By Elizabeth Smithrosser
Pilgrimage, alms begging, and journeys to obtain scriptures or relics: life on the road was a reality for many monks in medieval China. So what kind of things did they take with them, according to popular depictions?
Buddhism, after all, was not indigenous to China. It had traveled from India over the course of generation by generation, slowly taking root along the networks often referred to as the Silk Roads. State support of Buddhism started with smaller kingdoms in the north, and gained considerable ground from the Northern Wei dynasty (386–535), which ruled over a large portion of northern China, onwards.
However deeply embedded in society the religion became, the notion of Buddhism as a foreign religion did not disappear. It manifested itself in occasional outbursts of anti-Buddhist vitriol among the scholar class and sudden policy reversals when the level of state support of Buddhist institutions became contentious.
But inside the religion, too, the foreign origins of Buddhism were by no means forgotten. As the centuries went by, more “up-to-date” understandings and practices of the religion would occasionally come knocking at the door, filtering into China through its northern and western borders. Among supporters of the religion, there was always a lingering sense that west of the borders there might be sutras, knowledge and fast-track paths to enlightenment.
It was this that prompted the sending monks on missions to India to retrieve Buddhist relics and scriptures which had not yet reached China. These hardcore treks, which covered thousands of miles and included a lengthy stay in India, often took decades. As we shall see, this enterprise supplied much inspiration to the fields of art and literature.
For a lay Buddhist, accumulating karmic merit – “good karma” – is a key task. This could be achieved by living a good life according to Buddhist ideals. However, one could also take the supplementary approach of supporting the religion itself by making donations. Donations could be in many forms: a devotee could provide food to a monk who was begging for alms, for example, or give goods, funds or services to a nearby Buddhist monastery or temple.
In medieval times, another possible way to add to one’s karmic merit was to sponsor the production of a Buddhist text or image, like a manuscript or print of a Buddhist sutra, or a devotional painting of a deity. This practice gave rise to many standardized tropes and motifs in the world of Buddhist art, one of which was that of the traveling monk.
This, or something along those lines, is the likely origin of this particular example, which was made during the 900s in northwestern China. Its dimensions are 50×25cm (20×10in), and it is currently located in the National Museum of Korea.
What we are seeing here is a monk on a long-distance trek, carrying a heavy load of scrolls on his back as well as a variety of different objects. A tiger walks beside him and some kind of deity floats above, possibly to guide the way.
We must remember that the picture has been highly stylized to the extent that much of this monk’s gear would be highly impractical for the journey at hand. In real life, these long treks were undertaken not solo, but with a large entourage, and by camel or horse, rather than on foot as shown here.
But the purpose of such pictures was not to provide an accurate representation of a real monk pilgrim. Rather, the items shown here have been selected for depiction as symbols, pointing to the spiritual prowess of this monk and the validity of the pilgrimage he has taken on.
The long and arduous journey itself, shown here as the dusty or cloudy path under the monk’s feet which stretches on backwards to the horizon in the top right-hand corner, can perhaps be read as a metaphor for the journey of all living beings: to break free from the eternal cycle of suffering and attain enlightenment. Besides, the very aim of this journey is for the scrolls in the monk’s backpack is to bring their recipients a step closer to that very goal. Perhaps this is one of the reasons the motif of the traveling monk proved so enduring.
So, there is much more than what meets the eye. While at first glance much of what we see here appears to practical hiking gear, they in fact possess a dual symbolic function. Let us take a closer look.
The bushy instrument the monk holds out in front is perhaps one of the more eye-catching components of his hiking gear. It is a “fly-whisk”, which was wafted from side to side to clear flying insects out of the way as the monk walked. These were typically made using hair from the tail of a horse.
Of course, such an item was of great practical use in the climates a monk would encounter on such a journey. However, there is also some symbolism at play here. Several tales of the lifetime of the Buddha himself mention the fact that he or his followers happened to be holding fly-whisks. As a result, as Buddhism moved into East Asia, the whisk evolved into a ritual item, generally wielded only by figures higher up in the monastic hierarchy.
Turning to this monk’s elaborate “backpack”, which is partially suspended from his staff and held together with strips of red cloth, we find several handy compartments, here shown in red and brown, perhaps for medicines and the like.
However, the main function of this contraption is not to carry travel supplies, but rather the nine large cylinders. These are scrolls, presumably Buddhist sutras, scriptures, and other important texts. The complex backpack allows the monk to transport as many of these heavy objects as possible.
A closer look reveals different types of scroll: from large ones made of cloth or paper, like those with red handles at the very back; to smaller ones, perhaps made of bamboo strips, which are rolled up individually and bound together with green or brown cloth with a decorative red lining.
Perched by the monk’s waist, we also see a bottle-shaped container. These were often made from calabash gourds, which become a lightweight hollow shell once dried and thus lent themselves well for use as water containers.
A supply of incense might not be the first thing that comes to mind when packing for a hike. But the pleasant fragrance is not its only function. Readers who enjoy camping or picnics may well have come across “mosquito coils”, which as they burn, give off a kind of smoke that repels mosquitoes and other insects.
The smoke given off by other kinds of incense also possesses insect-repelling properties. In fact, it is thought that the ritual use of incense in temples and other religious settings around the world partially grew out of this second function, as it prevented flies and other bugs from desecrating sacred areas.
In Buddhist temples of the East Asian traditions, incense is usually made using fragrant barks like sandalwood, mostly sourced from South or South East Asia. The monk in the picture has taken incense along for the journey, here depicted suspended in a censer from the staff-like object strapped to his back.
However, the whisp of smoke in this picture might actually be a figurative expression of the fragrance itself, since not all incense has to be burnt to release a scent.
The route to India included stretches of desert across the Xinjiang region of northwestern China. The blazing summer sun would require some sort of sun protection, and this monk has this in the form of a sturdy wide-brimmed woven hat, tied at his chin with a strip of red cloth.
The monk’s tonsure, which in East Asian Buddhism is in the form of an entirely shaven head, of course made the head area particularly vulnerable to sun exposure.
The rather docile-looking tiger at the monk’s heels. Of course, it is highly unlikely that such monks had pet tigers which came along for the journey. Here, the tiger is protection for the journey, having been tamed by the monk’s insight into the Dharma.
The tiger companion is frequently found in standardized images of Buddhist figures. A white tiger, for example, is often depicted alongside the bodhisattva Mañjuśrī, who appeared in my previous article A Tang dynasty monk and his secret candy recipe.
Journey to the West
In China today, the idea of the traveling monk immediately brings to mind the Tang dynasty monk Xuanzang (602–664), who is without a doubt the most famous monk to have undertaken such a journey.
Xuanzang’s mission, with the addition of supernatural companions and demonic adversaries, had been told and retold throughout Chinese history, before being immortalized in the sixteenth-century novel Journey to the West.
The classic 1986 television adaptation of Journey to the West has recently been uploaded to YouTube in full with English subtitles by its broadcaster, CCTV. This version, widely praised for its fidelity to the novel, is a fond childhood memory of many across China and beyond, and regularly appears as a rerun.
It is possible to join the story from this point in Episode 4, in which the young monk Xuanzang accepts the mission to travel to India to obtain scriptures which had not yet been seen in China:
Elizabeth Smithrosser is a PhD Student in Chinese Studies at the University of Oxford. Click here to view her university page.