Tuesday, October 23, 2007

BOOKS | Ten Thousand Miles Without a Cloud I

I thought I wait for inspiration before attempting to write about Ten Thousand Miles Without a Cloud - but the Muse is avoiding me, so I shall write anyway about the book that was interesting enough when it began with Sun Shuyun reasons for following the footsteps of 7th century Buddhist monk Xuanzang. It was a journey that took her across Central Asia, India and China - and her travel narrative is interweaved with the story of Xuanzang himself, the difficulties he faced, his resolve - and the story of Buddha and Buddhism itself.

Sun Shuyun is not an elegant writer - but her prose is simple, straightforward - which makes her story feel earnest and down-to-earth. The writing felt stilted at times, and the book dragged in its narrative mid-way - only to pick up again when Sun finally reached India. From them on, I was hooked. Ten Thousand Miles Without a Cloud is a book worth the effort to push through.

For me, the best part of her book is Xuanzang's triumphant return to Tang Dynasty China. I shall write about this later - as it deserves a post on its own. That latter section ignited in me an interest in Chinese Tang Dynasty history.

This post is about Sun Shuyun's personal story - how she came to Buddhism, and her travels.

Sun Shuyun was a child of the Cultural Revolution, brought up on the Communist dogma. She was the daughter of a former officer in the People's Liberation Army - a background that sheltered her in a way from the harsher persecution in the 1960s. However, the family still had to suppress certain facts of their lives in the midst of the madness of the Cultural Revolution: among them was the concealment of her maternal grandmother's Buddhist faith.

Sun's coming to faith has a lot to do with her grandmother, a widow who also lost seven children. She fell into despair, until an itinerant monk passing through her village one day gave her a small statue of Guanyin, and taught her to pray, to recite the name of Amitabha. That saved the grandmother's life, and in spite of the political climate then she tried to instill in her grandchildren the faith that brought her peace.

There was a touching anecdote Sun told of her grandmother. When Sun was young, sometimes she would wake up in the middle of the night, and the grandmother will always be up, her lips moving quickly but silently as she dropped things continuously into a bowl in front of her. There was always a serenity about the grandmother when she was like this. When Sun asked her grandmother what she was doing, the grandmother replied she was counting beans to pass the time. Only much later did Sun realise her grandmother was praying. Without the prayer beads, the grandmother counted her prayers with beans instead.

This story of the grandmother moved me with its simplicity - her faith was uncrushable in spite of the madness and violence of the Cultural Revolution. That image of an unassuming, harmless old woman, almost blind, but serene and at peace, just counting her prayers with beans in place of prayer beads. This is real faith. I yearn for this simplicity in my own faith.

Sun later entered the Beijing University, the brain-center of intellectual life in China. I believe this was when her view of the world expanded and one realises there is something beyond what we have been taught. In 1986 she was offered by an opportunity to studying in Oxford - the chance to journey to the West, in a manner. When her father sent her off, what he said to Sun affected her immensely:

'Don't worry about me. This is your big chance, you've got to take it. Look at me, look at your sisters, look at what society has come to. Don't get homesick. There is nothing here for you to come back to.' When I turned around and waved him goodbye, I was shocked, and sad. As someone who had devoted his entire life to the revolution, he must have been in total despair.

For Sun and her generation, it was a period of self-examination. As China has started to open itself to a capitialist economy, the young people of Sun's generation had to redefine themselves. The Communist ideologies they were brought up with had proved obsolete. It was Sun's father and his generation that suffered most of all - as they are now old, and they had wasted the best years of their life for an idea that betrayed them, and caused so much pain.

With Father's death and the collapse of his world I lost all that remained of my attachment to the cause he gave his life to. I knew I was lucky, I was free and I had not suffered like my forebears and my fellow-countrymen. But like so many Chinese, I felt strongly that something was missing. The idea of a confirming faith dies hard. I was increasingly unsure of where I was going, why I was doing the things I did; I was at a loss, and pondering.

So she journeyed, on the trail of Xuangzang - the gifted monk who found the teachings of Buddhism that he was taught inadequate, so he set out under threat of death, to the source of Buddhism - for greater understanding, and perhaps enlightenment.


Anonymous said...

So many books have been written about the escape out of the cultural revolution era, but this one sounds very spiritual. Did she follow through the Silk Road, the major trade thoroughfare during the Tong Dynasty? If she does, it will makes it more interesting for me to read. :)

darkorpheus said...

She tried to follow Xuanzang's path as closely as possible - but there were practical constraints - and places where she was denied visa.

The Central Asia bits were the duller moments of the book though.

Lotus Reads said...

Oh, Dark Orpheus, this sounds like a wonderful book! Buddhism interests me greatly and I would truly love to read about Sun Shuyen's journey from communism to the saffron way of life. I have another book here on my shelf called "Ultimate Journey: Retracing the Path of an Ancient Buddhist Monk who crossed Asia in search of Enlightenment" by Richard Bernstein. I believe he is talking about the same monk, except, he spells the monk's name as Hsuan Tsang. Are you familiar with this book?

darkorpheus said...

Hi Lotus - oh yes - Richard Bernstein and Sun Shuyun are both talking about the same monk. Different transliteration of the monk's name, that's all.

I tried reading "Ultimate Journey" a while back - before Sun Shuyun's book came out. This is merely my bias - but halfway through I became deeply annoyed with Bernstein - I felt he was taking a superior attitude against the Chinese - and that REALLY offended me.

In fact it might be interesting to read both Bernstein and Sun Shuyun to compare the different approach to Chinese history and culture.

Sun is of course more empathetic and respectful of Chinese history. She spent a lot of time talking about ancient Tang Dynasty history (the Golden Age of Chinese history) - which is the best part of the book for me.

Lotus Reads said...

Good idea! Perhaps I'll read both to compare and contrast, but I get the feeling I will react to Bernstein's book in the same way you did.

darkorpheus said...

Lotus The journey of Xuanzang through East and West - that's a comparative study for you.:)