On Characters With Character

Books of the Chinese Silk RoadThe last few weeks have been tough. I’ve been battling a recurrent infection, one that seems to crop up once a year. It’s pretty dreadful. By the time it is in full swing I am lethargic, full of malaise and generally feeling sorry for myself. I told myself, last time it occurred, that I would go to the doctor immediately once the symptoms appeared. Due to America’s horrible health-care system I had to wait two weeks to see a specialist, which was more than enough time for the symptoms to worsen. I walked into the doctor’s office with a significant gait in my left leg. He looked at me and shook his head. “Why didn’t you come earlier,” he asked.

“Had to wait for approval from my HMO. Took a week. You were booked the next week,” I said.

The doctor looked at me kindly and said, “next time call me and I’ll prescribe you something before you come in, okay?”

He’s certainly one of the best doctors I’ve ever interacted with. He has an exceptional bedside manner, listens to everything I tell him, queries me fully, often time spending upwards of thirty minutes with me. For a doctor that’s priceless.

The prescription is for a heavy anti-biotic. The kind where you spend 10 minutes in the sun and it leaves you feeling like you’ve crossed the Taklamakan without water.

As a side note, I’ve read on several occasions that ‘Taklamakan’ means ‘goes in, doesn’t come out,’ in an ancient Chinese, or possible Tokharian dialect. Having flown over the Taklamakan several times and circumambulated its edges, I have to say that I agree.

One May when my father and I were in Dun Huang, the last great oasis before the Taklamakan, I got to thinking about Xuanzang, a 7th century Buddhist monk who sneaked his way past the T’ang guards at the Jade Gate, into the Taklamakan. He then proceeded to cross it, disproving its meaning as a toponym, but no matter. He then crossed the Tien Shan, chilled at a Buddhist monastery in Samarkand–just a few years before the Arabs irrupted into Central Asia, and then did a backwards dogleg into Afghanistan and India where he spent a decade plus collecting Buddhist manuscripts to take back to China.
Dun Huang Dune
Buddhism was not new to China, but it’s safe to say its roots were nothing compared to those which dug deep after Xuanzang’s return to Chang’an, the capital of the T’ang empire. What course might Chinese Buddhism taken were it not for Xuanzang’s efforts at travel, discovery and exploration? And what course might my life have taken had I not been exposed to Chan Buddhism in China in 1999?

This diminutive monk spent his remaining days translating the Buddhist corpus is a spartan monastery cell, eschewing all glory and worldly goods and his good works echo down the centuries to my own time and my own debt of gratitude to him.

Now that’s a character with character. Central Asia is littered with them, from the monstrous Timur–aka Tamerlane, who left a trail of human skulls from Damascus to India–to the poignant Omar Khayyam.

I tend to think about people like Xuanzang and Polo and ibn Battutah when I am feeling sorry for myself. Sometimes it works: I feel better, realizing my pedestrian concerns, minor ailments and the general discontent I feel with my post-modern life do get the better of me.

But sometimes it fails: I want to be Polo, or Rabban Sauma, Wilfred Thesiger, people who lived a full life so far away from home. People who made the world their home, citizens of this great and tragic blue ball spinning off into eternity.

And then I get a text message and the world comes roaring right back at me.

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