XUANZANG: THE GREAT CHINESE EXPLORER-MONK

XUANZANG

20111121-438px-Xuan_Zang.jpg
Xuanzang (See Below)
In A.D. 629, early in the Tang Dynasty period, the Chinese monk Xuanzang (Hsuan Tsang) left the Chinese dynasty capital for India to obtain Buddhist texts from which the Chinese could learn more about Buddhism. He traveled west — on foot, on horseback and by camel and elephant — to Central Asia and then south and east to India and returned in A.D. 645 with 700 Buddhist texts from which Chinese deepened their understanding of Buddhism. Xuanzang is remembered as a great scholar for his translations from Sanskrit to Chinese but also for his descriptions of the places he visited — the great Silk Road cities of Kashgar and Samarkand and the great stone Buddhas in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. His trip inspired the Chinese literary classic “Journey to the West” by Wu Ch'eng-en, a 16th century story about a wandering Buddhist monk accompanied by a pig, an immortal that poses as a monkey and a feminine spirit. It is widely regarded as one of the great novels of Chinese literature. [Book: "Ultimate Journey, Retracing the Path of an Ancient Buddhist Monk Who Crossed Asia in Search of Enlightenment" by Richard Bernstein (Alfred A. Knopf); See Separate Article on Xuanzang]

Xuanzang was as philosopher, educator and translator as well as being a monk and traveler. Tansen Sen wrote in Education about Asia: “ Xuanzang was a leading Indophile of ancient China. The Chinese monk not only promoted Buddhist doctrines and the perception of India as a holy land through his writings, he also tried to foster diplomatic exchanges between India and China by lobbying his leading patrons, the Tang rulers Taizong (reigned 626–49) and Gaozong (reigned 649–683). In fact, the narrative of his pilgrimage to India, The Records of the Western Regions Visited During the Great Tang Dynasty, was meant for his royal patrons as much as it addressed the contemporary Chinese clergy. Thus, Xuanzang’s work is significant both as an account of religious pilgrimage and as a historical record of foreign states and societies neighboring Tang China. In fact, in the work Xuanzang comes across both as a pious pilgrim and as a diplomat for Tang China.” [Source: Tansen Sen, Education about Asia, Volume 11, Number 3 Winter 2006]

According to Silk Road Seattle: Xuanzang was a Chinese Buddhist monk and translator who traveled across the Tarim basin via the northern route, Turfan, Kucha, Tashkent, Samarkand, Bactria, then over the Hindu Kush to India. He departed the Tang capitol (Chang'an) in 629 and returned via the southern route in 645. The remainder of his life was spent translating into Chinese the sutras which he had collected in India. At the request of the Tang Emperor Taizong (r.626-649) he composed a description of the lands through which he traveled. After his death, his travels and story became fantastic legends which were used in plays and novels.[Source: Silk Road Seattle, depts.washington.edu/silkroad ]

Der Huey Lee of Peking University wrote: “Xuanzang, world-famous for his sixteen-year pilgrimage to India and career as a translator of Buddhist scriptures, is one of the most illustrious figures in the history of scholastic Chinese Buddhism... Upon his return to Chang'an in 645, Xuanzang brought back with him a great number of Sanskrit texts, of which he was able to translate only a small portion during the remainder of his lifetime. In addition to his translations of the most essential Mahayana scriptures, Xuanzang authored the Da tang xi yu ji (Ta-T'ang Hsi-yu-chi or Records of the Western Regions of the Great T'ang Dynasty) with the aid of Bianji (Bian-chi). It is through Xuanzang and his chief disciple Kuiji (K'uei-chi) (632-682) that the Faxiang (Fa-hsiang or Yogacara/Consciousness-only) School was initiated in China. In order to honor the famous Buddhist scholar, the Tang Emperor Gaozong (Gao-tsung) cancelled all audiences for three days after Xuanzang's death.” [Source:Der Huey Lee, Peking University, China Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu/xuanzang ]

Good Websites and Sources on the Silk Road: Silk Road Seattle washington.edu/silkroad ; Silk Road Foundation silk-road.com ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Silk Road Atlas depts.washington.edu ; Old World Trade Routes ciolek.com ; Travel Photos studyrussian.com ; Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project silkroadproject.org ; Silk Road Society travelthesilkroad.org ; Silk Road Travelers silk-road.com ; International Dunhuang Project idp.bl.uk ; Camel Trains in the Desert chinavista.com ; Ancient China Life Ancient China Life

Books: on the Silk Road The Silk Road (Odyssey Guides); Marco Polo: A Photographer's Journey by Mike Yamashita (White Star, 2002); “Life along the Silk Road” by Whitfield, Susan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999); “The Silk Route: Trade, Travel, War and Faith” by Susan Whitfield, with Ursula Sims-Williams, eds. (London: British Library, 2004); “The Camel and the Wheel” by Richard Bulliet (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975). You can help this site a little by ordering your Amazon books through this link: Amazon.com; Television show: Silk Road 2005, a 10-episode production by China's CCTV and Japan's NHK, with music by Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. The original series was shown in 1980s.

