Beyond the House of the False Lama: Travels with Monks, Nomads, and Outlawsby George Crane
Beyond the House of the false Lama, now in paperback, traces Crane's adventures as a writer, wanderer, and anarchic but still failing student of Zen. It begins in 1996 at the edge of the Gobi Desert in Inner Mongolia, where he and his teacher and friend, Zen Master Tsung Tsai, are forced by a sandstorm to end their quest to find the lost temple at Two Wolf Mountain
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Beyond the House of the false Lama, now in paperback, traces Crane's adventures as a writer, wanderer, and anarchic but still failing student of Zen. It begins in 1996 at the edge of the Gobi Desert in Inner Mongolia, where he and his teacher and friend, Zen Master Tsung Tsai, are forced by a sandstorm to end their quest to find the lost temple at Two Wolf Mountain. It continues with a harrowing, near disastrous attempt to deliver a ratty, 58 foot ferrous cement sailboat to Granada. Setting sail from Key Largo into the heart of hurricane season, with a crew of eccentrics and outlaws, led by the infamous Captain Bananas. They run with a disintegrating sailboat into the perfect squall. The tale ends in the winter of 2003, when after weeks of desert travel, Crane and his companions–––the nomad Jumaand and the young, beautiful Mongol girl Oka, his bed mate and bodyguard–––stand beneath the remote cliffs of Delgaz Khaan in Outer Mongolia's South Gobi. Here, Crane, after burying his long dead father, sets out on a new quest, looking to find what the nomads call Windhorse, "the beginning of the wind," but finds what every nomad knows, that every road is more a direction than a destination.
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Beyond the House of the False LamaTravels with Monks, Nomads, and Outlaws
By George Crane
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2005 George Crane
All right reserved.
"Last night your dead mama visit me. She floating like bubble," the Zen monk Tsung Tsai was saying. He spread his arms wide. "Like big orange bubble. And she very frighten for her son. So I need tell her, not worry. I am monk and truth is truth. Georgie almost my family."
My mama died five years ago. I hardly knew her and rarely think of her now. Her dark eyes no longer glitter as they did so long ago when she would say, "Before having you I should have died on the delivery table."
I tried to love her, but that I was her son frightened me. Still, when she reached that point where she no longer got out of bed, then no longer spoke or moaned or moved, my brother and I made sure she felt no pain or fear. The hospice doctor had given us control of the liquid morphine and dropper, and if she so much as twitched, I dosed her. Some of the clear syrupy dope would dribble over her slack lower lip to puddle on her chin. And always I had to fight the urge to lap it up like a cat.
Then my father died. Emphysema. Three packs a day had toasted his lungs. I didn't get there in time to say goodbye. He was in Phoenix. I was adrift in Manhattan. Neither of us had ever learned how to talk to the other. Death changed all that had been missed into guilt. "I should have been there. I should have been with him," I told Tsung Tsai when I returned with the news. "His nurse said that every time he spoke my name he cried."
"Georgie, write poem about your papa. Read. Remember. Give to me. I give to Buddha. He can give to your papa. Now you can say goodbye."
Daddy you taught me
what to look for,
how to pick
the sweetest corn.
Firstly find browned silk,
then peel back the husk.
Look for the small kernels
the not too yellow;
got the sugar
and taste incredible.
A hot Sunday,
the family driving out of Chicago:
Illinois July prairies
and buying at the farmer stand
corn and homegrowns.
The fat red beefsteaks you sliced up thick
with salt and pepper,
with Russian black bread,
We'd always eat in the kitchen,
where you were happiest;
happy as a monkey in the moment,
that sane sweet moment.
Tsung Tsai waggled both hands enthusiastically thumbs-up. "But best you become Buddha," he said. "Best idea. Best stop this suffering. Become Buddha." He clapped once. "Become really."
"Become," I said.
"Of course. Must." He nodded. "Then no more suffer."
I looked at his bald monk's skull that needed a shave, and when his head came up I saw the thin white Chinese hairs sprouting at his chin. Become. I've spent the last twenty-five years of my life trying to become, and it hasn't been easy, because the man I am is always getting in the way. "Good idea. No more suffer," I said.
Nonsense. Pure drivel, I thought, remembering a friend who couldn't stop screaming.
One evening, I was still a new father then, sitting around the table after dinner, my daughter in my lap; her soft breath, her face tucked into my neck as friends told us, over coffee and dessert, of their only son's death.
"Eight years ago he fell off his bike, hit his head. Five days later he was dead. He was sixteen. I went comatose," he said.
"I couldn't stop screaming," she said.
Long after they'd left, that midnight, it began to snow. My family was sleeping safe for the moment. And so I sat, like an old man, wrapped in a blanket. He is huddled close to the fire, in a rocking chair, a notebook in his lap, pages fallen and scattered on the floor. Chin to chest, past the precious midnight hours, he snores -- loudly, horribly -- or snaps awake gasping for breath, for understanding; for a flash of last words.
"Life and death both of them are good," Han-shan wrote, using water and ice as examples. But life and death weren't, for my friends, both of them good.
life and death
both of them are good
but life I'd guess
"No good," Tsung Tsai said, his voice an appalled whisper. "Life sad. Necessary sad."
"It can suck."
"True. Very badly can suck." He bowed his head so that I couldn't see his eyes, and we sat there with dust motes dancing until we both were sure there was nothing more to say. Then I drove home in what was left of the light.
Fifteen years ago, shortly after I first met Tsung Tsai, his vitality and agility, his toughness and courage surprised me, and I wondered about his age. I knew he was older than he seemed, particularly for one who had lived hard and suffered. I wanted to look into the future, into the mystery of old age and death. He would be my measure, my Huck Finn already lit out for that territory ahead.
For as long as I could remember I'd sorrowed growing old, just as two thousand years ago a poet who called himself the Emperor Wu of Han did when he wrote this, in my loose translation:
the fall wind blows
the grass browns,
and wild geese fly south.
the last flowers bloom,
chrysanthemums with their bitter perfume.
her lovely face
I can't forget
while on the river
a barge rides the current
dipping in whitecaps.
they play flutes
the rowers sing
and I'm happy in the moment,
until that ancient sorrow reminds.
Just yesterday I was young.
and now I grow old.
I grow old.
I asked: "Tsung Tsai, how many years do you have?"
"When I'm dead I'm dead," he said.
I knew what he meant. A profound awareness of death led him to the peace of Buddha. It led me to fear and, greedy for sensation, to the desire to squeeze more from every moment; a voracity even for enlightenment. I had always been susceptible to misadventure and excess of every kind -- an edgy anarchic Zen.
Give me more! More! I want! I want!
Excerpted from Beyond the House of the False Lama by George Crane Copyright © 2005 by George Crane. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
George Crane is the author of the internationally acclaimed Bones of the Master. He is an occasional poet and translator of Chinese poems. With Tsung Tsai, Crane translated A Thousand Pieces of Snow. His writings has been published in eleven languages. He lives mostly on the road.
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