Samarkand and Bukhara-- the names still evoke images of the great silk road. Part of the vast Persian empire, it was the Central Asian people of Sogdiana who monopolized these ancient trade routes connecting the East with the West. Known in Latin as "Transoxiana," or "land beyond the Oxus River," the place was made famous during Alexander the Great Times, during his great exploits East. During Alexander's times in 4th century BC, Transoxiana was the northeastern-most point of Hellenistic culture. Populated by Iranian peoples, it was incorporated into the Persian Empire first during the Achaemenid Empire. A colonial outpost of the Persian Empire during later Sassanid times, it became known as Sogdiana.
With their "contemplative green eyes flashing" and their "purple beards flying in the wind," the hardy Sogdian traders of Samarkand and Bukhara led caravans on camel-back and horseback over the treacherous mountain passes of the Roof of the World and across the endless stretches of sand of the Taklamakan Desert toward China. And, it was their language, Sogdian, which was the lingua franca of the East during Tang dynasty times.
I can well imagine what the fine citizens of ancient Sogdiana were like having spent time in Kashmir. Another Central Asian Persian people, trade is in their blood. With its teeming markets and colorful bazaars, Alexis kept mumbling, "We're in Central Asia. Finally, Central Asia." Sultan kept repeating, "To make a sale is to make a friend." Talking over unending cups of Kashmiri chai-- cinnamon and cardamom, and a dash of milk-- it was always how business was going, or talk about some purchase--buying a new silk carpet or a Pashima shawl-- that dominated conversation. This is how I imagine the Sogdians.
Starting at the eastern edge of the Persian empire, the Kingdom of Sogdiana reached almost to Kashgar. There, the Silk Road split into two routes: one north and one south of the desert of death. With a name which means "if you go in, you'll never come back out," the Taklamakan Desert is one of the largest sandy deserts on earth. With virtually no available water, it was extremely hazardous to try and cross the desert, and so the Silk Road split into two routes. And, it was along these two routes skirting the northern and southern edges of the Desert that a string of Buddhist Kingdoms dotted the oases.
On the Southern Route, there was the Kingdom of Khotan--famous for its exquisite jade and felt carpets; and Kashgar-- which has always been a city of legend. Of course, the world's most famous Silk Road site, Dunhuang, was also located just west of where the Northern and Southern Routes met back up again. Famous for its library, Dunhuang is also the location of the Mogao Caves of A Thousand Buddhas. Located just West of the Jade Gate, Dunhuang was just West of China proper.
Along the Northern Route were the oasis cities of Gaochang, Turfan, Urumqi, and of course, Kucha. Gaochang was perhaps the most important Buddhist Kingdom. Built at the foot of the Flaming Mountains, the Bezeklik Caves of a Thousand Buddhas, located close to the ancient city, are renown for their dazzling murals. With paintings of Uighur princesses and Western traders, the place during Tang times was a magnet for people from the four corners of the civilized world.
To me, while I can imagine Sogdiana in all its Persian glory-- that there existed flourishing Buddhist Kingdoms which were centers of great scholarship in this inhospitable desert-- well, it actually boggles my mind. But, the cities located along the desert were, in fact, places of learning where the greatest minds of the Buddhist world gathered to discuss Buddhist doctrine. These cultural exchanges were conducted in the languages of scholarship of the day--Tibetan, Sanskrit, Chinese and various Prakrit. One of the most famous translators of Buddhism, Kumarjiva, was from Kucha (his mother was a Kuchan princess while his father was Kashmiri). So brilliant some legends have it that he was carried off by the Chinese. Dragged back to the capital he was made to translate the important Buddhist treatises of the time. Others say he went willingly. Whatever the case were it not for Kumarjiva, China and Japan would probably not have quite the same cast of Buddhism it has today-- such was his influence.
The great problem of the time: how to translate abstract philosophical terms from Sanskrit (a language with an extraordinarily rich philosophical lexicon that perhaps more then any language extinct or extant could express abstract concepts with specific vocabulary) into Chinese (a language poor in abstract vocabulary). Words had to be invented.
It was a huge linguistic gap that had to be overcome. Herculean. Kumarjiva, to get the closest Chinese approximation of the Sanskrit possible would engage in long discussions with a hundred students to try and fit a Sanskrit word to the Chinese mind before trying to come up with a new combination of characters.
Something very similar went on when China opened up to the west in more modern times. Both the Chinese and the Japanese had to think quick to come up with new vocabulary to express Western concepts of democracy or freedom (an entire lexicon, had to be come up with for terms used in discussing the fine arts before Japan could participate in one of the legendary World Exhibitions, for example).
They call him the world's greatest translator. A proponent of i-yaku 意訳 (meaning-oriented translation) over that of choku-yaku 直訳 (direct or literal translations), Kumarjiva is not only known for the tremendous breadth of his translations but also for the beautiful flowing smoothness of the language-- which is to say it reads beautifully. And, it needs to be stated again that is is all the more of an achievement because of the fact that he was working in what is the most obtuse area of Buddhist philosophy.
