Journey to the West, a well-known Chinese novel, talks about a monk’s journey to India to obtain Buddhist scriptures. The monk and his three disciples, which include the Monkey King, overcame many obstacles and witnessed many miracles.
In real life, a monk named Xuanzang did travel to India to obtain Buddhist scriptures during the Tang Dynasty. His trip took him 19 years in total. Upon Emperor Taizong’s order, his experiences were also recorded in the book The Great Tang Records on the Western Regions.
Xuanzang’s story is documented in numerous history books. His disciples, Huili and Yancong, recorded his experiences in detail based on his dictations. The following are some accounts of the challenges he faced, his righteous belief, and the miracles he experienced.
Thousand-Mile Fine Horse
According to History of the Early Tang Dynasty, Xuanzang’s original name was Chen Yi. He was very intelligent and became a monk at the age of 13. His knowledge and understanding of Buddhist scripture was both broad and deep. He also traveled to discuss understandings of the Buddhist principles with others. Because of this, people referred him as the Thousand-Mile Fine Horse (qian li ma) of the Shakyamuni sect.
The Buddhist scriptures at that time were all translated from Sanskrit. Different versions existed, and there were discrepancies between them. Xuanzang had many questions and points of confusion, but he could not find definitive answers for them. A monk from Sindhu (in ancient India) later told him about the Nalanda monastery in Sindhu, where there was a monk named Sīlabhadra. Sīlabhadra was known for lecturing on the Yogacarabhumi Sastra. If someone could gain deep understandings of the Yogacarabhumi Sastra, many questions about the Buddhist scriptures could be resolved. Hearing these words, Xuanzang made up his mind to travel west to seek the dharma in India.
The laws at that time forbade monks from traveling to foreign lands. Later, because of a famine near the capital during the first year of Zhenguan (a period of the Tang Dynasty), monks were allowed to travel to other regions to beg for food. Xuanzang took advantage of this opportunity and headed west on horseback.
Incidents at the Beacon Towers
At that time, the Tang Dynasty was at war with the Western Turkic Khaganate, and a westbound journey through that area would be highly risky. In fact, an imperial order forbade anyone from traveling to the western regions. Along the way, Xuanzang explained to the officers and generals he encountered why he was traveling west. Moved by his sincerity and determination, they each made an exception and allowed him to continue his journey.
Along the border were beacon towers that were 100 li (about 30 miles) apart. Between them was nothing but desert, which was very difficult to cross. After traveling beyond Yangguan (near Dunhuang, south of Yumenguan or the Jade Gate Pass), Xuanzang needed to pass five beacon towers. These beacon towers were guarded by soldiers at all times and were also the only places with water.
Xuanzang arrived at the first beacon tower and was about to get some water when an arrow shot right past him. Xuanzang called out loudly not to shoot and that he was a monk from Chang’an who was traveling to the Western Paradise to seek the Buddhist teachings. The soldiers stopped and welcomed him inside the tower walls.
Wang Xiang, the officer-in-charge of the beacon tower, also believed in the Buddhist dharma. He asked soldiers to fetch some good water for Xuanzang and told Xuanzang to head directly to the fourth beacon tower. The officer who guarded that beacon tower, Wang Bolong, was his relative, and he would be able to help him.
At the fourth beacon tower, Wang Bolong told Xuanzang, “You cannot continue going forward. The man guarding the fifth tower will definitely detain you. I know him.”
Wang Bolong supplied Xuanzang with a big bag of water. He also told him that the only way to continue was to travel into the desert and find a place named Yemaquan, where there was a water source.
Miracles in the Desert
According to the depiction in the Ci En Zhuan, Xuanzang then entered the desert. There was no sign of life—no birds flying in the sky or wild animals on the ground. Instead, there were traces of camel and horse excrement, along with the bones of dead people. To make matters worse, the hot air conjured mirages of formidable and terrifying ghosts and demons.
