Xuanzang, the traveller of the Silk Road
On the ancient Silk Road, not only goods but also ideas, religions and scientific knowledge flowed. Buddhism was also brought to China by Indian and Central Asian missionaries, while in time Chinese monks also made pilgrimages to the ancient source of religion.
Xuanzang, the traveller of the Silk Road
Ancient Knowledge in a Modern World

Xuanzang, the traveller of the Silk Road

The Giant Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi'an (Photo: iStock)
Gergely Salát 05/01/2024 20:09

On the ancient Silk Road, not only goods but also ideas, religions and scientific knowledge flowed. Buddhism was also brought to China by Indian and Central Asian missionaries, while in time Chinese monks also made pilgrimages to the ancient source of religion.

Buddhism appeared in China earliest in the 1st century and really began to spread from the 3rd century onwards. The religion and its holy books were brought to the country by different monks from different places, and several centres and schools of Buddhism developed, often translating and interpreting the same texts in different ways. The translations were also of varying quality, often rendering the original Sanskrit concepts in a Chinese term that was thought to be close to the original, leading to misunderstanding of the texts. However, certain important texts that were known to exist did not reach China.

With the spread of Buddhism, there was a growing demand among Chinese adherents of the religion to eliminate mistranslations and misinterpretations, and to fill in the gaps. This, however, was only possible by obtaining original texts from India and retranslating them. To this end, a Chinese monk named Faxian (337-422) made a pilgrimage to India as early as the 4th-5th centuries, returning with a large number of sutras and writing a voluminous account of his journey entitled Notes on the Buddhist Lands. Even more famous than him, however, was Xuanzang (602-664), considered one of the greatest Chinese travellers of all time.

Breaking the law

Xuanzang was born into a famous family of scholars near present-day Kaifeng and showed a keen interest in Buddhist teachings from an early age. He followed his brother into a monastery, becoming a novice at the age of thirteen and a monk at twenty. He first travelled around China researching Buddhist texts, and then settled in the then capital Chang'an, the predecessor of present-day Xi'an. Confronted with the contradictions and inadequacies of Chinese translations of Buddhist scriptures, he decided to follow Faxian's lead and travel to the religion's original source.

At the time, the Tang dynasty, which ruled China, forbade travel abroad, but Xuanzang broke the law in 629 and travelled along the overland Silk Road through Central Asia and then to India. He visited many kingdoms in the subcontinent, studied and copied scriptures in monasteries, met kings and studied at Nalanda, the most important Buddhist 'university' of the time. He travelled for more than a decade and a half, finally arriving back in Chang'an in 645, also on the Silk Road.

He did not come empty-handed: the more than 600 books, seven Buddha statues and a hundred or so other relics he had collected were brought to the capital by twenty packhorses. The sutras and artefacts were deposited in the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, which still stands today.

One hundred and twenty thousand inscriptions

Emperor Taizong of the Tang dynasty, although at the time Xuanzang had violated his decree by travelling abroad, received the monk with great pomp and offered him various offices. However, Xuanzang refused them and, retiring to a monastery, spent all his time translating the books he had brought until his death in 664.

Fortunately, he did enough to write the story of his journey at the emperor's request. The resulting book, The Great Tang Records on the Western Regions, is an invaluable historical source on the history of Central Asia and India in the period, and has been used to erase many of the white spots in the history of these areas.

Xuanzang's translation work was of a very high standard. With the Emperor's support, he set up a whole translation bureau, with staff and students from all over East Asia, to translate Sanskrit texts into Chinese with the utmost accuracy.

Surrounded by legends

He is credited with the translation of 1,330 volumes of texts, including the Heart Sutra, which is central to all East Asian Buddhist schools. He himself was most interested in the Yogacharya school of Buddhism, translating its basic texts and writing a treatise explaining them.

Although Xuanzang is regarded as the founder of East Asian Yogacharya, and his most gifted disciple Kuiji as the first patriarch of the school, his translations have had a tremendous influence on the further development of all other branches of Buddhism in China, Korea and Japan. It is no wonder that the travelling monk is the subject of legends throughout East Asia, and is regarded throughout the region as a great figure of intercultural dialogue and mediation, one of the most important travellers of the Silk Road.

The author is a senior researcher at the Hungarian Institute of Foreign Affairs and head of the Department of Chinese Studies at the Pázmány Péter Catholic University

From Monkey King to Son Goku

The legends surrounding Xuanzang gave birth to the 16th-century novel The Western Journey or the Story of the Monkey King. In the novel, Xuanzang is protected on his journey to India by three attendants with magical powers, including Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, who is as brazen and unrepentant as he is good at fighting.

He is the basis for the character of Japan's Son Goku, the protagonist of Dragon Ball, one of the most successful manga and anime series of all time. Xuanzang appears in many other (pop)cultural works, including a 2016 big-budget film in a Sino-Indian co-production, Xuanzang, which was nominated for an Oscar in China but ultimately did not make it to the nominations.

Source: Wikipedia
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