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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Following the journey of a 7th century Buddhist monk, February 7, 2008
Ralph Blumenau (London United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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Shuyun was born to zealous communist parents in the 1960s; but a great influence in her childhood was a beloved maternal grandmother who lived with them and who was a devout, though illiterate, Buddhist. During the Cultural Revolution (1966 to 1976), the Red Guards staged bonfires of books, and the grandmother rescued from the pile a book of comic strips for her granddaughter. It depicted the legend of the Monkey King who protected an early 7th century Chinese Buddhist monk, Xuanzang, on an arduous 18 year journey from China to India and back, to bring back to China 657 Buddhist sutras from India. Shuyun loved the tale. She learnt that the Monkey King was legend, but that the journey of Xuanzang had really happened.

The Cultural Revolution ended; Mao died; the open practice of Buddhism was grudgingly permitted again. Shuyun was able to go to Beijing University in 1982, and then, in 1986, to Oxford. She married an Englishman and made her home in England; she became a documentary film maker with the BBC; but the story of Xuanzang never ceased to haunt her. Ever since she had lost her teenage faith in Communism, she had felt that `something was missing'. In 1999 she decided to travel in the monk's footsteps, though she would take one year instead of eighteen; and this book is built around an account of that pilgrimage.

The immense roundabout route, starting in Xian in Northern China, was through Xinjiang (Sinkiang), along part of the Silk Road, through the blistering Gobi Desert, and eventually enters India through the North-West frontier. Xuangzang faced the danger of avalanches as he crossed the passes in the frozen Heavenly Mountains into what is now Kyrgyzstan but was then ruled by the Great Khan of the Western Turks. From there he had travelled on through what is today Uzbekistan and then Afghanistan; but Shuyun was refused an Uzbek visa and could not travel through Afghanistan anyway. In Xuangzang's time Afghanistan had been a devoutly Buddhist area, but it was now run by the Taliban who would, within a year or two, destroy the great Buddhas of Bamiyan and every other Buddhist image in the country. So Shuyun flew direct to Peshawar, just inside Pakistan, to rejoin Xuangzang's route. And from there she at last entered India.

From now on we get rather more about the history of Buddhism than we have had so far, though in a rather unsystematic and unchronological way, dictated by the order in which Shuyun visits Buddhist landmarks. For example, her first major halt in India was Nalanda, the great Buddhist centre where Yogakara Buddhism was founded some seven centuries after the Buddha's death. Her next visit, to near-by Bodh Gaya, takes us back to the Buddha's own life-time: it was there where the Buddha had found enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree.

Xuanzang spent five years in Nalanda, mastering Sanskrit and translating sutras into Chinese, steeping himself in the doctrines of the different Buddhist schools before embracing the most difficult Yogakara school which he eventually propounded back in China.

Shuyun flies to visit places on Xuanzang's route after he left Nalanda: through Southern India, then up the West coast and then back across the Silk Route, its southern branch this time, taking in the old Buddhist kingdom of Khotan, which was so savagely destroyed by the Muslims about three centuries after Xuanzang's time.

Eventually the Muslim invaders destroyed Buddhism in India so completely that the history of Buddhism in its native country was lost even to the Indians themselves. And although Xuanzang's account of his journey was known in China, it was not known in the West until the 1850s. His account is so immensely detailed and accurate that it then helped western scholars and archaeologists, notably one Alexander Cunningham, to rediscover and sometimes excavate some of the most famous Buddhist monuments. Xuanzang was honoured as a sage and scholar in the India and the China of his own time; and now, among contemporary Indian Buddhists, he is immensely revered as the man who restored their lost history.

At last Xuanzang crossed back into China at Dunhuang, where he meditated for a while in the first of the thousands of caves which later became Buddhist places of worship with fabulous frescoes. One of the caves contained a depository of 50,000 Buddhist scrolls and manuscripts, discovered only in the early 20th century. Xuanzang then converted the great Tang Emperor Taizong from Daoism to Buddhism.

Shuyun had set out on her journey with an interest in Buddhism, but with some reservations, not only about the superstitious beliefs which had accompanied her grandmother's serene attitude to life, but also about the doctrines of karma and rebirth. Apparently it was only on her journey that she met Buddhists who taught her that true Buddhism discards the idea of miracles. And she was most drawn to a Buddhist school which was founded only in 1956 by B.R.Ambedkar, a convert from Hinduism, for this, too, rejects the idea of karma and rebirth, and relies entirely on the self-discipline and compassion taught by the Buddha. She ended her own journey with a stay in a Buddhist monastery in Dunhuang, in the hope that she might `reach the deep emotion and sense of belonging that I longed for.' It is not clear whether she managed that, although she gained a deeper appreciation of Buddhism - and she has certainly taught her readers a great deal about its history and its message (as well as given much other information, ranging from Islamic resistance movements in today's Khyrgizstan and Xinjiang, through aspects of Hinduism, through the lawlessness in the state of Bihar to silk production in Khotan).

