Xuanzang was the Buddhist emissary to China, or maybe the Chinese emissary to Buddhism. Actually, it is a long story; let's begin.
In 629, under the reign of Tang Taizong, second emperor of the Tang Dynasty, laws were in place that forbade travel past Chinese borders into central Asia. Our friend Xuanzang, in a move that has been repeated thousands of times in history, defied that order.
Xuanzang was a Buddhist monk. He has been raised in a Confucian society and taught from Confucian texts, but had gone with his brother to a Buddhist Monestary one day where he devoted himself to the Buddhist teachings. Xuangzang found some apparent discrepancies in the Buddhist teachings: contradictions between the Chinese and Sanskrit texts. Rather than seeking some sort of orthodoxy, which would be the natural reaction of any theologan outside of the Buddhist circle, he decided to go to the source and find out what the problem was. In direct disobedience of Tang Taizong's decree, Xaunzang left China and headed toward India
In a truly Literary twist, Xuanzang's guide abandoned him in the Gobi desert. Luckily Xuanzang was wily enough to get to Turpan, an oasis town located on the Silk Road. Turpan's ruler happened to be Buddhist himself and felt obliged to aid in the pilgrimage of another follower. Xuanzang was loaded down with supplies by the ruler of Turpan, including:
- 24 letters of introduction to the rulers of the nations between Turpan and India, ensuring safe passage.
- 24 Bolts of silk to accompany the letters.
- 500 bolts of silk and two carts of fruit for a particularly important leader he would have to face.
For Xuanzang personally:
- 30 Horses
- 25 laborers.
- 500 bolts of silk.
- Silk Clothes.
Needless to say, Xuanzang was pretty well off at this point. He had what amounted to royal support in his journey. This would make most people's day, but it was balanced by what Xuanzang had to do. Xuanzang moved on from Turpan and crossed three of the worlds highes mountain ranges: the Tian Shan, Hindu Kush, and the Pamir mountain ranges. One-third of Xuanzang's party died during this time from inclement weather and starvation.
You would think that would be enough excitement for one historical character, but as legend has it he also crossed abyssal gorges on rope bridges, faced bandit attacks and confrontations with dragons, demons, and evil spirits. Some of this is obviously embellishment, and some of it is less obviously so. It makes a good epic, so we hold onto it.
In the year 630, after one year or so of traveling, Xuanzang arrived in India. He resided there for twelve years under the reign of King Harsha, who had temporarily restored central rule to India, visiting holy Buddhist shrines and studying language and doctrine. Xuanzang bore witness to the fact that King Harsha, a Buddhist, was very generous with his wealth, giving large gifts to at least five hundred thousand people and supporting schools. Xuanzang spent much time at Nalanda, which was the center of Buddhist higher learning in India. He collected a vast cornucopia of relics, over six hundred books, and Thangkas and other icons, which he brought back to China.
Xuanzang returned to China in 645, having traveled over 10,000 miles on his journey. Xuanzang was given a regal reception, despite the fact that he was technically a fugitive. He was granted audience with the emperor. For the next nineteen years, until his death, he spread the Buddhist teachings throughout China and translating Buddhist texts into Chinese. Xuanzang helped Buddhism to be adopted almost universally in China.
So, here we have a figure who is essential to the growth of Buddhism. We also have someone who refused to resort to wild theological debate to solve problems that would best be resolved by finding the cause.
Just think, at this same time the Chalcedonians were jumping the Monophysites in the back streets of Constantinople over whether Jesus was half man and half God or blended man and God...
Primary Source: "Traditions & Encounters" by Bentley and Ziegler