The structure of landscape is infinitesimal / Like the structure of music
November 30, 2004 5:20 PM   Subscribe

Here is the story of Hsuan Tsang / A Buddhist monk, he went from Xian to southern India / And back--on horseback, on camel-back, on elephant-back, and on foot. / Ten thousand miles... / Mountains and deserts, / In search of the Truth...
Traversing rivers and deserts, scaling mountains and passing through desolate lands with no traces of human habitation, 7th century Chinese monk Hsuan Tsang made his journey in 627 AD from Changan to India for religious purposes. His detailed travel journal is believed to be among the earliest reliable sources of information about distant countries whose terrain and customs had been known, at that time, in only the sketchiest way. He travelled over land mostly on foot and horseback along the Silk Road, west towards India. The Buddhist scholar’s pilgrimage (627-645 AD) contributed enormously to the cultural flow between East and West Asia. His "Hsi Yu Ki" or "Records of the Western World" is considered the most valuable book source for the study of ancient Indian history and culture. Italian explorer Marco Polo, whose travel writings fired the imagination of Europeans for centuries, was believed to have used Hsuan Tsang’s travelogue as a guide during his travels in the 13th century. More than 1,300 years after Hsuan Tsang’s historical journey, Taiwanese magazine Rhythms Monthly embarked on a project to retrace Hsuan Tsang’s 19-year pilgrimage through a road that, today, belongs to 11 different countries. more inside
posted by matteo (20 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
He returned to Chang’an (Xian) in 645 AD, and was received with great honor by the officials and monks. He appeared before the Emperor a few days later to pay his respects. He had brought back with him the following articles:

1. One hundred and fifteen grains of Buddha relics.

2. Six statues of the Buddha.

3. One hundred and twenty-four Mahayana works or sutras.

4. Other scriptures amounting to six hundred and fifty-seven works, carried by twenty-two horses.

Hsüan Tsang spent the remainder of his life translating the Sanskrit works brought back by him with the aid of a team of scholars. He died in 664 AD at the age of sixty-two, after fulfilling his mission of learning from the wise men in India about Buddhism and bringing back the knowledge to China.

One of Hsuan's translations:

Sutra of the Medicine Buddha (.pdf file)
posted by matteo at 5:25 PM on November 30, 2004

The post's title comes from a Charles Wright poem,

Body and Soul II

The structure of landscape is infinitesimal,
Like the structure of music,
seamless, invisible.
Even the rain has larger sutures.
What holds the landscape together, and what holds music together,
Is faith, it appears--faith of the eye, faith of the ear.
Nothing like that in language,
However, clouds chugging from west to east like blossoms
Blown by the wind.
April, and anything's possible.

Here is the story of Hsuan Tsang.
A Buddhist monk, he went from Xian to southern India
And back--on horseback, on camel-back, on elephant-back, and on
Ten thousand miles it took him, from 29 to 645,
Mountains and deserts,
In search of the Truth,
the heart of the heart of Reality,
The Law that would help him escape it,
And all its attendant and inescapable suffering.
And he found it.

These days, I look at things, not through them,

posted by matteo at 5:28 PM on November 30, 2004

This is fantastic. Thank you, matteo.
posted by homunculus at 5:30 PM on November 30, 2004

considered the most valuable book source for the study of ancient Indian history and culture of the Seventh Century,

of course. my bad.
posted by matteo at 5:31 PM on November 30, 2004

Hsuan-Tsang is also considered a great enlightened master and founder of the Consciousness-Only School of Buddhism in China


Hsuan Tsang and the Afghan Buddhas:

For 15 centuries, before they were dynamited by the Taliban in April 2001 for being "idolatrous," two giant Buddha statues dominated the valley of Bamiyan, high in the Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan. Now all that is left of the two 140-foot statues is empty niches carved into the mountainside and fragments of stone and clay spilling down the hillside. But though the two standing Buddhas have gone forever, an archeological detective story may revive Bamiyan. Teams of Japanese and French archeologists have launched a search for a third, lost Buddha statue that may be buried somewhere in the Bamiyan Valley.
The evidence for the Buddha's existence? The account of Hsuan-tsang, a Chinese monk who traveled to Bamiyan in the seventh century, when the valley was a thriving Silk Road trade hub and an important center of Buddhist worship from which the religion spread to India and China. Hsuan-tsang describes in detail elaborate complexes of cave monasteries, a royal city and the two standing Buddhas—as well as a giant reclining Buddha that he claims is 300 meters long.


and, for, ahem, DragonBall fans:

The Legend
Although Dragon Ball, Dragon Ball Z and Dragon Ball GT all are only a few years old here, when Dragon Ball’s first 13 episodes were aired in syndication in 1995, Dragon Ball Z was already finishing up its anime in Japan. And even though Dragon Ball began in January 1984 in Japan, published in Shonen Jump, the roots of Dragon Ball go even further back than that...about 1400 years back. What was it that inspired Toriyama to create this story we know and love so well? He has said that a trip to Bali, along with his fascination of Hong Kong action films is what convinced him to base Dragon Ball work on a now ancient Chinese legend. This is the origin, of Dragon Ball.

