Cover image for Bones of the master : a Buddhist monk's search for the lost heart of China
Bones of the master : a Buddhist monk's search for the lost heart of China
Crane, George (George L.)
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Bantam Books, [2000]

Physical Description:
293 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations, map ; 25 cm
General Note:
Map on lining papers.

"A living planet book."
Personal Subject:

Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
BQ990.S96 C73 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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They are the most unlikely of friends: one an American poet in love with words, a self-described ne'er-do-well and sensualist with a finely honed suspicion of authority. The other an aging Chinese monk steeped in an ancient tradition and devoted to the memory of his ascetic meditation master. Their lives come together in this extraordinary journey that takes us from the still-medieval villages of Inner Mongolia to a modern Hong Kong of black magic and stunning materialism. The journey begins in 1959, as a young monk named Tsung Tsai (Ancestor Wisdom) 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--now an old master himself--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. Ignoring visa restrictions, facing down hostile bureaucrats, 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. Laced with passion and humor, Crane's vivid prose captures it all: foxy town girls and outback shamans, ice-cold morning meditations and drunken feasts, sand-scoured wilderness and gold-clad Buddhas. Finally, as past and present come together we glimpse the power of a timeless faith to endure in the heart of suffering. The journey begins in 1959, as a young monk named Tsung Tsai (Ancestor Wisdom) escapes the Red Army troops who destroy his monastery, and flees alone across a famine-wracked China carrying 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, Shuih Deng, who was too old to leave with his disciple. Nearly forty years later, Tsung Tsai, now an old master himself, travels with his skeptical American friend, Crane, back to his birthplace at the edge of the Gobi Desert, determined to find Shuih Deng's bones and rebury them with the proper ceremony.  As their search culminates in a torturous climb to a remote mountain cave--a climb that nearly kills Tsung Tsai--Crane's vivid and poetic prose captures both the paradoxes of modern China and the power of China's lost spiritual traditions. -->

Author Notes

George Crane is a former correspondent for overseas news agencies & 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.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

After an early blizzard blanketed the Catskill mountains in 1987, Crane, a poet, went out to investigate, met a neighbor he didn't know he had, and entered into a relationship that changed his life. Tsung Tsai, a small but strong man, introduced himself as an old Buddhist monk, and invited Crane in for the first of many visits during which they talked about poetry and Tsung Tsai's need to return to Inner Mongolia. Like the Dalai Lama, he fled from the murderous Red Guard in 1959, covering thousands of miles alone and on foot, utterly heartbroken at having to leave his beloved teacher, Shiuh Deng, behind. Now, decades later, he convinces Crane to accompany him to Mongolia to search for his teacher's bones so that he can give him a proper burial. Crane is no Buddhist, yet he is deeply affected by Tsung Tsai's remarkable powers and unshakeable faith, so off they go on a seemingly quixotic and unquestionably dangerous mission. They make an odd but endearing and effective pair, and Crane chronicles their perilous and miraculous adventures, the beauty of Mongolia's wilderness of wind and sand, and Tsung Tsai's transcendent determination with uncommon clarity, wit, vitality, and love. --Donna Seaman

Publisher's Weekly Review

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.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

In 1959, after the Red Army had decimated his monastery and killed his fellow monks, Tsung (Ancestor Wisdom) fled across China and eventually made his way to the United States. There he became a meditation teacher, doctor of traditional Chinese medicine, martial artist, poet, and calligrapher. Forty years after his emigration, Tsung convinced his neighbor Crane, a poet and former journalist, to return with him to his old home near the Gobi Desert, where Tsung hoped to plant and nurture the seeds of spirituality. Although reluctant to leave his wife and daughter, Crane joined Tsung in his quest, which led them to an isolated mountain cave where they encountered unexpected physical danger and realized that faith isn't for the faint-hearted. This story of faith, friendship, and determination is fascinating, but, unfortunately, it is told in a passionless voice that can leave readers uninvolved. Only for large academic libraries with Asian or Buddhist studies collections.--Pam Kingsbury, Florence, AL (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



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 the corridor 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. Tsung Tsai was born during the hour of Shen on the eighteenth day of the third month of Kuei Hai, March 18, 1925, in Lan Huu, north of the Yellow River. The youngest of four children, he was named Pao Sheng but called San San, "the third son of the third son"--a mystical incarnation, his father liked to tell anyone who would listen. He could remember waking in his mother's arms and hearing the "wooden fish," his teacher's prayer clapper. When Shiuh Deng chanted alone in his cave, the village people said they could hear him; he whispered in their ears. They called him Red Foot Truth, after his habit of going barefoot in even the cruelest of Mongol winters. They believed he could fly. When Tsung Tsai was eight, a mendicant monk, a bhikku, wandered into Lan Huu and set up shop under a tent umbrella. He cured the sick with his bell and crooked stick; with medicines compounded of barks, twigs, roots, and flowers, of powdered horn, bone, and gland; and with a holy potion he made by blowing sacred words, three times, into boiling water. When he left the village, Tsung Tsai followed. After a few hours, the old bhikku tired of the boy's company and, with a shower of stones and a threatening stick, sent him running home in tears. When Tsung Tsai was ten, his father died suddenly, and the boy ran off alone to Sand Mountain to mourn. He spent nine days walking among those wandering dunes in the wind that is called "blowing sand and running stones." He found he could talk to the wild horses. They told him that one day he would find a lohan, a great saint, and become his disciple. Then, on the ninth day, he saw a star fall from the western sky, and he was certain that it was his father gone to the Pure Land. --> Excerpted from Bones of the Master: A Buddhist Monk's Search for the Lost Heart of China by George Crane, Tsung Tsai All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.