Translated by Sun Hongshan Edited by Roberta Raine The “Belt and Road Initiative” is China’s national strategy. The historic Silk Road is not only an ancient commercial trade route connecting Asia, Africa and Europe, but also a road between the East and t
On the 24th day of the first lunar month of AD 645, news caused a sensation throughout Chang’an, the capital of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618–907): Eminent monk Xuanzang (ca. AD 602– 664), who 18 years earlier had gone on a pilgrimage to Tianzhu (the Indian subcontinent) to study and bring back Buddhist scriptures, was about to enter the city. To meet him, Emperor Taizong (reign: AD 627– 650) ordered his adviser to lead a group of officials and a large contingent of guards to hold a welcoming
ceremony outside the city. Hearing the news, all the locals swarmed to the city gate to get a look at the eminent monk.
Soon they saw Xuanzang walking slowly towards them, his face kind but weathered. As he dragged his feet, many people couldn’t hold back their tears. What a trek it must have been for a man alone to cover tens of thousands of miles! Instead of dreading the long trip, he had pursued his dream.
At that moment, Xuanzang, though touched, did not shed any tears. He only recalled the day when he first stepped on the Silk Road to head west. That day it had been as crowded, but he had been dauntless and young…
An Odyssey of the Heart
As a boy, Xuanzang was intelligent and diligent, and had an excellent memory and ability to learn new concepts. After becoming a monk, he studied Buddhist scriptures, and to seek knowledge he once visited great Buddhist teachers all over the country. After more than ten years of work, he had become profoundly erudite, but he didn’t feel complacent. At that time the Tang Dynasty bristled with different sects of Buddhism, whose creeds were various; it was difficult to tell what was an authentic doctrine. Worse still, there were far too few Chinese translations of Buddhist scriptures, and some of those existing were not only obscure for their bad style but also bursting with mistakes due to their deviation from the original meaning. To make clear the canons of Buddhism through further exploration of the sects and their theories, as well as to pay respect to the sacred sites of the founder of Buddhism, Shakyamuni, Xuanzang felt that he must go to Tianzhu, the birthplace of Buddhism, to study.
At that time, ancient India—still called Tianzhu in Chinese—included present-day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
On the way between China and India, however, the Himalayan Mountains emerged; due to the lack of transportation more than 1,300 years ago, people who went to India by land had to walk a vast distance: They would set off from Chang’an, pass through presentday Gansu and Xinjiang, go west over the Pamir Plateau, and enter central and western Asia, from where they would reach Punjab in India via a pass in the Hindu Kush Mountains. This was an endless and dangerous journey, for a man could lose his life anytime and anywhere along the way. Xuanzang knew about that, but he was fearless. He began to look for companions and prepare for the journey.
Because the newly-founded Tang Dynasty had yet to be united and its border areas were often raided by the armed Turkic peoples, the Tang government forbade people to go abroad by themselves. His companions therefore dared not go west with him, but Xuanzang did not stagger in his resolution. However, in the autumn of 627, a famine broke out in the Chang’an area, so the Tang government permitted people to go wherever they could find food. Taking advantage of this, Xuanzang quickly took his provisions, sneaked in with those fleeing the famine, left Chang’an and started his long journey alone.
Xuanzang reached Guazhou (presentday Anxi in Gansu) with no trouble. Henceforth, he passed through Yumen Pass and the five outposts set up by the Tang government, and entered the vast Gobi Desert. Having trudged in the desert for several days, he finally left it and reached Yiwu City (present-day Hami in Xinjiang).
Soon after Xuanzang arrived in Yiwu, the king of Gaochang, Qu Wentai, heard the news. As Qu was a devout Buddhist, he was happy at the news that the eminent monk of the great Tang Dynasty had come to the Western Regions (present-day Xinjiang and parts of Central Asia). He immediately sent his men to invite Xuanzang into Gaochang City (presentday Turpan in Xinjiang). Qu Wentai admired Xuanzang so fervently for his knowledge of Buddhism that he earnestly requested him to stay in Gaochang. Xuanzang, however, did not yield to the boundless hospitability of the king. Instead, he said to Qu Wentai, “Going to Tianzhu is my long-cherished aspiration. Even if the mountains fell, the earth split, the seas dried up and the rocks rotted, nothing could stop me.” Xuanzang was so determined that the king of Gaochang was deeply moved and had to give up his request.
