Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Diamond in the Silk

I just finished a magnificent and exciting book about the 1907 discovery of countless Buddhist manuscripts at the Caves of Thousand Buddhas in China. Among the treasured sutras, sealed in an airtight vault for upwards to eight centuries, rested the oldest printed book ever found, a copy of the Diamond Sutra

Journeys on the Silk Road is a fascinating historical account of how Aurel Stein, a Hungarian archaeologist in the service of the British empire, traversed the deadly climes of Turkestan to arrive at the Caves of Thousand Buddhas where he discovered one of the greatest archaeological finds in history.

"Enclosed by thick rock everywhere, except for the narrow walled-up entrance, and that too, covered up by drift-sand for centuries, the air within the small chapel could have undergone but slight change of temperature. Not in the driest soil could the relics of a ruined site have been so completely protected from injury as they had been here" (122). "Heaped up in layers, but without any order, there appeared...a solid mass of manuscript bundles rising to a height of nearly ten feet" (118). It was a veritable Buddhist El Dorado.

In truly captivating prose, authors Joyce Morgan and Conrad Walters paint a gripping portrait of Stein, a man who resembles a reticent Ahab-esque explorer in the tradition of Marco Polo or the great Chinese Buddhist explorer-monk Xuanzang.

I was enthralled from Silk Road's very first pages. The authors trace Stein's journey from England to Turkestan to China in meticulous detail. I felt like I could hear Stein breathing on nearly every page--that's how much life the authors breathed into him--and so we share in his excitement as he "coaxes" the resident abbot, a Taoist monk, to part with many of the manuscripts. But that's just half the story.

Stein still needs to transport the relics to England, a journey just as challenging as retrieving the sutras. And of course, the scriptures still need to survive the devastating Nazi bombings of World War II. (Don't worry, they do.)

Ordinarily I enjoy strict Buddhist literature, but Journeys on the Silk Road was a pleasant and enjoyable departure for me. The book is an amazing tale of the survival of one of Mahayana Buddhism's most highly valued texts, the Diamond Sutra. I highly recommend you plumb the book's depths.

Thanks to Leyane at FSB Associates for sending me a copy of the book to review.

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