This was a spectacular find. Xuanzang is one of the most celebrated monks in the history of Asia. His historic pilgrimage from China to India in the seventh century has been re-imagined in texts, images, and performances for well over a thousand years. In the early twentieth century, Xuanzang’s translations and commentaries were enjoying a revival after more than a millennium of neglect. The Faxiang tradition of Yogācāra Buddhism, whose intricate phenomenological and epistemological systems were popularized in China through Xuanzang’s efforts, fell out of favor soon after his death. But the Yogācāra textual corpus had been reintroduced to China by the late Qing era lay-scholar Yang Wenhui, who retrieved a collection of Yogācāra texts from Japan in the late nineteenth century. Incredibly, just a few decades after the body of Xuanzang’s work was brought back from obscurity, his long lost physical remains were also unearthed.
Since its discovery, Xuanzang’s skull shard has both re-enacted and extended Xuanzang’s life. It has also multiplied. Over the last seventy years, Xuanzang’s parietal bone has been broken and divided more than a dozen times—producing a plurality of relics, each with its own distinct history. Because Xuanzang’s life and literary legacy have left such a deep imprint on the Buddhist cultures of Asia, his recently rediscovered remains have been sought by various groups—religious and secular, national and transnational—in the service of sometimes starkly different agendas. Fragments of what is believed to be the original relic now reside in mainland China (four sites), Taiwan (two), Japan (five), and India (one). Like the head of John the Baptist, Xuanzang’s skull seems to be everywhere.
I came to Taiwan to studythe history of these relics and to try to understand what they might tell us about the confluence of religion, nationalism, and international diplomacy in modern Asia. The skull shard of a long-dead monk may seem an odd point of departure for a study of modern culture, but how people represent the past reflects how they perceive the present. In the context of religious traditions, it is also the case that modern beliefs and practices are shaped and informed by the traditions of the immediate and distant past. For instance, ever since the death, cremation, and division of the Buddha’s remains twenty-five hundred years ago, relics have played a pivotal role in development and diffusion of Buddhism. The Indian king Aśoka’s legendary distribution of 84,000 Buddha-relics in the third century BCE and Chinese emperors’ veneration of the Buddha’s finger bone during the Tang Dynasty may be the best known examples, but there are countless others. During Xuanzang’s pilgrimage to India, for instance, he visited several sites where the Buddha’s relics were enshrined, including a temple in Haḍḍa (present Afghanistan) where a piece of the Buddha’s skull, his uṣṇīṣa, was on display. When Xuanzang returned to China, he brought with him not only hundreds of Buddhist manuscripts, but also a cache of one hundred and fifty grains of the Buddha’s relics. Now, thirteen hundred years later, people are making pilgrimages to pay homage to Xuanzang’s relics. Why?
Despite the monumental changes that have transformed Asia over the past century and a half—modernization, globalization, and political and economic revolutions—the power of Buddhist relics appears remarkably undiminished. Throughout Asia, devout Buddhists continue to venerate the remains of eminent monks as objects imbued with miraculous powers. The temples that enshrine fragments of Xuanzang’s skull draw large crowds of supplicants who prostrate themselves before the bone, offer money, incense, and fruit, and seek Xuanzang’s aid in everything from physical health to world peace. What was once denounced as superstition at the beginning of the twentieth century is now celebrated as cultural heritage at the beginning of the twenty-first, a phenomenon that runs counter to many theories of secularization. That’s one of the intriguing things about these relics; they offer an opportunity to explore the busy crossroads where religion, politics, tradition, and modernity intersect.
Over the last few months, I have been following—both literally and figuratively—the trail of Xuanzang’s relics, and they have taken me to some fascinating places: family shrines, war memorials, museums, universities, large monasteries, and small temples. Research has progressed more or less as planned, but living in Taiwan these past few months has taken me in directions I never could have anticipated. If not for idly perusing manga in a coffee shop down the street, for example, I may not have realized that here in Taiwan Xuanzang often appears as a woman. Strange as it may seem to depict a medieval Buddhist scholar monk as a buxom, scantily clad young woman, it turns out that there is a long tradition of a highly feminine Xuanzang in East Asian popular culture. I was also surprised to learn that episodes from the Journey to the West—the famous Ming Dynasty novel that is a fictionalized and fantastic account of Xuanzang’s pilgrimage to India—are performed (sometimes on stilts, sometimes on horseback) at funerals in Taiwan. What is Xuanzang doing marching in funeral processions? Here again, what at first glance seems to be an aberrant modern phenomenon has a long and fascinating history.
For at least a thousand years, Xuanzang has been understood and accordingly revered as a guardian spirit and a savior of lost souls. The deification of Xuanzang, while unique in its particulars, is not too surprising. He was, after all, an eminent monk who made an epic pilgrimage and came to be honored as the patriarch of an influential school of East Asian Buddhism. Founding fathers are often apotheosized, and Xuanzang is no exception. Somewhat more surprising is the fact that Xuanzang’s fictional companions in the Journey to the West regularly receive offerings from devotees. Pig (Zhu Bajie) has become the patron saint of prostitutes and gamblers. His image—standing, holding his magical muck rake—adorns an altar in the Xiahai chenghuang miao霞海城隍廟, Taipei’s city god temple. In other temples and shrines, you might see him in a different pose: sitting with a nude woman draped over his lap. As for Pig’s companion and occasional adversary, Monkey (Sun Wukong), there are entire temples dedicated to him. Like most of the deities that make up Taiwan’s popular pantheon, Monkey is not some abstract representation or a distant, disinterested spirit. He’s right here. You might bump into him on the street one day. He occasionally descends into the bodies of spirit mediums to demonstrate his powers and to communicate directly with his devotees. This is the great benefit of studying religion in Taiwan: with Monkey marching in temple processions, Pig occupying small shrines and city god altars, and Xuanzang in the coffee houses, I am happily surrounded by my research subjects.
I started by saying that this story had a clear beginning but no clear end. In a way, that’s a reflection of my research at the moment. What began as a relatively simple and straightforward project has now become bigger, more complicated, and much more interesting. But really, it’s a description of Xuanzang. This one monk has now multiplied into countless new forms embodying a broad range of ideologies and agendas. Xuanzang, that famous traveler, is still on the move. We may know where he came from but no one can say where he’ll end up.