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The Pilgrim's Progress

Xuan Zang, who lived from AD 602 to 664 was the most famous Buddhist philosopher of the Tang dynasty. His epic journey to India made it possible for some of the most important Buddhist texts to be translated into Chinese, as well as providing the inspiration for the famous Chinese novel Journey to the West and its stories of a brave pilgrim and mythical Monkey King.


Interested in being a Buddhist monk from an early age, Xuan Zang was ordained a priest when he was only 13 years old. He joined a monastery in Chang'an (now Xi'an) that was translating Indian scriptures, but was disappointed by the quality and accuracy of the works available. He decided that an expedition to the home of Buddhism was the best way to resolve problems he found in the Chinese translations. In AD 627 he set off on foot to India. He was only 26 and would not return for 18 years.

The recently established Tang dynasty refused to give him permission to leave, but with the aid of sympathetic officers and Buddhists themselves, he trekked across the Taklamakan desert and reached the oasis city of Turpan. The Great Khan of Western Turks, who controlled an area stretching from modern day Afghanistan to China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, took a liking to the adventurous monk and tried to force him to stay. Xuan Zang refused and threatened a hunger strike and this unswerving devotion to his mission convinced the Khan to release him and he was sent on his way.

His first five years in India were spent learning Sanskrit and studying at the Nalanda Monastery under the many masters there. During the 14th and 15th centuries Nalanda was the largest Buddhist 'university' in the world, attracting Buddhists from as far as Mongolia, Korea and Japan.

For the next six years he travelled around India and consulted erudite Buddhist dharmas in over more than 100 different regions of the subcontinent. He began to give lectures himself and the charisma that had charmed the Great Khan won him large audiences which helped spread a new and intensely abstract school of meditation called Yogacara.

On his return to China, he was given a hero's welcome by the same Tang emperor who had made his outbound journey so difficult years before. The 600 scriptures brought back were translated into Chinese and are still used in many monasteries throughout China.

His legacy in spreading Buddhist knowledge throughout China cannot be understated. Xuan Zang's epic journey became the basis for Wu Cheng'en's Ming dynasty novel. Xuan Zang's journey has been fictionalised and embellished with adventures with his intrepid guide and protector, the playful Monkey King and Zhu Bajie, a happy-go-lucky pig.