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Bones of the Master: A Buddhist Monk's Search for the Lost Heart of China


The journey begins in 1959, as a young monk named Tsung Tsai escapes the Red Army troops that destroy his monastery, and flees alone three thousand miles across a China swept by chaos and famine. Hidden under his peasant jacket he carries a book of poetry and his monk's certificate, either of which means death if discovered. His mission: to carry on the teachings of his Ch'an Buddhist master, Shiuh Deng, who was too old to leave with his disciple." "Nearly forty years later Tsung Tsai travels with his skeptical ...
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2000 Hardcover 8vo, hardcover. NEW in dust jacket. Bright, crisp & clean, unread; dj glossy. 293 p., illus., 16 p. of plates, maps.

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New York, NY 2000 Hard cover New in new dust jacket. Still in original shrink wrap film. Sewn binding. Cloth over boards. 304 p. Contains: Illustrations. Audience: General/trade.

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The journey begins in 1959, as a young monk named Tsung Tsai escapes the Red Army troops that destroy his monastery, and flees alone three thousand miles across a China swept by chaos and famine. Hidden under his peasant jacket he carries a book of poetry and his monk's certificate, either of which means death if discovered. His mission: to carry on the teachings of his Ch'an Buddhist master, Shiuh Deng, who was too old to leave with his disciple." "Nearly forty years later Tsung Tsai travels with his skeptical friend Crane back to his birthplace at the edge of the Gobi Desert. China is stirring with spiritual renewal, and Tsung Tsai is determined to find Shiuh Deng's grave and build a shrine in his honor. The two men reenter a lost world of belief and superstition nearly extinguished by history. As their search culminates in a torturous climb to a remote mountain cave, it becomes clear that this seemingly quixotic quest may cost Tsung Tsai's life.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Though not as widely discussed as the Cultural Revolution, China's Great Leap Forward (1957-1963) also inspired an internal struggle among Chinese Communist Party leaders. As they argued about the pace and type of development best suited for China, famine settled upon the land, killing tens of thousands and affecting millions. In 1959, the monks of Puu Jih Monastery knew they had to leave in order "to keep Buddha's true mind alive." Tsung Tsai, the youngest, journeyed alone through the heart of China to Hong Kong, eventually settling in Woodstock, N.Y. The story unfolds in an engaging way as author Crane befriends his quirky new neighbor, Tsung Tsai. When Tsung Tsai proposes to return to China to find the bones of his master and build a shrine, Crane follows to record the event. Despite their abbreviated poetic nature, Crane's impressions of Chinese life are some of the richest and most vivid readers will encounter. His words float like silk prayer flags at a Buddhist temple, enticing readers to explore their own spirituality. This book is the best reflection on Ch'an Buddhism to appear in quite some time. Written on multiple levels, it will appeal to readers looking for a good story, armchair travelers who want to understand more about China and spiritual seekers with an interest in Buddhism. (Mar.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Mary Talbot
In the first part of Bones of the Master, Crane mixes his own witty and lyrical prose with Tsung Tsai's wonderfully eccentric rendition of English to retell the monk's escape from Communist China. Subsequently, Tsung Tsai persuades Crane to accompany him on a return pilgrimage to Inner Mongolia to find his teacher's bones and to provide a proper burial for his master. Much of this book is Crane's exquisite account of their impossible journey together - a purehearted monk on a mission and a wild poet seeking freedom, adventure, and sensation.
The way to do is to be.--Lao Tsu
Weaving biography, history, and travel with an enlightening thread of learning, George Crane has wrought a jewel. An early snowstorm in October of 1987 felled a tree across the road by his house. As he contemplated one of nature's barriers, a Ch'an monk stepped from the white woods carrying a bow saw and axe. Wearing a patched robe under a parka that was leaking its filling, a yellow watch cap, and children's yellow rubber boots, he was smiling. With few words, Tsung Tsai and Crane cut up the tree, stacked the wood for the fire, and struck up a friendship. Upon learning that Crane was a writer, mostly of poetry, the monk invited him for noodles and tea and to "talk poetry. Not literature. Literature just mind!" Over the years their friendship grew and deepened with the exchange of poems and the collaborative translation of Buddhist poetry, one using fractured English, the other using a dictionary and an innate sense of poetics. Gradually, Crane learned of Tsung Tsai's personal history--his timely escape from Puu Jih monastery in Mongolia just ahead of the Red Army, the death of his meditation master, and his extraordinary journey of three thousand miles across a China riven by famine and the madness of the Great Leap Forward. After more than a year of incredible hardship and privation he arrived at the border of Hong Kong. Tsung Tsai became "invisible," going under the wire and into the Western world. Six years later he came to North America. In the fall of 1996, after forty years of exile, Tsung Tsai went with Crane to Mongolia to search for his master's bones and cremate them with Buddhist ritual. Two unlikely friends, one steeped in the cloistered, spartan Buddhism of Ch'an and the other a skeptical sensualist raised in middle-class America, traveled together in one of the most formidable and unknown parts of the planet. The journey proved daunting, but the way in which it is told places Crane firmly in the company of Matthiessen, Chatwin, and O'Hanlon, to name a few. There is humor and pathos in the unalloyed glee of his storytelling. Crane has not flinched from chronicling the divergent and parallel ways that Zen and Western minds look at everything. This pairing of seeming opposites and why it works is skillfully revealed with anecdotes and asides. The writing is spare yet rich with the weightless elegance of import. For those who seek and those not yet aware of looking, this book will be an indelible experience of being.
Parabola Magazine
John Crook
[A] fascinating friendship... Bones of the Master tells us a great deal about China, but that is not the chief source of its fascination. We have here an account of a cross-cultural friendship described in delicacy frustration and humour.
The Times Literary Supplement
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780553106503
  • Publisher: Bantam Books
  • Publication date: 2/29/2000
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 6.47 (w) x 9.57 (h) x 1.19 (d)