Born a Theravada Buddhist, Kumarjiva converted to Mahayana Buddhism during his student days in Kashgar and spent much time working on advancing the ideas contained in the great Indian philosopher Nagarjuna's Madhyamaka theory.
"Form is void, void is form" -- Heart Sutra
The philosophy is way too complicated for me to even attempt to think about, and due to its slippery slope vocabulary that attempts to explain a state of existence where "nothing comes into being independently" (got that?), the nature of the Chinese language just could not cope. Kumarjiva devoted the later years of his life with the task of translating this body of work, but many gnawing questions remained.
It was to this task that our hero, Xuanzang, the Tang period Buddhist monk who made his historic "Journey to the West" devoted his entire life. If you don't know who he is-- you should. In East Asia, he is a household name-- and even in India, most educated people know of the great travels of Xuanzang.
Passing through the Jade Gate, Xuanzang traveled through all the Buddhist Kingdoms along the Northern and Southern Route before turning south to India. He almost didn't make it to India, though, so intent was the devout Buddhist King of the Kingdom of Gaochang to keep the pilgrim there that the King tried to hold him there hostage. Rather than from any ill-will, the King quite simply could not bear to let such a stimulating conversationalist and brilliant debater leave his realm.
You can hardly blame him, actually.
Some people consider Xuanzang to be the greatest traveler of all time. Marco Polo perhaps traveled further in terms of distance-- but well, that was about 450 years later (and things were more comfortable then). More importantly, though, while Polo traveled for personal reasons of wealth and fame, our man from Chang-an traveled to find the Truth-- to understand the nature of reality, not just for himself but for the sake of all sentient beings. His great journey took him first across the desert Kingdoms and then to Kashmir, which was a great center of Buddhist learning at the time. He continued South where he ended up at Nalanda University. There he studied Buddhist philosophy, logic and Sanskrit. Returning to China, he hauled a library of books back wit him and spent the remainder of his days teaching and translating.
About five years ago, New York Times book critic Richard Bernstein wrote a book, called the Ultimate Journey, about his travels re-tracing the path taken by Xuanzang. While very interested in the both the monk's and the New Yorker's travels across the lands of Central Asia and India, this book remained impossible for me. The author just engaged in far too much self-psychoanalysis. It quite simply kept getting on my nerves.
The beginning, for example, was devoted to a long explanation of why, he a Jew from New York would be undertaking this trip. No, he explains, this was not a mid-life crisis (which of course it was) and he goes into pretty excruciating detail of how it was between taking this trip, or retreating to a farm in upstate New York to spend a year making Quaker furniture. I never did quite get how the trip won out over the furniture but this is followed by long passages of his inability to commit (he does not want to be alone, it seems, and yet has had trouble committing). Then there are long passages about his ambiguity toward both Buddhism as well as Judaism-- and then finally by India, he turns cranky. And that is where I finally just had to put the book down-- three times, in fact!
Well, I guess India does that to people. He described seeing a little boy so crippled that he was crawling in the dirt with his legs twisted up behind his neck like a scorpion. I saw a little boy just like that. I must have pushed it back into some dark corner of my mind, but well-- this time, I finished the book...And, I can finally say-- I actually recommend it!
Which is perhaps only to say that maybe I am more sympathetic to mid-life crises! :(
Here he is in all his glory:
I was experiencing a kind of quarrel with bourgeois life, bathed in its ease and pleasures but aware too of its smallness and ordinariness-- its lack of excitement. Most of us middle-aged men are among that species of routinized, rationalized beings that Max Weber called "specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart." We start out idealists and we end up creatures of habit, more concerned about the state of the lawn than of the spirit.
Get the picture? And yet so fascinated with this monk who believed that "An escape from suffering lay not in worldly pleasure, in sex, wealth or power, but in the quiet cultivation of one's own mind" that he picked up and traveled half-way around the world to follow in the monk's footsteps is pretty impressive. It is very rough territory. And, he is not a young man either.
My original frustrations remained-- not many people travel in that part of the world, so rather than descriptions of personal angst, "Will I ever commit?" I would have preferred more descriptions of the places he was passing through. At the same time, perhaps I am finally at a point in my life to really appreciate someone grappling with this kind of existentialist ambiguity-- our outer life versus the life of the spirit; or the feeling of being atheist by default as this is perhaps the author's main theme? For he does not feel at home in his own religion (Judaism) any more than that of the exotic Asian one. It is a question of authenticity.
Finally, I gotta hand it to him-- he remained the ever pragmatist right till the end. For someone prone to long bouts of self-psychoanalysis, he goes on to be surprisingly pragmatic in the face of what is sometimes extreme poverty, visiting orphanages and donating money, offering to buy an old woman a slice of watermelon when he hears her complaining how expensive it is. I think there is a lesson in there somewhere too-- I am just not sure what!!!
And now for something really entertaining-- where fact is more unbeliable than fiction: The Pickle King of Islamistan (It's the best thing I've read in at least a week!)