The Travels and Work of Xuan-zang

the following has been re-edited from
an article on Xuan-zang on the Wikipedia


Xuan-zang Statue at the Wild Goose Pagoda, Xi-an
Xuan-zang Statue at the Wild Goose Pagoda, Xi-an


Early History

Xuan-zang, whose lay name was Chen Hui, was born into a family noted for its erudition. He was the youngest of four children. His great-grandfather was an official serving as a prefect; his grandfather was appointed as professor in the Imperial College at the capital. His father was a conservative Confucianist who gave up office and withdrew into seclusion to escape the political turmoil that gripped China at that time.

According to traditional biographies, Xuan-zang displayed a superb intelligence and earnestness, amazing his father by his careful observance of the Confucian rituals even from an early age. Along with his brothers and sister, he received an early education from his father, who instructed him in classical works on filial piety and several other canonical treatises of orthodox Confucianism.

Although his home was essentially Confucian, at a young age Xuan-zang expressed interest in becoming a Buddhist monk as one of his elder brothers had done. After the death of his father in 611, he lived with his older brother Chensu (later known as Changjie) for five years at Jingtu Monastery in Luoyang, supported by the Sui Dynasty state. During this time he studied Mahāyāna Buddhism and various early Buddhist schools, preferring Mahāyāna.

In 618, the Sui Dynasty collapsed and Xuan-zang and his brother fled to Chang-an, which had been proclaimed as the capital of the Tang state, and thence southward to Chengdu, Sichuan. Here the two brothers spent two or three years in further study in the monastery of Kong Hui, including the Abhidharmakosa-śāstra of Vasubandhu. When Xuan-zang requested to take Buddhist orders at the age of thirteen, the abbot Zheng Shanguo made an exception in his case because of his precocious knowledge.

Xuan-zang was fully ordained as a monk in 622, at the age of twenty. The myriad contradictions and discrepancies in the texts at that time prompted Xuan-zang to decide to go to India and study in the cradle of Buddhism. He subsequently left his brother and returned to Chang-an to study foreign languages and to continue his study of Buddhism. He began his mastery of Sanskrit in 626, and probably also studied Tocharian. During this time Xuan-zang also became interested in the metaphysical Yogacara school of Buddhism.

The Journey along the Silk Road

Xuan-zang pictured
at the Mo-goa Caves

In 629, Xuan-zang reportedly had a dream that convinced him to journey to India. The Tang Dynasty and Eastern Turk Gokturks were waging war at the time; therefore Emperor Tang Taizong prohibited foreign travel. Xuan-zang persuaded some Buddhist guards at the gates of Yumen and slipped out of the empire via Liangzhou (Gansu), and Qinghai province.

He subsequently travelled across the Gobi Desert to Kumul (Hami), thence following the Tian Shan mountains westward, arriving in Turpan in 630. Here he met the king of Turpan, a Buddhist who equipped him further for his travels with letters of introduction and valuables to serve as funds.

On his further travels he went through Yanqi, Kucha, Tokmak, Tashkentand crossed a spur of the Pamirs and passed through the famous Iron Gates. Continuing southward, he passed through Kunduz, Balkh and Nava Vihara, or Nawbahar, which he described as the westernmost monastic institution in the world. Here Xuan-zang also found over 3,000 non-Mahāyāna monks, including Prajñakāra, a monk with whom Xuan-zang studied early Buddhist scriptures.

He acquired the important Mahāvibhāṣa text here, which he later translated into Chinese. Prajñakāra then accompanied the party southward to Bamyan, where Xuan-zang saw the two large Bamyan Buddhas carved out of the rockface. The party then resumed their travel eastward, crossing the Shibar Pass and descending to the regional capital of Kapisi (about 60 km north of modern Kabul).

This was part of the fabled old land of Gandhāra. Xuan-zang took part in a religious debate here, and demonstrated his knowledge of many Buddhist schools. Here he also met the first Jains and Hindus of his journey. He pushed on to Adinapur (later named Jalalabad) and Laghman, where he considered himself to have reached India. The year was 630.

Travels and Studies in India

Xuan-zang left Adinapur, passing through Hunza and the Khyber Pass to the east, reaching the former capital of Gandhāra, Puruṣapura (Peshawar), on the other side. Peshawar was nothing compared to its former glory, and Buddhism was declining in the region. Xuan-zang visited a number of stupas around Peshawar, notably the Kaniṣka Stupa. This stupa was built just southeast of Peshawar, by a former king of the city. In 1908 it was rediscovered by D.B. Spooner with the help of Xuan-zang’s account.

Xuan-zang left Peshawar and travelled through the Swat and Buner Valleys, before doubling back via Shabaz Gharni to cross the Indus river at Hund. Thereafter he headed to Taxila, a Mahāyāna Buddhist kingdom that was a vassal of Kashmir, which is where he went next.

There he found 5,000 more Buddhist monks in 100 monasteries and met a talented Mahāyāna monk and spent his next two years (631-633) studying Mahāyāna alongside other schools of Buddhism. During this time, Xuan-zang wrote about the Fourth Buddhist council that took place nearby, ca. 100 AD, under the order of King Kaniṣka of Kuṣāna.

