No matter how difficult the journey ahead may be, Tang Sanzang embarked on his Quest for the Sake of Connecting with Buddhism and benefiting all Sentient Beings

No matter how difficult the journey ahead may be, Tang Sanzang embarked on his Quest for the Sake of Connecting with Buddhism and benefiting all Sentient Beings

Tang Sanzang (Xuanzang) is a well-known figure in China, India and East Asia, thanks to the Ming Dynasty novel "Journey to the West" by Wu Cheng'en! In "Journey to the West," Tang Sanzang is depicted as a person with strong enlightenment, honesty, and cautiousness. On his journey to the West to obtain scriptures, he encounters various demons and monsters, relying on his disciple Sun Wukong to rescue him from danger. However, in reality, Tang Sanzang was a determined and resolute individual who tirelessly sought truth, braving countless dangers to journey to the West (India) for the scriptures. He made a significant contribution to the friendship and cultural exchange between China, India, and Central Asia over 1,400 years ago!


Tang Sanzang, originally named Chen Yi, was born in Luoyang, Henan Province, during the reign of Emperor Wen of the Sui Dynasty. His mother passed away when he was five, and his father passed away when he was ten, leaving him an orphan. He lived in a temple with his brother, where he demonstrated remarkable intelligence and soon gained a deep understanding of Buddhism. He later visited prominent monks in Zhejiang and Chengdu to further his Buddhist studies. However, he became frustrated by the diverse interpretations of Buddhist scriptures among different schools and felt compelled to embark on the great journey to the West.


During the early years of the Tang Dynasty, the political situation was chaotic, with conflicts with the Northern Turkic tribes and internal turmoil caused by warlords like Wang Shichong and Dou Jiande. The economy had not yet recovered, and the government focused on recuperation, relying on Confucian and Daoist principles. Buddhism did not receive much attention from the court, especially since Daoism's founder, Laozi, shared the same surname as the imperial family. This explains why Tang Sanzang's repeated requests to travel abroad were denied.


Traveling abroad was risky at the time, with constant conflicts between the Tang Dynasty and the Northern Turkic tribes. To prevent the locals from being exploited by the Turks, strict border control measures were implemented. Therefore, Tang Sanzang's journey to the West in 627 AD was illegal. Without official documents, Tang Sanzang had to take a risk. During the early years of the Zhenguan era, a severe frost hit Chang'an, making life extremely difficult for its residents. The government had no choice but to open the city and allow people to leave in search of a better life. Seizing this opportunity, Tang Sanzang mingled with the refugees leaving Chang'an secretly and embarked on a historic journey of 50,000 kilometers!


Starting from Chang'an, Tang Sanzang traveled through present-day Gansu and Xinjiang, crossed the Pamir Plateau, passed through Central Asia, and finally reached Punjab in India. This was a perilous journey where death could occur at any moment, yet he remained unwavering in his determination!


Tang Sanzang chose to take the Silk Road to India for several reasons. During that time, the Silk Road was prosperous, with numerous traders traveling back and forth, making it a well-established and relatively safe route. Moreover, for centuries preceding Tang Sanzang, many people had traveled to the Western Regions or India to obtain scriptures. Therefore, traveling through the Western Regions and then south into India was the safest and most reliable route. Additionally, most people in the Western Regions at that time were followers of Buddhism, allowing Tang Sanzang to interact with Buddhists along the way. One notable encounter was with the King of Gaochang, who greatly admired Tang Sanzang and offered him support and companionship for his journey.


The closest route to India at that time was through Tibet or the Yungui Plateau. However, Tibet required crossing the "Roof of the World," which was extremely dangerous for a lone traveler. The southwestern region was considered barbaric and inhospitable, serving as a place of exile for criminals. Tang Sanzang might have faced numerous dangers and language barriers if he chose this route. Therefore, he opted for the western route, passing through the Gobi Desert, Central Asia, dozens of small countries, and eventually arriving in eastern India at the city of Varanasi and the Nalanda Monastery.


We know from history that Faxian of the Jin Dynasty returned to China by sea from India. Therefore, sea travel was another option. However, Tang Sanzang's journey was clandestine, so he did not consider sailing. Moreover, maritime trade along the Silk Road was also extremely hazardous at that time.


Did Tang Sanzang encounter any language difficulties during his journey to the West? In fact, Tang Sanzang was multilingual and had an international background. He must have learned Sanskrit and various languages of the Western Regions to communicate effectively during his journey. Additionally, the Tang Dynasty was powerful, and many foreigners in the Western Regions understood Chinese, making communication relatively easy. Therefore, language barriers were likely not a significant issue for Tang Sanzang during his travels in the Western Regions.


