Gretel Ehrlich is a writer who, in her fiction and in her nonfiction, frequently permeates her work with the spiritual essence of the Buddhism which she practices. QUESTIONS OF HEAVEN: THE CHINESE JOURNEYS OF AN AMERICAN, however, is the first attempt by Ehrlich to take her reader directly to the heart of that spirituality. These five essays describe, among other things, Ehrlich’s efforts to confront the origins of her belief within the culture that spawned those beliefs.
The focus of this book is upon Ehrlich’s travels within modern, post-Maoist China, travels which often bring the author hard up against the dark political paradoxes of that world. Contemporary China, Ehrlich discovers, is a culture fraught with radical contrasts; moreover, it is a culture often void of the very spiritual elements Ehrlich seeks to retrieve in her pilgrimage.
Thus, while she experiences the very real power of the mountains that are held holy in Buddhist belief, she discovers on those mountains the very a-spiritual existence of the monks who inhabit the Buddhist shrines there. These are monks who watch television and play badminton and seem a far distance from their spiritual beginnings. Disillusionment marks much of Ehrlich’s journey; her examination of the plight of the panda bear, and of China’s violence upon its ecology, leaves little room for hopefulness.
Yet she also finds some of the spirituality she seeks when she meets up with an aged Chinese musician, Xuan Ke, and with his orchestra. Their music is ancient, played upon ancient instruments; it is the authentic stuff of what was once the splendor of Chinese culture. When this splendor is transplanted (with some poignancy) to London, Ehrlich highlights the vivid cultural and temporal contrasts between East and West.
In the end, QUESTIONS OF HEAVEN is as much a critique of the rule of Mao Tse Tung—and of its legacy of political and ecological catastrophe—as it is a journal of Gretel Ehrlich’s troubled attempts to find that wellspring of spirit that nourishes her. On either account, the book is a disturbing and enlightening achievement.