.


Peter Clothier is the author of "While I Am Not Afraid: Secrets of a Man's Heart."

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