Blog # 4 – Buddhist pilgrim on the Silk Road

The article, Buddhist Pilgrim on the Silk Road, chapters 1 to 4 by Sally Hoover Wriggins documents the physical journey of the Chinese Buddhist monk, Xuanzhang from China to India in his spiritual quest to discover the true teachings of the Buddha in the land of his origin in mid seventh century CE.  Irrespective of the monk’s spiritual objective which motivated his travels, Xuanzhang’s account of the journey proves to be an indispensable tool to contemporary historians in studying the Silk Roads.

Xuanzhang’s main motivation in journeying to India was to seek the “Truth”, or in order words, the true, unadulterated teachings of Shakyamuni, as he was discontent with the Buddhist principles being preached and practiced in China. This is a testimony to the argument I made in the short paper on Michel Strickmann’s article, that the Buddhist tradition which had developed in China was so different from the tradition practiced in India that it can easily be considered its own separate entity. However, in Wriggins’ article, the differences are outlined in more specific terms than in Strickmann’s article, as Wriggins distinguishes the tradition practiced by Xuanzhang in China as Mahayana Buddhism from the Indian Buddhist tradition which is largely Hinayana Buddhism. These two Buddhist schools of thought were significantly different in their beliefs and practices, but Xuanzhang was seeking a truth which was bigger and more universal than these two traditions, he was seeking out Shakyamuni himself.

Xuanzhang’s account of the centers of trade on the Silk Road he stops at on his journey to India, ranging from Turfan to Kashmir proves to be a vital historical record of those Silk Road destinations. His detailed descriptions of the people, the environment and the overall culture prevalent at the places such as Samarkand allows historians to study these ancient historically important centers and more than simply being able to study them as independent entities, historians are able to use Xuanzhang’s personal account of his first-hand experience in these places to identify the exchange which took place which ultimately led to the flourishing of the Silk Roads.

There is a great emphasis by Wriggins on the extraordinariness of such a feat by a single man who spent most of his life up to the point of his departure from China in religious training. The author of the article even refers to the journey as one which should have been in all respects, an “impossible” one. By doing so, Wriggins applies holy qualities to the monk, implying perfection in his character. This however, is bias on the author’s part as it is evident that her reverence and admiration for Xuanzhang prevents her from providing a more objective account of the monk’s travels.

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