On the eve of Xuanzang’s departure, Qu Wentai sent 25 men to escort Xuanzang, and gave him 30 horses as gifts, many necessities and much money for the journey. To facilitate travel for Xuanzang, he also wrote letters to 24 other kings in the Western Regions along the way, asking them to offer help to the eminent monk. Grateful for the gifts and aid from the king of Gaochang, Xuanzang extemporaneously composed a letter entitled Xie gaochangwang qi (“gratitude to the King of Gaochang”), expressing his heartfelt thanks.
Learning in Sacred India
With help from the king of Gaochang and other kings of the Western Regions, Xuanzang passed through 16 countries; then, after surviving storms, avalanches and innumerable hardships, he passed through more than ten countries. Finally, in the autumn of AD 628, he ended his 25,000-kilometre trek and entered Tianzhu.
As soon as he got to India, Xuanzang began his pilgrimage. At that time, India was ruled by king Shiladitya, who paid special attention to developing Sino-indian relations. This was advantageous for Xuanzang, who spent nearly four years meeting teachers and visiting the holy Buddhist sites. He travelled from northern to central India observing customs, climate and geographical features, and calling on consummate masters of Buddhism for teachings. Wherever he went, the local officials,
Buddhists and commoners invariably accorded him a friendly reception.
When Xuanzang arrived in the Kashmir region at the western foot of the Himalayas, the king sent his uncle to meet him on the border. There Xuanzang studied hard for two years. Having studied in India for some time, Xuanzang found that the names for India used by Chinese people at that time, such as Sindhu, Hindu, or Tianzhu, did not indicate the right pronunciation of the word in the Indian language. In his opinion, the Chinese transliteration for India, Yindu, was much better, so he used that, being the first Chinese who had ever used the name. It was only after Xuanzang returned to China that the word Yindu prevailed, and is still used today.
For four years, Xuanzang visited all the kingdoms of India. On his way he interviewed many students, read and copied many Buddhist sutras, toured well-known Buddhist sites, and collected materials on the history, customs and geographical conditions of different regions. At the end of AD 631, he stopped his pilgrimage and arrived at the renowned Nalanda Monastery in Magadha (present-day Bihar).
Nalanda Monastery was the highest Buddhist institution of learning in India, and also the cultural centre of India then. In the monastery there were more than 4,000 monks who were permanent residents, and if one included visiting monks and other Buddhists who came to study, the number was nearly 10,000. The monastery had an enormous collection of books; apart from nearly every Buddhist sutra that existed, there were also books on astronomy, geography, medicine and crafts. In addition, the abbot Shilabhadra was the foremost scholar and authority on Buddhism in India.
On arriving at Nalanda Monastery, Xuanzang received a rousing welcome. Xuanzang expressed his grateful thanks, and after being shown around the monastery, he paid his respects to Shilabhadra. Xuanzang didn’t hesitate to express his willingness to become a student of Shilabhadra, who, nodding amiably, accepted the disciple from China. Shilabhadra pinned fervent hopes on Xuanzang, not only encouraging him to keep on improving in his studies, but also offering hospitality to him the same as he would to a distinguished guest.
For the following five years, Xuanzang read the collected Buddhist scriptures of the monastery, delved into theoretical works of various Buddhist sects and other religions, and at the same time studied the dialects and writings of India.
Xuanzang soon gained fame throughout India for his erudition and great knowledge. However, he did not rest on his laurels. In 636, he bid farewell to Shilabhadra to go on another pilgrimage. In 641, when he was 42 years old, he returned to Nalanda Monastery. For the next several years in India, his studies in Buddhism and his reputation reached new heights.
In AD 643, having studied in India for 15 years, Xuanzang decided it was time to return home. He carried with him the Buddhist sutras and statues that he had collected for years, along with the seeds of exotic flowers and fruits grown in central and southern Asia. Satisfied with what he had accomplished, and with the friendships he made with the Indian people, he set out on his homeward journey.
After Xuanzang left the country through North India, he didn’t pass through Iron Gate Pass as he had done before, but took a shortcut over snowcovered mountains and through the southern part of the Pamir Plateau; he then entered Gansu along the southern part of the Tarim Basin, from where he reached Chang’an. Along the way, when he arrived at Yutian (present-day Hetian in Xinjiang), he wrote a letter to Emperor Taizong explaining how he had gone abroad to
study without a travel permit, and that he had brought back many Buddhist sutras but, having no means to carry them, he had to stay in Yutian and await orders from the emperor. Emperor Taizong ordered the government of Yutian and other cities to send people to escort Xuanzang, and required the local officials at Dunhuang and elsewhere to meet him on the way. He also issued an edict that when Xuanzang arrived at the capital of Chang’an, all the officials and civilians should come to welcome him.
