As a young monk in 1959, Tsung Tsai made a hair-raising, 2,000 mile escape from China, evading the Red Army that was flooding and destroying the country. His monastery was destroyed, its monks killed, China flattened, and Tsung Tsai himself became a hunted man. He left behind his beloved teacher, Shiuh Deng, in a cave in the far reaches of the mountains and slipped through the eye of a needle-hiding out on boats, jumping onto the top of trains--to freedom, Hong Kong and eventually to the United States.
Forty years later, Tsung Tsai returned with poet George Crane to a remote region on the edge of the Gobi to find the bones of his beloved master and renew the spirit of Buddhism in China. That journey is the story of "Bones of the Master" (Bantam Doubleday Dell, 304 pp.), that Crane tells with an immediacy that he strikes up on the first page of this dramatic true adventure. His skill in capturing the rhythm, flesh and tone of Tsung Tsai's remote world never stops as he takes us from Woodstock to Mongolia, from Hong Kong to New York.
Some readers will compare the relationship between Tsung Tsia and Crane to Carlos Castenada's relationship to Don Juan in Casteneda's famous book "The Teachings of Don Juan." Crane, however, is no seeker like Castaneda. His "Don Juan" happens to be the monk down the street, living in a cabin he built himself and sleeping on a pile of cardboard boxes. His encounter with Crane in Woodstock, New York happens by pure chance, and the book is both poignant and comic as the old monk quietly engages Crane with his strange and penetrating humor and large wisdom. Tsung Tsai is humble, smart, funny, wise, spare, and old. He is also a shaman, scholar, and poet. Whenever he opens his mouth, Crane--and the readers-- are all ears.
It's an improbable adventure. Both Crane, still struggling to establish himself as a poet, and the monk are dirt poor. But our monk has worked out a plan. They will go to New York City, auction off the story of their mission, and, with the publishers advance, go to China and do the deed. And that's precisely what happens, to our great fortune.
I have been in some pretty remote places in the world, and this is one trip I wouldn't want to experience in the flesh. Crane brings alive the cold, the smoke and the hunger of the journey: the scalding, blowing sand of the Gobi Desert scours us out; the dank rooms oppress us; the insane walk up the mountain to find the master's bones takes our breath away. Crane's relationship with the old monk, meanwhile, takes on a whole new dimension, moving from curiosity to love. And Crane himself becomes a heroic example in his sheer ability to hang in there.
"Bones of the Master" is a beautifully written book and an astonishing story that inspires as it teaches. I bow in gratitude to these two men, whose connection has already benefited many, not only through their extraordinary kindness to others in China, but this marvelous book as well.