Xuanzang was a Chinese monk who journeyed to India to study Buddhism. He was preceded by others, among them Fa Xian (Fa-hsien), but was surpassed by none. Together the pilgrims’ translations and other writings enhanced China’s knowledge of many lands and added to the understanding of Buddhism.
A precocious boy from a literati family, he followed his elder brother to pursue a monastic life at 12 and was given the religious name Xuanzang upon ordination at age 20. In 629 he embarked on a 16-year journey to India, leaving China at night and in secret because Emperor Taizong (T’ang-tsung, r. 626–649) of the newly founded Tang (T’ang) dynasty had forbidden his subjects to leave the country. His journey involved crossing formidable deserts and high mountains, with rest periods among monastic communities and as guest of rulers in the oasis towns, across modern Afghanistan, down the Indus River valley, across Kashmir, to the Ganges valley.
In India he studied, lectured, and debated with Buddhist scholars and teachers of other religions and was entertained and honored by kings. Twice he was the guest of King Harsha Vardhana, the powerful ruler of northern India. Xuanzang traveled widely throughout the subcontinent except the southern tip. He studied and lectured at Nalanda, where Buddhist scholars from many Asian lands studied at the famous university. He also visited holy sites such as Bodh Gaya and Sarnath that were associated with Gautama Buddha’s life and famous Buddhist monuments at Ajanta and Pataliputra. He also collected manuscripts and relics.
In 643 Xuanzang participated in a five-day-long religious debate among leaders of different schools sponsored by King Harsha and witnessed a spectacular almsgiving ceremony during which Harsha gave away all his wealth except his warhorses and elephants. Finally and reluctantly Harsha granted him permission to return to China and provided him with a military escort to the border of his kingdom, money for the trip, and beasts of burden to carry the manuscripts. Following the southern Silk Road and after many perils Xuanzang arrived home after 16 years and having traveled 10,000 miles. News of his arrival preceded him and he entered Chang’an a national hero in 645.
Taizong, who had meantime gained the reputation as a heroic warrior and wise ruler, welcomed him to court in a special audience and eagerly listened to his reports of lands, rulers, and peoples he had seen. Taizong also asked Xuanzang to join his government as a minister, unsuccessfully. The monk did however agree to write an account of his travels, titled Record of Western Regions. Xuanzang lived in Chang’an for the rest of his life. Under the emperor’s patronage he headed a team of monks that translated a prodigious quantity of Buddhist texts to Chinese (73 works, and over 1,000 scrolls). His Record of Western Regions remains important in aiding archaeologists’ work from China through Central Asia to India. Another result of his journey was an exchange of ambassadors between Taizong and Harsha. The third Chinese embassy to India found Harsha assassinated, whereupon the ambassador gathered an army aided by the Tang tributary state Tibet, captured the usurping assassin, and brought him to China for punishment. The effort, however, could not save Harsha’s kingdom.
- Beal, Samuel, tr. The Life of Hiuen-Tsiang. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1973;
- Waley, Arthur. The Real Tripitaka. London: Allen and Unwin, 1952;
- Wriggins, Sally Hovey. Xuanzang, A Buddhist Pilgrim on the Silk Road. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996.
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