Meditation & Health #13-Ancient Journeys: Spiritual Travels on the Silk Road

Meditation & Health No 13 - Table of Contents



Ancient Journeys:

Spiritual Travels on the Silk Road

                             By Melia McClure

A Global Village in the Ancient World


    Many people think of globalization as a modern phenomenon, but long, long before the Internet helped spread ideas and foster a “global village,” the famed Silk Road linked East and West and brought globalization to the ancient world.

    Travel broadens our horizons. Whether it is done for pleasure, business, or spiritual reasons such as feeling the call to make a pilgrimage to a holy site, travel brings us into contact with ideas, customs and traditions different from our own. Seeing firsthand how other people live and learning about what they believe enriches us in ways that cannot be gleaned from a book. And dealing with the unfamiliar, unexpected situations and encounters with people that occur when one is traveling, as well as the insecurity that can come with being far from home, reminds us of the importance of remaining balanced and going with the flow.for the ancient travelers who journeyed along the Silk Road to trade goods and spread new ideas, remaining balanced and conquering fear were essential to surviving the rigors of the journey.



    Despite its name, the Silk Road was not a single path but rather a network of trade routes that covered more than 4,600 miles from the eastern reaches of China west to the Mediterranean, eventually including maritime routes. Travelers began trading in silk along what would become known as the Silk Road during the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), and bustling travel continued thereafter for centuries. Trade in silk was critical to the establishment of the Silk Road, hence the name, which was not coined until the 19th century. Silk was considered a luxury goods throughout the ancient world, and it was China’s most important export for hundreds of years. It was by no means, however, the only goods traded. Raw materials and finished products were transported through often perilous conditions: Teo, ceramics, furs and paper were sent westward from China, while spices, ivory, metalwork, glass and aromatics journeyed eastward.Caravans would traverse sprawling, searing deserts and ice-laden mountain passes, trudging through blistering summers and frigid winters in the hope of being rewarded with successful trade.



    The Silk Road is also a metaphor for the successful trading of ideas and knowledge by diverse groups of people. Religions such as Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Zoroastrianism, as well as philosophies, technologies, cuisines, music, visual styles and cultural practices, spread along its corridors. Thus the Silk Road was a major factor in the development of the civilizations of China, Arabia, Europe, Persia and the Indian subcontinent, and crucial to fostering political and economic relationships between those civilizations. The primary traders of antiquity were the Chinese (various ethnic groups from China), Syrians, Persians, Armenians, Greeks, Romans, Bactrians (an Iranian people of antiquity) and Indians, and from the fifth century to the eighth, the Sogdians (another ancient Iranian ethnic group). Arab traders rose to prominence with the advent of Islam.

    Knowledge of subjects such as astronomy and mathematics moved along the corridors and grew under the influence of the diversely erudite perspectives of various cultures. Knowledge of silk making, or sericulture, and technologies such as papermaking, glassmaking and metalworking also spread thanks to travelers. As goods moved from one destination to the next, artisans were inspired to adopt ideas or improve upon ways of making things. Travel, then as now, ignites the collective creative consciousness.

    Camels, not dogs, were man’s best friend along the Silk Road. Well suited to Central Asia’s forbidding conditions, these hardy beasts were crucial to long-distance trade along routes that were scarcely better than rugged caravan tracks. A single caravan could contain thousands of camels piled high with goods; merchants, pilgrims, warriors and guides would walk alongside. Bandits, deserts and mountain ranges posed great risks to travelers; experienced guides were essential to a caravan’s safe passage. Travelers rarely journeyed the entire length of the Silk Road, although some objects did. Business was conducted in a relay manner, with people visiting marketplaces in a few cities and sending goods onward with fresh travelers. Inns called caravanserais provided the road-weary with food, shelter, and the chance to mingle and trade with other travelers in what were no doubt lively and colorful environs. At a caravanserai, ideas, recipes and music were exchanged. Individuals influenced each other, and in turn influenced the collective. Travelers shared their spiritual faith; the spread of some of humanity’s most profound and influential spiritual ideas can be traced to the many determined souls who braved the perils of the Silk Road.



