Ultimate Journey Summary
by Richard Bernstein

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Ultimate Journey Summary

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 33)

Richard Bernstein, an accomplished journalist and author, was a student of Chinese language and history at Harvard. In 1980, he opened Time magazine’s Beijing bureau, the journal’s first in China since the Communist revolution of 1949. By the late 1990’s, he was a book critic for the New York Times. In his fifties and unmarried, he had been in a romantic relationship with a Chinese classical dancer named Zhongmei Li, but there was no permanent commitment because of Bernstein’s indecisiveness. He states that in the desire to get away from the ordinary and the predictable, he debated whether to construct Shaker furniture or embark on a last adventure before the desire for stability and the onset of middle age restricted his vistas and opportunities. He decided to travel.

Bernstein’s ultimate journey was something he had been considering for some time. In the 600’s c.e., a Chinese Buddhist monk named Hsuan Tsang had traveled from his homeland to India and back again, a trip which took seventeen years and covered 10,000 miles, encountering different peoples and cultures, crossing blistering deserts and traversing frozen mountains. A legend in Communist China as well as in India, Hsuan Tsang is largely unknown in the West. Bernstein compares him to Marco Polo, but where Polo was seeking riches, Hsuan Tsang was searching for enlightenment, for himself and for humanity. Although he is not a Buddhist, but a secular Westerner from a Jewish background, Bernstein also describes himself as a romantic, drawn to the persons of the past whose contributions changed history. Hsuan Tsang did that, helping to transmit Buddhism from India, where it died out, to China and ultimately to Japan, where it still thrives in the twenty-first century.

Still, midlife romantic quests into the past face present-day realities. Bernstein, with Ross H. Munro, had recently written The Coming Conflict with China, a controversial work which was not well received by the Chinese government. Getting permission to even begin his journey presented obstacles, but he was able to obtain a no-questions-asked visa in Hong Kong. He flew to Xian, noted for its terracotta soldiers from the first Chinese emperor’s tomb, where Zhongmei was waiting both to assist him with the bureaucracy and to accompany him on the first part of his pilgrimage.

If Bernstein’s entrance into China was fraught with difficulties, Hsuan Tsang’s exit from the Middle Kingdom had been more so. The seventh century was a contentious era in China, politically in terms of the end of the Sui dynasty and the rise of the T’ang, and religiously in terms of Buddhism, in which there were conflicts over interpretation and understanding occasioned in part by the vast cultural gulf between Buddhism’s native India and Hsuan Tsang’s China. The monk’s motive for his long journey was to study Buddhism at its great university, Nalanda, in northern India, and bring manuscripts back to China. However, the T’ang emperor, Tai Tusung, had forbidden Chinese to travel to the west. Just as Bernstein escaped the possible clutches of the Communist party bureaucracy, Hsuan Tsang managed to escape the emperor’s edict. There were political and military reasons for the emperor’s decision, but Bernstein also notes a sociological cause: The Chinese never developed what he calls an anthropological spirit and had no true interest in, and thus little knowledge of, the world beyond China. Hsuan Tsang was unique.

Bernstein aimed to follow Hsuan Tsang’s route closely, using the monk’s own reports, ancient biographies, and modern writings, recognizing that modern roads, international borders, and political restrictions would necessitate some compromise. The monk traveled by foot, horse, camel, and elephant. In the late twentieth century, thanks to Zhongmei’s fame as a dancer, Bernstein was given a tour of Xian in a luxury automobile. They then left for the west by train, in what passed for a first class compartment, or “soft sleeper.” Western China was the eastern end of the fabulous Silk Road, the other end of which lay in the Mediterranean world, down which passed not only Chinese Buddhist monks but also Marco Polo and his uncles, Mongol raiders and other armies, and merchants of numerous cultures. In 1999, western China was a politically sensitive region because the population is mostly Muslim, and Communist authorities were fearful of any religiously inspired separatist tendencies. Bernstein’s presence in Xinjiang Province was thus potentially fraught with difficulties, and on one occasion a restaurant owner accused him of being an American spy.

In Ultimate Journey, Bernstein discusses Hsuan Tsang’s trek at considerable length, reciting the monk’s difficulties in eluding Chinese authorities, including being shot at by archers, and the dangers he encountered in the deserts through which the Silk Road passed—the heat, the lack of water, sandstorms, and outlaws. Nonetheless, however closely he followed in the footsteps of the monk, Bernstein could not escape the present. In a small village in Xinjiang, after learning that Bernstein was from America, a local inhabitant wrote in the dust on the fender of the author’s jeep, MONIKA and MIKELJORDAN. On a later occasion, in Kyrgyzstan, he came across “John’s Café—Your Home Away from Home on the Silk Road,” which, he noted, served good Chinese and bad Western food. One can run but one cannot hide from the modern world.

Bernstein was not merely a single-minded devotee of the monk. The author’s own life was at something of a crossroads. “I have lived in my undramatic way on the edge between loneliness on one side and the horror of home on the other,” he says, always choosing to travel alone, to be single rather than to be encumbered with responsibilities other than to himself. When Zhongmei left him as planned to return to Beijing, Bernstein reflected on his solitary life, and although he denies it was an epiphany, perhaps it was.

