|| Richard Bernstein, a book critic for
the New York Times, is particularly suited to the task he has set
for himself in Ultimate Journey: Retracing the Path of an Ancient
Buddhist Monk Who Crossed Asia in Search of Enlightenment. The ancient
Buddhist is Hsüan Tsang, a revered and renowned Chinese monk who
set out for India, the source of Buddhism, in 629 A.D. to discover the
ultimate Buddhist Truth. The hazards of his journey, both political and
physical, have mirrors in Bernstein's retracing of his journey at the
end of the 20th century. Hs¸an Tsang was not supposed to leave China and
certainly not through Hun-dominated territories. Bernstein, as a result
of co-authoring with Ross H. Munro The Coming Conflict in China,
a critical assessment of the hegemonic growling of China following the
death of Deng Xiaoping, was never to enter China through any gates. Bernstein
was also a foreign correspondent in Asia for the New York Times
and Beijing bureau chief for Time magazine. Both men, almost a
millennium-and-a-half apart, managed through stealth, perseverance, and
a dedication of purpose to travel from China to India, coursing through
the many shifting and perilous borders in between, in search of insight
and some philosophical serenity.
Soon after the publication of Ultimate Journey, the Taliban destroyed a series of ancient and magnificent statues of Buddha that had been carved into the sides of a majestic cliff in Afghanistan. Hs¸an Tang makes note of them in his writings about his journey. Bernstein is unable to visit them because of anti-American sentiment in the region. As he notes from Uzbekistan: "I longed to go there and follow the monk as he made his way over the Hindu Kush to Bamian, the Khyber Pass and Peshawar. There was no bridge in the seventh century, but it was easy to cross the river. Now there is a bridge, but it was impossible to get to the other side." The statues may no longer be visible but for the ignoble scars in the cliff side, but Richard Bernstein conveys their power and much more that is gone from sight but eternal in spirit in this intelligent, geopolitical, and romantic account of a land that bears knowing.
In this issue of Bold Type you will find a conversation with Richard Bernstein, three brief selections from Ultimate Journey read by the author, an excerpted chapter called "The Horror of Home," and photos from the journey.
Photo credit: Jade Albert
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