Episode 27: Great Tang Records on the Western Regions Pt. 2
Updated: Nov 25, 2021
It’s been a while, but we’re back to one of our most popular texts: the Great Tang Records on the Western Regions! This week, we’re following Xuanzang as he journeys into medieval India, encountering wildly variable customs in education, law, and reincarnation.
Since our last episode with this text was episode sixteen, let’s review what we know about this work. The Great Tang Records on the Western Regions (大唐西域记) are the compiled writings of Buddhist monk Xuanzang (玄奘), who departed China during an isolationist period to collect stories and Buddhist stories from the farthest reaches of the Tang dynasty in the early 600s A.D. In this section of the text, we explore Xuanzang’s observations of India and two stories about buddha’s teachings.
Xuanzang first records the unusual, though highly specified units of measurement used in India at the time. Some units include the distance an army can march in a day, which is about 30-40 li, or how far a cow’s lowing can be heard. Other units become smaller and smaller, from the size of a barley-corn, to a cow’s hair, a sheep’s hair, a grain of dust, and all the way to an “excessively small grain of dust” and the “infinitely small.” These distances go from the practical to the highly hyperbolic or scientific, reflecting the discovery of the atom by Democritus in the 5th century B.C. and concurrently by Kanada around the same time in India.
Xuanzang then discusses the culture and society of India, from its caste system to its schools. He notes that butchers, fishers, executioners, scavengers, and dancers (though, more likely, prostitutes) must live outside city walls and walk only on the left side of the street without their homes. Xuanzang reveals a fashion for mustaches in China, since he finds it odd that some Indian men shave off their mustaches. The eighteen schools throughout India are also complex, teaching both the Great and Little Vehicles (i.e. two different methods of teaching Buddhism).
Apparently religion never changes, because Xuanzang notes that some religious men prefer to mediate quietly while others enjoy arguing and debating doctrine. As students at these schools master their books, they slowly earn more honor. After mastering one book, the supervisor cannot order then around. Mastering two books grants one an upper room, while three and four books grants one servants at their disposal. After mastering five books, the student gets an elephant carriage, and finally, at six books, the student receives a full escort in addition to their carriage.
Further, if a student makes an excellent point in debate, they are invited to ride an elephant to the gates of the city’s convent. If a student makes a poor point, however, they are disfigured in red and while, covered in dust, and are placed in a ditch.
The laws of India similarly surprise Xuanzang in their temperateness. He describes the people as light-minded and faithful in promises. When laws are broken, there is no corporal punishment, but an outlawry process and exile. Severe crimes against filial piety, propriety, or judgement are punished by cutting off one’s nose or ears, while smaller crimes are punished with fines. Xuanzang is astounded by the fact that torture is never used to force confessions from the accused.
There are also four methods of trial by ordeal in the Indian justice system: by water, fire, weighing, and poison. Each of these methods are easily rigged and less than reliable. In a trial by water, the accused is put in a sack tied to a stone jug and thrown into water. If the man floats and the jug sinks, he is innocent. In a tial by fire, the accused sits on and holds a hot iron rod. If they have scars from the ordeal, they are guilty. If the accused lacks the strength to do this, then a flower is tossed toward a fire. If it blossoms, they’re innocent, but if it is incinerated, they are guilty. In a trial by weighing, the accused and a stone are weighted on a scale. If the stone sinks, the man is guilty. In the trial by poison, the accused’s food is mixed with poison and put into the thigh of a ram. If the ram dies, the accused is guilty.
Xuanzang then records two stories of of the area from when the Buddha, Tatagata, was alive. The first tells the tale of a shepherd for the king, who provided the king with milk and cream. One day, he failed in his duty and the king cast him out. Incensed, the shepherd brought an offering of flowers to the Stupa of Predictive Assurance, and asked to become a great evil dragon. Afterwards, the shepherd threw himself off the mountain and was shortly reincarnated as a great naga, Gopala, seeking revenge on the people and the king. Tatagata was moved by the people’s plight and went up to the dragon’s cave near the mountain’s waterfall to speak with Gopala. The dragon was so moved at the buddha’s wisdom that he took pity on the town and made offerings to the arhats every day. The buddha, in return, left an image of his shadow on the wall, and instructed the dragon to look upon it and consider his teachings whenever he grew enraged. Xuanzang says that the shadow can still sometimes be seen to this day.
After this tale, there is a brief interlude in which Xuanzang describes a stupa that golden ants gilded by carving intricate decor upon it and leaving their gold behind. We wish those ants were still around!
The final story Xuanzang covers in this section of the Records is that of an arhat, a teacher, and a rather curious boy. While this arhat was traveling in Kashmir, he came upon a brahman who was disciplining a child for messing up his linguistics lesson. The arhat scolds the teacher for disciplining the child because he recognizes him as the re-incarnation of Panini, who was revered in that part of India. He explains that Panini was a famed linguist, but his works were too secular and irreverent toward the holy texts he used to develop his study. Due to his irreverence, his teachings were dispersed when he was reincarnated, and this boy is only struggling because he, as the reincarnated Panini, doesn’t understand these works anymore.
The arhat encourages the brahman to allow him to learn the Buddha’s teachings instead, since they are worth much more than Panini’s texts. To emphasize his point, he spoke of his own experience as a bat in his previous life. One night, as he was living with 500 other bats in a large tree, a group of merchants rested under the tree and lit a fire through the night. One of the merchants recited the Buddha’s teachings, and though the tree caught fire and burned the bats, they learned much of what had been recited. When they were reincarnated, they became great arhats and teachers. To finally prove his point about the Buddha’s teachings, he disappears — leaving both the teacher and student behind. Despite this abrupt ending, both the teacher and student were so moved that they became disciples.
While these tales and collected excerpts may seem strange, we must remember that we’re reading about these events through the lens of older translations and a foreigner’s eyes. We don’t know where the gaps are in our historical record, especially by relying on older translations. Further, those who made these translations (largely white male Europeans during the colonialist and imperialist periods) compounded the views that the “West” was the center of the civilized world, and that the “Dark Ages” were a fluke. This idea first perpetrated by the Renaissance scholars and further developed by the Enlightenment philosophers who failed to account for the prosperous learning that was occurring outside medieval Europe, as well as the cross-cultural trade and transmission of culture that did occur at this time.
All in all, we find Xuanzang’s records are a good example of a medieval travelogue, as well as how to be a good tourist in an unfamiliar area. Take notes, write down the oddities! Most importantly, however, catalogue the weird tales you plan to bring back so they’ll be remembered in perpetuity.
Final Rating: 8
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