At around 600 AD, a Chinese monk named Hsuan Tsang made a pilgrimage from his home in China, Chang’an, all the way to India. Hsuan’s purpose of undertaking this great task was to collect Buddhist scrolls and return with them to China in order to spread the teachings and to save lost souls.

The Emperor of China had undergone a rather unusual adventure that even took him into the afterlife. During his time in the afterlife he had to pass through a crowd of tortured lost souls. When he returned to life, he decided to carry out a ceremony to save the souls. However, the Bodhisattva Kyuanyin (Kannon in Japanese) came to him and told him that Mahayana Buddhism would not save their souls. Only Theravada Buddhist ceremonies could release them. Since none of these were in China, the Emperor wanted to send a holy priest to retrieve them. He selected Hsuan Tsang for the task and renamed him after that which he sought, The Three Baskets or "Tripitaka". So goes the story, whether you choose to believe the mystic ideas up to you, but Tripitaka did succeed and retrieved the scrolls. Tripitaka became sort of a hero, then was elevated to a Bodhisattva as "Buddha of Precocious Merit". As things like this usually go, people told stories about his journey. They told of Tripitaka’s encounters with monsters, demons and spirits. Eventually a monkey was added to the story. This monkey was an escort of Tripitaka’s on his journey. Wu Cheng’en compiled these stories into a written record, it was named Hsi Yu Chi (She Yu Jee) or quite simply, The Journey to the West.

In this record, there were several more escorts added to Tripitaka and the monkey’s party. There was Chu Pa Chieh, a spirit in the form of a pig, and Sha Monk, a demon with a necklace of skulls. The monkey was named Sun Wukong. Since the Japanese written language shares the original Chinese characters, but only with different pronunciations, in Japanese, Sun Wukong is spoken as Son Gokou.

posted by matteo at 5:38 PM on November 30, 2004

Xuan Zang and the Third Buddha
posted by homunculus at 5:46 PM on November 30, 2004

Why am I thinking of Tripitaka here? Oh, and great, now I've got the theme music going through my head.
posted by wilful at 6:01 PM on November 30, 2004

Oh man, great stuff, matteo. Tang era China is so incredibly fascinating, and beautiful. Think of all the incredible people living and writing then and there: Li Po, Tu Fu, Wang Wei, Han Shan, Chao-Chou, Hui Neng, not too mention the gorgeous brush painting that was being done by people whose names have slipped my mind. (As I type this, I'm trying to recall the name of a painter whose work is on display at the Met. He did a beautiful series based on the writing of Tu Fu and Li Po. If you're in nyc and at all interested, check it out.)

Here's a link to a compilation of 300 Tang poems.
posted by NoamChomskyStoleMyFace at 6:13 PM on November 30, 2004

This book was all about retracing the journey, wasn't it? Great slew of links.
posted by RokkitNite at 6:26 PM on November 30, 2004

best of the web. excellent post.
posted by moonbird at 7:03 PM on November 30, 2004

posted by apocalypse miaow at 7:20 PM on November 30, 2004

Wonderful, wonderful. I love posts like this. An amazing man, an amazing tale, and so many nifty links to devour. Thanks, matteo.
posted by lobakgo at 8:07 PM on November 30, 2004

Fascinating post. I consider myself to be relatively knowledgable about Asian history, and have never heard of this. I love his descriptions of the groups he encounters, particularly the way their language. It's fascinating to imagine the way they may have spoke so long ago, and I would love to compare those languages to the ones spoken in those areas today. Great stuff.
posted by deafmute at 8:36 PM on November 30, 2004

Thanks for the enlightenment. MeFi at it's best!
posted by homodigitalis at 8:37 PM on November 30, 2004

Awesome stuff. I grew up reading bits and pieces of Hsi You Ji as folktales, but had very little idea of its historical basis. Thanks!
posted by casarkos at 8:49 PM on November 30, 2004

wow, beautiful post. I read Hsi Yu Chi for a Chinese lit class last year, and it's always fascinating to see the complex ways in which a narrative connects to its sources, especially in situations where an ancient historical tale is re-woven into the thread.

Another tid-bit for DBZ fans, if such exist here: there is a character Ch'ao Tzu (I think that's right) in the comic whose name can also be read in Japanese (the kun-yomi reading) as gyoza; another instance of Toriyama's bizarre (but funny) obsession with food names.

Japanese is so cool. [/nerdly derail]
posted by clockzero at 8:56 PM on November 30, 2004

phenomenal post.
I've got a book that's a distilled version of Wu Cheng-En's simply called "Monkey". It remains one of my favorites.

Another great set of folklore tales is Heroes of the Marsh. it's a 3 book set, and the writing can be a little tiring, but I found it really enjoyable.
posted by fnord at 9:10 PM on November 30, 2004

Excellent post.
Here is a "comic strip" based on Wu Cheng-en's Journey to the West.
posted by TheIrreverend at 9:35 PM on November 30, 2004

Xie xie!
posted by shoepal at 9:40 PM on November 30, 2004

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