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book Review 328: The Silk Road Journey with Xuanzang

August 17, 2014 - Harry Eagar
THE SILK ROAD JOURNEY WITH XUANZANG, by Sally Hovey Wriggins. 326 pages, illustrated. Westview paperback, $25

The destruction of the giant Buddhas at Bamiyan got the attention of and outraged the world in 2001. It also brought to some in the West the name of Xuanzang, famous for centuries in the East, who was the first traveler to describe the statues.

The concurrent and continuing destruction of idols in the Pacific by (mostly white) Christian missionaries is unknown to the wide world; and no doubt American Christians would not care if they did know. Some do know, and pay for it to happen.

Therein lies one difference between East and West. Xuanzang was a Buddhist missionary, one of the four most important in spreading Buddhism to China, but he was not about destroying idols. He spent 15 years collecting manuscripts and images of he Buddha in India, and back in China, with imperial favor, was involved in building pagodas, including the Big Wild Goose pagoda in Xian, still standing, to house the 500 horse loads of sacred writings he brought back.

In Sally Hovey Wriggins’s description, Xuanzang is a most attractive character, a man of intellect and of action, bold enough to defy emperors and savvy enough to negotiate with kings. Singleminded, both in his devotion to Buddhism (especially his patron Maitreya) and in his mission to find the best sources of Buddhist thought and to translate them into Chinese.

Though a partisan — he was Mahayana, and beyond that a fervent proselytizer of an Idealist school of philosophy, now extinct — he also brought back and translated other documents, both religious and secular.

His versions of the Heart and Diamond sutras are commonly known in Asia still.

Wriggins calls him the greatest traveler the world has known after ibn Battuta (a spot that might be disputed in favor of, among others, James Cook), but Battuta did not also contribute a mighty intellectual transfer that changed the future of hundreds of millions of people.

To put this in some context, Xuanyang arrived in India just as Muhammad was dying. Buddhism was more than a thousand years old and had been brought to China hundreds of years earlier; but it was in retreat in India, what are now Pakistan and Afghanistan and along the Silk Road.

Xuanzang recorded thousands of empty monasteries; all the kingdoms he visited have long since disappeared.

“The Silk Road Journey” is a bit of an odd book. The framework traces Xuanzang’s 10,000-mile journey from China to India and back, at each important node noticing the Buddhist artwork found there later by (mostly European) investigators, notably Aurel Stein. Important images are reproduced, though in small size and not in color. Along the way Wriggins inserts a small — very small — dose of Buddhist doctrine.

All in all, it makes for a readable small book, a good invitation to western-oriented readers to start familiarizing themselves with the historical personages familiar to Asians.

For Xuanzang in particular, this is made more difficult by the very large numbers of ways to spell his name in the Latin alphabet: a reader of several books who encountered Hwen Thsang, Yuan Chwang, Hieun Tsiang, Hsuan-Tsang and Xuanzang could be forgiven if he did not immediately recognize that they were all the same man. And there are other variants, too.

 
 

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