The Pilgrim Xuanzang

(This article was published in the Shenzhen Daily on Monday, July 13, 2015.)

Statue of Xuanzang with his "backpack" at Xingjiao Temple, Xi'an

At some temples, the observant visitor may notice an unusual figure. A monk in antique clothing is carrying something on his back that seems a cross between a backpack and a wooden shrine cabinet.

This is the ultimate pilgrim, Xuanzang (602-664), who undertook a journey on foot from China to India during the Tang Dynasty.

A bright boy, he became a novice monk at age 13, and fully ordained at 20. Observing problems with the Buddhist scriptures of his day, he decided to go to India to obtain better copies, as had another monk, Faxian, over 200 years before him.

Beginning in 629, his journey over land took 17 years. It is recorded in a classic text, Great Tang Records on the Western Regions. This book was so accurate that, like Faxian's account, it has been used in modern times to relocate ancient sites that would otherwise be lost.

But it has had another, more popular, effect. In the Ming Dynasty, Wu Cheng'en used it as the basis for his best-selling novel, Journey to the West. In this work, Xuanzang is popularly called Tang Seng, or "Tang (Dynasty) Monk." Accompanied by a human-like monkey, pig, and river spirit, he travels the route of his real-life counterpart. But in the novel, the monk faces monsters, demons, supernatural disasters, and all manner of adventures.

The real Xuanzang returned to Chang'an (modern Xi'an), then the capital of China, in 645. He was greeted with great celebrations. He settled down to work on translating the texts (over 600!) he had brought back for the next 19 years, until his death in 664.

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