A poetry-filled account of the friendship between author Crane and Ch’an Buddhist master Tsung Tsai and of their
fascinating journey through China’s remote outer regions.
When maverick poet Crane meets his new neighbor, Buddhist monk Tsung Tsai, in upstate New York, the two strike up a
friendship based on a mutual love of verse. Crane soon learns that his hermetic neighbor is the last master of the Ch’an sect as
well as a revered scholar, artist, and healer. Once their friendship deepens, Tsung Tsai invites Crane on a quest to find the bones
of his deceased teacher, thought to be somewhere in inner Mongolia. His double purpose is to honor his mentor with a ritual
cremation and to return Buddhism to this physically and spiritually barren territory. Crane’s narrative recounts Tsung Tsai’s past,
including a harrowing trek through Communist China to escape religious persecution at the hands of the Red Army during the
famine of 1959, as well as the self-revelations his own association with Tsung Tsai elicits. Their trip brings the reader through
the outskirts of China—where Mao, Buddha, and Mickey Mouse all dwell together in timeless desert villages—and on to Hong
Kong, the "heart of chaos." Throughout, the matter-of-fact juxtaposition of Tsung Tsai’s spirituality with Crane’s worldly outlook
makes this record of their journey refreshingly devoid of the political overtones and moralizing that usually accompany Western
glimpses of modern China, resulting in descriptions as clear and pure as the poetry both protagonists love so much. Ultimately,
however, Crane’s objective appears to be to pay homage to the venerable, ever-so-charming Tsung Tsai.
For all his occasional narrative longeurs, Crane’s insights into Ch’an beliefs and his unlikely friendship with Tsung Tsai
prove that poetry in its purest form is indeed universal.