Xuanzang’s Journey To The West

Over 1400 years ago, a Chinese traveler crossed the Himalayas to discover Indian Buddhism. His journey changed Asia forever.

From One Piece to Dragon Ball Z, the most famous names in anime can trace their roots to the journey of Xuanzang to India in the seventh century A.D. Travelling in the footsteps of Fa-Hien, Xuanzang sought the truth about Buddhism and decided to find it in the land of its creation.

His travels inspired the 16th-century Chinese novel, Journey to the West (also known as ‘Monkey’), which is the archetypical novel form for much of modern Asian storytelling. Like Xuanzang, its protagonist traveled to India to find enlightenment from the Buddha. However, in Journey to the West, Sun Wukong (a monkey-king with incredible abilities) physically challenges the Buddha as part of his claim to heaven itself.

Xuanzang had no such intentions. He focused his energies on becoming the best Buddhist scholar that ever lived. His legendary journey to India and return to China made him a renowned figure across Asia. Journey to the West is considered the most popular fiction in China. In contemporary China, it’s said that many still confuse Xuanzang with the famous monkey king.

Xuanzang criss-crossed India five times, passing jungles, deserts and mountains in his quest.

Image: Public Domain

As Sally Wiggins recorded, after trying to recreate Xuanzang’s journey, the latter was “not just a world-class trekker, but a disciplined scholar.” Xuanzang lived to tell his many tales and brought back precious texts – the original sayings of the Buddha thought to have been lost in China. He authored the ‘Records of the Western Regions of the Great T’ang Dynasty‘; as much an account of a religious pilgrimage as it was about the times and rulers he encountered.

His Sanskrit translation of the Prajñāpāramitāhṛdayasūtra (Heart Sutra) remains one of the best translations of Sanskrit Buddhist works in history. It’s said that almost all the Chinese Buddhists can recite his translation by heart.

And his observations, like those of travelers like Megasthenes and Marco Polo, give us a rare insight into a bygone era.

Like all storytellers, Xuanzang needed an editor. When he returned and presented his report to the Chinese emperor Tang, he won the respect of a contemporary named Huili – who took Xuanzang’s de-personalized account and turned it into a rich richly-detailed biography.

Xuanzang was a precise narrator. He listed directions, the number of days he walked, the distances between places, their crops, rivers, kings, and customs. He even recorded the conversations he overheard. His directions were so accurate that later archeologists used his account (first translated into English in 1884) to unearth ancient cities of the seventh century.

His journey was at first plagued by insurmountable obstacles -a royal decree by Emperor Taizong banning his proposed journey on the grounds of national security. But Xuanzang experienced a vision (or dream) that strengthened his resolve, and in 629 A.D., he crept out of the city he was in and began his travels.

Xuanzang’s route in India (Image: Alexander Cunningham/ Public Domain)

Xuanzang’s route took him from Chang’an in Northern China, through Liangzhou, then crossing Central Asia through Anxi, Hami and Turfan, passing through Tashkent, moving down through Samarkand, Bamiyan and then Taxila, from whence he began his Indian journey. He traveled to both the Western and Eastern coasts, going as far south as Kanchipuram before returning to China via Tibet. He passed the Flaming Mountains of Turpan – the so-called hottest mountains in China – a pitstop that was also detailed in Journey to the West, where it’s described as a wall of flames that the monk must surpass.

Along the way, he was detained by a king after crossing the Gobi desert. He impressed the king with his knowledge of the scriptures – perhaps too much. The king sought to detain him permanently to head its religious counsel, and in response, Xuanzang went on a hunger strike until the king relented.

When Xuanzang finally arrived at Bodhgaya, he reached the place where the Buddha attained enlightenment. It’s said that here, he was overcome with emotion and wept.

His teacher in India – Silabhadra – is said to have known of Xuanzang’s arrival in advance. As Silabhadra reported to the Chinese traveler, he had been fatally ill a few years ago and wanted to die. But he was visited by a vision of the Bodhisattvas and told to wait until a Chinese traveler’s arrival. Thus, Xuanzang became Silabhadra’s pupil at the Nalanda monastery in modern-day Bihar. He studied Sanskrit and Brahmana philosophy, and the Mahayana school of Buddhism.

Not everything he was taught met with his approval and Xuanzang felt free to disagree – winning the attention of King Harsha, who organized inter-religious assemblies in the capital of Kanauj. There, in 643 A.D., Xuanzang allegedly defeated 500 Brahmins, Jains and heterodox Buddhists in a debate.

Xuanzang’s depiction in Journey to the West (Image: Public Domain)

When he returned to China through Central Asia, he was treated as a national hero. He returned saying he had seen “traces not seen before, heard sacred words not heard before, witnessed spiritual prodigies exceeding those of nature.” He had met with rulers from across the Silk Roads as well as those of India, and the head of India’s most famous monastery. Now, the same emperor who had forbidden his travel gave him complete official sanction and a high position.

Xuanzang had seen enough to be nuanced in his account. He wrote:

I have set forth at length national scenery and ascertained territorial divisions. I have explained the qualities of national customs and climatic characteristics. Moral conduct is not constant and tastes vary; where matters cannot be thoroughly verified one cannot be dogmatic.

You can read Samuel Beal’s translation of Xuanzang’s “Record of the Western Regions” here. The New Yorker published a small poem about the traveler, by Charles Wright:

Here is the story of Hsuan Tsang.

A Buddhist monk, he went from Xian to southern India
And back – on horseback, on camelback, on elephant back and on foot.

Ten thousand miles it took him, from 629 to 645,
Mountains and deserts,
In search of the Truth,
the heart of the heart of Reality,
The Law that would help him escape it,
and all its attendant and inescapable suffering.
And he found it.

Xuanzang’s journey to India is among the most significant travels of an Asian in the continent. It brought two ancient cultures together in a time where borders were less rigid as they are today but far more dangerous. His dissemination of Buddhist and Indian thought spread far across Asia, and countless generations remain in debt to Xuanzang for his observations. He remains a symbol of the good that can come when India and China exchange ideas, not bullets.

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