Journey to the West, "China's most beloved novel of religious quest and picaresque adventure," was published in the 1590s in the waning years of the Ming dynasty. The novel's hero, "a mischievous monkey with human traits ... accompanies the monk-hero on his action-filled travels to India in search of Buddhist scripture." * It is "an extended allegory in which ... pilgrims journeying toward India stands for the individual journeying toward enlightenment." * Indeed there aren't many books in which "go west, young man" would be a call to go to India.
The inspiration for this novel was a journey made by a 7th century CE Chinese man, Xuan Zang (or Hieun Tsang). Though raised in a conservative Confucian family near Chang'an (modern Xi'an), Hieun Tsang followed his brother into a Buddhist monastic life (Buddhism had come to China after the collapse of the Han dynasty in 220 CE). A precocious boy, he mastered his material so well that he was ordained a full monk when only 20. Disenchanted with the quality of Buddhist texts available to him, he decided to go west to India, to the cradle and thriving center of Buddhism itself. After a year-long journey full of peril and adventure, crossing deserts and mountains, meeting robbers and kings, debating Buddhists on the Silk Road and in Afghanistan (where he saw the Bamiyan Buddhas, recently destroyed by the Taliban), he reached what is now Pakistan.
He spent 17 years in India, traveling, visiting places associated with the Buddha's life, learning Sanskrit, and studying with Buddhist masters, most notably at the famous Nalanda University. His erudition seems to have brought him fame and royal patronage in India when in a religious convocation "in Harsha's capital of Kannauj during the first week of the year 643 ... Hieun Tsang allegedly defeated five hundred Brahmins, Jains, and heterodox Buddhists in spirited debate." *
For his return, he gathered hundreds of Sanskrit texts (sutras), loaded them on pack animals, and set off for Xi'an. Many of them got destroyed en route but he still managed to bring back 657 books. It was the time of the Tang dynasty in China, best known for its cultural effulgence akin to the Guptas of India (not the least because Shunya came into being then :). The Tang were Buddhist and, like the Guptas, major patrons of Buddhism.
Upon his return and for the remaining 19 years of his life, Hieun Tsang worked with a team of linguist monks to translate many of the 657 books and wrote a commentary on them. He also published an account of his travels which is now a precious historical record. He founded the Faxiang school of Buddhism whose ideas live on in the Zen variant. When Buddhism died out in India, its texts lost forever, these translations would become the only version of the Indian originals -- like the many Classical and Hellenistic Greek texts we know only via Arabic translations made during the so-called golden age of Islam in Baghdad.
The Tang emperor, Gaozong, supported Hieun Tsang's enterprise. He even built a pagoda -- now called the Big Goose Pagoda -- to house his translations, many still in use and displayed in a small museum on site. Outside the entrance stands an elegant modern statue of the man. It is said that the emperor canceled all audiences for three days when he heard of his death.
Like Chinese food in India, Buddhism altered its flavor in China. Confucianism, above all, stood for hierarchical relations, social order, respect for authority, orthodox family values, practical success, and ancestor worship. Despite their shared agnosticism and focus on this world, the
centrality of the individual spiritual
quest, detachment, and monasticism in Buddhism must have threatened Confucianism. What therefore arose in China was a
And just as Hinduism borrowed from and then pushed out Buddhism in
India, Neo-Confucianism marginalized Buddhism in China only a few centuries after Hieun Tsang, not the least
because it was a "foreign faith" (though it would not disappear as completely as in India).
(Note: Xuan Zang is variously spelled Hsüan Tsang, Hiuen Tsang, Xuanzang, Hiouen Thsang, Hsuan Chwang, Hsien-tsang, etc.)