The biopic ‘Xuan Zang’ (大唐玄奘), which focuses on the life and times of Tripitaka Master Venerable Xuan Zang (602-664), reminds us of the tremendous challenges that ancient Chinese pilgrim monastics underwent, so as to retrieve the precious Buddhadharma in terms of sutras and treatises from India. Especially after learning from all available local sources of Buddhist teachings, Master Xuan Zang clearly saw many of their problems. Written accounts had mistranslations and discrepancies, leading to misinterpretations, which inspired him to make the perilous pilgrimage through the treacherous western regions. His mission was to access, learn and return with the true sutras.
Unlike the common perception of intellectuals being physically weak, Master Xuan Zang was a heroic scholar with great will, endurance, and vision. Despite many dissuading him from undertaking the ‘Mission Improbable’, which would endanger life and limb, he pressed on his journey relentlessly. All kinds of obstacles stood between him and his goal. There were political threats, as immigration was tightly controlled, and him being a talent was forbidden to leave. Being caught would lead to imprisonment. And there were potential robbers and wrathful ghosts in the wild, what more mountains, rivers, and deserts to cross, with violent sandstorms, avalanches, quicksand, mirages…
All these is in striking contrast with the way we go on pilgrimages today, which is often less earnest despite greater ease (by planes, trains and automobiles). Many travel with a sight-seeing mentality, instead of being with spiritual hunger and thirst. Although it is exponentially easier to access translated Buddhist teachings these days, do we treasure them as much as the ancients did? Even when Master Xuan Zang lost his physical direction at times in the middle of deserts, he never lost sight of his sincere spiritual aspirations. Even when tempted by a king with the promise of power and followers, he would rather go on a hunger strike, which moved the king to release him.
Taking four years to reach Nalanda University, the renowned first university ever, which focused on all aspects of Buddhist education, Master Xuan Zang quickly shone as a brilliant student and even teacher. There, he was famously nominated to represent Nalanda in perhaps history’s greatest open religious debate, facing some 2,000 opponents, including Hinayana Buddhists who claimed that the Mahayana teachings (which aim for guiding all to Buddhahood) were inferior. With his ‘Treatise For Breaking Evil Views’ (破恶见论) written in Sanskrit as his winning thesis, with his very life placed as the stakes for losing, it was a major triumph for all Mahayana Buddhists. His undisputed wisdom and fame spread so far and wide, that it echoed all the way back to China!
Having trekked 25,000 kilometres through 110 countries, 19 years later, Master Xuan Zang finally returned to China. He was hailed as a hero, even by the emperor, having retrieved 657 Sanskrit sutras and treatises. Leading a state-sponsored translation team of some 3,000 scholar monks, he translated 75 sutras, to become 1,330 scrolls! It was through these amazing efforts of ancient masters, that the unbroken lineage of precious Buddhadharma streams on into our era. Imagine how much could have been lost without them! Today, Master Xuan Zang’s ‘Great Tang’s Records On The Western Regions’ (大唐西域记) remains the most detailed and accurate account of Central and South Asia. This further fortifies our confidence in Great Master’s Xuan Zang’s astounding integrity, in his Dharma learning, realisation, and propagation!