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East Asia

The historical Hsuan-tsang, the great Chinese pilgrim. In 629 he started overland on the long journey to India, where he underwent instruction in Buddhist metaphysics and made an impression by his own contribution, before returning to Ch'ang-an about 640 loaded down with manuscripts and images. On announcing his desire to return home, his Indian colleagues said in amazement: ‘This land is where Buddha was born, and if you visit all the holy places connected with him you have sightseeing enough to keep you busy for the rest of your life. Having got here, surely it is a pity to go away!’ Tripitaka had to explain that the message of the Buddha was for all mankind, hence his pilgrimage to India on behalf of Chinese believers who were without full knowledge of doctrine.

The exact date of the coming of Buddhism to China is uncertain. About 65 there was in Shantung a prince who ‘recited the subtle words of Lao-tzu, and respectfully performed the gentle sacrifices of the Buddha’. Though in this first reference we find that characteristic mixture of Taoist and Buddhist elements, little is known of early Chinese Buddhism. Eclecticism was the result of circumstances: texts were scarce, and the few available could not be readily translated; ignorance of Indian languages meant that the background to the faith remained obscure; and, not least, the doctrines of the various sects reached the country at different times. To unravel the tangled threads of uncertainty Tripitaka set out for the West, having dreamt that he saw the crystal peak of Sumeru rising from the cosmic ocean. When he tried to cross the mighty waters, a lotus made of rock sprang up under his foot, and safely conducted him like a stepping-stone to the World Mountain. After losing his foothold on the steep sides, Tripitaka found himself borne upwards to the mountaintop by a sudden gust of wind.

Legend has converted the pilgrimage of Tripitaka into the most popular cycle of stories in Chinese folklore. Instead of quietly leaving for India, the pilgrim was supplied with a white horse by the Emperor, and encountered numerous divinities on the adventurous journey. Kwan-yin compelled a dragon to act as Tripitaka's mount after it had emerged from a deep river-bed and devoured the white horse. The Goddess of Mercy also obliged the king of the monkeys to be the guide, adviser, and friend of Tripitaka as a condition of release from punishment earned by celestial misdeeds. The resourceful monkey was none other than Hanuman: he was Sun Hou-tzu, the ‘restless, cunning, indestructible one’, who lived on jade juice. Born of a stone egg, Sun Hou-tzu could fly, leap 30,000 miles at a time, and handle with amazing dexterity a magic rod. This incredible weapon could accommodate itself to all his wishes; being able to assume cosmic proportions or to reduce itself to the size of the finest needle, so as to fit behind the monkey god's ear. Another helper of Tripitaka was Chu Pa-chieh, a grotesque pig-like divinity, armed with a muck-rake, but almost disarmed by his own coarser passions. Sun Hou-tzu and Chu Pa-chieh got Tripitaka and Sha Ho-shang, ‘priest Sha’ his mortal companion, into all kinds of scrapes as well as saving them from all kinds of dangers. In Pilgrimage to the West, Wu Cheng-en's sixteenth-century novel based on Hsuan-tsang, the knockabout humour reaches extraordinary levels.


Subjects: Religion.

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