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Questions of Heaven: The Chinese Journeys of an American Buddhist (Concord Library)

2.9 out of 5 stars 9 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0807073117
ISBN-10: 0807073113
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

As a practicing Buddhist, Gretel Ehrlich set out to climb Emie Shan, a sacred Buddhist mountain in China, to complete a personal spiritual quest. What she came away with was an understanding of the brutal effects of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution on China's Buddhist population, and the politics and bitter realities of the collision between modernity and monastic life. Written in a lively and thoughtful style with plenty of exciting passages, Questions of Heaven chronicles Ehrlich's journey through China and its recent turbulent history in such a personal way that it draws the reader closer to the subject. From her conversations with monks and a heartbreaking visit to a panda refuge, Ehrlich discovers that the ancient Buddhist tradition lives on, though not in the manner she anticipated. Silencing both Buddhism and Taoism changed the complexion of China in unexpected ways, and this journal exposes the subtleties of this shift from the perspective of one who is able to bridge the cultural and political differences with her spiritual attachment. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

At some point in every American Buddhist's life, he or she decides to take a spiritual journey to the East. Ehrlich's journey takes her to the Sichuan Province in China to climb Emei Shan, a sacred Buddhist mountain. Instead of finding a modern Shangri-La, she encounters a land destroyed by crass commercialism, corrupt monks, poverty, lamas, and scholars who are still deeply injured physically and psychologically by the atrocities of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution. Her descriptions are heartbreaking, especially of her visit to a wretched panda reserve in Chendu where the bears are only kept alive so foreigners will donate funds. Her pilgrimage seems a failure until she meets a musician who has dedicated his life to keeping alive the sacred music of his people, the Naxis. His philosophy, that music is medicine, leads the reader to understand that divinity does not necessarily reside only in holy places but also in the deep faith of good people. This is travel writing at its best. Recommended for all libraries.?Glenn Masuchika, Chaminade Univ. Lib., Honolulu
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Series: Concord Library
  • Paperback: 144 pages
  • Publisher: Beacon Press (March 31, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0807073113
  • ISBN-13: 978-0807073117
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.4 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 2.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,005,284 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Charles S. Fisher on November 7, 2007
Format: Paperback
Not being a fan of travel books, my comments may be biased. Years ago when I wandered the globe, my desire was to live as a part of the places in which I found myself. I made a terrible tourist. I mostly wanted to go where I could speak the language of the natives and getting a letter home took weeks. The world isn't like that any more, nor maybe has it so been for a while for tourists and travel writers. The four books by Gretel Ehrlich I have read run the gauntlet. "This Cold Heaven", tells of her visits to Greenland between 1995 and 2001. It best conveys a feel of what life is like for, maybe the last generation of, Inuit hunters who use dogsleds. And out on the sled is where Ms Ehrlich most wants to be. It is a beautiful book interspersed with Rasmussen's, diaries and descriptions of his life in the north. The reader gets a sense of how the Inuit world is put together, its roots, some differences between various groups and the challenges it faces, at the edge of the internet age. The greatest changes, to a relatively remote First Nation in Canada I am familiar with, were brought about by television. A kind of passivity set in: no more making music and living by one's body became less central. When dogsled, hunting Greenlanders tell Ehrlich that they just want to give their children the experience of the hunt and that the children will decide in their turn whether they will live that way, I sense she is documenting the last of the dogsled hunts. In my First Nation, the elder who last used dogs is now too old, so four wheelers and snow mobiles are a way of life.

What I lose patience with in Ehrlich's writing is most manifest in her book, "Questions of Heaven." She goes to China in search of Buddhism during the early stages of "getting rich is good.
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Format: Hardcover
If you are looking for a book about the current state of buddhism in China, this is not for you. The four stars are given to its enjoyable prose, not to the information it conveys.
Well intentioned as she might be, Ms. Ehrlich apparently did not have a chance to understand the current revival of buddhism in China, being a tourist whose knowlege and DREAM about China was only from books and a few exemplary persons she knew. Recent accounts from oversea Chinese pilgrims painted a different picture. I suppose that with the brisk pace in which everything is carried out in China these days, many things can change in four years. Moreover, it would be surprising if the communists do not learn that in order to make these pilgrimage sites attractive to oversea devotees, at least a semblance of religious atmosphere has to be fostered. It wasn't surprising to read of the accounts of monks whose only practice in the evening was to watch TV. Those are the vestige of the turmoil and destruction of the Cultural Revolution. I only feel sorry that Ms. Ehrlich did not have a chance to read the corpus of works, in Chinese, that aptly and vividly delineate the deplorable state of buddhism in China in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution. These deplorable sacrileges no doubt still exist but now there are many young and well-educated monastics who enter the order for authentic and admirable purposes. It is them that carry the standard of the revival of buddhim silently, unknown to the westerners--which is good, in the current political atmosphere.
Ms. Ehrlich also did not (or does she) know that there is now a Buddhist college in Emei and that the abbot of one of its monasteries was a highly revered monk who had just passed away in his 90s (if I remember correctly) last year.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I purchased a used copy (thankfully!) of this book after having read Ms. Ehrlich's This Cold Heaven--which was written five years later--and would never have guessed they're by the same author.

I found Cold Heaven to be far more satisfying than Questions of Heaven. The former errs on the side of sometimes meaningless detail and, especially, cumbersome and often inexplicable metaphors (particularly of snow, ice, and sun), while the latter is by comparison a bit of fluff, more suitable to a popular magazine. Cold Heaven did provide many marvelous insights into Greenland and its people--and, so, was worth wading through Ms. Ehrlich's many excesses--but I came away from Question only with some further evidence that Chairman Mao was a bad guy and that the Chinese people suffered intensely during his reign.

At a cost of $4 and a couple hours of time, I didn't feel cheated by Questions of Heaven, but I certainly didn't feel much enriched either.

Question of Heaven is, by comparison, a bit of fluff more suitable to a popular magazine.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I loved her story about the trip to China to connect with Buddhism. What she did was have to navigate poverty, filth, and dig deep within to find her own experience and definition of spirituality. She writes beautifully and I couldn't put it down.
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Format: Paperback
Who would enjoy reading a book that is so negative? If traveling to those places in China is so bad, why write about it, or even publish it? Gretel Ehrlich is a talented writer, but she has no sympathy or empathy for the people of China. I am certain that it was unpleasant for her to see the poverty, the over crowding, the destruction of wilderness areas, the pollution, and the open raw sewage, that she describes. It certainly was not a pleasant experience for me to read about it. She complains about the disgusting conditions that the people live in, and about how commercialized the religious sites are (imagine that - commercializing religion!), and then, there are long rants and sermons against the Chinese government and especially Chairman Mao. Maybe, she was looking for some mystical, transcendental religious experience at those sacred Buddhist sites. She did not appreciate the ugly reality that she found in China.

reading suggestions:
the National Geographic Society's, Journey Into China.
The well written, if somewhat dated (1984) articles depict the fascinating diversity of China with very beautiful photographs.
Also:
Red Pine's (aka. Bill Porter) book, Zen Baggage: A Pilgrimage To China, and, A Ride Along the Great Wall, by Robin Hanbury-Tenison and his wife about their journey following the Great Wall on horseback. Some great photos!
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