As he recounts in his new book Kingdom of Ten Thousand Things, the journey that took Gary Geddes to the ends of the Earth -- from war-torn Kabul in the days before 9/11 to modern Mexico City, from Guatemalan temples to a legendary cairn on Haida Gwaii -- began more than three decades ago in a small Vancouver office.
In 1973, Geddes, a writer, poet, academic and editor, was researching materials for Skookum Wawa, one of the first anthologies of writing about British Columbia, when he encountered Huishen.
The story of the fifth-century Buddhist monk, who is believed to have crossed from China to North America more than 1,000 years before Columbus, was fragmentary and incomplete, but for Geddes it was "a seismic shock."
"Something seemed to click," the 64-year-old Geddes says today, hiding out from the torrential rain next to the fireplace in a Victoria Starbucks. "Imagine sitting on this coast as a kid watching things wash up on the beach, including those beautiful glass fishing-floats all the way from Japan. Each object sets the imagination whirling, conjuring distances, origins. As someone who spent a lot of his spare hours as a child and young person on boats, it did not take much for me to imagine an ocean alive with other peoples."
Thirty years -- or 15 centuries, depending on your perspective -- later, the story of Huishen, and of Geddes's pursuit of him, has been published by Harper Collins Canada. The title refers to a traditional Chinese saying. "The Kingdom of Ten Thousand Things is a Chinese term for life itself," Geddes explains. "That fragile fabric stretched between birth and death." It's an appropriately inclusive title for a book that its bearded, bespectacled author describes as an "eccentric work," a mélange of history, anthropology, cultural studies, memoir, travel account and comparative religion. That's significant weight to put on the shoulders of the rangy poet and a monk seemingly better known in British Columbia than in Afghanistan or China.
What little is known of Huishen is recorded in the Liang Shu (the chronicle of the Chinese Liang dynasty) in fewer than 750 characters. Originating in Kabul, Huishen fled to China to avoid religious persecution. He is reported to have sailed from China in AD 458, returning in 499 to tell the Emperor and the court historian of his travels. No reason is provided for Huishen's journey, although missionary work is a possibility. Given the length of his travels (around 10,000 miles) and some of the recounted details, Huishen is believed to have reached not only British Columbia (there is a legend on Haida Gwaii of an Asian monk who spent more than a year on the islands), but sailed down the coast to Central America.
In the decades following his discovery of Huishen, Geddes led a rich and varied life. A professor of English and creative writing at Concordia University, in Montreal, for more than 20 years, he is the editor of two widely used and highly regarded anthologies of modern poetry, Twentieth Century Poetry and Poetics, and 15 Canadian Poets x 3, and the author of numerous critical books and articles. An award-winning poet, Geddes is the father of three daughters, and has four grandchildren. He left Concordia in 1998 to write full-time, settling on French Beach, an hour's drive from Victoria on the west coast of Vancouver Island. He spent three years as distinguished professor of Canadian culture at Western Washington University, commuting to Bellingham, Wash., aboard his 31-foot sloop The Groasis. In 2001, he published the bestselling "floating memoir" Sailing Home.
He never lost sight of Huishen. "During 25 years of brewing on the subject, I collected enough information and made enough notes to fill several books. But I had to wait until I quit teaching full-time to do the travelling and concentrated writing I thought the subject merited." The monk became something of an obsession for Geddes. " Kingdom of Ten Thousand Things is a book that has been writing me for 30 years," he says. "After I finished writing Sailing Home, I knew the time was right to let Huishen take me travelling."
In the summer of 2001, armed with several notebooks and an advance from his publisher, Geddes left for Asia on the first leg of a journey that would also take him to Mexico and Guatemala. As he traced Huishen's 1,500-year-old path, however, the modern world began to impose itself. The writer was only days out of Afghanistan when he learned of the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington.
"I don't know how I wound up in Kabul two weeks before 9/11, but I'm glad I was not still there a few weeks later. I was certainly conscious of the fact that in looking in Kabul for traces of a Buddhist monk who'd fled religious persecution in that region in the fifth century, I was entering a country where Buddhism was once again under siege, where the giant Buddhas had been trashed by the Taliban months earlier and where other religious and ethnic minorities were in peril from Muslim fundamentalist rulers."
Although he spoke with refugees, aid workers and resident experts in advance of entering Afghanistan, nothing prepared Geddes of what he found in Kabul. "I've never been in a war zone like that before," he says, shaking his head. "There was so much destruction all around me. It was like I imagine walking through London after the Blitz, or Dresden after the bombings. It was unbelievable."
The press of current events changed the nature of both the journey and the resulting book. "With the Taliban at one end, the Zapatistas at the other and 9/11 colouring everything in between, it took on a political dimension I had not anticipated," he says.
The writer is no stranger to political conflict and personal danger. Geddes, "a seasoned, though seldom enthusiastic, traveller" has written of his travels through such hot spots as Palestine, Chile, Nicaragua and China, viewing each country and its conflicts from the perspective of its working class. "Necessity requires that I travel on the cheap, so I don't have a lot of comforts at my disposal when I travel. This keeps me in proximity with ordinary people, not the privileged. This kind of travel, with few if any buffers, can be hard work, but it's also very rewarding and instructive."
Although he was asked by a number of editors in the wake of 9/11 to write on his impressions of Afghanistan under the Taliban, Geddes hesitated. "I was reluctant to write about what I knew or to name people I'd met for fear there would be negative consequences for those involved. The few friends I made in Kabul are now part of the rebuilding process, so they are no longer in danger and are able to keep in touch with me."
The lengthy journey, and the sometimes arduous process of writing The Kingdom of Ten Thousand Things, allowed Geddes to "more or less" put his obsession with Huishen to rest, "although I'm still a sucker for every new book on the subject," he says with a laugh. In retrospect, the primary value of the experience was in the relationships he formed on the road, including Afghan painter Dr. Yousef Asefi (who presented Geddes with a painting of Kabul in flames so new that the paint was still wet) and a group of writers he joined as he traversed the Khyber Pass.
The experience has also given him ample food for thought.
It takes him a long moment to compose himself. "Rewriting or reinventing the past involves, I believe, taking a more inclusive view of human settlement and origins, understanding that curiosity and fear drove our ancestors across vast oceans, precipitous mountain ranges and perilous deserts in search of safer ground where, hopefully, neither ravaging nature nor culture could touch them. These migrations continue today, in increasing ferocity, as vested interests clash, as ethnicities collide, and as nature intrudes." He sighs, and smiles. "Our task is to bring about a profound and dramatic paradigm shift, in which the imagination embraces, at last, the idea of human family."