Xuanzang Biography


(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

Article abstract: A pilgrim and scholar, Xuanzang brought the wisdom of the Sanskrit Buddhist scriptures from India to China, producing a huge legacy of Chinese sutras and a record of his travels. His works stand as testaments to his faith and courage as one of China’s greatest travelers in the physical and spiritual quest for religious truth.

Early Life

Xuanzang (or Hsüan-tsang in Wade-Giles) was born with the secular name Ch’en Yi; he is also known by the honorific names Tripitaka and T’ang San-tsang. He was descended from a prominent Honan provincial family. Beginning with the Han Dynasty in the first century, several of his relatives had served in local and national governmental positions. His great-grandfather was a prefect in Shanxi Province during the Northern Wei (386-534), and his grandfather served the Qi (479-502) court as an academician at the national academy, a position which gave the Ch’en family a hereditary sinecure in Luoyang, Ch’en Yi’s birthplace.

Ch’en Yi’s father, Ch’en Hui, was a Confucian scholar during the short but politically tumultuous Sui Dynasty (581-618). Not wanting to get involved in the unsettled politics of the time, Ch’en Hui, on the pretext of illness, turned down the posts of magistrate, prefect, and garrison commander, preferring to stay at home and pass his learning on to his four sons. Ch’en Yi, the youngest, showed early signs of brilliance. At the age of eight he could recite the Confucian Hsiao Ching and conscientiously practiced the moral maxims he learned from his father. Instead of engaging in childhood pastimes, it is said that he spent his time studying the Confucian classics.

When Ch’en Yi was twelve, his second brother, Ch’en Ch’ang-chieh, took Buddhist vows at the Pure Land Monastery in Luoyang, the eastern capital. Ch’en Yi went to his brother’s temple and also studied to become a monk, but, at a time when the government was fearful of the economic and political power of Buddhist institutions, court decree permitted only twenty-seven out of hundreds of candidates to be accepted for ordination. Zheng Shanguo, the imperial envoy, found the younger Ch’en outside the monastery gates and, impressed by his erudition and piety, permitted him to take the lower Buddhist orders. From then on he was known by his religious name, Xuanzang.

Xuanzang continued his studies at Luoyang, mastering scriptures and gaining fame for his scholarship and preaching. By this time the Sui Dynasty was under attack by the rebellious forces of Li Yuan, and Xi’an, the western capital, fell in 617. A year later, Li Yuan mounted the throne as Tang Gao Zu (reigned 618-626) and proclaimed at Xi’an the founding of the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Because of the fighting that eventually led to the overthrow of the Sui and the consolidation of Tang power, after a brief visit to Xi’an, Xuanzang and his brother retreated to the southwest province of Sichuan. There, at Chengdu, many refugee monks found haven from the famine and warfare affecting the rest of China. Xuanzang took advantage of their presence to deepen his understanding of the sutras. In 622, at the age of twenty, Xuanzang took his final vows, becoming a full-fledged monk.

The more he learned, the more Xuanzang became preoccupied with certain knotty theological questions that his teachers could not answer to his satisfaction. Could all sentient beings attain Buddahood, and if so, how? Were the ancient Hinayana teachings emphasizing personal religious zeal and commitment to life in the sangha (Buddhist monastic community) indeed inferior to the current Mahayana emphasis on salvation through faith in the saving grace of the bodhisattva Maitreya? Xuanzang was especially interested in the emerging Faxiang school of Buddhist thought derived from the Yogācāra school of Indian Mahayana teachings. Studying the extant Chinese textual versions of Yogācāra Buddhism convinced him that only by becoming familiar with the great Yogācārabhümi śāstra, a fourth or fifth century text available only in India, could he understand the mysteries of his faith. Accordingly, seeking further enlightenment and disregarding his brother’s reluctance to let him go, Xuanzang left Ch’eng-tu, preaching and visiting famous religious teachers in the provinces of Hubei, Henan, Hebei until he reached Xi’an. At the Great Enlightenment Monastery he studied Mahayana and Hinayana tenets further under the capital’s greatest theologians. Finally, Xuanzang decided that he must go to the source of Buddhism—India—to learn at first hand the solutions to the metaphysical and religious questions perplexing him and to read in the original Sanskrit the words of the Buddha and the commentaries on these scriptures.

Life’s Work

The so-called Western region, the area beyond China’s borders leading to India, was off-limits, and imperial permission was required for any travel there. Xuanzang did not have permission, but, taking advantage of a decree ordering some of the crowded capital’s population to be dispersed to other areas, he set out for the West in 629. Before departing, he was encouraged by a dream about the holy Mount Sumeru foretelling that he would conquer all difficulties on this arduous pilgrimage.

Xuanzang made his way to Kansu along the trade route linking Central Asia with China. Word had reached the Tang officials there that a monk was attempting to circumvent the embargo on travel to the West. The Prefect of Liangzhou, a pious Buddhist, overlooked the orders for Xuanzang’s detainment, permitting him to pass by the last Tang military posts en route to India. His passage was at first assisted by a foreigner named Bandha and an old roan horse which had made the trip west numerous times, but they soon abandoned him.

Hagiographic accounts of Xuanzang’s travels through Central Asia are replete with tales of miraculous escapes from numerous life-threatening perils: sandstorms, landslides, glaciers, marauding tribesmen, demons, robbers, and the constant problem of insufficient food and water. Yet as he crossed through parts of modern-day southern Russia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other lands to the northwest of India, Xuanzang’s travels were assisted by sympathetic khans, princes, tribal chieftains, holy men, and others who gave the traveling cleric timely help and provisions as he in turn impressed them, through sermons and theological discourse, with his deep knowledge and holiness.

India in the seventh century was not a unified country but a land of competing kingdoms and dozens of smaller principalities. Xuanzang was not the first Chinese to visit there, though he would be the first to travel through the five major political divisions of the Indian subcontinent. It is not recorded when exactly he reached India (631 is a possibility). He began his task of studying the earliest Hinayana texts, the Vedas, the scores of Mahayana Buddhist writings, and other religious literature as he passed through northern India, visiting monasteries and important cities on his way to the Buddha’s birthplace. His travels were not easy, since attacks by pirates, wild animals, and Hindu zealots—among other obstacles—were common.

In the foothills of the Himalayas sacred places associated more than a millennium earlier with the life of the Buddha, Siddhārtha Gautama, were visited. Northern India had since become a bastion of Hinduism, giving the Chinese pilgrim many opportunities to meet Brahmans and observe Hindu customs. When he reached the sacred Ganges River, he was appalled by the ritual suicide Hindu devotees practiced there. After arriving at Magadha, the site where Siddhārtha attained enlightenment under a bodhi tree, Xuanzang received an invitation to go to the great monastery of Nālandā, the largest Buddhist center in India.

Nālandā was a huge monastic community of more than ten thousand religious and laymen engaged in studying and propagating Mahayana...

(The entire section is 3290 words.)