Bhutanese photographer retraces enlightening journey of Chinese monk

By Xie Wenting Source:Global Times Published: 2019/10/24 17:23:40

Bhutanese photographer Pawo Choyning Dorji Photo: Li Hao/GT

When Bhutanese photographer Pawo Choyning Dorji went into a bookstore in Beijing's bustling Sanlitun area in 2012 and asked for a book about Xuanzang, a legendary Chinese Buddhist monk, he was offered the mythology book Journey to the West

He was then surprised to find out that people only associate Xuanzang with the book and the Monkey King, a fictional character in the novel. Xuanzang's real achievements and good qualities seemed to be forgotten by the general public in China. At that moment, Dorji, a pious Buddhist, came up with the idea of retracing Xuanzang's journey from China to India to show a visual story.

In September, he launched a photo exhibition about his journey from Beijing and released the book Light of the Moon: The Life & Legacy of Xuanzang of Tang in Chinese. It took Dorji almost five years to finish the project. He trekked through Northwest China's Shaanxi and Gansu provinces, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and then toward the south to countries including Nepal, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, a journey Xuanzang embarked on more than 1,300 years ago.

"In countries like Nepal and India, Buddhism is the foundation of the history, and Xuanzang played such an important role in setting the foundations for this history," Dorji told the Global Times. 

"I find it interesting that this man whose life was about this journey to India walked by himself across the harshest deserts, highest mountain," he said. Dorji found it strange that in his country, Xuanzang is more remembered in regards to the Monkey King than for his own legacy. 

After his photo exhibition in China, Dorji plans to take it to India.

Shadow and light 

Born into an aristocratic family in Bhutan, Dorji spent many years in India where he got to know stories about Xuanzang.

While there are some scholarly books written about Xuanzang, Dorji  believes these accounts don't connect with most people. He hopes his visual stories can better reach the public. However, his initial idea was met with opposition and many people told him that his vision was impossible to realize. 

"[For me] It's not a question of being able to do it or not. It's about doing it or not," he said. "Xuanzang was more difficult than me because he had to walk. I have it easy because I have cars and planes."

Newer problems were in place for Dorji which Xuanzang did not need to bother with, such as getting visas.

Dorji applied for an Afghan visa three times. The first time, his visa request was declined. The second time, he found a German NGO which operates in Afghanistan. He intended to apply for the visa with the NGO as a photographer for the organization's project in Afghanistan. Unexpectedly, a German aid worker was then kidnapped by Taliban and the German government ordered the German NGOs not to take people to Afghanistan.

 On the third attempt, Dorji applied for a tourist visa. While the embassy staff was  surprised that a tourist would come to their country, they granted him the visa. 

"It takes time. But giving up was never an option for me," he said, adding that he is lucky to have the support from his family.  

During the journey, Dorji said he learned more about the world we live in. 

"If you really want to appreciate the light, you must understand the shadow. And that is what this journey has brought. Because I went to many places that are regarded by the rest of the world as shadows, dark places," he said. "When you are there, you realized that [the people there] are just like you. We are culturally different but inside, we are capable of the same love." 

In Afghanistan, Dorji rented a bulletproof car for safety concerns. The car had a daily cost of $700. After about two weeks in Afghanistan, he prepared to leave. 

On his last day, he rode in his bulletproof car to the airport. While en route, a bomb exploded  on the road. It then took three hours for him to finish the 15 minute path to the airport. Despite rushing to the terminal, he was told he missed his flight.  

He then had to fly out another day, but had run out of money to reserve the bulletproof car, so he called for a regular car.

Worrying about Dorji's safety, the car agency still sent him the bulletproof car for the price of the regular car.   

Dorji said this is one of the many acts of kindness he experienced during the trip. "The journey made me realize that the world we live in is very beautiful."

Reminder for the youth 

"What is really important about Xuanzang and the journey is the human qualities that it represents: to be courageous and fearless, believe in something so much that that is your ultimate goal and the determination of never giving up during this process," Dorji said. 

He added that he hoped his work could become a reminder for people about these qualities. "Living in a time where everything is faster, everything is digital, everything is modern, we are lacking these qualities," he said. 

"Especially I think China needs to be reminded. If I was Chinese and someone asked me, what represents Chinese culture most? I would say Xuanzang."

"China should never forget you have such a great history, amazing history. We must always look in the past to make our way for the future," he stressed. "I think it's very important, especially for the Chinese youth."

Dorji has a daughter and son, whom his journey away from brought him closer too. Dorji's driver in Afghanistan said that in a country devastated by two decades of conflict, the safety of his family is a daily concern. 

The driver cannot guarantee safety and security for his own family, but said that until he can, he will try his best to be a good father and husband. 

"After I had conversation with him, I feel like maybe I became a better father. I appreciate my time with my children more now," he said.
Newspaper headline: Photo journaling to the West


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