The Tireless Pilgrim:

an Era of
Buddhist Peace

Journey of 1000 Li

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Xuanzang with a backpack for carrying scrolls

The last watchtower on China's Great Wall near the modern city of Jiayuguan

Dunes of the River of Sand in the Gobi Desert

The Tian Shan Mountains in Western China

The temple at Bodh Gaya in India where the Buddha became enlightened

Big Wild Goose Pagoda,
Xian, China. Built to house Xuanzang's library.

A Monk Sets Out to Find Truth in India

The sun stood at its noon peak in the flawless sky of a day in 627 CE. Dunes rolled out, burning and lifeless but for a tall man and a red horse. The land was the River of Sand where “there is neither bird nor animal nor water nor grazing.” The man was Xuanzang, a Buddhist monk (pronounced SHU-AN ZANG). He had left his monastery in Chang’an, the Chinese capital, to travel to India where Buddhism began.

As a boy, Xuanzang entered a monastery devoted to translating Indian sacred books into Chinese. But as Buddhism had spread “the sounds of the words translated were often mistaken...and the sense of the books was lost.” Xuanzang realized if he wanted to know the true teachings of the Buddha he would have to go to India. That meant walking thousands of miles through open deserts, high mountains and bandit-haunted passes. It also meant sneaking past the Chinese border since the emperor had forbidden foreign travel.

Map of the Silk Road during the T'ang dynasty. Created by R. Bradeen• The Tang emperor forbids travel

In 618 CE the Tang family had gained control of China. For 300 years China had been divided by armies of warlords. Now, the Tang was reunifying China as it had been in Han, during the time of Zhang Qian. But the Tang still had many enemies. To the west, a strong nomadic people called the Turks threatened to invade at any moment. To prevent problems with the Turks, the Tang emperors forbade travel west. Not to be stopped, Xuanzang set off on his journey alone.

And thus, Xuanzang found himself lost in the desert, miles west of the furthest outpost of the Tang empire. The last of his water was gone. He looked back over his shoulder towards the last Tang watchtower he had snuck by the night before. He could be there by morning. They would have water and food and a bed. Xuanzang would be punished for crossing the frontier, but at least he wouldn’t die in this wasteland. But he remembered his oath; he would die facing west rather than return to live in the east. So Xuanzang turned his tired horse to the west and together they stumbled on. After a few miles the red horse veered off and refused to turn back. Soon the horse found a swath of green pasture and a clear pond of fresh water. The two were saved.

• In the Buddhist Kingdoms of Central Asia and India

Xuanzang entered a series of oases that ringed the Tarim Basin. From the north, snow-melted off the high peaks of the Tian Shan. This water supported oasis kingdoms grown wealthy on the Silk Road trade. The Turks kept much of the trade from reaching China, but beyond the Turks’ domain, trade continued handsomely. The constant flow of merchants from India brought Buddhism to these people. Everywhere he went, Xuanzang was asked to preach in temples, marketplaces and before kings’ courts. The Buddhist kings often tried to convince Xuanzang to stay and lead their Buddhist churches. He refused and continued west. The kings sent him on with guides well-supplied with food, water and gifts for the rulers of the next oasis. These peaceful and wealthy Buddhist kings made Xuanzang's travels to India quite easy. There were hardships of terrain, thirst and bandits, but these failed to keep Xuanzang from reaching his goal.

It had taken a year to reach India. Now Xuanzang stopped for months, even years, to study in the monasteries along his path. He also visited the sites of the major events of the Buddha’s life; his birth, his death and his enlightenment.

• Xuanzang's Return to China

After 13 years in India, Xuanzang set off for China with a huge library of Buddhist texts loaded onto horses and an elephant given to him by the king. When he reached the Tang frontier, which he had crossed illegally 16 years before, he wrote to the emperor asking for permission to return. The empire was strong now. The Turks had been beaten back and the other parts of the empire calmed. The emperor could afford to be forgiving now. An imperial escort met Xuanzang, guaranteeing his safety and the return of the texts which he carried. Crowds met Xuanzang at the gates of Chang’an, hoping to see the now famous monk and the treasures he brought from the west.

The emperor was impressed with Xuanzang’s description of his journey. He asked Xuanzang to become a court advisor on the western lands, but the monk refused. Xuanzang only wanted to translate the texts he had brought back. At the request of the emperor, he did record his travels in a book called A Record of the Western Regions.

The emperor took Xuanzang to be his spiritual advisor. On the night before his death, it was Xuanzang that the emperor called to sit beside him. Following the emperor’s death, his son took the throne. This son also had great regard for Xuanzang and he built a tall stone pagoda, the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, to house Xuanzang’s library. The son also undertook expanding the empire westward, bringing the oasis cities and their trade under Chinese control. As a result, Tang China became a great era of trade and cultural exchange. Ideas from all over the world flowed into Chang’an, making the city wealthy and diverse like no other city in the world at that time. Xuanzang’s Record of the Western Regions was a key to this expansion, providing important information about the peoples and lands to the west. Also, Xuanzang's visits made those regions more welcoming to the Chinese who came to protect the trade across the Silk Road from the Turks. The texts which he translated also helped Buddhism expand in this era, becoming the strongest religion in China for next several centuries.

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