Mar 03, 2013

In 629, Xuan Zang was about 28 years old. It was three years after the Emperor Tang Zhen Guan ascended to the throne. The Gokturks (Eastern Turks) were constantly attacking at the western borders, therefore the government had closed down the roads to the west, prohibiting everyone except merchants and foreigners from traveling in that direction.

It was at this time of unrest that Xuan Zang and some other monks with the same goal applied for passports (known as 'guo shuo' at the time) to journey to India. The government refused to grant their request. The other monks gave up. Xuan Zang, determined to make the journey, sneaked out of Chang An. Along the way, he was stopped at Liang Zhou as he didn't have a passport. A renown Buddhist abbot helped him to slip out. He rode by night and hid by day, eventually reaching Gua Zhou. However, a government document ordering his capture arrived at the same time. Luckily, the officials there were devout Buddhists and suspended the document, letting him go.


Xuan Zang

Xuan Zang had now successfully evaded capture by the government. However, the real dangers still lay before him. Unlike in the fictional Journey to the West, the threats came not from demons, waiting to kill him and eat his flesh. The dangers the real life Xuan Zang faced were more mundane, but equally life-threatening. And as Xuan Zang left the safety of the Yu Men Guan (Gates of Jade), he stepped right into the first danger - the vast, dry Gobi Desert, with its extreme temperatures, both the scorching heat of the day and the freezing cold of the night deadly to travelers. The extreme temperatures together with the lack of water, food, and shelter made the desert a death trap for travelers of that century. Death lay along the road to the west, literally. As Xuan Zang rode his horse into the desert, a lonely, desolate figure in the shifting sands, he saw human bones, evidently the remains of travelers that, like him, had the courage to take on the challenge of the dangerous Gobi Desert without permission from the government. Unlike him, they had lost. Some of them, Xuan Zang knew, were pilgrims to the west like him.

As if the natural dangers weren't enough, there were five sentry towers in the Gobi Desert. The sentries were ordered to shoot and kill all travelers without a passport. When Xuan Zang sneaked past them, he was almost shot to death by arrows. In his efforts to evade them, he got lost and wandered for days in the Gobi Desert without water or food. He was close to death when his mount, a horse who had often traversed the desert, brought him to an oasis, which saved his life. In the 'Biography of Master Tripitaka of the Great Ci'en Monastery of the Great Tang Dynasty' by his disciples, it is recorded that on the fifth night, when Xuan Zang lay in the sand, unable to go any further, a mysterious man with the height of a giant came to him in his dreams and commanded him to get up and move! After Xuan Zang got to his feet and wandered aimlessly for some distance, his horse got excited and rushed in a certain direction, leading him to an oasis, thus saving his life. The formation of the character Sha Wu Jing (Friar Sand) was modeled after this man of Xuan Zang's dream.


After escaping certain death, Xuan Zang plodded on resolutely to Kumul, an oasis city, and followed the Chu River valley into Central Asia. He arrived at Turfan, known then as Gao Chang (Height of Prosperity) Country. The king of Turfan was a devout Buddhist who sent four novice monks and twenty five other people to journey with him, in addition to giving him letters of introduction and supplies. After they left Turfan, they had to cross a mountain of ice, the Victory Peak, also known as Mount Ling. While traversing the mountain which was covered with glaciers, one third of Xuan Zang's entourage died. The luckier ones suffered quick deaths when they were hit by great chunks of ice, broken off the glaciers by the wind. Others were buried alive by avalanches. Some, while traveling on the dangerous mountain paths, lost their footing and fell to their deaths. Others froze to death. Some fell through cracks in the glaciers, finding their resting places in coffins of ice. Yet Xuan Zang's determination to reach India did not diminish in the least. He continued to cross the Tian Shan (Celestial Mountains), and finally reached what is now known as Kyrgyzstan through the Bedal Pass.

Xuan Zang's journey to the west continued, passing various countries, visiting sites of Buddhism along the way. He arrived at the Nava Vihara (New Monastery), where he acquired the Mahavibhasa text, and studied Theravada Buddhism with the master Prajnakara. However, he was a devout advocate of Mahayana Buddhism, which preached that monks should not merely strive for personal enlightenment, as advocated by the Theravada sect, but instead, should be compassionate and help all beings to achieve salvation. His motive for studying the Theravada scriptures was not because he revered them, instead, he studied them so that he could attack the weaknesses in the Theravada teachings. After leaving, he traveled through other places until finally, he reached India through the Khyber Pass.

It took three years for Xuan Zang to reach India. For the most part, he journeyed alone. It was a miracle that he survived the deserts, the mountains of snow, the desolate plains, the heat, the sandstorms... Getting to India alive and in one piece was a great accomplishment in of itself.


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