Meet the Author

George Crane is a former correspondent for overseas news agencies and the author of four books of poetry, as well as translations from the Chinese co-authored with Tsung Tsai. He lives in upstate New York.

Tsung Tsai is a Buddhist monk, meditation teacher, doctor of classical Chinese medicine, martial arts adept, poet, and calligrapher. He taught in Hong Kong, New York City, Toronto, and Los Angeles before building his own cabin in Woodstock, New York.

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Read an Excerpt

The Last Days of Puu Jih

October 1959: Crow Pull Mountain, Inner Mongolia

The ninth day of the tenth month. The Yellow Season. Tsung Tsai woke at three, two hours before first light. In the dry grass beyond the monastery's stone and mud-brick walls, the last slow-dying cicadas scraped their wings.

The monk lit a candle stub and warmed his hands by its flame. The wick spat, guttered, then flared. The light flickered over his face and over the stark stone of the six- by nine-foot cell where he had lived for eighteen years. In it were his few possessions: a sleeping pad and quilted blanket roll, his rough brown robes, writing table, inkstone and brushes, a book of poems. He went to the window that looked north and west to the mountains, toward Morhgujing and the Silk Road--the ancient caravan route through the black Gobi and the Taklimakan. He could just make out the winter plum that stood beneath his window, its branches bare and its bark worn gray with blowing sand. In a few hours, the monks would pace there in walking meditation.

Tsung Tsai broke the skim of ice floating on the washbasin and splashed his face. He dried his hands and got his prayer beads from inside his robes that hung on the wall. Then he lit an eight-inch length of incense and sat. The ash still smoldered when, after meditation, he put on his robes and went downstairs to the kitchen. He finished his tea as he heard his brothers wake to the hollow clap of the night-ending gong. He listened to them wash and cough. The monks' routine during these last days would proceed as usual. But today he would not join them. He heard the swish of their robes as they shuffled down thecorridor to the temple. Then he left.

The gate in the monastery's south wall was still closed against the world. For another day Puu Jih would remain a Ch'an Buddhist sanctuary where monks, seeking enlightenment, studied the Dharma of Mind Transmission:
Break off the way of speech. Destroy the place of thinking. Awaken the mind to no-mind. Find silence and . . . sudden understanding.

There was still no sign of dawn when Tsung Tsai pushed the gate closed behind him. He was anxious to see his teacher, so he hurried up the path that curved past the garden and the storehouse. He knew the way. He knew the sound of his feet on the trail scree and the stream falling away to the east.

He had tied his robes up around his waist for the climb. The sun at forty degrees north latitude would burn in a fierce arc, so he wore a straw hat to protect his shaved head. In a basket strapped to his back he carried the last of the millet. There was only a few days of lamp oil left in the monastery. Yesterday the monks had harvested the last of the cabbage and potatoes. The yellow beans, the wheat, and the millet were finished. China was starving. More than thirty million would die in the next two years. Only bureaucrats and rats would eat.

A decade of chaos had begun. Even in remote Mongolia and Tibet the monasteries would be smashed, books burned, and monks murdered.

When would death arrive at Puu Jih? There were stories, rumors sliding from village to village like the hunger. And then last week, late one night, a young lama from Mei Leh Geng Jau lamasery on the Ulansuhai plateau roused them from their beds with his shouting and pounding on the gate. His face was drawn white, thin as paper. His eyes were wild. He told them that the ninth patriarch, the great Ch'an master Hsu Yun, Empty Cloud, had, at the age of one hundred twenty, been hacked to death by the Communists.

