Three Journeys to the West

1 Journey to the West

Xuanzang was a seventh century AD Buddhist monk from Szechuan in China who made an epic journey across central Asia to India in search of the true words of the Buddha Gautama. There are three accounts of his travels.

The first journey
Xuanzang lived in interesting times in China, when the Sui Dynasty fell in 618 AD and was replaced by the great T’ang Dynasty. His worldly name was Chen Yi, but when he entered a Buddhist monastery at age 13 in 615 AD he was given the name Xuanzang. He was to make it famous. In about 622 AD Xuanzang completed his training. The world of his time was full of fighting, deprivation and suffering. He had learnt that we all must tread the path of samsara, distracted all the time by illusion, which gives rise to passion, which leads to sorrow, and keeps us nailed to that path for many incarnations. Meditation on this can lead to bodhi, an awareness of reality where one can prepare oneself for enlightenment and liberation, nirvana. The Buddha Gautama had taught ways and beliefs that his disciples had come to regard as a sure guide on the path. In China there were many scrolls which purported to pass on Gautama’s teachings. When he studied these Xuanzang found that many were inaccurate, some actually contradicted one another, some were obviously incomplete. He became determined to find true copies of the texts of Gautama’s teachings. He had a dream, urging him to do this. The quest became his life’s work, and was to lead him on one of the greatest journeys of exploration and discovery ever made in the ancient world, one which inspired many followers of Buddhism for centuries still to come.

Strictly speaking there is no Buddhism. There are beliefs and practices which, if diligently followed, will free the devotee from illusion. The Buddha had lived, it was said, about 400 BC, and his teachings were passed on from guru to disciple for hundreds of years as precept and practice. Only in the early first century AD was anything written down. By Xuanzang’s time there were distinct schools, Theravada in Sri Lanka, Mahayana in India, Chan in China (known in Japan as Zen), which is thought to have added practices from Taoism to the teachings of Buddha. In Tibet there was another distinct school. And on the old Silk Road a version of Buddhism flourished influenced by ancient Greek culture. Although there are many distinct beliefs and characteristics belonging to each of these schools yet ‘Buddhism’ is essentially a realisation of the reality behind the illusion, a realisation which transforms. Even, just a technique that can lead, with discipline and dedication, to that realisation. The division into schools is not the division we are more used to into sects or rival religions but has more to do with rites carried out by the monks to observe their faith.

2 On the silk road

For an individual living in such a remote period we know quite a bit about Xuanzang. We have his own record of his journey, for one thing, called The Great Tang Records on the Western Regions, dictated by Xuanzang to a disciple in 646 AD, a full, detailed and, where it can be checked, extraordinarily accurate account, made by a man with the skills of a Herodotus. Xuanzang was said to be very tall, seven foot according to some accounts, perhaps from the perspective of  stocky, wiry Central Asians over whom he must have towered. He was very strong willed. As it is known his family were all Confucian government officials in the Sui and earlier Dynasties, there might have been objection to Xuanzang becoming a Buddhist monk, but he persuaded his father to agree. He began his journey surreptitiously, unofficially, slipping away from the capital Chang’an at a time when the new T’ang Emperor had forbade travel in his states because of continuing armed conflicts still unsettling the land. Nothing stopped Xuanzang on his quest. For almost 20 years he travelled, through impassable desert, as honoured guest in foreign kingdoms and monasteries, collecting sacred scrolls, translating them, and often being the only source for their preservation. Xuanzang knew several languages, including Sanskrit, and was formidably learned. He was a pious monk, diligent in the observation of his faith. And that must have kept him on track, for he never once gave up.

Between 626 and 645 Xuanzang travelled from Xinjiang to Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, among other countries. So accurate was his account that later travellers, such as Sir Aurel Stein in the early 20th century, used it as a guidebook for their explorations. Xuanzang was not the first monk to have made the journey to India seeking accurate copies of the Buddhist scriptures. Two hundred years earlier Faxian made the journey from Xinjiang to Sri Lanka and back, and told of his journey in a book called A Record of Buddhist Kingdoms. Faxian’s journey was much briefer, and his account less detailed, than Xuanzang’s.

3 The journey of Xuanzang

At Wuwei (Liangzhou), 325 km due west from Shanghai in northern China, in a region of lakes and rivers, the way to central Asia begins. It was the start of the Northern Silk Road in ancient times. The road threads a passage between the Gobi Desert to the north and the mountains of Tibet to the south. In the western desert is the Taklamakan, Arabic for place of abandonment, or the point of no return. It is said that those who go in to the desert never return. Dunes of sand up to 600 ft high, some shifting sand that can drown a traveller as surely as a flood, and winds that can change the landscape unrecognisably overnight. And no water. Xuanzang skirted the Taklamakan to the North, travelling without a compass, losing his water. He finally arrived at the kingdom of Xinjiang. Xinjiang borders Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. It was the source of precious jade for China, and a hotbed of rebellion and faction fighting, eventually becoming dominated by the Mongols. In Xuanzang’s time the T’ang had a precarious hold on the region, securing the Silk Road.