Marco Polo: Wikipedia Marco Polo Wikipedia ; Marco Polo Odyssesy nationalgeographic.com ; Open Directory Project dmoz.org ; Works by Marco Polo gutenberg.org ; Internet Movie Database imdb.com ; Marco Polo and his Travels silk-road.com ; Zheng He and Early Chinese Exploration : Wikipedia Chinese Exploration Wikipedia ; Le Monde Diplomatique mondediplo.com ; Zheng He muslimheritage.com ; Zheng He Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Gavin Menzies’s 1421 1421.tv ; Asia Recipe asiarecipe.com ; First Europeans in Asia Wikipedia ; Matteo Ricci faculty.fairfield.edu

Xuanzang’s Life

Born into a scholarly family at the beginning of the Tang (T'ang) Dynasty, Xuanzang enjoyed a classical Confucian education. Under the influence of his elder brother, a Buddhist monk, however, he developed a keen interest in Buddhist subjects and soon became a monk himself at the age of thirteen. He was fully ordained at the age of twenty.

Irma Marx wrote: “Hsuan-tsang or (Xuan Tsang) was born in AD 602. As a child he became absorbed in the study of the Sacred Books of Chinese literature. While still a boy he was ordained as a Buddhist priest to the Temple of Heavenly Radiance in Hangchow, and soon there after was transferred to the Temple of Great Learning in Chang-an, a community of monks who devoted their lives to the translation of the Sacred Books from India. Listening to the variety of their interpretations young Hsuan-tsang conceived the bold plan to travel to India and bring back more Sacred Buddhist Books to China.” [Source: Irma Marx, Silk Road Foundation silk-road.com]

Der Huey Lee of Peking University wrote: “Born of a family possessing erudition for generations in Yanshi prefecture of Henan province, Xuanzang, whose lay name was Chenhui, was the youngest of four children. His great-grandfather was an official serving as a prefect, his grand-father was appointed as Professor in the National College at the capital, and his father was a Confucianist of the rigid conservative type who gave up office and withdrew into seclusion to escape the political turmoil that gripped China at that time. According to traditional biographies, Xuanzang displayed a precocious intelligence and seriousness, amazing his father by his careful observance of the Confucian rituals at the age of eight. 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. [Source:Der Huey Lee, Peking University, China Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu/xuanzang ^^]

“After the death of Xuanzang's father in 611, his older brother Chensu, later known as Changjie, became the primary influence on his life. As a result, he commenced visiting the monastery of Jingtu at Luoyang where his brother dwelled as a Buddhist monk, and studying sacred texts of the faith with all the ardor of a young convert. When Xuanzang requested to take Buddhist orders at the age of thirteen, the abbot Zheng Shanguo made an exception in his case because of his precocious sapience. ^^

“In 618, due to the civil war breaking out in Henan, Xuanzang and his brother sought refuge in the mountains of Sichuan, where he spent three years or so in the monastery of Kong Hui plunging into the study of various Buddhist texts, such as the Abhidharmakosa-sastra (Abhidharma Storehouse Treatise). In 622, he was fully ordained as a monk. Deeply confused by myriad contradictions and discrepancies in the texts, and not receiving any solutions from his Chinese masters, Xuanzang decided to go to India and study in the cradle of Buddhism.” ^^

Xuanzang’s Mission

Tansen Sen wrote in Education about Asia: “Like other Chinese pilgrims, one of Xuanzang’s main reasons to undertake the arduous journey to India was to visit its sacred Buddhist sites. Dissatisfied with the translations of Indian Buddhist texts available in China, Xuanzang also wanted to procure original works and learn the doctrines directly from Indian teachers. He expresses his frustration with the translations of Buddhist works available in China in the following way: “Though the Buddha was born in the West,” he writes, “his Dharma has spread to the East. In the course of translation, mistakes may have crept into the texts, and idioms may have been misapplied.When words are wrong, the meaning is lost, and when a phrase is mistaken, the doctrine becomes distorted.”14 The success of Xuanzang’s mission is evident not only from the 657 Buddhist texts he brought back with him, but also from the quality of translations he undertook. In fact, he is considered one of the three best translators of Buddhist texts in ancient China.” [Source: Tansen Sen, Education about Asia, Volume 11, Number 3 Winter 2006]