After Xuanzang returned to Chang’an, the Tang government held a glorious welcoming party for him on Zhuque Avenue, and in return he exhibited what he had brought back from India, including Buddhist sutras, statues, canopies, and seeds of exotic flowers and fruits. The people swarmed to Zhuque Avenue to give a tumultuous welcome to the master who had promoted friendship between China and India. A few days later, he was received by Emperor Taizong at the imperial palace in Luoyang. Emperor Taizong listened with great interest as Xuanzang told the emperor what he had witnessed on the way and the situation in India. The emperor interrupted him now and then with questions about the conditions and customs of the Western Regions and the kingdoms of India. Xuanzang answered all these questions fluently. The emperor was so enthralled by his accounts of foreign lands that he offered the Buddhist monk a ministerial post. Xuanzang, however, preferred to translate Buddhist scriptures, so he respectfully declined the imperial offer. He went back to Hongfu Monastery, and with the support of Emperor Taizong he gathered together more than 100 eminent monks and began to translate Buddhist scriptures from Sanskrit into Chinese and write scholarly books.
Xuanzang brought back 657 Buddhist sutras written in Sanskrit. Under his leadership, monks translated laboriously for 19 years. Their efforts saw the completion of the translation of 75 sutras, a total of 1,335 fascicles. During this period, Xuanzang often worked deep into the night. Day and night he continually translated sutras. In addition to doing translation, Xuanzang wrote Datang xiyu ji ( Great Tang Records on the Western Regions) as Emperor Taizong had requested. The book consists of 12 volumes and describes the customs, culture, climate, animals, plants, minerals, history, religion, and geological features of the 110 countries or regions that Xuanzang passed through, as well as another 28 that he had heard about during his journey. Because his descriptions are so vivid, authentic, and elegant in style, the book has become a gem among ancient Chinese books, and provided precious material for later generations to study the history and geographical features of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Central Asia, as well as Sino-indian communications in ancient times. The book has long been translated into foreign languages such as English, French and Japanese and has spread widely, contributing to world culture.
While Xuanzang was introducing Indian culture to China, he also introduced Chinese culture to India. For example, he brought music popular in the Tang Dynasty and the Tao Te Ching written by philosopher Laozi (ca. 571– 471 BC). He also translated Da cheng qixin lun (“awakening of faith in the Mahāyāna) back into Sanskrit, enabling the book—which existed in China but had been lost in India for a long time—to circulate in its original country again. Xuanzang was therefore spoken of highly by Indian scholars. Due to Xuanzang’s activities in India as well as his introduction of the Tang Dynasty, the Indian government and people increased their understanding about and admiration for China. In AD 641, Shiladitya sent a special envoy to visit China. Emperor Taizong was so delighted at this that he immediately dispatched an envoy with his personal letter to India. Henceforth, China and India continued to send envoys back and forth, resulting in greater economic and cultural exchanges and closer personal contacts.
After his return from India, Xuanzang was nostalgic for his Indian teachers and friends, who also had affectionate memories of him. There was a senior monk called Huitian, who, clinging stubbornly to his own opinion, was sharply refuted by Xuanzang in a debate; later on, he increasingly felt that Xuanzang was correct and should be respected. In the summer of AD 652, Huitian—who lived at Mahabodhi Monastery in central India—asked a colleague of his to take some books and other gifts to Xuanzang as mementos. Huitian, together with Zhiguang, a student of Shilabhadra, wrote a letter to Xuanzang that read: “We offer you two rolls of cloth to express how much we miss you. Because the journey is long, we hope you will accept these modest gifts. If there are some books you want, we will copy them and have them brought to you.” Reading the letter, Xuanzang was moved to tears. For two years he lodged the monk who had delivered the letter, and when the monk went back to India, he asked him to take some gifts and a letter in reply to Huitian and Zhiguang. Also included was a list of books that he had lost on his journey back from India, which he asked them to copy and send to China. He also told them about the progress of the translation of Buddhist sutras.
The novel Journey to the West, which tells the mythological tale of a Tang-dynasty monk who goes west to acquire Buddhist sutras, is well-known and much-loved all over China. The Tang monk, the hero in this classic, impresses people because of his adventurous journey. In fact, the prototype of the hero in the novel is the eminent monk Xuanzang. His friendships with Indians and the brotherly affection between them have long captured the imaginations of people and are an enduring symbol of SinoIndian friendship.
Statue of Xuanzang