Xuanzang & the Monkey King
The Search for the “Real” Xuanzang


Sally Hovey Wriggins
As I delved into the principal sources on this seventh-century traveler — his report to the Tang emperor after he returned to China and an admiring biography by one of his contemporaries (Huili) — it was clear that they complemented one another. Huili put Xuanzang and his personal experiences in the foreground. In Xuanzang’s own narrative, the pilgrim stays in the background and rarely refers directly to himself. His style is unemotional and highly detached. He is, after all, writing for the Tang emperor. By embroidering on his adventures — staging a hunger strike in front of the king of Turfan, betrayed by his desert guide and nearly dying of thirst in the desert, almost killed by a band of pirates — Huili gives them storybook qualities so that Xuanzang is already on his way to becoming a legend. When I began to write, I tried to capture the appeal of Xuanzang as a folk hero; in italicized passages, I distill the best of his two biographers, Huili and Li Yongshi [who translated Huili’s work in 1959], to make the stories more vivid. (SRJ, 58)
The Shadow Cave
630 C.E. A few weeks after Kapisa, the Shadow Cave. The approach is said to be hazardous. An old man agrees to be Xuanzang’s guide. Hardly do they come near the cave when five robbers appear with drawn swords. The pilgrim explains the purpose of his journey. He knows, he says in answer to their questions, that he might find robbers. “Since I am going to worship the Buddha, I should not be afraid even if I met wild animals on the way, let alone men like yourselves!” The robbers are so surprised by this display of fearlessness that they sheath their swords and ask if they might join him.
       Xuanzang goes inside the gloomy, dark grotto. At first he sees nothing at all. He weeps with regret over his shortcomings, and prostrates himself one hundred times; he recites sutras, chants and prays with ardor and true selflessness. At last he sees a spot of light on the wall. After two hundred more prostrations, he vows not to leave until he sees the shadow. Finally the whole cave becomes full of light and he sees the Buddha’s shadow gleaming on the wall. The Buddha’s body and his robe are of a yellowish red color. The distinguishing marks of his person are exceedingly glorious. Below, the lotus throne on which he sits is slightly obscured. (SRJ, 58)
On the rocky wall at the east precipice is a large cave, which was the dwelling place of the Naga Gopala. The entrance is small and narrow, and it is dark inside the cave; water drips from the rocks down to the mountain path. Formerly there was a shadow of the Buddha, resembling his true features with all the good physical marks, just as if he were alive. But in recent years it is not visible to everybody, and even those who see it can only perceive an indistinct outline. Those who pray with utmost sincerity may get a spiritual response and see a clear picture, but only for a short moment. (RWR, 67)

Maitreya & the Pirates
636 C.E. Any week. Time is unimportant to the unsuspecting pilgrim. The banks of the Ganges river. The pilgrim is going with eighty people in a boat down the river. Ten boats filled with pirates attack and force them ashore. Then they notice how handsome Xuanzang is, and decide that he is the perfect specimen for their annual sacrifice of human flesh and blood to their god Durga. But Xuanzang appeals to their chief: “If this poor and defiled body is suitable for sacrifice, then I dare not grudge this offering. As my intention in coming such a distance is to pay reverence to the image of the Buddha and to inquire as to the character of the Sacred Books and Buddhist doctrine, if you kill this body of mine, I fear it will bring you misfortune.”
       The pirate captain pays no heed and orders his men to tie up the pilgrim. Xuanzang makes one last request, that he be given time to compose his thoughts. Then the pilgrim, with undivided mind, thinks on the Bodhisattva Maitreya and earnestly prays to be born in the Tushita Heaven that he may hear the most holy words of Buddhism and attain perfect understanding, so that he might take his departure with a joyous spirit. Exalted by joy, he is oblivious of the altar on which he is about to be sacrificed.
       Suddenly a black typhoon arises. The pirates are terrified by this miracle. “Who is this man?” they ask.
       When they are told that Xuanzang is a famous monk from China, the pirates ask his forgiveness. Xuanzang pardons them, inviting them to change their ways. Then and there the pirates take vows to become lay members of the Buddhist community.
David Eckel, in his To See the Buddha, suggests that embedded in this story “is a model of meditation that transports Xuanzang ‘in his mind’ beyond this world into the presence of Maitreya in the palace of Tushita Heaven.” What is so revealing is that although Xuanzang had a reputation as an accomplished philosopher, when the pirates are about to sacrifice him to their god, he does not concentrate on Emptiness as a concept of Yogacara philosophy. At crucial times of his life such as when he lies dying, he goes back to his devotion to the Maitreya and visualizing the Tushita Heaven where the Maitreya resides. And when one of his disciples at his deathbed asks if he would be reborn in the Tushita Heaven, he replies, “Quite certain.” (SRJ, 91-2)

The King of Turfan
630 C.E. The hour grows late. Having stayed for ten days, the Master desires to take his leave and continue his journey. But the king wants him to be a spiritual preceptor for his kingdom.
       Xuanzang says: “It needs no repeated explanation to understand your deep kindness. But as I am going to the West to seek the Law of the Buddha, it is improper for me to stop half way before I have found it.”
       The king is adamant.
       Xuanzang is firm.
       The king becomes sullen, and shouts at the pilgrim, flapping the sleeves of his royal robe. “I have other ways to deal with you.” He threatens to detain him by force or else send him back to his country.
       It is Xuanzang’s first confrontation with royal authority and power. There will be other times when he will have to resist a monarchy’s wish, even that of the emperor himself. He stands firm. Still the king does not let him go, increasing his offerings. Xuanzang decides that he must refuse to eat and drink. The king serves him with his own hands. For three days Xuanzang fasts, hoping to change the king’s mind. On the fourth day the Master’s breath is very feeble. The king is ashamed and gives in.
(SRJ, 21-2)
The Monkey King’s eyes see “truth”...
...but Xuanzang’s eyes focus on the “heart” (i.e. Buddha Nature — the Buddha within us all)!