Chasing the Monk’s Shadow


Born in 602 AD Xuanzang (earlier spelt as Hiuen Tsang, Hsuan Tshang) was ordained as a monk in 622, at the age of twenty. The myriad contradictions particularly Yogacara “Consciousness” in the texts prevalent in China at that time prompted Xuanzang to decide to go to India and study in the cradle of Buddhism. He began his mastery of Sanskrit in 626.
Xuanzang started his epic journey in 629. Moving westward along the Silk Road, through the desolate wastes of Gobi desert and the icy passes of central Asia. He passed by modern Kyrgyzstan across Bedel Pass, Tashkent, Samarkand, Balkh, Bamyan, Kapisi in modern Afghanistan, passed the Khyber Pass and to the former capital of Gandhara, Purushapura (Peshawar), Swat Valley and Oḍḍiyāna Taxila, a Mahayana Buddhist kingdom and in Kashmir in 631-33, attended the Fourth Buddhist council that took place nearby.
In 634, he went east to Jalandhar, Kulu valley, Mathura on the Yamuna river, arrived at Matipura in 635, crossing the river Ganges, visited all of the holy Buddhist sites in India. He spent more than two years in Nalanda where he met the venerable Silabhadra, the monastery’s superior who had dreamt of Xuanzang’s arrival and that it would help spread Buddism far and wide. The founders of Mahayana idealism, Asanga and Vasubandhu, Dignagam Dharmapala had in turn trained Silabhadra. From Nalanda, Xuanzang travelled through several countries including Pundranagara and Naogaonn Bangladesh. He visited the city of Pragjyotishpura in the kingdom of Kamarupa at the invitation of its Hindu king Kumar Bhaskar Varman. Xuanzang turned southward and travelled to Andhradesa and Nagarjunakonda.
On his return to China in AD 645 six hundred Mahayana and Hinayana texts, seven statues of the Buddha and more than a hundred sarira relics, Xuanzang was greeted with much honor but he refused all high civil appointments offered by the still-reigning emperor, Emperor Taizong of Tang. His accounts of the travel has helped many archeological discoveries.
The journey of the seventh century Chinese monk is epic as he braved and scathed through the sandy dunes, icy blizzard and brigands, facing jaws of death many a time. While the writer generally covers the extent of this great traveler and follows to as many places as she possibly can one cannot help wishing for involvement with Xuanzang and less of the of the writer’s personal memoir which forms the major portion of the book. Overall it makes fun reading and shows insight into which all places in Asia the teachings of Buddha used to prevail once upon a time. It makes one wonder where and how it went long after Xuanzang and where it might shift long after we are gone, given the preciousness and relevance of the teachings to humanity today.

Loday Jamtsho
Reviewed by on September 15th, 2015