Beyond the House of the False Lama: Travels with Monks, Nomads, and Outlaws
George Crane
San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005
320 pp.; $24.95 (cloth)

reviews7Once, while in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, I met several Buddhist monks who invited me to visit their monastery in Dalat, a destination that had not even been on my original itinerary. The trip required some backtracking, permanently separating me from my traveling companions, but I went anyway. This is the joy of a peripatetic traveler: when an opportunity presents itself, you head wherever the wind happens to be blowing.

George Crane knows about wind. “Wind is air in motion,” he writes in his new book, Beyond the House of the False Lama; “its root is to wander.” In this collection of stories about his life as a wanderer, fiftysomething-year-old Crane—poet, travel writer, former foreign news reporter, lapsed Jew, and fumbling Zennist—gets buffeted by everything from hurricanes and desert sandstorms to a lover’s whisper and the meditative breath. Blown across the Atlantic through Europe and into Mongolia, he’s a leaf caught on a breeze, searching for a fabled lost temple only hinted at in his first book, Bones of the Master: A Buddhist Monk’s Search for the Lost Heart of China.

Published in 2000, Bones of the Master was a touching, humorous, often grueling travelogue recounting the author’s journey with a Chinese monk named Tsung Tsai. In 1996, the unlikely duo traveled through the Gobi Desert in search of Tsung Tsai’s birthplace and the final resting place of his teacher, whom he had been forced to leave behind forty years earlier when the Chinese invaded. That book focused, as the subtitle suggests, primarily on the monk, his escape from religious persecution, and his eventual return to exhume and cremate his teacher’s body—with Crane along for the ride acting as a foil to the monk’s antics. In the end, they were unable to fulfill their mission, but that hardly mattered. The story’s strength rests squarely in the quirky dynamic the two men shared, and it is still one of the better spiritual travelogues to be published in the last decade.

Beyond the House of the False Lama is concerned with Crane himself and his self-professed “edgy anarchic Zen.” If Tsung Tsai makes an appearance, it is usually only in a flashback, or else it is to tell Crane that he is unable to return to Mongolia to complete their quest. Left to his own impulses, Crane becomes untethered as a result. “I had always been susceptible to misadventure and excess of every kind,” he confesses. “Give me more! More! I want! I want!” Leaving Tsung Tsai behind, he indulges in a nostalgic romp across the globe and back through memory in an attempt to find the unfindable. Fueled by recklessness, intoxicants, and a love of women, his harrowing tales include descriptions of a murder he saw in Morocco, a near-fatal sailing expedition to Grenada during peak hurricane season, and a dozen memorable run-ins with many of the outlaws, nomads, and Buddhists he meets along the way, including Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman, who asks the author, “Still looking for Shambhala?”

Crane’s glib reply at the time was “Aren’t we all?” but later on in the book, he’ll dig deeper: “I was looking for what every nomad knows: that all desert roads end somewhere, but that every one of them is more a direction than a destination.”

False Lama can seem like a series of false starts, a collection of intrepid tales sprinkled with the crazy wisdom gleaned from encounters with colorful characters. But it can also be more than the sum of its parts. It joins recent books like Ptolemy Tompkins’s The Beaten Path and Jeff Dyer’s Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It on the shelves of the growing subgenre of travelogue: a specific style that combines the mechanics of travel reporting and the ruminative technique of the memoir with liberal doses of spiritual insight. Consider the similarities between False Lama and Stephen T. Asma’s The Gods Drink Whiskey: Stumbling toward Enlightenment in the Land of the Tattered Buddha (published five months earlier, also by HarperSanFrancisco). During his explorations of Theravada Buddhism in Southeast Asia, Asma, who, like Crane, leaves wife and child behind in search of answers, witnesses a political assassination, experiences several close brushes with death, and meets, by chance, Yann Martel, the Booker Prize-winning author of The Life of Pi. In the end, these titles are largely anecdotal works that track the spiritual growth of the narrator through a life-altering obstacle course of dangers and revelations. After a while, the meandering between extremes begins to feel familiar, a little like Prince Siddhartha’s own journey toward enlightenment.