Brook Larmer wrote in National Geographic, “What kept Xuanzang going, he wrote in his famous account of the journey, was another precious item carried along the Silk Road: Buddhism itself. Other religions surged along this same route—Manichaeism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and later, Islam—but none influenced China so deeply as Buddhism, whose migration from India began sometime in the first three centuries A.D. The Buddhist texts Xuanzang carted back from India and spent the next two decades studying and translating would serve as the foundation of Chinese Buddhism and fuel the religion's expansion.” [Source: Brook Larmer, National Geographic, June 2010]

Alluding that there were political aspect and legacy issues to his mission — or at least the account of his journey given to the Emperor — Xuanzang himself said: “ Now then our great Tang emperor (or dynasty), conformed in the highest degree to the heavenly pattern, now holds the reins of government, and unites in one the six parts of the world, and is gloriously established. Like a fourth august monarch, he illustriously administers the empire. His mysterious controlling power flows afar; his auspicious influence (fame or instruction) widely extends: like the heaven and the earth, he covers and sustains (his subjects), or like the resounding wind or the fertilising rain. The eastern barbarians bring him tribute; the western frontiers are brought to submission. He has secured and hands down the succession, appeasing tumult, restoring order. He certainly surpasses the previous kings; he [p.9] embraces in himself the virtues of former generations. Using the same currency (or literature), all acknowledge his supreme rule. If his sacred merit be not recorded in history; then it is vain to exalt the great (or his greatness); if it be not to illumine the world, why then -shine so brilliantly his mighty deeds? [Source: “Xuanzang's Record of the Western Regions”, 646, translated by Samuel Beal (1884), Silk Road Seattle, depts.washington.edu/silkroad ]



Xuanzang’s Journey

In A.D. 629 (or 627, depending on the source), Xuanzang set off on his 17-year overland journey from China to India, with a detour to Central Asia. He wanted to go west to learn more about Buddhism, but at the time, the emperor had forbidden travel outside China. Even though Xuanzang respected authority and struggled with the decision on whether or not to make the journey, he decided to go. A brilliant and devout man, in the end, he believed that going to India was the only way to answer questions that troubled Chinese Buddhists. On much of the journey he traveled as a fugitive under the cover of darkness. [Source: Asia Society +++]

Xuanzang made it to Central Asia and India despite being held up by surly Chinese guards and guides who abandoned him in the middle of nowhere. In western China and Central Asia he traveled to Turfan, Kucha, the Bedel pass, Lake Issyk-kul, the Chu Valley (near present-day Bishkek), Tashkent, Samarkand, Balkh, before crossing Hindu Kush and Himalayas into India. Xuanzang traveled an amazing 16,000 kilometers (10,000 miles) — much it seems on foot — over four of the highest mountain ranges in Asia — the Tian Shan, Hindu Kush, Pamirs, Karakorum and Himalayas — He traveled on both the northern and southern Silk roads through China. Xuanzang traveled overland, along the Silk Road west toward Central Asia and then traveled southward and eastward into India. In western China and Central Asia Xuanzang traveled to Turfan, Kucha, the Bedel pass, Lake Issyk-kul, the Chu Valley (near present-day Bishkek), Tashkent, Samarkand, Balkh, before crossing the Hindu Kush and Himalayas into India. Near Kharashahr he was attacked by a band of robbers. In Afghanistan he visited the cave of the Buddha’s shadow and had a vision of the Buddha’s form. After spending 16 years in India, where he spent a considerably amount of time journeying about as well as studying, he returned to China taking a more southerly route than the one he set out on.