He breathed a sigh of relief when he crossed the Chinese border into the Kyrgyz Republic, a part of the former Soviet Union, knowing that he would not be deported for his previous writings about China. He noted, however, that circumstances had changed since his first experience in China in 1980. In 1999, many Chinese felt free to criticize the party officials and their actions, although admittedly only in private. Bernstein’s fear of China’s bureaucrats was replaced by a different fear in one of the old Soviet states, when his young driver refused to accept the agreed-upon payment. Bernstein, anticipating violence, paid more; at least he was not robbed of his computer, luggage, and the rest of his money, and he notes that the same thing could happen in Johannesburg or Amsterdam.

On his path to India, Hsuan Tsang journeyed through modern Afghanistan, a nation off-limits to non-Muslim Westerners. Bernstein wanted to get as close as possible, and that was the bridge over the Amu-Darya River, which connected Afghanistan with Uzbekistan. After a discussion with two young Russian-speaking soldiers, he was able to see across into Afghanistan but no further, and he traveled on to Muslim Pakistan by air. Unlike China, which the author says is in the process of becoming a variant of the West, “Pakistan comes at you like something detonated, a plentitude of color and mass, weirdness and catastrophe.” In Hsuan Tsang’s time, Pakistan was largely Buddhist.

Throughout Ultimate Journey, Bernstein debates and discusses the beliefs of Buddhism with Buddhists he meets along the way, with himself, and with the reader. A secular Westerner and one admittedly without the temperament or receptiveness associated with Hsuan Tsang’s religious quest for enlightenment, the author nevertheless wrestles with Buddhism’s often difficult concepts, asking “If all is illusion, then isn’t the very belief that all is illusion an illusion as well?” He worries about a religion that, unlike his native Judaism, seemingly cannot be understood by the logical mind, and he wonders if underneath the verbiage, most Buddhist concepts are ultimately untenable.

Peshawar, in Pakistan, was a great Buddhist center which had been destroyed by the Huns before Hsuan Tsang’s arrival. Bernstein comments that he and the monk both arrived, hundreds of years apart, at the site of a once-vibrant civilization, with only ruins and sellers of artifacts, real and fake, to mark its passing. After brief stops in Rawalpindi and in the Lahore of Rudyard Kipling’s novelKim (1901), Bernstein crossed into India. Pakistan and India have been at war or near war ever since the partition of the subcontinent in 1947 when the British raj surrendered its control. In the not-so-distant past, thousands of people had crossed the border each day, but Bernstein noted he was only number eighteen that day, and it was near closing time.

In Amritsar he visited an orphanage and fantasized about adopting the child he never had, a reference to his personal situation rather than an interest in Hsuan Tsang’s quest. In India, the Hindu majority filled the Hindu temples; Buddhist pilgrims went to ruins and museums. In Lumbini, the Buddha’s birthplace, Bernstein was suffering from a lingering intestinal upset and was unimpressed and unaffected by what should have been a spiritual place. By the time he got to India he had experienced much, not all of it exhilarating, and was perhaps less enthusiastic in following the footsteps of Hsuan Tsang than he had been when he had started out. At Varanasi (formerly Benares) on the River Ganges, one of the holiest cities in Hinduism, Bernstein was more impressed by the river’s pollution than its religious significance, and after a somewhat disconcerting interview with the maharaja of Varanasi, the author compared the dilapidated state of the maharaja’s palace with the run-down river. Bernstein himself was beginning to run down.

His visits to other Buddhist holy places, including the ruins of Nalanda, failed to increase his spiritual receptiveness, and he admitted that he had the same lack of response at Confucius’s birthplace, at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, being more affected by their historical associations than with their spiritual qualities. The secular frequently overshadowed the religious. In Bodhgaya, the place where the Buddha had received enlightenment, Bernstein saw a banner which read “Coca-Cola Welcomes His Holiness the Dalai Lama.” In Bombay, he tracked down a high Hindu official, who when asked by Bernstein what was the most essential principle of Hinduism, told the author it was simple living and high thinking, an answer which would have pleased America’s nineteenth century transcendentalists.

Back in New Delhi, after visiting the Hindu and Buddhist caves at Ellora and Ajanta in southern India, Bernstein was joined by Zhongmei, who accompanied him for the remainder of the trip. They backtracked to Pakistan and then on to China by jeep and bus, the quality of one ride captured in the chapter’s title, “The Nightmare Bus to Khotan.” As he returned to China, Bernstein expressed anxiety about ending his journey, possibly his last great adventure, and again being forced to confront his sense of unbelonging and of his difficulty with the idea of home, plaintively writing, “On the other side of the mountains was the home that I missed and where I didn’t want to go.”

Excellently written and deeply perceptive, like the best travel books Ultimate Journey looks both inward and outward, an examination of the self as well as the other, not only into the past but also into the present. Bernstein’s decision to follow the route of the seventh century Buddhist monk was also a personal quest, for his own past and perhaps his future, and if he did not achieve the Buddhist nirvana, he did achieve a certain enlightenment—an end note states that Bernstein and Zhongmei Li were married in September, 2000.

Sources for Further Study

Los Angeles Times, March 24, 2001, p. B2.

The New York Review of Books 48 (May 17, 2001): 32.

The New York Times, March 21, 2001, p. B8.

The New York Times Book Review 106 (March 25, 2001): 6.