We know that the official language of the Tang Dynasty was similar to modern Cantonese. Reading Tang poetry might give you a sense of this, as reading Tang poetry in Cantonese can be melodious. Even today, the Hakka people maintain many customs and languages from the Tang Dynasty due to migration from the central plains.


Did Tang Sanzang carry a compass with him? How did he navigate? This is an intriguing question! He likely relied on observing the stars, the sunrise, and the sunset to determine directions. These navigation techniques were well-developed at the time. He could also ask locals along the way for directions, similar to how we ask locals for directions when traveling abroad.


How did Tang Sanzang make payments during his journey? Gold might have been a convenient choice, as precious metals were commonly used for trade in different countries. Bartering goods may also have been a feasible method, as evidenced by the gifts presented to him by King Gaochang.


We often hear about the "Great Assembly without Hindrance." What is it? It was an important Buddhist gathering where monks, scholars, and kings from all over India gathered to discuss and debate various topics freely. Tang Sanzang's journey to the West contributed significantly to cultural exchange between China and India. He introduced Chinese culture and knowledge to India while bringing Indian Buddhist scriptures back to China. His translations of Buddhist texts significantly improved the understanding of Buddhism in China.


There are five major contributions of Tang Sanzang:


1. *Establishment of the Consciousness-Only School (Yogachara)*
Tang Xuanzang's journey to the West primarily aimed to understand the fundamental teachings of the "Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana." Upon his return, he established the great Buddhist sect, the Consciousness-Only School (Yogachara), emphasizing the doctrine that all phenomena are only mind-consciousness. This had a profound impact on the development of Buddhism in subsequent generations, spreading even to Japan.

2. Enhancement of Sino-Indian Cultural Exchange

Tang Sanzang served as a cultural ambassador, bringing Chinese knowledge and culture to India and vice versa, bringing Indian Buddhist scriptures back to China. His significance in facilitating cultural exchange between China and India cannot be overstated. For example, he translated Tang Dynasty music, such as the "Qin Wang Po Zhen Music," and the "Laozi," which was then transmitted to India. Additionally, he translated the Indian text "Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana" into Sanskrit and brought it back to India, filling a gap in Indian history.


3. *Pioneering a New Approach to Translating Buddhist Scriptures*
Xuanzang brought back 657 texts, and within nearly twenty years, he supervised fifty-four monks and translated 492 texts comprising 2,713 scrolls. This translation effort was unparalleled in scale. Particularly significant was Xuanzang's creation of a new translation style that significantly improved the quality of translations. While earlier translations were often either too literal or too liberal, Xuanzang advocated for a faithful translation of the original text while also considering the meaning in Chinese, blending literal and liberal translation styles. This revolutionized the understanding of Buddhist texts among the Chinese people.


4. *Compilation of the "Great Tang Records of the Western Regions"*
Compiled based on Xuanzang's oral accounts and edited by his disciples, the "Great Tang Records of the Western Regions" provided detailed descriptions of Xuanzang's travels from Gaochang onwards. It meticulously documented the countries and regions he visited, including their geographical features, climates, products, customs, religions, languages, and scripts. Covering areas such as northwest China, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, this work provided invaluable historical, geographical, ethnographic, religious, and cultural information for the study of ancient history, cross-border communications, and exchanges between China and foreign countries.


5. *Inspiration from Tang Sanzang's Journey*
Tang Sanzang's journey to the West serves as a great inspiration, highlighting the importance of determination, perseverance, and dedication to achieving one's goals. His journey exemplifies the human spirit of overcoming obstacles and pursuing noble endeavors. By setting goals, remaining focused, and persevering through hardships, one can ultimately achieve success. Tang Sanzang's story continues to inspire people to pursue their dreams with unwavering determination and courage.


Tang Sanzang's journey to the West serves as a great inspiration. He showed the importance of setting goals, persevering, and overcoming obstacles to achieve success. Our lives are similar; having goals and direction, and persevering towards them despite challenges, can lead to achievements. Some may ask why he embarked on the journey to the West. He believed it was his destiny. Let us draw inspiration from his story and strive for our goals together!



Mr. Robert T Li graduated from the Economics Department of the University of Hong Kong and has served as the Head of Liability Insurance in the Greater China region for an international insurance company. He has a passion for traditional Chinese culture and enjoys collecting art. He is actively involved in promoting awareness of traditional Chinese culture, music, and art among young people. He can be contacted at litaichai@gmail.com.


Uploaded on 2024.3.16