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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

(The entire section is 3,290 words.)