Saturday, October 08, 2011

Book Review: Ten thousand miles without a cloud

Ten thousand miles without a cloud by Sun Shuyun

Don’t get carried away by the title and think that it is a book on Zen Buddhism. No, this is a travelogue really, sprinkled with a generous helping of personal experience and travel tracing the same route taken by Chinese monk Xuanzang,( who travelled across from China to India, via the silk route to study Yogacara, ( see Wikipedia: the 8th century. This according to Mahayana Buddhism is the practice of meditation and yoga which together can give rise to pure consciousness, a state which is to be totally alert, awake but “thought-less” – pure consciousness.

We know from History that it is the Records that Xuanzang kept so meticulously that lead, the British to find and resurrect the teachings of Buddha, only over a century ago. Buddhism was a thriving practice and a study in the early 6th Century, India, which later was all covered by the already existing Hindu religion. Not to speak of the Muslims who came later to destroy as much as possible and instill in its place, Islam, forcefully. Many Buddhist monuments were raised to the ground and many Buddhist monks fled to finer pastures where they were welcomed, like in China and Japan.
However, for a keen learner, Xuanzang would have nothing except the truth, straight from the horses’ mouth. He had heard that in the great University of Nalanda, he could learn from him, who knows best the on Yogacara ( Sanskrit Yogācāra (योगाचार), Vijñānavāda (विज्ञानवाद), Vijñapti-mātra, Vijñapti-mātratā, or Cittamātra) which is the art and science of arriving at enlightenment, or a thoughtless state of Being.  

This book is a beautiful account retracing the journey that Xuanzang took and the author, Sun Shuyun, makes all the effort to reach each and every spot that the Chinese monk had travelled through, taking time to be in these places and make notes on the place as it existed now, in the late 1900 around, 1998 – 99, 1300 years after Zuanzang had visited these places. Many things had changed and yet, for the author, being in a place where the monk had been was a very live experience.

No, please do not think the author herself is a monk. Perhaps this journey was the closest, deepest brush she had had since her days with her grandmother, who was an ardent believer in Buddhism, placed in a very traumatic time, when China was undergoing its cultural revolution.

Although the book does not explain the title, I would like to dwell on it with my readers, just for a little bit.

Bertrand Russell once said – No matter; never mind! He was right, although his inference may have been borrowed from Indian thought travelling via the Greeks to his motherland.

We have known it for ages, that the world is, and therefore the mind too is. Mind is matter in a subtle form. Therefore thoughts which arise in the mind are matter too. Thought is material, no matter how subtle.

When the mind is trained over time, it can hold on to fewer and fewer thoughts through the practice of yoga and meditation. A carefully trained mind which has practiced for years, can hold on to one thought only. And at that point, also allow it to go, so that there is nothing left except pure consciousness, uncluttered even by a single thought. This has been the true pursuit of the Mahayana Buddhist, this state which is the ideal state of no thought. It is pure consciousness. This state is considered to be the highest.

Clouds are figurative language for thought, hence, ten thousand miles without a cloud, would literally mean, ten thousand miles without a thought, just pure consciousness. Yes, Xuanzang travelled the whole distance only to learn from Indians practicing Yogacara, the art of practice that lead to a state of “cloud-less-ness”.

“Self nature, complete and clear,
Like the moon in the water.
The mind in meditation, like the sky,
Ten thousand miles without a cloud.”

About the author
: Sun Shuyun is a Chinese writer. She was born in China in the 1960s, graduated from Beijing University and won a scholarship to Oxford. Her books include:

Ten Thousand Miles Without a Cloud
The Long March: The True History of Communist China's Founding Myth
A Year in Tibet, a book made in conjunction with the BBC documentary A Year in Tibet.

Publisher: Harper Perennial (2004)
Price Rs 350

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