By Joe Hung, The China Post
April 6, 2009, 9:41 am TWN
The author of the Journey to the West had a historical person as the hero in his novel. In real life, Tripitaka is Xuangzang or Hsuan-tsang (玄奘). He was born in Henan or Honan (河南) around 602 A.D. His father was a learned government official. Reared in the Confucian tradition in his youth he was converted to Buddhism and became distinguished as a teacher of the faith. Dissatisfied with his knowledge of Buddhism, he wished to elucidate to his own satisfaction debated points of doctrine by inquiry and study in the land where the faith had had its birth. In spite of the imperial prohibition of foreign travel, in the year 629 he left for India, going by the overland route through the Tarim basin In India he visited many of the sites made sacred by the life, teachings, and death of the Buddha, studied with experts, and collected holy books. He also studied at the Buddhist monastery in Nalanda.
After an absence of sixteen years, Xuangzang returned to China, also overland, and spent the nearly twenty remaining years of his life in teaching and in translating some of the books he had brought back with him. The amount of literature whose translation is ascribed to him is stupendous — about twenty-five times as voluminous as the Christian Bible. He added a great impetus to the popularity and spread of Buddhism in China. In such esteem was he held that two of the Tang emperors wrote prefaces for his translations, and at his death the state honored him with an official funeral. The record of his travels is so full and accurate that in recent times it has proved of assistance to archaeologists in India and Xinjiang or Sinkiang or Chinese Turkistan.
Buddhism showed its vigor during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) by continuing to give birth to new schools. Hui-neng (惠能) reinvigorated Chan or Zen by teaching sudden enlightenment as the way to salvation. Zen was then made the orthodox school of Buddhism. It was Xuanzhang who founded the Faxiang or Fa-hisang (法相) or Dharma Substance school. Faxiang taught the visible world is only an expression of thought. It is an ideation-only school. Its founder was an Indian teacher, but to Xuanzanag are due the standard translation of its chief works. The school advocated Yoga practices as a way to religious realization.
The novel made Tripitaka a target of monsters, ogresses, and goblins who wished to attain immortality by eating his flesh. His three disciples were to help defend him all the way to and back from India. Monkey is the strongest of the trio. But like a monkey, he is whimsical and often tries to rebel. His behavior, however, is checked by a gold hoop placed around his head which could not be removed by Monkey himself until the journey's end. Monkey was tricked into wearing the hoop given Tripitaka by Avalokitesvara, who had removed the talisman from rocky Mount Wu-xing to release the unruly disciple from imprisonment for five centuries. Whenever Tripitaka chants an incantation of the gold hoop — om mani padme hum — the band will tighten causing an unbearable headache. Monkey has to obey orders after pleading his master to stop chanting.
At any rate, Tipitaka, escorted by his three disciples, was able to go to and back from India to complete his mission of obtaining the sutras and other sacred books.