|Xuan Zang 玄奘 (Xuán Zàng) was a young man who sought something beyond his own world. It led him to Buddhism and led him to seek out truth. He had a stubborn streak that wouldn't quit and something in his character made others pave the way for him and revere both his determination and his search for truth.
When he was 13 years-old, Xuanzang decided to become a monk join his older brother at the monastery. The family lived in Luoyang. In 25 AD Luoyang became the capital of the Eastern Han Dynasty and shortly thereafter became the center of Buddhism in China. The first Buddhist temple was founded there in 68 A.D. As the Han Dynasty declined Luoyang was an on-again off-again capital. Finally in 493 A.D. the Northern Wei Dynasty moved its capital from Datong to Luoyang and expressed its devotion to Buddhism by beginning to carve the Longmen Grottoes. The Longmen Grottoes include over 100,000 statues, 30,000 of which are estimated to date to the Northern Wei Dynasty. The Grottoes served as the focus of devotion and continued to be expanded well past the Tang Dynasty.
As a young man Xuanzang had seen people who had traveled from all over China and those who had come from the far West to visit the Grottoes and studied Buddhism. It fired both his devotion and his imagination. He was studying in Luoyang, which was the capital of the Sui Dynasty, when in 618 AD this Sui Dynasty fell and this Tang Dynasty was established. To escape war and riots, the brothers made their way to Chengdu in Sichuan. This was the first of many journeys that Xuanzang would make. It was there that in 622, at the age of 20, Xuanzang was ordained. Shortly thereafter he began his quest for the complete understanding of Buddhism.
Eventually he reached Chang’an, the new capital of the Tang Dynasty to continue his studies. He began to learn Sanskrit to better understand the sutras. He became frustrated with conflicting interpretations, inadequate translations, and incomplete commentaries. Over the centuries and almost random selection of texts had reached China, and although scholars had labored hard to create a corpus of Buddhist teachings, there were gaps and inconsistencies in the work. Xuanzang longed to find the truth, he also had itchy feet. He longed to go to India to sit at the feet of the masters and visit the places where Buddha had walked. Unfortunately, there was trouble in the West and the Tang Emperor Taizong had forbidden travel to the West.
Xuanzang was determined. He disguised himself as a poor merchant and join a caravan heading west. When he reached Gansu Province he was able to slip through the wall and begin its journey to the West in earnest. He traveled along the Tian Mountains to Turfan where the Buddhist king welcomed him. In fact the king became so fond of him that he didn’t want him to leave. Xuanzang finally had to go on a hunger strike to convince the King that he was serious. The king was so impressed by his devotion and determination that he equipped him with horses and goods that would help him on his way.
He made his way across the Taklamakan Desert to Kashgar, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. I’m using the modern names, the map was quite different in those days. It was a dangerous journey. Aside from very unfriendly terrain and weather, he was attacked by robbers and head to skirt areas where war waged. The most amazing thing was that when he would reach a place and begin to meet people how impressed they were all were with his teaching. They showed their appreciation by equipping him for its next stage in the journey.
Xuanzang was no ordinary man. Kings didn’t hand out gold coins, bolts of silk, horses, and military escorts for every monk who came along the trail. He was visiting places where there were hundreds of Buddhist monks. Travelers from China were a dime a dozen. In one place he attended a conclave where hundreds of the most learned Buddhist monks were meeting to debate and discuss. Among the most learned, he not only held his own, but shown.
Eventually he reached India and visited the birthplace of Buddha, the site where Buddha had given his first sermon (Deer Park), and visited and studied in the most famous monasteries. He deepened his knowledge of Sanskrit so that his understanding of the sutras would come through their original tongue. Even within the various countries within India, he found that different interpretations were made of the same sutras through the misunderstanding of the original Sanskrit. Language changes and in different areas pronunciations of words changed, their context changed, and thus their meaning changed. The English word “cute” used to mean bowlegged. He worked with teachers in India to try to understand the original meaning so that his translations into Chinese would be accurate. He collected complete sets of the sutras and other Buddhist works to take back to China.
Last update: March 2010
© Marilyn Shea, 2010