The Amazing Adventures of Xuanzang

One of the most important figures in Buddhism and East Asian history, arguably, is also one of the least known outside of some cultural circles. I am talking about a famous Chinese monk named Xuan-zang (玄奘, 602 – 664).1 Recently, I found an old, but fascinating book on my shelf I had forgotten about, titled The Silk Road Journey With Xuanzang. This book tells the story of Xuanzang as a young monk who decided to journey to India to see historical land of the Buddha.

Why would he do this? In his own words:

The purpose of my journey is not to obtain personal
offerings. It is because I regretted, in my country,
the Buddhist doctrine was imperfect and the scriptures were
incomplete. Having many doubts, I wish to go and find out
the truth, and so I decided to travel to the West at the
risk of my life in order to seek for the teachings of
which I have not yet heard, so that the Dew of
the Mahayana [Buddhist] sutras would have not only been sprinkled at
Kapilavastu, but the sublime truth may also be known in
the eastern country.

Translation by Li Yung-hsi in The Life of Hsuan Tsang by Huili (Translated). Chinese Buddhist Association, Beijing, 1959

But journeying from China to India can’t be all that hard, right?

In fact, it was extremely difficult and dangerous, and a big reason why getting Buddhism to China was such a big deal in the first place. First, one has to…

A 14th century Japanese painting of Xuanzang journeying to India. Courtesy of the Tokyo National Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
  • Cross the Taklamakan Desert, then
  • Journey through the Kingdom of the Western Turks, hopefully unscathed, then
  • Follow the Tian-Shan mountains for weeks, then
  • Cross over the Oxus River (modern-day Afghanistan), then
  • Pass over a small mountain range that you might have heard of: the Himalaya mountains, meanwhile
  • Avoid getting robbed by bandits,
  • Avoid starvation, and
  • Avoid exposure to the elements (extreme heat and cold), and finally once India
  • Follow the Ganges River for thousands of miles downstream to the city of Benares.

The so-called “silk road” between China and India was not a simple road that people could just traverse, but a series of inter-connected trade routes, and due to the harsh climate and difficult environments, also a very dangerous one. Powerful steppe warrior tribes, not unlike the Scythians, dominated much of these no-mans-lands, and were fickle with whom they protected and supported.

The revered remains of the Buddha’s hut in the Jeta Grove, modern-day Shravasti, myself, CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

While in India, Xuanzang journeyed to many areas. Among other things, he beheld the giant Buddhist statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan (now destroyed), visited the Jeta Grove where the Buddha frequently resided with his followers, and many of the great cities along the Ganges River before residing at Nalanda University for some time.

Xuanzang’s residence in China, photo by Gisling, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Technically Xuanzang wasn’t the first Chinese monk to accomplish this. Another monk named Faxian (法顯, 337 – 422)2 was the first of several. Faxian stayed only in the northern part of India, then took a ship back to China. Xuanzang journeyed all over India, studied at the famous Nalanda University (coincidentally mentioned in the BBC recently) and then walked all the way back too. The trip took a total of 11 years. When Xuanzang returned to China, he was feted by the Emperor and was given a team of translators and scholars to help translate and compile all the texts he brought back. This led to an explosion of information for the Chinese Buddhist community and helped the Yogacara school gain deeper roots in East Asian Buddhism which we still benefit from today. Much of these records were gradually lost in India, but preserved in China thanks to people like Xuanzang.

One other historical note here, when Faxian came to India, Buddhism was still a prosperous religion, but when Xuanzang visited centuries later, it was clearly declining in some areas, and slowly being replaced with the Hindu religion we know today.3 Some Buddhist monasteries he encountered still maintained certain practices but no longer understood why. Other monasteries still survived as great centers of learning, with others were completely deserted. It’s not surprising then, centuries later, when Turko-Afghan warriors invaded India and established a Sultanate, Buddhist institutions were easily swept aside.

One thing that’s often overlooked is the language barrier. Chinese language and Sanskrit (as well as spoken Prakrits) are miles apart. They have no common linguistic ancestry. The effort to translate old Buddhist texts from Sanskrit to Chinese during the Tang Dynasty had been a major undertaking and required multiple efforts to properly refine the translation. But Chinese Buddhist monks who could actually speak Sanskrit or any Indian language would have been very rare indeed. Xuanzang must have relied on translators, or somehow learned to speak it well enough to survive so long in India. That invaluable ability to speak it fluently would have been very helpful on his return trip when he translated the volumes of texts he brought back to China.

Also, keep in mind that translating concepts such as the phenomena of the mind is much, much harder than translating, say, a shopping list. This was an extremely challenging undertaking.

Xuanzang’s adventure became the inspiration for a 16th-century Chinese novel called “Journey to the West” (西遊記). This Chinese novel was hugely popular, and you can often see movies and dramas about it both in China and Japan. In Japan, it’s called saiyūki. When my wife and I were first married, we enjoyed watching the 2006 drama with SMAP’s Kattori Shingo as the lead actor. We also have an kid’s manga version Japanese for our son. Even the image of Goku from Dragon Ball takes some influences from Journey to the West (a simian-like being riding a cloud, for example).

The book is a fantastic overview of many places along the Silk Road, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir, and India that Xuanzang saw and wrote about, and are only dimly understood by Westerners. In many places where the US has been involved in overseas conflicts, it’s simply amazing how much history has been there, and how many different feet have tread upon that ground, including monks like Xuanzang and earlier by the Bactrian Greeks of Alexandar the Great.

In any case, I’ve always been a big fan of Xuanzang, and I feel he deserves a lot more recognition in history. So, to help readers remember who he was, I made a song about him based on the original Spiderman theme song ( original lyrics):

♫ Xuanzang-man, Xuanzang-man.

Does whatever a Buddhist can

Goes around, anywhere,

Catches sutras just like flies.

Look out!

Here comes the Xuanzang-man.

Is he tough?

Listen bud— He walked the whole way there.

Can he cross a de-sert?

Take a look over there.

Hey bro!

There goes the Xuanzang-man.

In the chill of the night,

At the Roof of the World,

He crossed a ravine,

Using only a chain bridge!

Xuanzang-man, Xuanzang-man,

Friendly neighborhood Xuanzang-man.

Wealth and fame, he’s ignored— Wisdom is his reward.

To him, Life is a great illusion—

Wherever there’s a stupa,

You’ll find the Xuanzang-man!♫

Try it out a few times. A few parts of the wording are a bit awkward, so I probably need to work on it some more.

1 Pronounced like “Shwan Tsahng”. In Japanese, the same name is pronounced as Genjō.

2 Pronounced like “Fa Shien”.

3 A common misconception is that Buddhism arose from Hinduism, but this is inaccurate. Buddhism and Hinduism both have a common cultural ancestor in the ancient religion of the Vedas. Buddhism ultimately rejected the deistic religion of the Vedas and its veneration of the early gods, relegating them to secondary status, but Hinduism embraced it and gave it much more philosophical weight. Hinduism as we know it simply didn’t exist, and the religion of the Vedas was more similar to, say, ancient Greek religion around the Olympian gods.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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