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Posted on : March 27th, by
Monkey- king photographed at Tipu Sultan's hunting lodge Mysore
Monkey- king
photographed at Tipu Sultan’s hunting lodge Mysore

The other day, I was driving with my wife next to me and my two daughters in the seats behind. The car zoomed along, it was a warm day, the evening sun had a beautiful glow. We were returning from a mid-day concert in a church. On either side of the road were fields – an expanse of green interrupted by small yellow flowers. The road curved and at the corner I saw a non-descript ‘Chinese restaurant’ called ‘Monkey King Express Chinese’. That set me thinking……….

“Monkey King” refers to a character in a Chinese classic. The book was written hundreds of years ago during the Ming dynasty in China called The Journey to the West.

Monkey- king a character in a  Chinese classic called "Journey to the West"
Monkey- king
a character in a Chinese classic called “Journey to the West”

The character is a monkey who is the main character in this 16th century book. This monkey follows a monk called Xuanzang.
When I mentioned Monkey King, my daughter said – of course I know him, it is Hanuman – the monkey God. She has seen large figures in the street of Hanuman, the Monkey God, and this particular image taken on the streets of Hyderabad in August 2007 came to her mind ….

Hanuman idol , photographed in Hyderabad streets,  2007
Hanuman idol , photographed in Hyderabad streets,

Many say that the monkey king is based on aspects of Hanuman and also aspects of Chinese folklore. But here is the interesting thing – if the monkey king was based on Hanuman who was Xuanzang based on? And of course, he, too, is a real character. And while many in India would not recognise the name Xuanzang – the name Hiuen Tsang is familiar. In fact, as a child I remember distinctly the drawing in my history book from 7th standard St Xavier’s school. I have treasured that book and the image is on page 105 –

"My" seveth standard Indian Histroy textbook with Hieun Tsang image
“My” seventh standard Indian History textbook
with Hieun Tsang image in it

A more up to date search of the internet would show this in colour but somehow that attachment and ability to form an impression on a young mind belongs to a written word on paper……

Hieun Tsang  original image  a painting on silk
Hieun Tsang
original image
a painting on silk

Years later, my sister Vandana, who has done all the paintings on this site, gifted an Amar Chitra Katha on Hiuen Tsang – it is called ‘Travellers to India’. It is about three travellers to India.

Amar Chitra Katha - travellers to India
Amar Chitra Katha – travellers to India

This book tells the tale of Hieun Tsang and that other great Chinese travelling Buddhist monk Fa Hien In it is a salutation “Dearest …. To the sweetest traveller to India”.

Imagine being born to an erudite family – where father, grandfather, great grandfather are all known for being great scholars and philosophers who were in services of the king. At a young age because you have inherited these genes you naturally outshine others and people around you are in awe. But a deep longing grows in your heart. You want to understand and thus ‘know’ true philosophy. You think you like Buddhism. In fact, it is growing on you. You take it up more and more and get drawn into it. Then comes a doubt? What if what you are reading is only reflected light. What if the mirror reflecting the light was distorting it. What if you were reading someone else’s perception of thought? What if experiences of life altered perception of thought? What if the thoughts were so important that you ‘needed’ to experience them in the purest form?

