Traveller Profile: Xuanzang Travel Inspiration
In this traveller profile series I take a look back through history at some of the World’s greatest travellers. What travel lessons can be learned from the adventures and exploits of these remarkable, intrepid individuals? By looking backwards in this way, I hope to inspire anyone looking forward to their own future travels.
The first traveller of my Traveller Profile series is Xuanzang, a remarkable 7th Century Chinese Buddhist scholar.
Xuanzang’s exploits took him on land from China to India and back again over a 16 year period, forging in the process his legacy as a famed Buddhist leader, translator and traveller.
His story and travels are unique and outrageous in their scope and impact on the World.
I’ll begin with a little background info, before detailing his travels and finally considering the travel lessons we can take from his incredible story.
Xuanzang’s Traveller Profile
Circa 602 – 664 CE
Born in China in modern day Henan province, Xuanzang impressed from an early age with his intellect and interest in Chinese scripture. He became a Buddhist monk at 13 years old.
Over time, Xuanzang became frustrated by Buddhist texts of the time, which were often incomplete and/or contained discrepancies that led to misinterpretation of and disagreement about the teachings of Buddha.
Believing that one complete version of a text relevant to his Buddhist practice (Discourse on the Stages of Yogic Practice) would solve these issues he devised a plan to travel to India:
“To learn the true teachings of Buddhism, collect Buddhist manuscripts to carry back to China and pay homage to the sacred places associated with Buddha”. (Travels of Xuanzang, Google Arts and Culture)
Xuanzang’s travels were in-depth and far reaching.
Beginning in 629 CE, Xuanzang disobeyed the orders of the Emperor, who’d forbade foreign travel due to an ongoing war, and began his long and influential journey to India.
Facing the constant danger of bandits, hardships related to the landscapes he traversed as well as the physical challenges of his endeavour, Xuanzang travelled thousands of miles over land along the Silk Road and through the Indian subcontinent.
His trip took him Westwards across Northern China, into modern day Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and eventually India, where he travelled all over the country, from West to East, visiting as many places of Buddhist significance as possible.
Over time Xuanzang met Kings and noblemen who he impressed with his knowledge of scripture; he dazzled local audiences with his elocution and wisdom.
Ultimately, Xuanzang established himself as a go-to authority on Buddhist matters.
Along the way he chronicled his adventure, detailing everything from the places he visited, the things he saw, the conversations he overheard, the distances between locations, as well as details about their landscapes, rulers and customs.
He turned his notes into a book entitled ‘Records of the Western Regions of the Great T’ang Dynasty’.
His return journey was just as epic, ending finally in 645 CE where it all started: China. Upon his return, he dedicated the remainder of his life to the translation of the hundreds of scriptures he’d brought home and died a national hero.
Xuanzang’s travels and detailed account have had a huge impact on multiple fields over time.
For instance, his trip inspired a 16th Century Chinese novel called ‘Journey to the West’ and in more recent times historians and archaeologists have utilised his work to learn more about this era and, thanks to the accuracy of his descriptions, even uncover ancient 7th Century cities.
For anyone interested, here’s an awesome little video explaining the storyline of ‘Journey to the West’ in comparison to the real life story of Xuanzang:
Key Travel lessons from Xuanzang
Talk to and learn from the locals
Xuanzang would never have attained such influence had he not actively sought out and made the effort to befriend and learn from the people he met along the way.
Seeing a country takes time
It’s impossible to really see and experience a country without spending a significant amount of time there. Xuanzang travelled over 16 years, predominantly off the beaten track, in order to accrue his knowledge and understanding of Buddhism.
Slow travel is good travel
It’s all too easy to rush through a country. However, as Xuanzang’s example demonstrates, there is real value in doing things slowly. Travelling for 16 years, he clearly wasn’t in a rush.
Follow your dreams
Xuanzang’s motivation to travel was apparently helped by a dream that convinced him to journey to India. If travel is one of your dreams, then you owe it to yourself to go.
Travel even if you're told you shouldn't
Sometimes there is value in sticking to your guns, ignoring what you ‘should’ do in favour of pursuing your goal to travel. In Xuanzang’s case, he literally defied a law set by his Emperor in order to travel and ended up a national hero!
Travel with Purpose
Travelling with a purpose is a sure-fire way to maintain your passion for it. Xuanzang’s travels were entirely fuelled by his desire to enhance his knowledge of Buddhism and put together a complete document that lacked the flaws of those already in existence.
Find a purpose and your travels will be imbued with a far greater meaning, which will help sustain your love for the road.
Record your exploits
As we’ve seen, Xuanzang recorded his travels and wrote a book of huge subsequent significance.
Keeping a journal of your travels is a fantastic way to keep hold of the memories you’re creating. Write about your experience and it’s far harder to lose to time all those little details that carry such value.
To conclude, Xuanzang was a life long traveller whose passion and ultimate purpose helped facilitate a momentous journey spread over 16 years, the legacy of which impacts the world to this day.
For any aspiring travellers, I hope his traveller profile will serve as inspiration for your own upcoming journeys!
Sources & further reading if you're interested:
Article on Xuanzang’s travels and significance in relation to Indo-Chinese history
Great summary of Xuanzang’s travels and purpose
Useful summary of Xuanzang’s route and further general information
And another summary of Xuanzang’s life, travels and significance