On the hardships he faced, Brook Larmer wrote in National Geographic, "The human skeletons were piled up like signposts in the sand...The bleached-out bones were reminders of the dangers that stalked the world's most vital thoroughfare for commerce, conquest, and ideas. Swirling sandstorms in the desert beyond the western edge of the Chinese Empire had left the monk disoriented and on the verge of collapse. Rising heat played tricks on his eyes, torturing him with visions of menacing armies on distant dunes. More terrifying still were the sword-wielding bandits who preyed on caravans and their cargo’silk, tea, and ceramics heading west to the courts of Persia and the Mediterranean, and gold, gems, and horses moving east to the Tang dynasty capital of Changan, among the largest cities in the world.” [Source: Brook Larmer, National Geographic, June 2010]

According to the Asia Society, “Xuanzang traveled along what we now know as the Silk Road. He survived the dangerous Taklamakan Desert and continued through the high and harsh mountains of Tian Shan (literally, mountains of the heavens or sky). The Silk Road took him through countries ruled by powerful leaders who sometimes wanted to keep him in their kingdom rather than allow him to travel on. His intelligence and calm devotion to Buddhism convinced these leaders to help him in this quest to reach India. He was to have many adventures as he worked his way through India, on to Nepal, the home of the Buddha, and then to Nalanda where he spent many years living with the greatest teachers and thinkers of this time. Before he returned home, Xuanzang had converted priates who meant to rob and kill him, survived deadly typhoons, and won a Great Debate in front of thousands of wise men in India. The return trip was no less difficult and he slowly made his way back studying, teaching, and learning about the cultures of the people he met along the way. Xuanzang was still officially a fugitive in his homeland, China, because he had left without permission. Xuanzang wrote a letter to the emperor describing what he had learned and as a result, the emperor not only welcomed him back, but appointed him a court advisor.” +++

Der Huey Lee of Peking University wrote: “An imperial decree by the Emperor Taizong (T'ai-tsung) forbade Xuanzang's proposed visit to India on the grounds on preserving national security. Instead of feeling deterred from his long-standing dream, Xuanzang is said to have experienced a vision that strengthened resolve. In 629, defying imperial proscription, he secretly set out on his epochal journey to the land of the Buddha from Chang'an. Xuanzang reports that he travelled by night, hiding during the day, enduring many dangers, and bereft of a guide after being abandoned by his companions. [Source: Der Huey Lee, Peking University, China Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu/xuanzang ^^]

“After some time in the Gobi Desert, he arrived in Liangzhou in modern Gansu province, the westernmost extent of the Chinese frontier at that time and the southern terminus of the Silk Road trade route connecting China with Central Asia. Here he spent approximately a month preaching the Buddhist message before being invited to Hami by King Qu Wentai (Ch'u Wen-tai) of Turfan, a pious Buddhist of Chinese extraction. ^^

“It soon became apparent to Xuanzang that Qu Wentai, although most hospitable and respectful, planned to detain him for life in his Court as its ecclesiastical head. In response, Xuanzang undertook a hunger strike until the king relented, extracting from Xuanzang a promise to return and spend three years in the kingdom upon his return. After remaining there for a month more for the sake of the dharma, Xuanzang resumed his journey in 630, well provided with introductions to all the kings on his itinerary, including the formidable Turkish Khan whose power extended to the very gates of India. Having initially left China against the will of the Emperor, he was no longer an unknown fugitive fleeing in secret, but an accredited pilgrim with official standing.” ^^ Near the end of his 16-year journey, the monk stopped in Dunhuang, a thriving Silk Road oasis where crosscurrents of people and cultures were giving rise to one of the great marvels of the Buddhist world, the Mogao caves.

Xuanzang’s Observations


Tang Dynasty Buddha painting

Tansen Sen wrote in Education about Asia: “Xuanzang set out on his pilgrimage to India without formal authorization from the Tang court. His illegal departure from China may have been one of the reasons why Xuanzang deliberately sought audience with important foreign rulers in Central and South Asia. He may have thought that the support from these rulers would make his travels in foreign lands and his ultimate return to China free of bureaucratic intrusions. Alternatively, perhaps, he wanted Emperor Taizong, the principal audience of his work, to appreciate the personal and intimate contacts he made with powerful rulers in Central and South Asia. His account thus provides rare insight into the political, diplomatic and religious activities undertaken by contemporary rulers in Central and South Asia. [Source: Tansen Sen, Education about Asia, Volume 11, Number 3 Winter 2006 <<>>]

