Taoist mythology, Lanna history, mythology, the nature of time and other considered ramblings

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Location: Chiangrai, Chiangrai, Thailand

Author of many self-published books, including several about Thailand and Chiang Rai, Joel Barlow lived in Bangkok 1964-65, attending 6th grade with the International School of Bangkok's only Thai teacher. He first visited ChiangRai in 1988, and moved there in 1998.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Xuan-tsang bridges the China-India gap

San-tsang, or Hsüan-tsang, a.k.a. Xuanzang and Tripitaka (602-664; pronounced Shwan-dzang; name, Chen Hui)- the ‘Tang Tripitaka’ monk named for Buddhist scriptures, who traveled over 15,000 miles through about half of the Buddhist areas, to help clarify Buddhist teachings. His story entered Chinese folk and literary tradition as Xiyouji (Hsi-yu chi, Journey to the West). This foremost Chinese comic novel (by Wu Cheng’en) eventually spawned movies, comic books and TV serials in a wide variety of languages, forms loved by hundreds of millions (at least).
Xuan-tsang (Chen Hui), the youngest of four children in a scholarly family for generations noted for achievements and erudition, eventually became one of the world’s most important translators. His grandfather served as head of Beijing’s Imperial University until the Sui Dynasty collapsed in 618. With an older brother, at age 13 Xuanzang requested to take Buddhist orders and become a monk, after fleeing to Chang’an and then on southward to Chengdu, in Sichuan. The abbot of Kong Hui Monestary, Zeng Shanguo, accepted them due to Zuan-tsang’s precocious knowledge – and by 626 he was studying Sanskrit, and perhaps also Tocharian (likely the language from which that of the Huns, who’d sacked Rome 150 years earlier, and now threatened China, derived).
Monotheism helped unite tribal groups previously separated by language, attitude and cultural happenstance, and the mono-theme that first united people across societal boundaries was Buddhism. It spread from north India, and by the middle of the 3rd century BCE, extended from the Himalayas to Sri Lanka (Buddhist King Asoka then ruled the greater part of the subcontinent), and was entering Central Asia and China. It went rapidly on to Persia, Korea, Japan and Southeast Asia, at a time when the major centers of population and culture were in those places (adherents of a Greco-Roman cultural dominance or ‘supremacy’ notwithstanding). But with this spread came re-interpretations, and confusions like those which bothered Xuanxang.
Mahayana teachings were first promulgated in China during the 2nd century CE by Lokaksema, the first translator of Mahayana sutras into Chinese. An ethnic Yuezhi from Gandahara in Kushan (a huge mountainous area including northern parts of the Indian subcontinent from Benares and what’s now the western tip of Bengal, west to present Pakistan, north to Bactria and Ferghana, then east to Turfan, excluding the high Himalayas), Lokaksema spoke a Tocharian language at a time when Buddhism was actively sponsored by the Kushan Emperor Kanishka (who convened the Fourth Buddhist Council, the proceedings of which oversaw a formal split between Nikaya and Mahayana Buddhism). Around 152CE, Kushan captured territories as far as modern-day Xinjiang, China; subsequently, security offered by the Kushans helped in the spread of Mahayana Buddhism into China. Emperor Kanishka opened the way for missionary activities in China by monks like Lokaksema, who worked at the court of the Han Dynasty between 178 and 189. Many early translations of Mahayana texts are attributed to him.
Faxian (Fa-Hien, Fa-hsien, Fa Xian, 337 – 424 CE), a Chinese Buddhist monk, travelled the opposite way, walking from China to India, visiting sacred Buddhist sites in what are now Xinjiang, Pakistan, Nepal and lastly Sri Lanka - to acquire Buddhist scriptures. This is described in his travelogue, A Record of Buddhist Kingdoms, Being an Account by the Chinese Monk Fa-Xian of his Travels in India and Ceylon in Search of the Buddhist Books of Discipline. After he stayed two years in Ceylon, a storm drove his ship onto an island (perhaps Java); after five months there, Faxian took another ship which was also blown off course - to Laoshan in what is now the Shandong peninsula in northern China. Afterwards, he spent his life translating and editing the scriptures he’d collected.
At about this same time, Kumarajiva, born to a noble Kashmiri Brahmin family with connections to many places between India and China, was also facilitating transmission of Buddhist thought. His mother was from Kucha (an ancient Buddhist kingdom, the largest of the “Thirty-six kingdoms of the Western Regions,” and most populous oasis in the Tarim Basin on a branch of the Silk Road at the northern edge of the Taklamakan Desert). After studying in Kashgar and Turpan, Kumarajiva traveled further to study Mahayana texts, and gained fame. Chinese Emperor Fu Jian, deciding he wanted Kumarajiva in his Qin capital of Chang’an, ordered his general Lu Guang to conquer Kucha, and return with Kumarajiva. But the main army was defeated, so Lu Guang declared his own state, and had Kumarajiva (then around 40 years old) captured. Lu Guang, a non-Buddhist, kept Kumarajiva imprisoned for years, as booty, during which time Kumarajiva became quite familiar with Chinese language.
Emperor Yao Xing overthrew Emperor Fu Jian, and made repeated pleas to warlords of the Lu family to free Kumarajiva (or rather, send him to Chang’an). They wouldn’t, so Yao Xing dispatched armies, defeated the Lu family, and had Kumarajiva brought east to Chang’an (401 CE). Kumarajiva was introduced to Emperor Yao Xing, his court and its Buddhist leaders, hailed as a great master from the Western regions, and given the title of National Teacher. He was now Emperor Yao Xing’s teacher. Many came to learn from him, or through his translations. His translation style was distinctive, with a flowing smoothness resultant from his priority of conveying the meaning as opposed to precise literal correctness. Because of this, his renderings of seminal Mahayana texts are often more popular than later, more literal translations, including those of Xuanzang.
