Xuánzàng, pilgrim of the impossible

- through Sophie Solere

Published on

In 629, the monk Xuánzàng left China clandestinely to go to India. Seventeen years later, he returned triumphantly to his homeland to revive Buddhism there. Portrait of a traveler transported by faith.

At that time, the specters of war and famine still loomed over China. A new dynasty, that of the Tang, then embodied by the powerful Emperor Taizong (in power from 626 to 649), brought a new order to reign after several centuries of chaos. In this uncertain context, a young monk sends a request to the imperial court: he wants a pass to go west, to distant India, the land of origin of Buddhism, in order to check whether the holy scriptures have been well translated, and if by chance, texts still ignored in China would remain to be discovered there.

Born shortly after 600 CE in Henan, Xuánzàng (玄奘) took his Mahayana novice vows at the age of thirteen. Ordained as a monk at the age of twenty, already a renowned scholar, he traveled through the China, eager for the texts of Buddhism, often disappointed, so much the available translations seem to him deficient. It must be said that the Buddhist concepts, restored by the sinograms, then confuse the Chinese. Xuánzàng then becomes a master in Sanskrit in order to penetrate the meaning of the scriptures. Like other traveling monks before him, the most famous being Faxian (1), he convinced himself that he had to go to India, the land of origin of Buddhism, to revitalize the faith of his compatriots.

Crossing 110 countries

For lack of imperial agreement, he clandestinely left his homeland and began a seventeen-year journey. He will cross one hundred and ten countries, which testifies as much to the political fragmentation which reigned then as to the courage which carried him through these unknown immensities. Let's accompany his steps, which take him through the Gobi desert, where he nearly perishes from thirst, before entering Turkish then Persian lands, skirting the Himalayas from the north, Tashkent, Samarkand, the great cities of the Silk Roads , where he finds that the once flourishing Buddhism has disappeared. It slants towards the south, passes through Bactra (today, Balkh), then Bamiyan, towns located in present-day Afghanistan, then rich in monasteries… It crosses Pakistan and enters India in 634.

Fascinated by the metaphysical school of Yogâcâra (Consciousness alone), he traveled for ten years during the immense sub-continent, frequently debating with the monks of the Theravadin school as well as with Brahmans and Jain scholars. He visited the places where the Buddha lived, spoke with the greatest kings of the time, studied in the most prestigious monasteries, such as Nâlandâ, then the largest Buddhist university in the world.

It will take a convoy and an elephant to bring back the 657 books he has collected in the opposite direction, cross the Indus River (which takes part of his work), the Hindu Kush and Pamir passes (where the elephant), the great oases to circumvent the Himalayas again from the north, Kashgar, Khotan, Dunhuang...

Like other traveling monks before him, Xuánzàng convinced himself that he had to go to India, the land of origin of Buddhism, to revitalize the faith of his compatriots.

His fame precedes him. As soon as he crossed the Chinese border, in 645, he headed for the capital Chang'an (now Xi'an), raising the cheers of the crowds. He was received by the emperor in person, preoccupied with gathering as much geopolitical information as possible on western countries. Tang Taizong is an inflexible politician, quick to suppress Buddhism and Taoism as soon as monks become too influential. Xuánzàng gives him his information, then cautiously declines a position as adviser to the conqueror. The emperor authorized him to retire and added the services of a large translation team.

That Xuánzàng survived the journey west impresses, and makes us forget his most meritorious task: managing a team that translated continuously, for several years, a scroll of scriptures from Sanskrit to Chinese every two days, including the Maha Prajnaramita sutra, a fundamental opus with 600 chapters! This literary treasure made it possible to save certain works when the original sankrits disappeared, during the advance of Islam towards India. He also left a detailed account of his journey, the Memoir on western lands, an incomparable source of historical information – he had memorized the distances precisely, to the rhythm of the prayers he chanted as he walked. The theoretical considerations that he acclimatized in China, on perception, consciousness or karma, influenced in a definitive way the reflections of Chinese thinkers. Xuánzàng died in 664, leaving his disciples with the feeling of having rubbed shoulders with a bodhisattva.

photo of author

Sophie Solere

Sophie Solère is an economic and social journalist who has been interested for years in the environment and interdependence. She works for Buddhist News, a media platform dedicated to Buddhist spirituality and wisdom. By practicing yoga and meditative dance, Sophie discovered the power of spiritual journeys, which offer so many paths to (re)find yourself. She is dedicated to sharing inspiring stories and valuable advice on spiritual practice and the environment with Buddhist News readers.

Leave comments