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Xuan Zang and the real story behind Journey to the West

The famous Chinese classic Journey to the West is based on the real story of a Buddhist monk, named Xuan Zang. The classic was written 900 years later. Journey to the West influenced many writers, artists and scholars until today. Some examples are the worldly famous Dragon Ball Japanese manga and MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) games such as DOTA 2 and League of Legends.

The story of Xuan Zang

Xuan Zang was from the area of Luoyang, Henan, in the center of China. He was born in 602 A.D, during Sui Dynasty, and died in 664, during Tang dynasty – for many the dynasty that most represents the Golden Age of China. Xuan Zang was a Mahayana Buddhist monk since a teenager.
He traveled all around China to learn more about Buddhism. Once he figured out that Chinese knowledge about Buddhism was not complete and some texts contradicted each other, he chose to go directly to the sources.

A statue of Xuan Zang in Xi’an, Shaanxi.

For this reason, he went on his Journey to the West – focusing on India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal.
Xuan Zang wasn’t the first one who had this idea: a bit more than two hundred years earlier, a monk called Faxian visited India for the very same reasons. But the knowledge brought by Faxian was not enough yet – it was simply too much to study and then properly translate for one person only.

The Journey to the West

The journey of Xuan Zang would take 17 years. It started on 627, while the Blue Turks and Tang dynasty were at war. Xuan Zang notoriously had to get through closed borders in order to start his journey.
After meeting many monks and kings around Asia, he would finally come back with a knowledge that would influence the Chinese for many centuries. Indirectly, the knowledge brought by him influenced the entire East Asian sphere, as well as South-East Asia.
Xuan Zang’s dedication to his project was so strong that he refused any job from the Tang dynasty.
He instead translated the material he brought from his journey until his death, when he was 61.

Diffusing knowledge may be as important as knowledge itself

What Xuan Zang brought to his own country and many others was the knowledge gathered from many other places. And yet, this knowledge was not useful only to others. It actually traveled back, as some of the original texts went lost and his translations were the best sources available.
Xuan Zang’s work also encompassed a more general overview of the places he visited, giving us tremendous insight into many Asian civilizations.
The journey made by Xuan Zang – a journey that was both spiritual and material – reached two objectives. The first, to improve his own spiritual insight. The second, to provide a huge amount of information and texts for the future generations in China.
The journey made by Xuan Zang reinforced ties between Asian cultures that are still visible today.
The lesson seems clear: those who diffuse knowledge and culture are perhaps as needed the knowledge itself. Without the former, the latter would be often unknown to the large majority.
Another important lesson, incredibly valid today, is to seek the truth no matter what.
And going directly to the original sources – literally.

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