In 633, Xuan-zang left Kashmir and journeyed south to Chinabhukti, thought to be modern Firozpur in present day India, where he studied for a year with the monk-prince Vinītaprabhā. He also visited Jalandhar in eastern Punjab, the Kulu valley, Bairat and then Mathura, on the Yamuna river.

Mathura had 2,000 monks of both major Buddhist branches, despite being Hindu-dominated. At Matipura Monastery Xuan-zang studied under Mitrasena. From there, he headed south to Saṅkaṣya (Kapitha), said to be where Buddha descended from heaven after teaching the Abhidhamma to his Mother.

He also visited and studied in Ayodhya (Sāketa), the home of the Yogacāra school at the time, Kausambi (Kosam), Śrāvasti, and travelled through Terai in the southern part of modern Nepal and thence to Kapilavastu, his last stop before Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha. He then went to Kusinagara, the site of Buddha’s passing, before heading southwest to the deer park at Sarnath where the Buddha gave his first sermon.

At Nālanda

The Ruins at Nalanda
The Ruins at Nālanda

He further visited Varanasi, Vaisali, Pataliputra (Patna) and Bodh Gaya. He was then accompanied by local monks to Nālanda, the great Buddhist university of Indian state of Bihar, where he spent at least the next two years. He was in the company of several thousand scholar-monks, whom he praised highly.

There Xuan-zang studied logic, grammar, Sanskrit, and the Yogacāra school of Buddhism. It was at Nālanda that Xuan-zang met the venerable Sīlabhadra, the monastery’s superior. Sīlabhadra had dreamt of Xuan-zang’s arrival and that it would help spread far and wide the Dharma.

Further Travels and Return to China

From Nālanda, Xuan-zang travelled through several countries, including what are modern day Bangladesh and Andhra Pradesh and visted the famous Vihāras at Amaravati and Nāgārjunakoṇḍa. Heading home again he travelled through the Khyber Pass of the Hindu Kush, and passed through Kashgar, Khotan, and Dunhuang on his way back. He arrived in the capital, Chang-an, on the seventh day of the first month of 645, and a great procession celebrated his return.

On his return to China in AD 645 Xuan-zang was greeted with much honour but he refused all high civil appointments offered by the still-reigning emperor, Emperor Taizong of Tang. Instead, he retired to a monastery and devoted his energy to translating Buddhist texts until his death in AD 664.

His influence on Chinese Buddhism

During his travels he studied with many famous Buddhist masters, especially at the famous center of Buddhist learning at Nālanda University. When he returned, he brought with him some 657 Sanskrit texts. With the emperor’s support, he set up a large translation bureau in Chang-an (present-day Xi-an), drawing students and collaborators from all over East Asia. He is credited with the translation of some 1,330 fascicles of scriptures into Chinese. His strongest personal interest in Buddhism was in the field of Yogācāra.

The force of his own study, translation and commentary of the texts of these traditions initiated the development of the Faxiang school in East Asia. Although the school itself did not thrive for a long time, its theories regarding perception, consciousness, karma, rebirth, etc. found their way into the doctrines of other more successful schools. Xuan-zang’s closest and most eminent student was Kuiji (??) who became recognized as the first patriarch of the Faxiang school. Another important disciple was the Korean monk Woncheuk.

Xuan-zang was known for his extensive but careful translations of Indian Buddhist texts to Chinese, which have enabled subsequent recoveries of lost Indian Buddhist texts from the translated Chinese copies. He is credited with writing or compiling the Cheng Weishi Lun as a commentary on these texts. His translation of the Heart Sutra became and remains the standard in all East Asian Buddhist sects.

Xuan-zang returned to China with three copies of the Mahaprajñapāramitā Sūtra, and with a team of disciple translators, commenced translating the voluminous work in 660 CE, using all three versions to ensure the integrity of the source documentation. Xuan-zang was encouraged by a number of his disciple translators to render an abridged version. After a suite of dreams quickened his decision, Xuan-zang determined to render an unabridged, complete volume, faithful to the original of 600 chapters.

In 646, under the Emperor’s request, Xuan-zang completed his book Great Tang Records on the Western Regions, which is the longest and most detailed account of the countries of Central and South Asia that has been bestowed upon posterity by a Chinese Buddhist pilgrim. While his main purpose was to obtain Buddhist books and to receive instruction on Buddhism while in India, he ended up doing much more. He has preserved the records of political and social aspects of the lands he visited that would otherwise have been lost to history.

A skull relic purported to be that of Xuan-zang was held in the Temple of Great Compassion, Tianjin until 1956 when it was taken to Nalanda – allegedly by the Dalai Lama – and presented to India. The relic is now in the Patna museum. The Wenshu Monastery in Chengdu, Sichuan province also claims to have part of Xuan-zang’s skull. Part of Xuan-zang’s remains were taken from Nanjing by soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army in 1942, and are now enshrined at Yakushi-ji in Nara, Japan.


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