Sunday, April 26, 2009

Bones of the Master

How many Zen monks does it take to change a lightbulb?
Two. One to change it and one not to change it. (Bones of the Master, p.178)

I came across a discounted copy of George Crane's Bones of the Master: A Journey into Secret Mongolia while bookshop trawling with a friend.

It is the story of the 1959-60 escape of Tsung Tsai, a Chinese-Mongolian Ch’an monk from the People’s Republic’s brutal persecution of Buddhism, his friendship in the US with his neighbour George Crane and their journey back to the People’s Republic in the late 1990s to begin the process of creating a stupa for Tsung Tsai’s master Shuih Deng.
Zen Buddhism came to Japan via Korea and China, a fairly normal route for pre-European influences on Japanese culture. In China, the tradition that became Zen in Japan is known as Ch’an Buddhism (in Korea it is Seon Buddhism) and appears to be based on dhyana (meditation) method in Indian Buddhism. (One view of Indian religious history is that Hinduism developed as a transformation of the ancient Vedic religion in response to the challenge of Buddhism: in Western terms, it would be as if the Neo-platonists, perhaps under the patronage of Julian the Apostate, had successfully revamped Classical Graeco-Roman polytheism into a highly sophisticated religion which then largely supplanted Christianity.)

The collectivisation famine of the Great Leap Forward was underway as Tsung Tsai walked from Inner Mongolia to Hong Kong and the descriptions of the suffering and death he witnessed are fairly harrowing. Tsung Tsai’s monastery was completely destroyed by the Red Army after he left. More murder and destruction came from the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. All part of the long, sad, brutal history of those who think they have the Keys to History being brutally intolerant of alternative ideas.

The book is yet another reminder of how important Hong Kong (and Taiwan) have been in preserving Chinese culture and heritage during the onslaught of the Maoist darkness. The story of Tsung Tsai's journey back also makes clear the spiritual hunger which various observers have noted about contemporary China.

The narrator, George Crane, is a very live figure in much of the book, as he introduces us to Tsung Tsai and accompanies him to China and back. His sceptical-yet-impressed affection for his neighbour is part of the book's charm. But Tsung Tsai is the real centre of the book. It is a delight to make his acquaintance and see a Ch’an master living life. Wisdom as simplicity, attention and compassion is not mere belief, but the entire practice of his life. As I struggled my way through the prolix self-importance of major C20th continental European thinkers, meeting Tsung Tsai makes their flaws seem even more striking. I am reminded of the story of the Zen master who, frustrated with trying to talk to a European philosopher, began to fill the philosopher’s tea cup until it overflowed. When the philosopher protested, the Zen master responded that you cannot put into what is already occupied.

But Tsung Tsai is no plaster saint, he is a very real person. I recommend his acquaintance.

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