issue 19 winter 02
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The Bones of the Master

A Journey to Secret Mongolia

George Crane

Bantam Press 2001

$25.95/£16.99 h/b; $14.95/£6.99 p/b

In 1959 Mao's Great Leap Forward led to the destruction of many Buddhist monasteries. A young Ch'an monk called Tsung Tsai escaped from Inner Mongolia to Hong Kong after a long and dangerous journey through China. In 1996 he returned to seek his master's grave, travelling with George Crane, an American drop-out poet who had become his neighbour in New York State. Following the story of the escape, the main part of the book is Crane's account of the return: dealings with the authorities, meetings with members of Tsung Tsai's family, the difficult and dangerous climb to the mountain cave where Tsung Tsai had last seen his master, and the eventual discovery of his grave. The third part is a short epilogue back in Hong Kong.

The style is novelistic, and it is best to read Bones of the Master as if it were a novel. Crane is a good storyteller and the narrative rattles along. Incidents and characters are vividly portrayed and, although Crane is very present as narrator, he is generally not too intrusive. A clear portrait of Tsung Tsai emerges - of his determination and optimism, his devotion and dedication to practice, his humour and humanity. No textbook this, but readable, interesting and sometimes moving.

Sinhavacin has a long-standing interest in China and Chinese Buddhism