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Xuanzang: A Buddhist Pilgrim on the Silk Road

By Sally Hovey WrigginsBill Porter

Sally Hovey Wriggins
Westview Press: Boulder, Colorado, 1996.
292 pp., $32.50 (cloth).


Xuanzang: A Buddhist Pilgrim on the Silk Road
Sally Hovey Wriggins
Westview Press: Boulder, Colorado, 1996.
292 pp., $32.50 (cloth).

The life of Xuanzang (Huan-tsang) is one of the ancient world’s great tales. In the seventh century, this intrepid Buddhist monk journeyed more than ten thousand miles from China to India and back again over some of the world’s most unforgiving terrain. The journey alone would have been sufficient to assure Xuanzang of membership in the select group of great travelers that would some day include Marco Polo and Columbus. But Xuanzang was much more than a traveler with a distant destination; he was a pilgrim, and it is this aspect of his journey that has elevated his travels to the realm of legend and fable.

As many great monks before him, Xuanzang joined the Buddhist order as a young boy and spent his youth studying scriptures. Quick of mind, and with an uncanny memory, he studied text after text but was never satisfied. He was finally attracted by the idealist philosophy of the Yogacara school, which taught that everything was made of mind—that mind was all there was, but that mind was empty.

While the teachings of other schools depended largely on the sutras of the Buddha, the doctrines of the Yogacara school were based on the shastras, or discourses, of later teachers. Unfortunately, these works were sometimes so complex that only the most sophisticated thinkers could comprehend them. This was especially true of the Yogacara shastras, the most important of which were written in India in the fifth century by two brothers, Asanga and Vasabandhu. Some of their works had already been translated into Chinese by Paramartha (499-569), but these only whet Xuanzang’s appetite for more.

In 629, at the age of twenty-seven, Xuanzang decided to go to India to study these doctrines firsthand. However, his petition to the emperor fell on deaf ears. Relations between China and the kingdoms along the Silk Road that led to India were not good, and the emperor forbid anyone from attempting the journey. But one night Xuanzang dreamt he was trying to climb the fabled Mount Sumeru, which rose in jeweled splendor at the center of the universe. The mountain was so slippery that every time he tried to climb it, he slid back to the bottom. Then suddenly a mighty wind lifted him to the summit, from which he beheld the whole universe stretched out below. Waking from this dream, he resolved to go to India despite the emperor’s ban.

In the course of his travels, Xuanzang nearly died of thirst in the deserts of Central Asia and was attacked by robbers and bandits. Nevertheless he succeeded in reaching the Buddhist Holy Land and visited every Buddhist site of any significance not only in India, but in the surrounding kingdoms of Assam, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Sri Lanka as well. He took part in debates against the most learned men in India, was regaled by the Indian monarch as well as by the kings of Assam and Turfan and the Khan of the Western Turks, and was venerated wherever he went. When he returned to China in 645 C.E., he brought back the greatest single collection of religious scriptures ever to find their way to China. This was especially auspicious as many of these works soon disappeared in India under the onslaught of Islam.

When Xuanzang returned to China, nearly sixteen years after leaving in secret, he was received with the pomp normally reserved for a victorious general. He was anxious to begin translating the texts he had brought back, but this work had to wait. The emperor wanted to know everything he had seen and learned during his travels, and Xuanzang had no choice but to oblige him.

The result was a book entitled Buddhist Records of the Western World, which provided detailed information about the kingdoms Xuanzang had passed through and the religious sites he had visited or heard about along the way. At the same time, he dictated his more personal experiences to a monk named Huili, who had been assigned by the emperor to assist the great traveler in his recollections. The result of this process was a second book, called The Life of Xuanzang.

Together these books provide the main threads from which Sally Wriggins has woven an engaging tapestry of one of the world’s great journeys. In addition to extracting the most important episodes from the multivolume works of Xuanzang and Huili, Wriggins has added the insights of modern art historians and archaeologists as well as her own knowledge gained from having visited most of the sites about which she writes. There are, in addition, several useful maps and dozens of black-and-white and color illustrations which bring to life the people and images conjured up in this well-written account.

The book includes a glossary, and there are copious notes appended at the end, but many of these include information that could have been incorporated into the text, or at least placed in footnotes. Consigning so much important material to the back of the book is not to the reader’s advantage. An index would have helped as well.

In several instances I was also surprised by phrases that betrayed an insensitivity (or were they meant as playfulness?) to religious matters. The Heart Sutra mantra becomes a “magic saying.” The curl between the Buddha’s brows, from which he radiates a light that in turn illuminates the worlds of the ten directions, is called his “beauty-mark” by Wriggins. His long earlobes, which Indians and Chinese recognize as a sign of wisdom, are described as the result of his wearing heavy earrings as a young prince. And the Sambhogakaya, or body in which the Buddha appears to bodhisattvas, is called his “Social Body.” Perhaps her choice of words in such cases was influenced by a desire to make this book accessible to a wider audience. These minor objections notwithstanding, and they are indeed minor, this is a very readable and informed account that will do much to make one of the world’s great pilgrims known far beyond the borders of the lands in which he traveled.

Bill Porter is the author of Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits and the translator (under the name Red Pine) of Guide to Capturing a Plum Blossom (both from Mercury House).

Image: Sally Hovey Wriggins.

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