And so it was for young Hiuen Tsang/ Xuanzang. He was born in 602 AD – around the time of Prophet Mohammed. Hieun Tsang was born in Luoyang in China into a family that followed Confucianism. There was importance to education and Confucian principles of filial piety. An elder brother was a Buddhist and in time young Hiuen Tsang took up studying Buddhism. Being precocious, he was accepted into monk-hood training as an exception by the age of thirteen. Then, when he was 20, he decided to travel to India to find the roots of the religion. It was already a millennium since Buddha had died and by now Buddhism had taken hold in China. This is curious, is it not – that China with its great history of philosophical thought makes way for Buddhism which was born in a land different to it and hence perhaps the context of the religion would be different. Is it possible that the great religions of the world all have core truths which transcend time, generation and context? And perhaps there lay the appeal of Buddha. Perhaps the message of ‘deliverance’ of all peoples irrespective of race, sex, education – using a simple set of ‘rules’ held fascination. The idea that following a middle path would remove desire and hence unhappiness and reward you with contentment in this life. Perhaps the simplicity was its most appealing message. This simplicity allowed people to understand it, retain it and then spread the message. And yet Hiuen Tsang wanted depth of understanding. Often when you speak to great teachers with great knowledge and great understanding, they explain things in a very simple way. We have all met these people and we take their explanations for granted. Hieun Tsang wanted great knowledge and understanding behind the explanations. He was in China and Buddha’s land was in India. And the Great Himalayas were in between. There was a route across the sea but some centuries ago, the great Buddhist monk traveler, Fa-Hein, had used the sea on his return journey and the descriptions were terrible. The seas had been rough, there were plenty of pirates, fresh water was scarce, food was low and the sailors had wanted to throw Fa-Hein and his companions into the sea when things got rough and superstitions and accusations ran high. So, yes, the land seemed the way forward. But his king, the Great Tang emperor Taizong was waging wars He had declared a stop to non-essential foreign travel. But Hiuen Tsang defied the emperor silently and took his chances! He travelled west through the desert – lost his horse and his guide and reached Turfan. The king of Turfan wanted to keep him there – Hiuen Tsang’s intellect and repute had preceded him. But the monk went on hunger strike and finally the king relented and gave him letters of introduction to 20 kingdoms along the Silk Road. And so, Hiuen Tsang travelled. He went to see the Turkish Khan. He went to Tashkent – capital of today’s Uzbekistan. He came across bandits and faced rough nature in the form of sandstorms. He survived all this and finally crossed the majestic turbulent river Sindhu to enter India. He spent 17 years in India. The majority of his time was spent travelling and learning about various aspects of Buddhism. He had come from the Swat valley and then went through the valley of Kashmir. He turned south towards Peshawar and Lahore. He then turns to Eastern Punjab and then walks to Mathura along the Yamuna. He then goes to Nalanda University – an ancient learning centre with 10,000 students and 2000 teachers. It had libraries which were 9 stories high There he learns Sanskrit, taught himself the various scriptures of Mahayana Buddhism. He learnt from the Abbot of Nalanda, Silabhadra, who could hold and understand 50 collections of treatises and had studied all the major collections at the University Hiuen Tsang discoursed on logic, Brahmanism and Yogacara philosophy. He then turns south and goes to today’s Andhra and visits the huge monastaries of Amaravati and Nagarjunakonda He meets Harsha, the emperor of North India (or the Northern route – the Uttarapatha) and then later designated Emperor of the five Indies of the Chakravartin (Wheel Turning ruler). He forms a close alliance with the emperor and writes extensively on the India under Harsha These writings and the corroborative writings of Bana, the court poet, provide independent cross referencing manuscripts of life then.
After 17 years, Hiuen Tsang went back to China. The Tang Emperor still held sway. Hiuen Tsang (rather Xuanzang) was feted, royal honours bestowed including offers in court but he asked only to be supported in his life’s mission. He has brought back 650 Sankrit Buddhist treatises and by his life’s end has translated 70 texts, started Faxiang School of philosophical thought on Metaphysics and Mere-consciousness. He takes 8 layers of consciousness – the first five being visual, auditory, gustatory, olfactory, tactile and then the discriminatory consciousness of thinking the consciousness of ego and then the eighth one being the sum of consciousness experiences of all the past events. He goes on to write the history of the Chinese in the Great Tang records of the Western Regions – a book translated 1200 years later and still available from Amazon When he dies, the Chinese emperor of the time cancels all state works for three days in mourning. His work and his memory still remain.
As a footnote, he inspired the Ming work “Journey to the West” which has become one of the classics of Chinese literature. In this book, there is a Xuanzang who is a reincarnation of a disciple of Buddha and is searching for scriptures helped by the ‘Monkey King’. The monkey king has become popular, profoundly influencing Chinese culture and was one of the motifs of the Beijing Olympics. When China’s prestige was at stake and its pride and honour and showcasing of technological advancement was needed it used “The Monkey King”, entering the Bird cage at Beijing’s 2008 Olympics as seen in the BBC sport video on Youtube….

Did Hiuen Tsang, the man who inspired Monkey King, come to Sanchi? We know Harsha was a patron of Buddhism, he had conducted a great conference for discourse of concepts, Sanchi was well known, Hiuen Tsang records travelling to other great Buddhist centres -Amamravati and Nagarjunakonda. But did he come to Sanchi? Perhaps those musings are for another day ……..