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Xuanzang: A Buddhist Pilgrim on the Silk Road I

Post Time:2018-11-02 Views:
Xuanzang, a seventh century Buddhist pilgrim, made a historic pilgrimage to India along the Silk Road, one of the longest and oldest trade routes known to mankind. Along with silk and less glamorous articles of trade, the great trans-Asian roads carried ideas and religions which were to prove far more significant than silk. The gentle creed of Buddhism was to revolutionize art and thought not only in China but in Japan and Korea as well. The Lord Buddha had been born in India in BCE 656. Not until 60 or 70 CE were the first Chinese Buddhist communities reported at Loyang. Centuries later, there were so many schools of Buddhism and so many conflicting texts, Xuanzang was clear that he had to go to the source. In 629 CE he set forth to seek “the sacred traces of the Buddha” and to find the true Buddhist scriptures in the land of its birth 

His journey from 629 to 645 CE, a full 16 years, gives us a unique view of the Silk Road in a time of vast changes throughout Asia. A year after his departure, the Khanate of the Eastern Turks fell, removing China’s greatest threat to its northwest borders. Only a few years after Xuanzang witnessed the grand gathering of the Western Turks near Lake Issik Kul, the Great Khan of the Western Turks was assassinated, bringing about the breakdown of the once powerful Western Turkish empire. As these Turkish empires weakened or were destroyed, the Tang emperor Taizong was able to begin establishing suzerainty over the oases kingdoms of the Taklamakan desert. And in India, only 4 years after his Great Debate before the mighty King Harsha, the king died and with his death, the whole of north India descended into chaos while Buddhism declined ever more sharply after his passing.

Xuanzang traveled an astonishing 10,000 miles over three of the highest mountain ranges in Asia, on both the northern and southern Silk roads and through regions that are now Kyrgizstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan on his way to India and back home to China. In the years when Xuanzang had just returned to China, and the Emperor Taizong was consolidating his power in the East, the first three successors of the Prophet Muhammad had overrun Syria, Iran, Palestine, Egypt and the entire Persian empire. India at first lay beyond the wave of 7th century Islamic conquests. However, Sind, the lower half of the Indus valley, was conquered by Arab forces primarily as a rival trade base. But the major advances didn’t come until three centuries later

According to tradition, before Xuanzang left the capital of the great Tang dynasty, Chang’an (Xian), he had a vision of the holy Mount Sumeru. He beheld an unending horizon, symbol of the countless lands he hoped to see. Because the Tang Emperor had forbidden travel in the dangerous western regions, Xuanzang went forth as a fugitive, hiding by day and traveling by night. When the pilgrim finally reached the Jade Gate, he set out with his horse and a guide to cross the Gashun Gobi desert, a distance of 200 miles. But his journey almost ended before it began, his guide tried to murder him, he lost his way and he dropped his water bag so all the water drained out into the sand. Whether by miracle or by the horse’s instinct for finding water, Xuanzang reached the oasis of Hami, known as Iwu in Tang times, the easternmost of a string of oases at the foot of the Tian Shan mountains. From the summits of these mountains, rivers flow down to the desert dunes until they disappear in the sand. The precious water is transported through underground channels called kariz. With fertile land, and the increasingly prosperous trade of China with the West and the West with China, these oases flourished greatly.
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