Xuanzang travelled westward till be reached Samarkand, the median city of the Silk Road between Rome and China. Founded in 700 BC, Samarkand was a home to many religions, including Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, Judaism and Nestorian Christianity. When Xuanzang reached it  the city was still a protectorate of China, but fell to the Arabs in 710 AD. Samarkand was described vividly by Marco Polo in the late 13th century. In the 14th century it was to be the capital of the empire of Timur the Lame, Tamburlaine the Great. From Samarkand Xuanzang travelled due South till he reached Nasik near Mumbai, on the Godawari River, one of the homes of the Kumbha Mela, where millions of Hindus gather to bathe in the sacred river. Xuanzang was the first to ever record this ancient festival. He then crossed the continent to Kanchipuram on the Vegavathy River, a centre of both the Hindu and Buddhist religions. Kanchipuram is mentioned in the Mahabharatha. Xuanzang’s description is of a huge city almost 10 km in circumference famous for its love of learning. The city’s monasteries had spread Theravada Buddhism over most of South East Asia. Travelling North, Xuanzang made pilgrimage to points famous in accounts of the Buddha’s life, before retracing his route across the Taklamakan Desert, this time its southern extremities, and then re-entering China.

4 The Silk Route

For most of his journey Xuanzang’s account is the earliest surviving one of the flourishing kingdoms of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and the nations of Central Asia. He recorded religious ceremonies whether Hindu or Buddhist, met with monks and rulers, and was treated with respect and courtesy. He would have been recognised throughout his time in India as a sādhu, a holy man, and treated with veneration by people of all castes. He returned with copies of over 600 documents, which he spent the rest of his life in a monastery translating, refusing honours and awards made available by the T’ang emperor. He is an important figure in the history of Buddhism in China, and even more famous as a traveller, an occupation few in the ancient world engaged in except from necessity. Few saw as much of his world, or reported it so accurately, as Xuanzang. There is a Chinese proverb which says, “the journey of a thousand li begins with a single step” which was ascribed to Laozi and made part of the Tao Te Ching: a reminder of the ground beneath our feet, to be ‘grounded’. The saying brings Xuanzang to mind.

5 Taklamakan desert

The second journey
The famous story of Xuanzang and his great journey became part of Chinese folklore, and many stories were told of his adventures. The events of his journey were embroidered and enlarged upon, and mythical figures were introduced as well as historical ones. Almost a thousand years after Xuanzang’s time a poor scholar who lived in retirement and had failed to find employment in the Civil Service decided to write a book including some of these stories. The writer’s name was Wu Cheng’En, and the book he wrote in 1592 was called Journey to the West, one of the greatest works of prose in Chinese literature.

(And one of the four great novels of the Ming Dynasty: Romance of the Three Kingdoms of 1522 by Luo Guanzhong; Shui Hu Zhuan of 1589, the Water Margin Story by Shi Nai’an;  Journey to the West of 1592 by Wu Cheng’En; Jin Ping Mei, Golden Lotus of 1610 by ‘Lanling Xiaoxiao Sheng’ or the ‘Scoffing Scholar’. Greatest novel of all was Story of the Stone, or Dream of the Red Chamber of 1791 by Cao Xueqin, written in the next dynasty, the Qing. These novels are immensely long, and feature repetition and recurring motifs. They are written in vernacular, not classical, Chinese, and were designed for a popular, not scholarly, audience, and so looked down on as a kind of non-literature. The first two, Three Kingdoms and Water Margin, are historical novels, based on histories of earlier times. Journey to the West is a fantasy adventure featuring gods and demons. And the last two, Golden Lotus and Red Chamber, are among the most subtly complex psychological studies ever written. Adding to its popularity, Golden Lotus is frankly and explicitly erotic. All five were published anonymously, and there is doubt about their authorship, especially as some exist in recensions by a second author).

Journey to the West is an extraordinary book. In Western terms it is reminiscent of a kind of Canterbury Tales pilgrimage, with the absurdist fantasy of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures Underground, the heroic adventure of JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and the rather bitter satire of Hašek’s The Good Soldier Schweik or Heller’s Catch-22 added in. Yet not in any way like any of these books, but something unique in all literature. It is full of verses which translators tell us are nondescript and which they omit. The central characters are Xuanzang himself, and three mythological characters: the god Monkey, the genius who inspires man to great deeds; Sandy, who represents sincerity, dedication and steadfastness on the right way; and Pigsy, the enormously strong animal appetites that can sometimes lead us astray. These last three can be seen as aspects of our human nature. The book, along with all the satire, adventure, and fantastical humour with which it is full, also has a spiritual message for the reader. Arthur Waley in his 1942 version, a translation of the sections devoted to Monkey, calls it “unique in its combination of beauty with absurdity, of profundity with nonsense. Folk-lore, allegory, history, anti-bureaucratic satire and pure poetry” are the elements from which the book is compounded, from a writer with the diverse gifts of an Aristophanes.