Like Faxian, another early Silk Road explorer, “Xuanzang takes note of the Indic influences on Central Asian kingdoms. He reports, for example, that the people of Yanqi (Agni), Kuchi (Kucha), and Khotan used modified versions of Indic script. Also similar to Faxian, Xuanzang narrates, although in more detail, the Buddhist legends and miracles associated with the sites he visited and the Buddhist relics he saw. In addition, the perilous nature of long-distance travel between India and China experienced by Faxian is also evident in the work of Xuanzang. However, the most noteworthy aspects of his account are the general discussions of India presented in fascicle two of The Records of the Western Regions and the details of the Chinese monk’s interaction with the Indian ruler Harsavardhana that appear in fascicle five. Xuanzang begins fascicle two with a discussion of the names for India appearing in various Chinese records. He concludes by stating that the correct Chinese term for India should be Yindu, a name that is still in use in China. Next, the Chinese monk explains the geography and climate, the measurement system, and the concept of time in India. Xuanzang then provides a glimpse of urban life and architecture and narrates in detail the existing caste system, the educational requirements for the Brahmins, the teaching of Buddhist doctrines, legal and economic practices, social and cultural norms, and the eating habits of the natives, and lists the natural and manufactured products of India.” <<>>

According to “Xuanzang's Record of the Western Regions”: “Xuanzang, wherever he bent his steps, has described the character of each country. Although he has not examined the country or distinguished the customs (in every case), he has shown himself trustworthy. Is with respect to the emperor who transcends the five and surpasses the three, we read how all creatures enjoy his benefits, and all who can declare it utter his praises. From the royal city throughout the (five) Indies, men who inhabit the savage wilds, those whose customs are diverse from ours, through the most remote lands, all have received the royal calendar, all have accepted the imperial instructions; alike they praise his warlike merit and sing of his exalted virtues and his true grace of utterance. This is the first thing to be declared. In searching through previous annals no such thing has been seen or heard of. In all the records of biography no such an account has been found. It was necessary first to declare the benefits arising from the imperial rule: now we proceed to narrate facts, which have been gathered either by report or sight, as follows. [Source: “Xuanzang's Record of the Western Regions”, 646, translated by Samuel Beal (1884), Silk Road Seattle, depts.washington.edu/silkroad |:|]

Buddhism, China and Central Asia in Xuanzang’s Time


Tang-era Buddhist sculpture

During the Sui Dynasty (589-618) and the Tang Dynasty (618-906), when Xuanzang lived, Chinese Buddhist schools were sophisticated, and the monasteries were numerous, rich and powerful. Buddhism was also strong in India, Central Asia and what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Tansen Sen wrote in Education about Asia: “ “By the time Xuanzang embarked on his trip to India in 627, monastic institutions and Buddhist doctrines had taken deep roots in China. Almost all basic Buddhist texts had been translated into Chinese. Indigenous works explaining the teachings of the Buddha within the context of existing Daoist and Confucian ideas were being produced in large numbers, and Chinese schools of Buddhism such as the Tiantai had started emerging. The influence of Buddhism extended from the mortuary beliefs and artistic traditions of the Chinese to the political sphere. Additionally, China was becoming an important center for Buddhist learning outside southern Asia, from where the doctrines were transmitted to Korea, Japan, and other neighboring kingdoms. [Source: Tansen Sen, Education about Asia, Volume 11, Number 3 Winter 2006]

Sally Hovey Wriggins wrote: “A year after Xuanzang his departure, the Khanate of the Eastern Turks fell, removing China’s greatest threat to its northwest borders. Only a few years after Xuanzang witnessed the grand gathering of the Western Turks near Lake Issik Kul, the Great Khan of the Western Turks was assassinated, bringing about the breakdown of the once powerful Western Turkish empire. As these Turkish empires weakened or were destroyed, the Tang emperor Taizong was able to begin establishing suzerainty over the oases kingdoms of the Taklamakan desert. And in India, only 4 years after his Great Debate before the mighty King Harsha, the king died and with his death, the whole of north India descended into chaos while Buddhism declined ever more sharply after his passing. [Source: “Xuanzang on the Silk Road” by Sally Hovey Wriggins, author of books on Xuanzang, mongolianculture.com \~/]

“Important as relay stations on the Silk Road between China, Iran and Rome, these ancient caravan kingdoms were also stages on the route of Buddhist pilgrims such as Xuanzang from China to Afghanistan and India. On his outward journey Xuanzang stopped at Hami, Turfan, Kharashahr, Kucha and Aksu on the northern Silk Road. At each of these oases he would visit with kings, replenish his caravan with horses and camels; preach Buddhist doctrine to merchants and warriors as well as his fellow monks on their way to India.”\~/

“In the years when Xuanzang had just returned to China, and the Emperor Taizong was consolidating his power in the East, the first three successors of the Prophet Muhammad had overrun Syria, Iran, Palestine, Egypt and the entire Persian empire. India at first lay beyond the wave of 7th century Islamic conquests. However, Sind, the lower half of the Indus valley, was conquered by Arab forces primarily as a rival trade base. But the major advances didn’t come until three centuries later.” \~/

