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Shuyun was born to zealous communist parents in the 1960s; but a great influence in her childhood was a beloved maternal grandmother who lived with them and who was a devout, though illiterate, Buddhist. During the Cultural Revolution (1966 to 1976), the Red Guards staged bonfires of books, and the grandmother rescued from the pile a book of comic strips for her granddaughter. It depicted the legend of the Monkey King who protected an early 7th century Chinese Buddhist monk, Xuanzang, on an arduous 18 year journey from China to India and back, to bring back to China 657 Buddhist sutras from India. Shuyun loved the tale. She learnt that the Monkey King was legend, but that the journey of Xuanzang had really happened.
The Cultural Revolution ended; Mao died; the open practice of Buddhism was grudgingly permitted again. Shuyun was able to go to Beijing University in 1982, and then, in 1986, to Oxford. She married an Englishman and made her home in England; she became a documentary film maker with the BBC; but the story of Xuanzang never ceased to haunt her. Ever since she had lost her teenage faith in Communism, she had felt that `something was missing'. In 1999 she decided to travel in the monk's footsteps, though she would take one year instead of eighteen; and this book is built around an account of that pilgrimage.
The immense roundabout route, starting in Xian in Northern China, was through Xinjiang (Sinkiang), along part of the Silk Road, through the blistering Gobi Desert, and eventually enters India through the North-West frontier. Xuangzang faced the danger of avalanches as he crossed the passes in the frozen Heavenly Mountains into what is now Kyrgyzstan but was then ruled by the Great Khan of the Western Turks. From there he had travelled on through what is today Uzbekistan and then Afghanistan; but Shuyun was refused an Uzbek visa and could not travel through Afghanistan anyway. In Xuangzang's time Afghanistan had been a devoutly Buddhist area, but it was now run by the Taliban who would, within a year or two, destroy the great Buddhas of Bamiyan and every other Buddhist image in the country. So Shuyun flew direct to Peshawar, just inside Pakistan, to rejoin Xuangzang's route. And from there she at last entered India.
From now on we get rather more about the history of Buddhism than we have had so far, though in a rather unsystematic and unchronological way, dictated by the order in which Shuyun visits Buddhist landmarks. For example, her first major halt in India was Nalanda, the great Buddhist centre where Yogakara Buddhism was founded some seven centuries after the Buddha's death. Her next visit, to near-by Bodh Gaya, takes us back to the Buddha's own life-time: it was there where the Buddha had found enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree.
Xuanzang spent five years in Nalanda, mastering Sanskrit and translating sutras into Chinese, steeping himself in the doctrines of the different Buddhist schools before embracing the most difficult Yogakara school which he eventually propounded back in China.
Shuyun flies to visit places on Xuanzang's route after he left Nalanda: through Southern India, then up the West coast and then back across the Silk Route, its southern branch this time, taking in the old Buddhist kingdom of Khotan, which was so savagely destroyed by the Muslims about three centuries after Xuanzang's time.
Eventually the Muslim invaders destroyed Buddhism in India so completely that the history of Buddhism in its native country was lost even to the Indians themselves. And although Xuanzang's account of his journey was known in China, it was not known in the West until the 1850s. His account is so immensely detailed and accurate that it then helped western scholars and archaeologists, notably one Alexander Cunningham, to rediscover and sometimes excavate some of the most famous Buddhist monuments. Xuanzang was honoured as a sage and scholar in the India and the China of his own time; and now, among contemporary Indian Buddhists, he is immensely revered as the man who restored their lost history.
At last Xuanzang crossed back into China at Dunhuang, where he meditated for a while in the first of the thousands of caves which later became Buddhist places of worship with fabulous frescoes. One of the caves contained a depository of 50,000 Buddhist scrolls and manuscripts, discovered only in the early 20th century. Xuanzang then converted the great Tang Emperor Taizong from Daoism to Buddhism.
Shuyun had set out on her journey with an interest in Buddhism, but with some reservations, not only about the superstitious beliefs which had accompanied her grandmother's serene attitude to life, but also about the doctrines of karma and rebirth. Apparently it was only on her journey that she met Buddhists who taught her that true Buddhism discards the idea of miracles. And she was most drawn to a Buddhist school which was founded only in 1956 by B.R.Ambedkar, a convert from Hinduism, for this, too, rejects the idea of karma and rebirth, and relies entirely on the self-discipline and compassion taught by the Buddha. She ended her own journey with a stay in a Buddhist monastery in Dunhuang, in the hope that she might `reach the deep emotion and sense of belonging that I longed for.' It is not clear whether she managed that, although she gained a deeper appreciation of Buddhism - and she has certainly taught her readers a great deal about its history and its message (as well as given much other information, ranging from Islamic resistance movements in today's Khyrgizstan and Xinjiang, through aspects of Hinduism, through the lawlessness in the state of Bihar to silk production in Khotan).
Shuyun is a fine descriptive writer, but readers should also look at some wonderful pictures on Flickr or Google Images of places and monuments she mentions.