Siddhatta Gotama (Gautama Buddha) may not have been born in southern Nepal, as is claimed, but rather in the southeast Persian area colloquially known as India, home to his warrior caste. Regardless, he produced a vision of the human condition asserting that all people, whatever their language, beliefs, occupations or ethnicity, share the same spiritual state and potential. A distinct historical first, his teachings spread along both land and maritime trade routes, gaining favor with rulers working to unite disparate peoples under their power. Buddhism helped bind people whose previous loyalties were ethnic and linguistic, thus helping strengthen fragile alliances and to spread trade.
But, a millennium after Buddha lived, discrepancies and contradictions in available religious texts troubled Zuangzang. Getting no solution from his masters, he traveled overland to India to study, despite being denied a travel permit. He left by stealth in 629, and traveled along what’s now known as the Silk Road. A king on the southern rim of the Gobi Desert, Qu-wentai, honored Xuanzang and demanded he stay as his teacher. Xuanzang declared with an oath that he would eat nothing until allowed to leave. After three days, overcome with shame and sorrow, Qu-wentai bowed before Xuanzang, releasing “the Master of Law” to “go to the West.” The personal non-violent resistance succeeded so well that Zuanzang left with new clothes, gold, silver, rolls of silk and servants – all he’d need, the king thought, for 20 years.
After traveling by caravan north of the Taklamakan Desert, through Kirghizstan, Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara, the Hindu Kush and Kashmir (with at least a dozen of his company perishing) in 633 he arrived at Nalanda Monastery, a Buddhist centre of learning in northwest India. He studied Buddhist philosophy and Indian thought there, and his reputation as a scholar became so great that a powerful king of North India, Harsha, met and honored him. This greatly facilitated Xuanzang’s return trip to China (643 – 645). When Xuanzang departed, Harsha provided a military escort to carry the books and images, and even his best and biggest elephant - capable of carrying eight men as well as the thousands of gold and silver pieces given him for expenses along the way. Harsha also provided letters to rulers on the homeward route. On the other side of the Pamirs, Xuanzang’s caravan was attacked by robbers in a narrow defile; the elephant fell into the river and drowned.
After 16 years returned to Chang’an, Xuanzang was given a tumultuous welcome home. Cosmopolitan Chang’an, then the world’s largest city. With 2 million inhabitants, it presided over the largest empire the world had yet seen; Sogdians, Turks, Persian, Indians, Arabs, and others of Central Asia crowded into its Great Western Market where many of those foreigners sold exotic goods. A few days after he returned, Xuanzang was received by the Emperor, who, enthralled by his accounts, offered ministerial post. Xuanzang respectfully declined, and spent the remainder of his life translating scriptures (he’d brought from India 657 items packed in 520 cases). He translated only a small portion (about 75, in 1,335 chapters), but these included some of the most important Mahayana scriptures.
Only a few years after his return, 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 the Turkish empires weakened or were destroyed, the Tang emperor Taizong began establishing suzerainty over oases kingdoms of the Taklamakan desert. And in India, only 4 years after his Great Debate before the mighty King Harsha, Harsha died; with his death, the whole of north India descended into chaos and Buddhism declined sharply. Yet there were over 50 diplomatic missions between China and India in the century after Xuanzang’s pilgrimage, as both countries wanted to keep the rising power of Tibet (not yet Buddhist) in check, and foster trade, especially in silk, grains, cane sugar, livestock, iron and glassware. Frequent diplomatic contact continued for over 400 years.
In the years when Xuanzang had just returned to China, and Emperor Taizong was consolidating power in the East, while the first three successors of the Prophet Muhammad overran Syria, Iran, Palestine, Egypt and the Persian empire. India lay at first beyond the wave of 7th century Islamic conquests. Then Sind, the lower half of the Indus valley, was taken by Arab forces for a trade base. Major Islamic advances came three centuries later, after a period of much disorder and famine in northern India.

Best known for translating sacred scriptures of Buddhism from Sanskrit into Chinese and founding the ‘Buddhist Consciousness Only’ school, the volume and diversity of Xuanzang’s translations of the Buddhist sutras and his recounting of travels in Central Asia and India, with their wealth of detailed and precise data, have been of inestimable value to historians and archaeologists. It’s not well known, but Xuanzang also translated the Dao de jing (Tao-te Ching) of Laozi (Lao-tzu) into Sanskrit and sent it to India, in 647 – illustrating that it was the sharing of ideas he was interested in, more than dogma.
The main thesis taught at Xuanzang’s school was that our world is but a representation of the mind. Xuangzang, best known as Tripitaka, the naïve monk protected by the Monkey-god amalgamation of Hanuman and some Taoist legends, as told by Wu Ch’eng-en (~1500 – 1582), novelist and poet of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), and translated by Arthur Waley (Monkey, 1942), remains popular. TV shows of him, particularly offer comedy, adventure and mythology. In at least one of the shows, to eat the meat of the traveling monk is believed to endow immortality, and so the skills of his monkey-god traveling companion are repeatedly challenged. Among Chinese he’s enjoyed most for biting satires of society and bureaucracy, and allegorical illustrations of human striving and perseverance.


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