Xuanzang on the Buddhist World in His Time


Buddha in Kizil Caves

Xuanzang reported: “This Sahalôka (Soh-ho) world is the three-thousand-[p.10] great-thousand system of worlds (chiliocosm), over which one Buddha exercises spiritual authority (converts and controls). In the middle of the great chiliocosm, illuminated by-one sun and moon, are the four continents, in which all the Buddhas, lords of the world, appear by apparitional birth, and here also die, for the purpose of guiding holy men and worldly men. [Source: “Xuanzang's Record of the Western Regions”, 646, translated by Samuel Beal (1884), Silk Road Seattle, depts.washington.edu/silkroad |:|]

“The mountain called Sumêru stands up in the midst of the great sea firmly fixed on a circle of gold, around which mountain the sun and moon revolve; this mountain is perfected by (composed of) four precious substances, and is the abode of the Dêvas. Around this are seven mountain-ranges and seven seas; between each range a flowing sea of the eight peculiar qualities. Outside the seven [p.11] golden mountain-ranges is the salt sea. There are four lands (countries or islands, duîpas) in the salt sea, which are inhabited. On the east, (Pûrva) vidêha; on the south, Jambudvîpa; on the west, Gôdhanya; on the north, Kurudvîpa: A golden-wheel monarch rules righteously the four; a silver-wheel monarch rules the three (excepting Kuru); a copper-wheel monarch rules over two (excepting Kuru and Godhanya); and an iron-wheel monarch rules over Jambudvipa only. When first a wheel- king is established in power a great wheel-gem appears floating in space, and coming towards him; its character--whether gold, silver, copper, or iron--determines the king's destiny and his name. |:|

“In the middle of Jambudvipa there is a lake called Anavatapta to the south of the Fragrant Mountains and to the north of the great Snowy Mountains; it is 800 li and more in circuit; its sides are composed of bold, silver, lapis-lazuli, and crystal; golden sands lie at the bottom, and its waters are clear as a mirror. The great earth Bodhisattva, by the power of his vow, transforms himself into a Naga-raja and dwells therein; from his dwelling the cool waters proceed forth and enrich Jambudvipa (Shen-pu-chau). |:|

“From the eastern side of the lake, through the mouth of a silver ox, flows the Ganaes (King-kia) river; encircling the lake once, it enters the south-eastern sea. [p.12] From the south of the lake, through a golden elephant's mouth, proceeds the Sindhu (Sin-to) river; encircling the lake once, it flows into the south-western sea. From the western side of the lake, from the mouth of a horse of lapis-lazuli, proceeds the river Vakahu (Po-tsu), and encircling the lake once, it falls into the north-western sea. From the north side of the lake, through the mouth of a crystal lion, proceeds the river- S4ta (Si- to), and encircling the lake once, it falls into the north-eastern sea. [p.13] They also say that the streams of this river Sita, entering the earth, flow out beneath the Tsih rock mountain, and give rise to the river of the middle country (China).” |:|

Xuanzang on the People in the Buddhist World


Uighur princes in western China

Xuanzang reported: “At the time when there is no paramount wheel-monarch, then the land of Jambudvipa has four rulers. On the south "the lord of elephants;" the land here is warm and humid, suitable for elephants, On the west "the lord of treasures;" the land borders on the sea, and abounds in Gems. On the north "'the lord of horses;" the country is cold and hard, suitable for horses. On the east "the lord of men;" the climate is soft and [p.14] agreeable (exhilarating), and therefore there are many men. [Source: “Xuanzang's Record of the Western Regions”, 646, translated by Samuel Beal (1884), Silk Road Seattle, depts.washington.edu/silkroad |:|]

“In the country of "the lord of elephants" the people are quick and enthusiastic, and entirely given to learning. They cultivate especially magical arts. They wear a robe thrown across them, with their right shoulder bare; their hair is done up in a ball on the top, and left undressed on the four sides. Their various tribes occupy different towns; their houses are built stage over stage. |:|

“In the country of "the lord of treasures" the people have no politeness or justice. They accumulate wealth. Their dress is short, with a left skirt. They cut their hair and cultivate their moustache. They dwell in walled towns and are eager in profiting by trade. |:|

“The people of the country of "the lord of horses" are naturally (t'ien tsz') wild and fierce. They are cruel in disposition; they slaughter (animals) and live under large felt tents; they divide like birds (going here and there) attending their flocks. |:|