If it is true that there are really only two or three human stories in the world that go on repeating themselves forever (to paraphrase Willa Cather), then perhaps the spiritual journey is one of them. Indeed, from Gilgamesh to The Ramayana to Exodus, the quest formula is firmly embedded in the matrix of the world’s literature. Even purely secular travel writing has at its core the essence of pilgrimage—journey somewhere new in the spirit of discovery, and return not only with stories of the sights, sounds, and tastes of foreign cultures but also, occasionally, with a sense of self-discovery. That is because travel writers possess the perceptiveness of the social scientist or naturalist and the openness of a spiritual seeker. Writers like Peter Matthiessen and Bruce Chatwin have demonstrated this ability time and again. It is why books like The Snow Leopard and The Songlines remain seminal works of travel writing, because the best travel writers know that the most interesting journey is the one we take to the interior of ourselves. In writing about travel, writers can elicit parallels with our own internal struggles, using encounters with cultures and landscapes as metaphors: a mountain becomes a stand-in for our fears, a river, an analog for growth. Veteran travel writer Pico Iyer has already covered this terrain in his oft-quoted essay “Why We Travel.” Its opening sentences perfectly express why travel lends itself so easily to self-examination: We travel to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves.

We travel to open our hearts and eyes. . . . And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again. . . . Travel in that sense guides us toward a better balance of wisdom and compassion—of seeing the world clearly, and yet feeling it truly. . . . Traveling is simply the luxury of leaving all my beliefs and certainties at home, and seeing everything I thought I knew in a different light, and from a crooked angle.

Although he is equating traveling with falling in love in this piece, Iyer could just as easily be making the parallel with Buddhist practice. In fact, if you change “travel” to “meditate” (or “meditation”), the piece begins to sound uncannily like a dharma talk, full of elegant inversions, contradictory insights, and Zen-like reasoning. This should come as no surprise to anyone who has tried to sit down on the cushion for the first time. Striking out into the unknown requires the same determination and bravery as the effort involved in a sustained meditation practice. Ironically, travel, like sitting still, becomes a mirror that forces us to face our fears and assumptions, and reveals to us truths we wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to experience.

If travel has the ability to open our eyes in this way, then travel writing becomes a kind of skillful means for transmitting the dharma. Perhaps that’s why some travelogues feel Buddhist even though they’re not. Writer Jeff Greenwald—a frequent contributor to this magazine [see “All That Zen,” p. 52]—allows us to witness the Buddhist principle of interconnectedness in action in his gripping work The Size of the World, which feels more genuinely Buddhist than his specifically Buddhist-oriented Shopping for Buddhas. And a recent anthology edited by Don George, The Kindness of Strangers, feels like a cleverly closeted Buddhist travel book, containing numerous accounts of serendipity and compassion that writers have experienced during difficult circumstances while on the road.

All this raises the question of whether the dharma can be conveyed successfully when the purpose of travel is ambiguous. In Crane’s case, you never understand why he must sail to Grenada during hurricane season, or how this dangerous nautical expedition furthers his search for a lost temple in Mongolia. Nor is it apparent why he heads to Europe, unless it’s to embrace the romantic spirit after the breakup of his marriage. “I’d gone primal,” he writes from Paris, where he stops long enough to wax poetic and to urinate off the Pont Neuf. At one point, his editor makes an appearance in email form, demanding a due date for the manuscript, just as the reader begins to lose faith in Crane’s narration: where is this story headed?

The answer, as it happens, is the desert, the perfect metaphor for the author’s plight. During one of several flashbacks to his time spent with Tsung Tsai—events that were a part of their journey but were never chronicled in Bones—Crane writes of the Gobi:

A sky the color of pearl hung over a landscape in motion; sand rolling like the endless ocean; wild waves and breaking dunes; the frail scent of ozone in the air. There was no road. No trace of standing water since the last ice age. Nothing. There were no gods. None but the wind.

Returning to his element, the wind, the story picks up speed and finds renewed drive when he touches down in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. With the help of Jumaand, a Mongolian filmmaker he befriends, he sets off in search of a lost temple, which may or may not be the same temple from the first book. Accompanying them is the sensuous Uka, half Crane’s age: she and Jumaand become the author’s latest guides in his search for nomadic wisdom. Through them, he is able to excavate his grief over the loss of his father, while burying a part of himself in the Gobi.

The book leaves much unanswered, not the least of which is a series of unresolved relationships—with Crane’s father, with Tsung Tsai, with his wife and daughter, with Uka. The cliffhanger is another tried and tested formula, and False Lama certainly leaves you dangling—where next, what next, and perhaps even, why? The ending recalls Iyer’s claim that we travel “not in search of answers, but of better questions.” It’s not clear, however, whether Crane has learned this lesson yet. As he sets off in search of “that time before life got complicated,” he fails to appreciate the rich complexity in his life, preferring instead to chase dreams and illusions. Perhaps he should have been more attentive when Tsung Tsai taught inBones of the Master that “emptiness like wind, you cannot catch.”