Questions of Heaven: The Chinese Journeys of an American Buddhist
Gretel Ehrlich
Beacon Press: Boston, 1997
144 pp., $20.00 (hardcover) 

Paintings from Natalie Goldberg's new book, Living Color: A Writer Paints Her World, Bantam Books: New York, 1997; 154 pp., $16.95 (paper).
Paintings from Natalie Goldberg’s new book, Living Color: A Writer Paints Her World, Bantam Books: New York, 1997; 154 pp., $16.95 (paper).

Questions of Heaven, Gretel Ehrlich’s account of her trip to China “to pick up the threads of a once flourishing Buddhist culture,” is a beautifully written book that can strike the gong that clarifies the reader’s mind. Near the end of the first chapter, the reader comes to this: “Too cold to sleep, too cold to wake, I hung on some edge, the entry to the abyss where one flings oneself to shave away ego …. The walls of the small monastery room were ice and the cobwebs swung against my shoulder, falling onto my face. A gong rang for no apparent reason. I understood then that there is no sacred mountain and no secular mountain. All are holy, all are ordinary, just rock paths, struggling trees, flying springs, dirty monasteries, melting snow.”

There are not many such direct statements of insight in this book, but each reverberates. Stunning descriptions abound, too. (“A river gorge narrowed and flared on one side of the train like a skirt torn open by the wind.”) They invite re-reading, contemplation. A practicing Buddhist, and the author of The Solace of Open Spaces, Ehrlich skillfully takes us, for example, through one Chinese journey to this sentence: “Bemused, the old lama laughed, thanked us, then shuffled back into the dark house shaking the bag of oranges as if they were tiny, portable suns by whose light he could read sutras.”

Ehrlich has a remarkable ability to show us the landscapes-urban, forested, pastoral-through which she traveled. In what is now the western Sichuan province, for centuries a meeting place of the Tibetan and the Han Chinese cultural spheres, she climbed one of the four most sacred mountains of Buddhism in China, visited a heart-wrenchingly cruel “panda preserve,” and met a Tibetan lama. Traveling to the multi-ethnic highlands of Yunnan province in the southwest, she encountered a remarkable musician and ethnomusicologist. The book’s final chapter, in a kind of coda, recounts a follow-up trip to London. There Ehrlich met again with the musicians, and the music, that embody for her endurance, a balm for suffering, and the attempt to preserve a vanishing way of life. 

Ehrlich researched her trip and book well, but as she was dependent on English sources on Chinese history and culture, she mixes the two predominant systems of romanizing Chinese words in her text, creating a hodgepodge effect. Most readers won’t be bothered by this, but in confusing Shu, an old name for the Sichuan basin, with Chu (or Ch’u), the long-ago kingdom lying eastward, around the central Yangtze River, she does mislead us. It’s as if a traveler to the U.S. were to note the distinct cultural flavors of Louisiana and New Mexico, then place a Cajun poet in Santa Fe.

Erhlich also shares the tendency of American travelers to chide those Chinese who embrace materialism and the tawdry trappings of modernity-with no mention of which nation stands premier in conspicuous consumption at the expense of others. If the unlovely suburbs of Chengdu are “hellish,” what are Haiti and the South Bronx? 

Yet Ehrlich does, in her moving chapter on “Disposable Pandas,” point out that it is “the global marketplace” (that’s us) that fuels the murderous chemical pollution she uses as metaphor for the destruction of beauty and tradition in China. She also balances her picture of pandas abused in “this all-for-profit China” with a tender vignette of a farmer with his six water buffalo, “squatting on his heels in the late afternoon shade, watching his animals cool off.”

Traveling in China today can be astoundingly difficult. Enduring nightmarish transportation, the insidious effects of jet lag, bronchitis, and the uncomfortable impact of booming Asian cities on any elbowroom-rich Westerner required real grit of Gretel Ehrlich. These problems may also have colored her perceptions. She’s sometimes quick to describe the behavior of the Han Chinese ethnic majority as unmitigatedly tacky or aggressive. Her presentation of the negative opinions of the Han people held by minority-group members living within the borders claimed by the People’s Republic of China rings true. Many of those attitudes have flourished under oppression by the Han-dominated government, and Ehrlich’s own spiritual teachers are among those who know this oppression all too well. But it’s troubling to see her pass on unexamined a sweeping generalization about the spiritual dullness of an entire people. 

Similarly, the Chinese aren’t the only ones who have failed to care for natural resources like clean water, nor are the “postmodern Chinese” the only ones looking to such figures as the Buddha Maitreya for material gain. Ehrlich reports what she saw, I’m sure of it. Keen-eyed though she is, she’d have done well to take a wider look at some points. Otherwise, she risks evoking the self-righteous fingerpointing of nineteenth-century Western imperialists. 

Ehrlich sometimes slows the pace of her narrative to repeat what she’s learned about the horrors of the Mao years. She recounts distressing conversations she had with people, like a guide who, as a boy, saw his father savagely beaten and then “sent away.” The dreadful policies of that era-under which monks and nuns were killed or locked away, buildings and images destroyed, a generation of teaching and transmission lost-are largely responsible for the impoverished state of Buddhist (and Taoist) institutions in China today. What Ehrlich writes is an utterly natural response to a recent discovery of how bad things were in China, not long ago. It’s just naive, in a way that somehow seems to let the ignorant reader off the hook. 

But these are the well-intentioned mistakes of a wary newcomer to a complex society. Ehrlich doesn’t pretend to be anything else. In fact, much of her critique of the Han-dominated urban areas simply reflects the “city bad/country good” dichotomy that runs throughout this book-and through much of both Chinese and Western literature. But her elegy for, and celebration of, traditional life in the countryside is as moving as those of the best writers in the pastoral mode. And her presentation of what she saw is as finely crafted as those by centuries of Chinese poets. Passages like this one are luminous, and illuminating: 

“A wall of rain in the courtyard hid the old trees for a moment; their twisted arms showed through slowly as if to tell me with some weird botanic gesture how emptiness is formed, how silence is made, how formlessness is chiseled from form.”

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