Tsung Tsai climbed the last steep face of gravel slide and boulder and reached the ridge; he found his teacher boiling millet for two in a can and staring into the glow of the fire. For more than thirty years Shiuh Deng had eaten only soupy millet or gruel. He seemed weightless. Hollow cheeks, legs and arms wasted to skin and bone by the hard years.

As always, his teacher was waiting for him. No cry of welcome or surprise, for like many Tibetan and Chinese shamans, Shiuh Deng practiced not only mystical heat but telepathy.

The cave where Shiuh Deng had lived for the thirty years was at the back of the narrow cliff, cut under a knot of boulders. Its floor was swept and beaten flat. In winter, Tsung Tsai would pile bundles of dry grass in its mouth and slip away with his teacher for days, sometimes weeks at a time, sitting on flat stones warmed by a small fire. Before Shiuh Deng, it had been occupied by another; Shiuh Guan, the lama who could walk on water, has wandered into Mongolia from Tibet toward the end of the nineteenth century. His ashes and a shinbone shard rested against the rear wall on a blunt stone shelf.

They ate in silence, using twigs as chopsticks. It was a lovely afternoon: the sun was warm on their faces and they sat as Siddhartha had, beset by sorrows and by demons, the night he became the Self-Awakened One--.

Out of the silence, his teacher asked, "When?"

"Tomorrow, after evening practice."

In the long pause that followed, a yellow bird sang. Finally his teacher said, "I am too old."--

The monks' evening chant filled the temple. Then it was over. One by one the monks of Puu Jih filed past Buddha, lit an incense stick, bowed, and left the temple. No one looked back. Puu Jih was finished. Incense fumed in the bronze lotus boat, rising to the smoke-stained beams like clouds.

As they crossed the courtyard toward the front gate, the monks found Shiuh Deng waiting for them beneath the winter plum. He stepped out from the shadows, his robes blowing around him, his face lit by the faint waver of candles from the temple.

The monks bowed to their master, amazed that he had descended the mountain at night. But the time for ceremony had passed. He grasped each of them by the shoulders and held them for a moment. To Tsung Tsai he said, "Everywhere are hungry ghosts. Go quickly. Keep a strong mind."

Tsung Tsai said nothing. There was nothing to say, no gesture for endings. Soon, he knew, his teacher would forget the world, forget himself, simply let go, and die. He feared his older brothers too would soon be dead, and he could not contemplate the emptiness of the world without them.

Let us, like snow, whirl away, he thought.

So he turned and walked into the future.

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Table of Contents

I Hungry Ghosts
1 The Last Days of Puu Jih 3
2 Speaking Air 14
3 One-Eyed Buddha 36
4 The Tunnel 47
5 A Country of Corpses 54
6 Under the Wire 60
7 The First Hexagram 68
II Bones of the Master
8 Bringing Buddha Home 81
9 The First Shrine 93
10 The Whispering Reeds 108
11 Drunk for a Cause 115
12 The Old Lama's Lap 122
13 The Ruins of Puu Jih 137
14 In Lan Huu 150
15 Fox Knows Fox 170
16 Laying On Hands 179
17 The Ghosts of Lan Huu 195
18 Omen of the Cave 204
19 Clear as Mud 210
20 The Grave 215
21 A False Start 223
22 The Climb 233
23 Descent 247
III Flight of the Dragon
24 The High Road 257
25 Too Much Heart 265
26 A Ch'an Cat 271
27 The Black Master 280
Epilogue 291
Acknowledgments 295
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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 29, 2003


    I didn't want this book to ever end, and I now wonder what will become of of Tsung Tsai's quest.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 21, 2001


    A passionate journey into inner mongolia and a buddhist monks heart. A rare account.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 27, 2000

    A Beautiful Book

    This is one of the most beautiful books I have read. The attempted destruction of Buddhism in China has seldom been written about so movingly. Tsung Tsai's story is an inspiration, and George Crane has done a superb job bringing it to life. I also found the description of 'Georgie's' relationship with Tsung Tsai a very revealing portrait of how a Buddhist master can work.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 8, 2000

    Deeply moving, an unforgettable book in every way.

    Thank you George Crane for giving the world its teacher, Tsung Tsai. Beautifully written, Bones of the Master explores the height and length and breadth of the human spirit and the extremes it can endure. Tsung Tsai is a ture hero for our times: indomitable, humble, and wise. In the hands of poet George Crane, his story is an adventure that will resonate in the mind and soul for a long time to come.

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