Shuyun is a fine descriptive writer, but readers should also look at some wonderful pictures on Flickr or Google Images of places and monuments she mentions.
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14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fresh, August 7, 2005
Ping Lim (Christchurch) - See all my reviews
These days, it's only too common for us to read books about Chinese who had a hard time living under Mao's reign in China. After a while, everything became a cliche and it became all too difficult to have empathy for them somewhat. This book was a bit like that but it didn't delve in that for too long. Rather, it touched upon the Monkey King story, a fable that Chinese had been brought up with including myself. What I didn't know then was it's actually based upon a true event, the monk himself, XuanZhang. The rest of the fable was naturally dramatised to captivate people's interest and to transport listener's from turbulence and chaos of the time. It's not a mean feat for a monk to defy the Chinese Empire and to head to India to get himself more immersed in Buddhism and to bring sutras and other relevant items back to somehow "enlighten" his people. The journey itself took 18 years and nobody could brag to accumulate so much mileage in that period of time and to actually translate so many sutras into Chinese. XuanZhang would have inducted himself into the World Records of Fame. In that aspect, this book became a "Lonely Planet" book of his time as XuanZhang jotted down of his minute observations of the places that he had been. It then also became an adventure book describing how he overcame avalanche, appeasing robbers, survived in the desert for 4 days without water. Mark Burnett of "Apprentice" fame would have made a reality TV show based on him!!! Then, there's a bit of anthropology going on as the writer tackled to dissect what made XuanZhang the person that he was. Last but not least, the writer also endeavoured to become Jonathan Spence as she discussed about the Chinese Empire, and political mood of the time. There was also mentioning of grave diggers as well, and many of them happened to be Westerners who "ransacked" the historical places rather than getting the pieces from proper channels. Anyway, it's quite ironic to note that some German archealogists commented that they did China a favour by bringing them to German museum for perservation only to have them annihilated into pieces when the Allies bombed Germany during World War 2. Once we engaged into this book, we would find the present time is strikingly similar to the past. Life and death is truly a hair brush away. In all these aspects, this book is really Jack of trade, master of none. Whilst there's no denying that this book tackles a rather difficult topic, I sincerely think that the author should keep her chin high for having the courage to carrying such a complicated task with such aplomb. A rather refreshing book to read and good for self-knowledge. Commendable reading.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Discovering yourself, January 27, 2012
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Without drama, Sun Shuyun tells of her journeys to the many places that Xuan Zang, the 7th century Chinese monk made to the "West"--Central Asia (the Silk Road) and India. His story was retold with much fantasy and "paranormal" incidents in the 15th century and is regarded as one of the Four great classic novels. It could rightly be called The Monkey King, after one of the superheroes who was chosen to protect the monk on his journey. (See post on "Journey to the West below.)

"Ten thousand miles" is the sober and sensible but fascinating story of a Chinese woman who grew up with Red Guards for parents and a grandmother was a devout Buddhist (who had bound feet). Much of her travels take her to parts of the Silk Road which conjures up images of the Orient Express; it is far from being such a luxurious ride. She makes a side trip as did Xuan Zang to Peshawar. This is today said to be the epicenter of "Islamofascists": well, it is the second most important site for Buddhists.

Buddhism was born in India around 600 B.C. but was much forgotten there by the 19th century until an English translation of Xuan Zang's "Great Tang Records on the Western Regions" (referred to by Sun as the "Buddhist Records of the Western World") helped British and Indian archaeologists uncover the sacred sites to which Burmese, Thai and Ceylonese Buddhists had come but failed to find. You will learn much from this book, not least about your own preconceptions about the meaning of life.
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4.0 out of 5 stars informative, December 26, 2011
Ten Thousand Miles Without A Cloud is the first book by Sun Shuyun. It details Sun's experience as she tries to follow in the footsteps on Xuanzang, a Buddhist monk who, in the 7th century, made a pilgrimage through Central Asia and into India, to find the original sutras of the Buddha. Xuanzang made his trip during a time of political unrest, as does Sun; both confront obstacles and both come to understand Buddhism and themselves better for their encounters with others on the way. I found myself checking how many pages left and eyeing my next read with increasing frequency as the book progressed: never a good sign! Readers interested in Buddhism would find this book informative and enjoyable; readers with less of a fascination might find it somewhat repetitive and a bit slow. All those Chinese and Indian gods and historical figures had my eyes glazing over, but I did learn a few noteworthy facts. This was not my first choice of Sun's books: I still hope to read A Year in Tibet.
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Ten Thousand Miles without a Cloud
Ten Thousand Miles without a Cloud by Sun Shuyun (Hardcover - July 7, 2003)
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