Xuanzang ultimately did not find the water source at Yemaquan. Furthermore, while he was taking a sip from the water bag, he accidentally dropped it, and the precious water vanished into the dry sand instantly. Xuanzang knew that without water, continuing his journey meant certain death. He was about to turn back when he remembered a vow that he had made before the trip: “During this journey to the west to seek the Dharma, I will not go back toward the east even one step without obtaining the true Buddhist scriptures.”
Xuanzang thus decided that he would rather die than fail in his mission, and he continued traveling west. After another four days and five nights passed without water, he was suffering extreme thirst and fatigue and was feverish.
The half-conscious Xuanzang continued to recite verses from Buddhist scripture. He also vowed to Bodhisattva Guanyin that, as a disciple of the Buddhist teachings, the goal of his journey was not to obtain fame or material possessions. Rather, he only wanted to bring the true teachings of Mahayana (or Great Vehicle) to the Eastern Land (the regions of the Tang Dynasty). He hoped Bodhisattva Guanyin would strengthen and support him. With that thought, he lost consciousness.
At night, Xuangzang awakened and felt a breeze of cool air. His physical strength had recovered a bit, and he wanted to take a nap in the desert.
He fell asleep and dreamed that a very tall divine being in golden armor was standing in front of him. The being said to him: “What are you sleeping for? Hurry up and go!” He woke up and climbed onto his horse to continue the journey. The horse suddenly lost control of itself and galloped madly. When the horse stopped galloping, it had taken them to a spring. Xuanzang was saved.
Xuanzang arrived at the kingdom of Kipin (also known as Kophene or Kapisa) and found the path was too steep and rugged and there were ferocious animals such as tigers and leopards. With no idea of how to continue, Xuanzang found a hut and decided to meditate inside one of the rooms.
Xuanzang opened the door to the room at dusk and saw an elderly monk sitting on the bed. The monk had wounds and cuts on his face, as well as pus and blood all over his body. Xuanzang did not know where he had come from.
After Xuanzang bowed to greet him, the monk orally imparted to him one volume of Prajnaparamita (also known as the Heart Sutra). He also had Xuanzang recite it through one time. Once they had finished, the land had become flat, the road had widened, and the ferocious animals and demons went into hiding.
Continuing his journey west, Xuanzang passed through Karasahr, Kucha, and reached Tian Shan. The mountains were very high and covered in snow and ice all year round, making them very difficult to climb. Xuanzang climbed a mountain during the day and slept on the ice at night. After that he crossed another snowy mountain that was even more difficult to climb. More than a year after his departure from Chang’an, he arrived in India.
Xuanzang stayed in northern India for a while and then headed to Nalanda in central India. He had to pass through the kingdom of Ayamukha on his way. As Xuanzang traveled by boat along the Ganges River, a group of bandits in more than 10 boats emerged from the woods on both sides of the river and attacked their boat.
Xuanzang’s companions were terrified, and some of them jumped into the river, risking their lives to escape. The bandits surrounded the boat and demanded that everyone open their clothing so they could search for valuables. Xuanzang was a plain monk and had nothing, but the bandits were thrilled to see him.
The bandits believed in an evil sect that required them to kill a male every autumn as a sacrifice. Xuanzang was very handsome and graceful, and the bandits had never seen someone who looked so good. They started making preparations to kill Xuanzang.
The bandits set up an altar along the bank of the Ganges River. Xuanzang was not intimidated. He instead sat down calmly to meditate and entered tranquility. The bandits saw his extraordinary serenity and felt respect for him.
When Xuanzang entered tranquility, his soul left his body. At that time, Xuanzang made a vow: “If this journey to seek the Buddhist scripture fails, I would like to reincarnate in the divine land and continue studying the Buddha Fa there. Upon completion, I wish to reincarnate back into the human world and offer salvation to the bandits who would kill me.”
