Goods were not the only things to travel along the Silk Road; it was along this route that Buddhism first arrived in China at some point in the first century AD. Cities on the Silk Road became bastions of the religion (hence their abandonment and desecration following the introduction of Islam after 1000), and from early on, Chinese pilgrims visited India and brought back a varied bag of Buddhist teachings. The most famous was the Tang-dynasty monk Xuanzang, who undertook a seventeen-year pilgrimage from the then capital, Chang’an (Xi’an), to India.

Born in 602, Xuanzang was schooled in Mahayana Buddhism but became confused by its contradictory texts, and in 629 decided to visit India and study Buddhism at its source. He went without official permission, narrowly avoiding arrest in western Gansu; Turpan’s king detained him for a month to hear him preach but eventually provided a large retinue, money and passports for safe passage through other kingdoms. Xuanzang crossed the Tian Shan into modern Kyrgyzstan, where his religious knowledge greatly impressed the Khan of the Western Turks, before he continued, via the great central Asian city of Samarkand, through modern-day Afghanistan, over the Hindu Kush and into India, arriving about a year after he set out.

Xuanzang spent fifteen years in India visiting holy sites, studying Buddhism in its major and esoteric forms, lecturing, and debating with famous teachers. If he hoped to find ultimate clarity he was probably disappointed, as the interpretation of Buddhist lore in India was even more varied than in China. However, he amassed a vast collection of Buddhist statues, relics and texts, and in 644 decided that it was his responsibility to return to China with this trove of knowledge. The journey back via Kashgar took Xuanzang another year, not counting eight months spent at Khotan, waiting for imperial permission to re-enter China, but he arrived at Chang’an in 645 to find tens of thousands of spectators crowding the roads: the emperor became his patron, and he spent the last twenty years of his life translating part of his collection of Buddhist texts.

Xuanzang wrote an autobiography, but highly coloured accounts of his travels also passed into folklore, becoming the subject of plays and the sixteenth-century novel Journey to the West. In it, Xuanzang is depicted as terminally naïve, hopelessly dismayed by the various disasters that beset him. Fortunately, he’s aided by the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Guanyin, who sends him spirits to protect him in his quest: the vague character of Sandy; the greedy and lecherous Pigsy; and Sun Wu Kong, the brilliant Monkey King. A good abridgement in English is Arthur Waley’s Monkey.

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