Hyecho's Journey

The World of Buddhism

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Donald S. Lopez, Jr., Rebecca Bloom, Kevin Carr, Chun Wa Chan, Ha Nul Jun, Carla Sinopoli, Keiko Yokota-Carter
  • Chicago, IL: 
    University of Chicago Press
    , December
     208 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The bold claims of this beautifully produced book are laid out in the very first sentence: “this is a different kind of book about Buddhism” (xiii). There is much to appreciate about the innovative approach that the team-authored Hyecho’s Journey: The World of Buddhism exemplifies. The outcome of a Humanities Collaboratory grant from the University of Michigan, the production of this book brought together an interdisciplinary and boundary-crossing group of faculty, graduate students, and staff specializing in South Asian, Tibetan, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese art, archaeology, and religion, led by Donald Lopez, the Arthur E. Link Distinguished University Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies. The book’s release was timed to coincide with the October 2017 opening of the three-year Arthur M. Sackler Gallery exhibition Encountering the Buddha: Art and Practice Across Asia, and objects from the Freer and Sackler collections are featured in each chapter of the book. Research from the Hyecho project also resulted in the production of the “Hyecho’s World” interactive tablet located in the “Crossing Borders” portion of the exhibition and a “Hyecho’s Journey” digital app.

The book’s protagonist is the Korean monk Hyecho (ca. 704-ca. 780) and its focus is the three years, 724-727, during which he traveled to Buddhist sites throughout Asia, embarking from Korea and roaming as far west as Arabia. The guiding principle of the book is the concept of pilgrimage, which allows the authors to sidestep conventional narratives based upon the historical development of Buddhism. By zooming in on these three years, the book offers a “horizontal perspective” on Buddhism as a “network of interlocking traditions that cross national and cultural boundaries, a system without a single center but with many interconnected hubs” (xv). A focus on the international nature of Buddhism has gained traction in recent conferences and scholarly publications. What is unique about this volume is the use of a single monk’s journey, and what is imagined about that journey, as the narrative and spatial framework for a wide-ranging introduction to Buddhist thought and art.

Little is known about Hyecho and the circumstances under which he undertook his pilgrimage. He occupies a less prominent position in Buddhist history than the Chinese monk pilgrims Faxian (337-422), Xuanzang (600-664), and Yijing (635-713), who left behind lengthy and detailed travelogues. In contrast, Hyecho’s travelogue is known to us only from a single Dunhuang manuscript preserved in the Bibliothèque nationale de France. The scroll was discovered in a fragmentary condition, missing the opening and concluding portions that would have identified the author. Through a comparison with a contemporaneous Buddhist glossary, the sinologist and explorer Paul Pelliot was able to identify this manuscript as Hyecho’s Memoir of a Pilgrimage to the Five Kingdoms of India (Pelliot chinois 3532). It is precisely because so little is known about Hyecho that he was chosen as the subject for this study. Given the brief nature of Hyecho’s journey, it seems unlikely that he was ever able to master the local languages of the places that he visited. Therefore, the authors surmise that Hyecho’s experience of Buddhism was “largely visual … a world that he saw in situ rather than read in sūtras” (xv).

The book opens with a foreword that elucidates its aims and approach, followed by a substantial introduction that explains the significance of pilgrimage, situates Hyecho among other monk pilgrims, pulls together the scanty details of his life story and Buddhist practice, and provides a synopsis of his pilgrimage route. The introduction also addresses the sole putative translation project with which Hyecho was associated, that of the Sūtra of the Thousand-armed Mañjuśrī (T1177A). The twelve chapters that follow guide the reader to sites that Hyecho either visited or referenced in his travelogue. Chapter 1 departs from this formula by taking the reader to Dunhuang, where Hyecho’s travelogue was discovered at the Mogao cave shrines by Pelliot in 1908. The remaining twelve chapters address Silla, Hyecho’s journey at sea, Kuśinagara, Vulture Peak, Bodh Gayā, Lumbinī, Śrāvastī, Sāṃkāśya, Gandhāra, Arabia, and Wutaishan.

Each chapter follows the same tripartite structure, comprised of a Buddhist tale pertinent to the site with which Hyecho would have been familiar, followed by a commentary on the tale that unpacks latent themes, and concluding with an analysis of two works of art that are associated either by provenance or visual motif with the site, though not necessarily with Hyecho. As the authors note, each chapter may be read independently of others and knowledge of material addressed in earlier chapters is not assumed. The book closes with a bibliographic note assessing the scholarly literature on Hyecho. This section and the introduction are most likely to be useful reading for an academic audience. 

It might be instructive to compare the present volume to the earlier translation of Hyecho’s travelogue and the Freer and Sackler’s catalogue for the Buddhist art collection, as it weaves together the two genres of writing. Prior to the publication of this title, the main English-language source on Hyecho was The Hye Ch’o Diary: Memoir of the Pilgrimage to the Five Regions of India (Asian Humanities Press; Po Chin Chai Ltd., 1984). Also the result of a collaborative effort, the book consists of a translation and introductory text. At less than half the length of Hyecho’s Journey, the difference between the two volumes underscores the elasticity of Hyecho’s narrative and the present authors’ realization of its potential to evoke the imagination. The distinctive narrative structure of Hyecho’s Journey is also evident when compared to Paths of Perfection: Buddhist Art at the Freer|Sackler (Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 2017), in which objects from the Freer and Sackler collections, several of which are also analyzed in Hyecho’s Journey, are organized in chapters arranged instead according to iconographic motif. 

In sum, Hyecho’s Journey: The World of Buddhism is noteworthy in its joint authorship and interdisciplinary outlook. The clear and lively prose in which the book was composed will undoubtedly facilitate its appeal to a broad readership, as will its highly original approach to writing about Buddhism and Buddhist material culture.


About the Reviewer(s): 

Michelle C. Wang is Assistant Professor in the Department of Art and Art History at Georgetown University and the author of Mandalas in the Making: The Visual Culture of Esoteric Buddhism at Dunhuang (Brill, 2018).

Date of Review: 
June 8, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Donald S. Lopez Jr. is the Arthur E. Link Distinguished University Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Michigan.

Rebecca Bloom is a doctoral candidate in Tibetan Buddhism in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures and the recipient of a Graduate Certificate from the Museum Studies Program at the University of Michigan.

Kevin Carr is Associate Professor of Japanese Art and Archaeology in the Department of the History of Art at the University of Michigan.

Chun Wa Chan is a doctoral candidate in Japanese art in the Department of the History of Art at the University of Michigan.

Ha Nul Jun is a doctoral candidate in Korean Buddhism in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Michigan.

Carla Sinopoli is Professor of South Asian Anthropology, Curator of Asian Archaeology in the Museum of Anthropological Archaeology, and Director of the Museum Studies Program at the University of Michigan.

Keiko Yokota-Carter is the Japanese Studies Librarian in the Asia Library at the University of Michigan.


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