"Like many men of my age, I was experiencing a kind of quarrel with bourgeois life, bathed in its ease and pleasures but aware too of its smallness and ordinariness, its lack of excitement," writes 50-year-old Richard Bernstein, a book critic for The New York Times who had served as a foreign correspondent in Asia and Europe for both Time magazine and The New York Times. Searching for "a getaway of dramatic proportions," the author of five books decided to take a leave of absence in the 1990s in order to retrace the legendary journey of Hsuan Tsang, a seventh-century Chinese Buddhist monk who against imperial orders went from the Chinese capital of Chang-an (now Xian) to India in search of the Buddhist truth.
Bernstein notes: "What interested me about the monk's great pilgrimage was simply the beauty of his quest and the magnitude of his achievement. It seemed to me that his exploit was even more impressive than that of another figure of enduring fascination for me, Marco Polo, who came along six hundred years later. I take nothing away from the great Italian, but Hsuan Tsang's trip was almost as long and more arduous, and its goal, unlike Polo's, was not riches or renown but wisdom, a benefit for all humankind."
On his journey, Bernstein experiences suspense in China traveling without the proper travel documents. Luckily, Zhongmei Li, a Chinese classical dancer, is on hand at the start of the trip to smooth things out for the intrepid American. In India, Bernstein visits Lumbini where the Buddha was born and Bodhgaya where he found enlightenment. The author's emotions are given a workout in an encounter with a viperish Maharaja in Varanasi and in the city's harum-scarum railway station.
Hsuan Tsang went to India "to make the sun of wisdom shine again" and to discover the meaning of emptiness and perfection. He eventually realized selflessness, which is the genesis of all Buddhahood. Bernstein, an intellectual just like the Buddhist monk who is his inspiration, comes to a clearer perception of his Jewish roots, an understanding of his need for love, and a deeper appreciation of the true nature of reality. Not a bad payoff for such an adventuresome and monumental journey of the spirit.