Xuanzang and the Silk Road Pt. 2

November 22, 2010

In my last post I introduced a Japanese painting currently hanging in the Director’s office, here is the basic information about the piece:

  • Title: Buddha with Sixteen Benign Deities (Shaka juuroku zenshin)  釈迦十六善神
  • Period: Late 17th – Early 18th century
  • Material: Ink and Color on Silk
  • Provenience: Japan
  • Artist: Signed Shuho
Giant Wild Goose Pagoda. 大雁塔 Built to hold the texts brought back by Xuanzang. A statue of Xuanzang can be seen in the foreground of the photo.

What is going on in this painting? Toward the top of the painting, Sakyamuni Buddha is  sitting on a lotus throne with Mañjuśrī to his left (riding a blue lion) and Samantabhadra to his right (riding a white elephant).  This is a popular trinity in Buddhism and is featured in our Buddhism exhibit as part of our Shingon Buddhist altar. The majority of the figures surrounding the Buddha are various bodhisattvas dressed in celestial attire.   What is really interesting about the painting is the inclusion of a Chinese monk named Xuanzang.  Xuanzang was a Buddhist monk who traveled along the Silk Road on a pilgramge to India to bring back Buddhist texts written in Sanskrit in order to translate them into Chinese.  This would allow for many Buddhist ideas to be clarified as well as introduce  new ideas to the  Buddhist community in China.  He  started his journey in  Chang’an (present day Xi’an), the captial of China during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), and made his way through Central Asia before finally stopping in India.  While in India he studied with some of the great Buddhist scholars gaining insight into their methods of logic and reasoning and collecting  many obscure and interesting texts.   His round trip from China to India and back took 16 years to complete.  During that time  he traveled some 10,000 miles meeting with all of kinds of people.  From kings and bandits to monks and mystics, his written account of the journey has become legendary.

Xuanzang is depicted in the painting wearing monk’s robes  with a large backpack full of what appears to be scrolls.  These scrolls represent the plethora of texts he collected in India which numbered in the thousands.   Upon his return to  Xi’an, Xuanzang set about translating these thousands of texts  with a number of scholars at his disposal.  There was even a pagoda erected for the sole purpose of housing everything he brought back.   The Emperor at the time, Emperor Taizong, was so impressed that he asked Xuanzang to write down all that he had seen along the Silk Road.  His report became one of the first written accounts  of the regions in Central Asia, with detailed accounts of places like Turfan, Kucha, Samarkand, and Bamiyan.  The report continues to be referenced by scholars interested in those areas to this day.