Religious Thought Along the Caravan Tracks in the Early Years

    The peoples of the Silk Road in its early years were of many and varied belief systems. In China, the ruling elite worshiped their own ancestors in grand ancestral temples. Both the elite and commoners worshiped deities of the four directions and deities of mountains, rivers and other environmental elements. There was no Buddhism in China, no organized religious Taoism, no state-recognized Confucianism. The beliefs of the people of Korea and Japan during that early period were largely unrecorded, but likely to have been precursors to Shinto, a polytheistic Japanese religion that came later.

    To the west in India, Buddhism and Hinduism had replaced Brahmanism. Farther west, many in the Middle East looked to the Greco-Roman pagan pantheon of gods and goddesses for guidance and blessing, while others adhered to the old faiths of Egypt, in particular the cult of Isis and Osiris. Judaism had spread beyond its birthplace through Jewish merchants and other settlers and was practiced in cities and towns throughout the Middle East. Zoroastrianism, a religion brought to the world by Persian sage Zoroaster in the sixth century BC, was popular in Persia and Central Asia. By the first century BC, the Greek colonies of Central Asia, left behind after the fall of the empire of Alexander the Great, mostly converted from Greco-Roman paganism to Buddhism. The stage was being set for Buddhism to spread far and wide via travelers on the Silk Road. Christianity and Islam did not yet exist.

    For spiritually oriented people, faith is a significant part of personal identity. Religious belief is also connected to culture, to one’s home, and to a sense of comfort, security and belonging. For travelers on the Silk Road, the inherent rigors and dangers of the journey, and the desire to remain connected to home and identity, made practicing their faith while on the move important. Traders constructed shrines and temples in many of the places they visited so they could worship in circumstances that felt familiar and sacred. Missionaries joined caravans to spread the teachings of their particular faith. And thus trans-Eurasia travelers were to radically change the face of spiritual belief as they journeyed from place to place.


Spreading the Dharma


    Buddhism was the first of the major missionary religions to expand its influence through travel on the Silk Road. (Christianity, Islam and Zoroastrianism are also missionary faiths, meaning new worshipers are sought out by the already faithful.) The teachings of Buddhism held broad appeal; the idea that the earthly wheel of suffering can be transcended through Buddhist faith and practice rapidly surmounted barriers of language, culture and distance.

    By the first century BC, Buddhism had spread to the lands now known as Afghanistan and Pakistan from its birthplace in northeastern India. The legacy of Alexander the Great included a collection of Greek kingdoms and trade routes from the Mediterranean to the lands of present-day Afghanistan and Tajikistan, bordering China, and the stage was set for Greek practices to meld with Buddhism and become Greco-Buddhism. In particular, two mighty Greek kingdoms, the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom (250 BC – 125 BC) and the Indo-Greek Kingdom (180 BC -10 AD), practiced Greco-Buddhism and for three centuries were the first stop on the Silk Road outside of China. Merchants who hailed from Afghanistan and Pakistan were quick in contributing to the setting up of shrines and temples wherever they went on the Silk Road, and those places of worship were staffed by monks who preached to locals and travelers. Over the centuries merchants played an increasingly large role in the spread of Buddhist teachings, and in exchange for their support, monasteries offered them a place to stay as they moved along the Silk Road.



    The imperial court of China officially noted the arrival of Buddhism in the mid-first century AD. In the second century AD, the Greco-Buddhist Kushan Empire expanded into Chinese territory (modern Xinjiang, in the northwest of the country) and interactions between the two cultures intensified, with Central Asian Buddhist missionaries increasingly conducting missions in Chinese capital cities. None of the first missionaries and translators of Buddhist scriptures into Chinese were Chinese. A Parthian (Iranian) man named An Shigeo, whose life is shrouded in mystery, is credited with producing the first documented Chinese translation of Buddhist texts in 148 AD.

    Beginning in the fourth century AD, Chinese monks traveled to India to access original Buddhist texts and experience the birthplace of their faith.The most famous Buddhist pilgrim of the Silk Road is Xuanzang.


Xuanzang, Spiritual Traveler


    “I would rather die going to the West than live by staying in the East’ vowed Buddhist monk Xuanzang.

