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Just as every school child in America knows who Columbus was, anyone in China with an elementary education knows the name Hsuan Tsang. A monk, Hsuan Tsang set out for India in 629 to search for the truth, returning 17 years later with original texts that he studied and translated to help Buddhism become the dominant religion in the world's most populous nation.
Ultimate Journey takes the reader on two trips - 1,500 years apart - over largely the same route: the perilous trek of the ancient monk and the unpredictable travel of the modern journalist. Along the way, author Richard Bernstein seamlessly combines the lifelines of Buddha, Hsuan Tsang and his own. In so doing, he skillfully synthesizes religion, travel, history, geography, archaeology and even modern politics.
The memory of Hsuan Tsang is celebrated today by Buddhists worldwide for his journey of almost 5,000 miles to India on foot, horse, camel and elephant to amass hundreds of original Indian scriptures that he felt were needed to authenticate Buddhism as it underwent different interpretations and developed competing schools in China. While not a Buddhist, Bernstein is awed by the religion started 2,500 years ago by Siddartha Gautama, an Indian prince who became the Buddha ("Enlightened One") by preaching that life is suffering, suffering can be eliminated by renouncing desire, and the way to salvation is through eight principles of behavior, including the practice of right intent, right action and right concentration. Of course, there's a lot more to Buddhism than that, and Bernstein's discussion of the religion is as intelligible a treatment as non-adherents could hope to read.
Bernstein shares insights into the lives and minds of villagers along the route. At the time President Clinton was enmeshed in revelations of embarrassing Oval Office activities, Bernstein was in a remote village. When he told a curious group where he lived, a native finger-traced the word "Amirica" on the dusty fender of a jeep. Right away, someone added the words "Monika" and "MikelJordan."
A New York Times book critic, Bernstein cannot, as a matter of conflict of interest, review Ultimate Journey. If he could, he would be justified in giving it a high mark.
Alan Prince, a former newspaper travel editor, lives in Deerfield Beach, Florida.