“The land of "the lord of men" is distinguished for the wisdom and virtue and justice of the people. They wear a head-covering and a girdle; the end of their dress [p.15] (girdle) hangs to the right. They have carriages and robes according to rank; they cling to the soil and hardly ever change their abode; they are very earnest in work, and divided into classes. |:|

“Now Buddha having been born in the western region and his religion having spread eastwards, the sounds of the words translated have been often mistaken, the phrases of the different regions have been misunderstood on account of the wrong sounds, and thus the sense has been lost. The words being wrong, the idea has been perverted. Therefore, as it is said, "it is indispensable to have the right names, in order that there be no mistakes." |:|

“Now, men differ according to the firmness or weakness of their nature, and so the words and the sounds (of their languages) are unlike. This may be the result either of [p.16] climate or usage. The produce of the soil differs in the same way, according to the mountains and valleys. With respect to the difference in manners and customs, and also as to the character of the people in the country of "the lord of men," the annals sufficiently explain this. In the country of "the lord of horses" and of "the lord of treasures" the (local) records and the proclamations explain the customs faithfully, so that a brief account can be given of them.” |:|

Xuanzang on the Customs of People in the Buddhist World


Tang-era wooden head of Kasypaya

Xuanzang reported: “With respect to the people belonging to these three rulers, the eastern region is considered the best; the doors of their dwellings open towards the east, and when the sun rises in the morning they turn towards it and salute it. In this country the south side is considered the most honourable. Such are the leading characteristics in respect of manners and customs relating to these regions. [Source: “Xuanzang's Record of the Western Regions”, 646, translated by Samuel Beal (1884), Silk Road Seattle, depts.washington.edu/silkroad |:|]

“But with regard to the rules of politeness observed between the prince and his subjects, between superiors and inferiors, and with respect to laws and literature, the land of "the lord of men" is greatly in advance. The country of "the lord of elephants" is distinguished for rules which relate to purifying the heart and release from the ties of life and death; this is its leading excellency. With these things the sacred books and the royal decrees are occupied. Hearing the reports of the native races and diligently searching out things old and new, and exarnining those things which came before his eyes and ears, it is thus he (i.e., Xuanzang) obtained information. |:|

“In the country of "the lord of elephants" the previous history of the people is little known. The country is said to be in general wet and warm, and it is also said that the people are virtuous and benevolent. With respect to the history of the country, so far as it has been preserved, we cannot cite it in detail; whether it be that the roads are difficult of access, or on account of the revolutions which have occurred, such is the case. In this way we see at least that the people only await instruction to be brought to submission, and when they have received benefit they will enjoy the blessing of civilization (pay homage). How difficult to recount the list of those who, coming from far, after encountering the greatest perils (difficulties), knock at the gem-gate with the choice tribute of their country and pay their reverence to the emperor. Wherefore, after he (Xuanzang) had travelled afar in search of the law, in his moments of leisure he has preserved these records of the character of the lands (visited). |:|

“After leaving the black ridge, the manners of the people are savage (barbarous). Although the barbarous tribes are intermixed one with the other, yet the different races are distinguishable, and their territories have well-defined boundaries. Generally speaking, as the land suits, they build walled towns and devote themselves to agriculture and raising cattle. They [p.17] naturally hoard wealth and hold virtue and justice in light esteem. They have no marriage decorum, and no distinction of high or low. The women say, "I consent to use you as a husband and live in submission, (and that is all)." When dead, they burn the body, and there is no determined period for mourning. They scar their faces and cut their ears. They crop their hair and tear their clothes. They slay their herds and offer them in sacrifice to the manes of the dead. When rejoicing, they wear white garments; when in mourning, they clothe themselves in black.” |:|

Xuanzang’s Last Years Spent Translating Scriptures

According to the Asia Society: “For the last 19 years of his life until his death in 664 C.E., spent hsi time teaching, advising and translating manuscripts that made the journey home with him. Following his journey, Buddhism became more prevalent and more widely understood in China and subsequently elsewhere in the world. The record of his pilgrimage helps us to study and understand Buddhism and the cultures along the Silk Roads. [Source: Asia Society]

Der Huey Lee of Peking University wrote: “His translations may, by and large, be divided into three phases: the first six years (645-650), focusing on the Yogacarabhumi-sastra; the middle ten years (651-660), centering on the Abhidharmakosa-sastra; and the last four years (661-664), concentrating upon the Maha-prajnaparamita-sutra. In each phase of his career as a translator, Xuanzang saw his task as introducing Indian Buddhist texts to Chinese audiences in all their integrity. [Source:Der Huey Lee, Peking University, China Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu/xuanzang ^^]