6 Xuanzang returned from India. Dunhuang mural, Cave 103. High Tang period (712-765)

Each character has their own story. Monkey is Sun Wukong, a magical monkey who has become a Taoist Immortal, but then rebelled against Heaven. Zhu Bajie, or Pigsy, is a general in Heaven’s army famous for his appetite for food and sex. He has been exiled from Heaven for rape. Sha Wujing or Sandy, an earnest attendant in the ranks of the Queen Mother of Heaven, also exiled for unforgivable clumsiness. They all cluster protectively round Xuanzang, known as the Master of the Scriptures or Tripitaka, as he encounters demons, evil spirits, malicious sorcerers and almost fatal accidents as he searches for the holy word of the Buddha. One adventure, in which the travellers encounter monstrous spiders, is reminiscent of an episode of Lord of the Rings. The travellers finally reach India, collect the scriptures, and return, winning enlightenment through their faith and their trials. It looks as though the book could have gone on indefinitely, as only the outward journey is described at any length.

There are three translations into English, one by Arthur Waley in 1942 of part of the story, less than a quarter, which concentrates on the adventures of the travellers. One by WJF Jenner in 1984, which omits the poems but is otherwise complete. And an even more complete translation by Anthony C Yu in 1984, revised edition 2012.

Part adventure story, part religious allegory, part satire of bureaucracy, Journey to the West repays repeated re-readings, though as for most Chinese and Japanese literature, Western readers will find conventions which they have to get used to before proceeding.

7 Monkey

The third journey
The story of Xuanzang’s epic journey has echoed in Chinese popular culture since his own day, and found an audience too in the West. Many early plays told his story, and some of these were used as source material by Wu Cheng’En, whose book has been hugely popular in China for over 400 years. There have been over 12 film versions, mostly from Hong Kong, one a martial arts film with Jet Li as Monkey, called The Forbidden Kingdom, 2008. There have been nine TV series based on the story, and versions for comic books, anime, manga (including Dragon Ball) and computer games. No less than three musicals have been staged this century in England and America based on the story.

In 1979-1980 a Japanese TV series was translated and broadcast by the BBC in England and Australasia. Called Monkey, it was the earliest attempt to reproduce for TV the strange combination of broad humour and satire, magic, martial arts and religion that was Wu Cheng’En’s novel. The Japanese interpretation and the eccentric English dubbing added to its oddness, yet somehow was very appropriate. It gives the Arthur Waley abridged version of Wu Cheng’En’s book, the hero definitely being Monkey, the trickster god, with all other characters, even Tripitaka, taking second place.  It was a huge hit, especially in Australia. Mixing Jackie Chan style martial arts with Charlie Chaplin slapstick, while presenting Tripitaka as a mouthpiece for the Buddha’s wisdom (and played by a woman), the series became as big a hit, with all generations, as Dr Who. Although it seems an odd production, the series really does reproduce the oddity of Wu Cheng’En’s book quite well.

8 Monkeymagi

Consisting of two 26 episode seasons, the series was filmed in China with Japanese actors, then dubbed into English. It was released in the UK, NZ and Australia but not in the USA. It was a huge hit in Japan, where the soundtrack made it to the top of the pop music charts. Short samples of video from the series can be viewed at this site,, which also has as much information as you could possibly want on the series. The entire two season series is available on DVD. Lovers of retro television will enjoy it, and, as a bonus, get some idea of a very idiosyncratic novel from the Ming Dynasty in China. Regrettably, they will get an inaccurate idea of Xuanzang, a man of immense intrepidity who walked the unknown paths of his world 14 centuries ago.

9 Tripitaka

Xuanzang’s journey is one we all make. Most of us are unlike him in that we don’t fully realise what we are looking for. Our journey is full of forgotten tragedies, wonderful adventures, discoveries, delusions, fantasies, conspiracies and dreams come true. Perhaps we never, as Xuanzang did, reach enlightenment. The quest, though, is one of the constant motifs in both life and literature. Percival and the Holy Grail, Gilgamesh and the Plant of Immortality, Moses and the land of milk and honey, Odysseus searching for Ithica and his Penelope, Alice chasing an absurd rabbit holding a pocket watch down underground, Bilbo Baggins looking for the treasure of Smaug – and Heinrich Schliemann seeking the real city of Homer’s Troy, Sir Richard Burton tracing the source of the Nile, and Xuanzang, seeking the true words of the Buddha. When a man becomes a myth, as Xuanzang has, perhaps he really has found enlightenment.

©2013 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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