Synopses & Reviews
Gretel Ehrlich's path leads her to Sichuan and Yunnan Provinces in western China to climb Emei Shan, one of China's four sacred Buddhist mountains. For Ehrlich, a practicing Buddhist, the climb is both a spiritual pilgrimage and a troubling encounter with a culture reeling from recent political history. Ehrlich visits Buddhist lamas who, until recently, were in hiding from the purges of the Cultural Revolution, and she travels to a panda refuge in the mountains northwest of Chengdu in both cases trying to unravel the ultimate fate of these once-revered symbols. "All roads to paradise first pass through purgatory". In perhaps the most hair-raising car-trip narrative in recent travel literature, Ehrlich writes of her journey from the southwestern city of Kunming over the Burma Road and on to Lijiang an isolated mountain town which does in the end fulfill Ehrlich's hopes for cultural and spiritual revival, and where she learns from an unlikely group of Naxi sacred musicians that "music is medicine" and that profound healing requires profound faith.
"In spare, lyrical prose, Ehrlich inventively recounts her 1995 spiritual trip to China and Tibet. 'I had come to China to pick up the threads of a once flourishing Buddhist culture,' she writes, 'and thought I could find it in their sacred mountains.' First on Ehrlich's itinerary was to climb Emei Shan, one of China's four sacred Buddhist mountains. She interweaves the tale of her climb encounters with nasty monkeys, Frisbee-tossing monks and countless Buddhist temples being renovated by the Chinese government for tourist purposes with concise meditations on the meaning of mountains to Chinese religious culture: 'The Chinese phrase for "going on a pilgrimage" actually means "paying one's respects to the mountain." ' Ehrlich's gentle idealization of the beautiful arts of Chinese dynastic Buddhism is all but blasted away when she witnesses the religious shards left by the Cultural Revolution. Her book is an elegantly kaleidoscopic fusion of travelogue, musings on traditional Chinese Buddhism and appreciation of Chinese landscape paintings of mountains. Like one of the landscape paintings of which she writes, Ehrlich's book is at once delicate, deeply considered and moving." Publishers Weekly
"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." Library Journal
"A beautiful metaphor, spirituality as a physical endeavor...infuses the first part of Questions of Heaven with a momentum that mirrors Ehrlich's own. The sacred and the secular, after all, must coexist for either to have meaning, and Emei Shan, with its teach shops, tourists, and state-sponsored status as the 'most beautiful mountain in the world,' is emblematic of this idea....Although her climb does not lead to enlightenment, Ehrlich manages to find her path in other ways....If Questions of Heaven has a message it may reside in the author's belief in a bond across geography and generations, one transcending space and time." Village Voice