Tsung Tsai and George Crane. Courtesy Mary Talbot.
Tsung Tsai and George Crane. Courtesy Mary Talbot.

In 1959 a young Ch’an monk named Tsung Tsai escapes the Red Army troops who destmy his monastery and flees from the edge of the Gobi Desert to Hong Kong Hunted, starving, and knowing that his fellow monks are dead, Tsung Tsai is borne up by his mission: to canyon the teachings of his elderly master, who remained in his mountain to cave high above the monastery.

Almost thirty years later, during a snowstorm outside Woodstock, New York, Tsung Tsai meets up with his irreverent American neighbor, a libertine poet named George Crane. In the first part of Bones of the Master, Crane mixes his own witty and lyrical prose with Tsung Tsai’s wondelfully eccentric rendition of English to retell the monk’s escape from Communist China. Subsequently, Tsung Tsai persuades Crane to accompany him on a return pilgrimage to Inner Mongolia to find his teacher’s bones and to provide a proper burial for his master. Much of this book is Crane’s exquisite account of their impossible journey together—a pure-hearted monk on a mission and a wild poet seeking freedom, adventure, and sensation. In this excerpt, Tsung Tsai and Crane are visiting the monk’s great niece, who lives in Tsung Tsai’s natal village, where many of his kin were slaughtered or starved by the Red Army.

I took my second jar of tea out of Fang-fang’s yard. The early morning sun was white without warmth. Tsung Tsai’s face was gray, and he was sitting on the stoop, busy, as always, sewing a split seam in the rump of his cinnamon-colored coolie pants. The pants and his matching collarless jacket were heavily patched and held together, as usual, with a network of safety pins. The pants were cut short, their cuffs lashed around his shins with yellow silk braid. The braid was his one concession to finery. His socks came up under his cuffs, and the braid was supposed to keep them from slipping, but no matter how he lashed and tied them, one sock or the other would inevitably sag. He looked like a hermit monk, a ragged eccentric. But when he wore his robes he was transformed, a Buddhist master once again, elegant and austere, physician and sage, mediator between the living and the dead.

This morning he wore a black NorthFace polar fleece vest, the only item left from the gear bought before we departed for China. The Patagonia parka, Technic hikmg boots, polypropylene underwear, and wicking socks—which I had bought him so that he would be equipped and warm on what promised to be an arduous journey for a seventy-year-old man—he had given away in Mouth of West Mountain soon after we arrived. I had come out of the bathroom of Linn’s loft one morning to see an old woman departing with his parka tucked under her arm. Soon he was left with nothing but his rags. He had given away the wristwatch, the fanny pack, his ski gloves, and the camera that he had insisted he needed. He had kept the fleece vest, he said, because it was “good for meditation.” I drew the line when he tried to give away my equipment, offering an old farmer my camera.

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