    Born in central China into a family of government officials and Confucian scholars around the year 600, Xuanzang was ordained as a full monk at age 20. Eventually dissatisfied by the contradictory translations of Buddhist scriptures, he became convinced that true understanding of Buddha’s teachings lay in India. Further inspired by a dream in which he was urged to go westward, he set off on his pilgrimage in 629. His legendary travels through unimaginable hardship lasted 17 years and became the basis of the classic 16th-century Chinese novel Journey to the West.

    His ultimate destination was Nalanda University, the largest Buddhist monastery in India. He embarked at a fraught time: Eastern Turks were attacking along Chino’s western borders, and as a result the Chinese government shut the roads leading west to all but merchants and foreigners. Xuanzang applied for a passport to travel to India and was denied. 



Undaunted, he set about sneaking out of China, riding by night, hiding by day, and helped by Buddhists to evade government-ordered capture. He also faced the life-threatening perils of the vast Gobi Desert. Blistering days, bitter nights, and a glaring lack of water, food and shelter characterized life — or lack thereof — in the desert. Human bones stuck out of the sand, a dire warning to Xuanzang of the fate of travelers who had come before. Also rising out of the desert were live sentry towers, poised to shoot and kill all travelers without a passport. In his desperation to evade them, the determined monk became lost and wandered for days without water or nourishment. Death approached. Sprawled in the sand and paralyzed by dehydration and exhaustion, Xuanzang was visited by a mysterious giant in a dream, as recorded later by his disciples. The giant commanded him to move. Xuanzang obeyed and his horse led him to an oasis, saving his life.

    The monk pushed on, arriving in Turfan (in Xinjiang). There the king, a devout Buddhist, furnished Xuanzang with an entourage, supplies and letters of introduction. 

    Setting off again, Xuanzang and those accompanying him encountered treacherous glaciers, bitter cold, and bandits. Much of the monk’s entourage died. His resolve, however, did not.

     After three years of largely solitary travel, three years of surviving heat, ice, sandstorms and mountains, Xuanzang reached India. Hardships continued in the form of bandits, diseases, searing heat and wild animals. Stories of his narrow escapes from murderous thieves are legendary.

     He traveled and studied throughout India. He visited various sites of Buddha’s life and the place of Buddha’s death. And then he came to his cherished destination, Nalanda University, where he embarked on an intensive course of Buddhist study. After leaving Nalanda, he continued to travel to many centers of Buddhism, including places in what we now call Bangladesh.

    Upon his return to China nearly two decades after this spiritual traveler took the first steps of his quest, Xuanzang was greeted with a hero’s welcome. His return journey had been fraught with murderous bandits and the whims of Nature and many of his companions, some of whom had been instructed to accompany him by the king of India, had died. But Xuanzang had survived to bring back more than 600 Buddhist texts, over 100 sarira relics, and seven statues of the Buddha. He refused the honor of appointment to the imperial court of the great Emperor Taizong and withdrew to a monastery, where he spent the remainder of his life translating Buddhist texts and, as requested by the emperor, composing a record of his journey. His epic 12-volume autobiography. Great Tang Records on the Western Regions, is of vast value as a source of information about medieval Central Asia and India: not just their Buddhist aspects, but political, economic, social, cultural, linguistic, geographical, climatic, and other conditions as well. A treasured guidebook to archaeologists, it has played a role in the excavation of many significant sites.

    Xuanzangs travels and his subsequent translations were of immense importance in spreading Buddhism throughout China and beyond. He remains a legendary figure. The novel Journey to the West, written centuries after his death in celebration of his heroic quest, has had a huge and enduring impact on Chinese culture and done much to preserve Xuanzang’s legendary status.

   Just as the Silk Road is both a historical place and a metaphor for the exchange of ideas, Xuanzang’s journey is both historical fact and an inspiring metaphor for the journeys of all kinds that we undertake in the course of our lives. The fulfillment of a dream requires travel of mind, body and soul, and a faith in one’s higher purpose. Xuanzang’s bravery was unshakeable. Many other brave souls risked their lives along the Silk Road, too. Their legacies remind modern-day travelers of the importance of faith and courage on the journey through life.



Meditation & Health No 13 - Table of Contents