Mar 03, 2013

The year was 600.

The place was Chen He (Old River) Village of Henan (South of the River).

In northern China, where the climate was cold and dry, Chen Yi was born. No one even suspected at the time that the youngest boy of this respected family would one day grow up to be the famous scholar and pilgrim, Xuan Zang.

The Chen family consisted of a long line of government officials and scholars of Confucianism. Chen Yi was also expected to follow in his ancestors' footsteps. Fortunately for all Buddhists, his father, Chen Hui, was also extremely interested in Buddhism, and studied both of these religions at home. Naturally, this was a major influence on the little Chen Yi, and when his second elder brother became a Buddhist monk at Jing Tu (Holy Land) Monastery, he also went there to practice and study Buddhism. In the same year, when he was merely six, he became a novice monk. Usually, only boys who are at least 7 years old are allowed be ordained as novice monks. However, he passed the rigorous tests, and therefore was ordained into the Buddhist order as an exception, taking on the name of 'Xuan Zang'.

From then on, he studied with his elder brother at Jing Tu Monastery. He studied both Theravada (Lesser Vehicle) and Mahayana (Greater Vehicle) Buddhism, showing a preference for the latter. 'Greater Vehicle' refers to teachings that can 'ferry' all beings towards salvation, as opposed to the 'Lesser Vehicle' teachings that focus on personal awakening or enlightenment.

From an early age, Xuan Zang's extraordinary intelligence stood out. By listening to a lecture on a scripture one single time and studying it by himself another time, he could memorize an entire scripture. This was amazing considering that each scripture consists of millions of words. His fellow monks hailed him as a genius. When his father died in 611, he and his brother continued studying at Jing Tu monastery, until political unrest forced him to flee to the city of Changan (Eternal Peace - now known as Xi An). After that, he went to Chengdu of Sichuan (Four Rivers) for further studying, growing in knowledge and reputation. At age 20, Xuan Zang was fully ordained as a Buddhist monk.

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Xuan Zang

The more Xuan Zang studied, the more he was dissatisfied with the quality of the Buddhist texts available. There were many different interpretations of a single scripture, most contradicting each other. There was no one single standard version of the scriptures. This was because the translations of the Buddhist scriptures of that period were mostly done by foreign monks, from India and elsewhere. Language barriers hindered accurate translation, compounded by the fact that each translator had different understandings of the original scriptures themselves, which were inherently hard to understand. Different branches of Buddhism also complicated the process of interpretation. The followers of each branch had different views of the teachings, which were frequently disputed by members of different sects.

All these led Xuan Zang to a conclusion: In order to gain true understanding, he would have to go to the West to get the original holy scriptures.

As fate would have it, a disciple of Abbot Silabhadra (the president and highest ranking monk of Nalanda University) arrived in Changan by sea. When he knew that Xuan Zang was planning a pilgrimage to India, he told Xuan Zang: To really understand the true meanings of the holy texts, you must go to Nalanda University and study under the Abbot Silabhadra.

Therefore, Xuan Zang fixed his goal as Nalanda University in India - the real life equivalent of the fictional Thundersound Monastery of the Western Heavens in the novel Journey to the West.

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