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Learning from a page in history
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10:46, October 09, 2007

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The Legend of the Monkey King has captured the imagination of many generations of Chinese readers. This book, one of the great four Chinese novels, let lose our imagination to roam the waterfalls of Sichuan to the arid deserts of Taklimakan, vanquishing devils in many hideous incarnations along the way.

And yet the tales of the super monkey, so deeply ingrained in our culture, has done grave injustice to what must have been one of the wisest and most courageous men who has ever lived in Chinese history. That man is the great Buddhist monk, Xuan Zang (AD 602-664).

In the novel, he was incorrectly portrayed as a physically weak and mentally naive, almost girlish, wimp, constantly in need of attention and care from his three fictional disciples led by the resourceful Monkey King.

Thanks to the popular series of TV lectures by Professor Qian Wenzhong of Fudan University, thousands of viewers, including myself, have been inspiringly introduced to the life and times of the great monk and his lone quest for enlightenment in the ancient center of Buddhist teaching in what is now India.

The pilgrimage of Xuan Zang as recounted by Qian, a historian and linguist, is no less fascinating than the fictional exploits of the Monkey King. From dry and often impassionate historical records, Qian has reconstructed the amazing life story of a man who shines through history like a beacon to guide us at a time when our moral judgment can so easily be compromised by materialistic concerns.

Born to an intellectual family, Xuan Zang was exposed to the teaching of Buddhism at an early age. His religious conviction and thirst for knowledge set him out on an epical journey in 629 to the then cradle of Buddhism across treacherous deserts and forbidden mountains.

He spent many years in the Nalanda monastery, located southwest of the modern city of Bihar in northern Bihar state as a disciple of the venerable abbot, Silabhadra. There, Xuan Zang distinguished himself as a master theorist and great debater.

Xuan Zang's wisdom and eloquence faced a much more strenuous test when he was called upon to champion his faith in the king's court against many learned challengers belonging to different religions and creeds. Having beaten each and everyone of them in long and tedious theoretical debates, Xuan Zang was offered the honor of riding on an elephant at the front of a grand procession. But it was an honor declined by the modest monk, who made himself ostensibly absent from the pompous ceremony.

On Xuan Zang's return to Chang'an, in modern Xi'an, the then capital city of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), thousands of citizens lined the streets to welcome him. His subsequent meeting with Emperor Taizong, in the way described by Qian, was nothing short of a test between the willpower of two of the greatest men in China at that time.

The emperor offered Xuan Zang a high position in his court to assist him in ruling his vast domain. As expected, the emperor's offer was firmly but tactfully refused by the monk whose only desire was to dedicate the rest of his life to the monumental task of translating into Chinese the many volumes of Buddhist manuscripts he brought back from the holy land of his faith. The emperor eventually relented and granted Xuan Zang his wish.

Many of us would never have recognized the great contributions Xuan Zang made in enriching our culture if it had not been for the brilliant presentation of his life story by Qian, whose series of TV lectures have been published in a book which is reportedly on the best seller's list in Shanghai and Beijing. History can be more entertaining than fiction.

E-mail: [email protected]

Source: China Daily

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