Often we think of our walk on the Pacific Crest Trail as a kind of pilgrimage. But our efforts pale when compared to the devotion, commitment, and duration of pilgrims of the past. Take Xuanzang, who feet carried him on seventeen years of wanderings. Humility should be one of lessons of every PCT ‘pilgrimage’.
From Paul Theroux’s The Tao of Travel
A monk and a scholar, the young Xuanzang felt that the Buddhist texts in China were badly translated, debased versions of the originals, so he decided to travel to India to verify them and to bring back as many texts as possible. He hoped also to see the holy places associated with Buddha’s life and enlightenment… . In his account of his seventeen years of travels he frequently refers to walking on narrow and difficult trails, and he appears to have traveled alone… .
Xuanzang left from … Xian, site of the terracotta warriors, imperial tombs, and glorious pagodas — and kept going, through Qinghai and across Xingjiang to Bokhara, Samarkand, and into present-day Afghanistan. All the while he made notes on the state of Buddhism, the condition of monasteries, the number of monks. He was awestruck by the giant carved Buddha statues at Bamiyan (dynamited and destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, to the cries of “Allah is great!”). He crossed Peshawar and Taxila in what is now Pakistan … he wandered all over India …
Throughout, he chronicled the presence of dragons, some protective, other menacing. He succeeded in his mission to find copies of ancient Buddhist texts, to visit the sacred places associated with Buddha: Gaya, Sarnath, Lumpini Gardens, and at last Kushinagara, where Buddha died. He stayed for years at a time in monasteries, learned Sanskrit, kept traveling, and returned to China with 657 texts, carried by twenty pack-horses. At the suggestion of the emperor, he dictated The Great Tang Dynasty Record, finishing it in 646. When it was translated into French and English in the nineteenth century, other travelers were able to find the lost cities and forgotten ruins that Xuanzang had so meticulously described.