After making this vow, his soul elevated higher and higher, through many levels of heaven, and he was joyful to meet a Bodhisattva. While his soul was in the divine world, however, many things occurred in the human world.
Dark, strong winds came up instantly from all directions. They were so powerful that large trees were uprooted, and sand and dust swirled everywhere. The river swelled with raging waves, flipping many boats that had been docked along the riverbank.
The bandits panicked, thinking that their actions had incurred heaven’s wrath. One of them said that it was wrong to kill a monk, especially because Xuanzang had come from the Eastern Land of the Tang Dynasty to seek the Buddhist scriptures.
At that moment, Xuanzang came out of tranquility. The bandits threw their weapons aside and knelt before of him. Xuanzang accepted their confession and told them some Buddhist principles. He also suggested they stop doing bad deeds to avoid karmic retribution. The bandits threw all the tools they used for looting into the Ganges and returned the valuables they had taken. These Ganges bandits received the Five Precepts, prostrated to Xuanzang, and left. This is how Xuanzang safely arrived in the holy land of Buddhism.
Arrival at Nalanda
The Nalanda monastery was the most respected Buddhist research center in ancient India at that time, and it was the destination of Xuanzang’s long journey. The venerable Bhante Sīlabhadra, who was over 100, was the most respected and admired great master at Nalanda.
Accompanied by other monks, Xuanzang politely prostrated himself in front of Sīlabhadra. Sīlabhadra greeted him and asked Xuanzang and the other monks to sit.
“Where are you from?” asked Sīlabhadra.
“I am from the Eastern Land of the Tang Dynasty. I come here to learn the Yogacarabhumi Sastra from you so that I can spread Buddhist principles in the Eastern Land,” replied Xuanzang.
Hearing those words, Sīlabhadra shed tears. He told Xuanzang a story. For many years he had suffered from very painful arthritis. Three years earlier, it became so painful that he decided to end his life by fasting to death. The same night he made his decision, he saw a Bodhisattva in his dream, who told him, “I knew you would abandon your body, and I am here to stop you. If you can introduce Yogacarabhumi Sastra to places where it is unavailable, your illness will cease. Three years from now, a monk from China will seek the Buddhist scriptures from you. You must teach him and ask him to spread the scriptures in the Eastern Land. Please be patient.” Interestingly, after Sīlabhadra woke up from the dream, his arthritis was cured.
Sīlabhadra’s dream from three years earlier coincided with Xuanzang’s departure on his journey. Both of them knew this was a divine arrangement for them to complete their missions. From then on, Xuanzang began to learn from Sīlabhadra.
While in Nalanda, Xuanzang also spent two years learning from Jayasena. One night, he had a strange dream that Nalanda was completely deserted. Several water buffaloes were around, but there was no sign of monks. Xuanzang was about to walk upstairs when a golden deity blocked his path. The deity showed him that the sky was completely red and a nearby village was on fire. The deity told him to return to the Tang Dynasty immediately, as the Indian King would meet his demise in 10 years and India would fall into a period of turmoil.
Xuanzang followed the golden deity’s advice and made his return journey to China.
Though Xuanzang’s experiences of seeking the scriptures may lack the action-packed fantasy of the novel Journey to the West, his story does share some commonalities.
Xuanzang, like the Tang monk in Journey to the West, does not have supernormal abilities. Both Xuanzang and the Tang monk rely on their faith in the Buddhist dharma to persevere in their missions.
The Monkey King, on the other hand, has powerful supernormal abilities, but he easily becomes infuriated. The Monkey King made a big mess in heaven because he disliked his assigned job of managing heaven’s horses. His mischievous behavior was caused by his jealousy.
As cultivators of the Buddhist law, both Xuanzang and the Tang monk paid attention to their xinxing, and through relying on their faith in the dharma, they were able to let go of everything in the human world. Facing tests of life and death, they never wavered in their faith. Only with this righteous faith could miracles occur on their journeys to obtain the Buddhist scriptures.