Lately, my life has been slowing down a little bit, and I have time to read books again. So, this week I’ve been reading a fascinating book titled The Silk Road Journey With Xuanzang, which tells the story of a famous Chinese monk named Xuan-zang (玄奘, 602 – 664), pronounced like “Shuan Tsang”. Xuanzang was a young monk who decided to journey to India to see land of the Buddha. To do this, he had to:
- Cross the Taklamakan Desert.
- Journey through the Kingdom of the Western Turks
- Follow the Tian-Shan mountains
- Go over the Oxus River (modern-day Afghanistan)
- Pass through the Himalaya mountains
- Avoid getting robbed, many times.
- Follow the Ganges River for thousands of miles downstream to the city of Benares.
Technically Xuanzang wasn’t the first Chinese monk to accomplish this. Another monk named Faxian (法顯, 337 – 422) was the first of several. His name is pronounced like “Fa Shien”. Anyhow, 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 and then walked all the way back too. The trip took a total of 11 years.
When Faxian came to India, Buddhism was a prosperous religion, but when Xuanzang visited centuries later, it was clearly declining in some areas, and slowly being replaced with Hinduism which we know today. Some Buddhist monasteries he encountered still maintained certain practices but no longer understood why. Other monasteries were still great centers of learning. Some monasteries were completely deserted.
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. I enjoyed watching the 2006 drama with SMAP’s Kattori Shingo as the lead actor.
I’ve only finished about half the book so far, but it’s been a great read. Many of the places in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir, and India that Xuanzang saw and wrote about are very different now. Some of these places are familiar now because of conflicts, wars, etc, but in Xuanzang’s time they were completely different. It’s amazing how much the world has changed.
Also, it’s amazing how difficult the journey was. Xuanzang doesn’t write about himself much, but the Silk Road between China and India had some very dangerous and difficult terrain, and yet he somehow survived all these challenges and reached India, and back!
♫ 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 entire Silk Road.
Can he cross a desert?
Take a look over there.
Hey bro! There goes the Xuanzang-man.
In the chill of the night,
At the Roof of the World,
Like a streak of light,
He crosses a chain bridge!
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!♫
I’ll write more once I finish book. Stay tuned!
1 It just popped into my head after I wrote title. Strange how that works. 🙂