According to Thomas Watters, the total number of texts brought by Xuanzang from India to China is six hundred and fifty seven, enumerated as follows: A) Mahayanist sutras: 224 items; B) Mahayanist sastras: 192; C) Sthavira sutras, sastras and Vinaya: 14; D) Mahasangika sutras, sastras and Vinaya: 15; E) Mahisasaka sutras, sastras and Vinaya: 22; F) Sammitiya sutras, sastras and Vinaya: 15; G) Kasyapiya sutras, sastra and Vinaya: 17; H) Dharmagupta sutras, Vinaya, sastras: 42; I) Sarvastivadin sutras, Vinaya, sastras: 67; J) Yin-lun (Treatises on the science of Inference): 36; K) Sheng-lun (Etymological treatises): 13.” ^^


Diamond sutra


Xuanzang, the Translator

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators:“ Xuanzang was one of the few translators who not only spoke Chinese and knew Sanskrit, but also knew the Chinese literary language well, and it is hardly accidental that Chinese Buddhists and modern scholars alike regard his translations as the most accurate and technically precise...Though the mythological character is well known, the surviving writings of the seventh-century translator are not. They are, in fact, rarely read, because their grammar and style smack more of Sanskrit than of literary Chinese. What mattered to Chinese audiences -- both the larger audience for the novels and dramas about the pilgrim and the much smaller one capable of reading his translations -- was that the Chinese texts were based on a valid foreign original, made even more authentic by Xuanzang’s personal experiences in the Buddhist homeland. [Source: “Buddhism: The ‘Imported’ Tradition” from the “The Spirits of Chinese Religion,” by Stephen F. Teiser; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia <|>]

“Similarly, closer scrutiny of the documents and a greater appreciation of their biases and gaps have shown how little we know of what really transpired in the process of the control of Buddhism by the state. The Buddhist church was always, it seems, dependent on the support of the landowning classes in medieval China. And it appears that the condition of Buddhist institutions was tied closely to the occasional, decentralized support of the lower classes, which is even harder to document than support by the gentry. The very notion of rise and fall is a teleological, often theological, one, and it has often been linked to an obsession with one particular criterion -- accurate translation of texts, or correct understanding of doctrine -- to the exclusion of all others. <|>

“Scholars of Buddhism have tended to focus on the chronology and accuracy of translation. Since so many texts were translated (one eighth-century count of the extant number of canonical works is 1,124) (4), and the languages of Sanskrit and literary Chinese are so distant, the results of that study are foundational to the field. To understand the history of Chinese Buddhism, it is indispensable to know what texts were available when, how they were translated and by whom, how they were inscribed on paper and stone, approved or not approved, disseminated, and argued abouts. (5) [(4) Kaiyuan shijiao lu, Zhisheng (669-740), T 2154, 55:572b., (5) For more about issues concerning the translation of Buddhist texts, please see Stephen F. Teiser, “The Spirits of Chinese Religion,” p. 17.] <|>

Xuanzang’s Legacy


Xuanzang Memorial Hall in Nalanda

Sally Hovey Wriggins wrote: “One of the ironies concerning Xuanzang’s legacy in China, is that it was the stories of dramatic escapes that intrigued the Chinese people. A popular story cycle inspired by the travels of Xuanzang had already developed by the 10th century which led finally to the 16th century epic Hsiyoji or Journey to the West. Xuanzang was painted in temple wall decorations, and was the subject of popular block prints, puppet shows etc. The Buddhist pilgrim still remains a well-known folk hero in contemporary China and in parts of East Asia. [Source: “Xuanzang on the Silk Road” by Sally Hovey Wriggins, author of books on Xuanzang, mongolianculture.com \~/]

“The Tang Emperor Taizong called him the “jewel of the Empire”...Along with Kumarajiva, Paramartha and Amoghavajra, he is well-known as one of the four great translators of Buddhism. He is also remembered for the Wild Goose Pagoda which he persuaded the Emperor Gaozong to build to house his scriptures. The famous pagoda still stands as a major tourist attraction in Xian, or Chang’an, as it was known in the 7th century. \~/

“Even now in the twentieth century, Xuanzang stands as a great religious personality, a world-class trekker whose travels were only exceeded by Ibn Batuta, (1323-1354 CE) many centuries later. He was a brilliant man with a broad range of intellectual skills, as a translator, linguist, debater, and historian as well as devout Buddhist and folk hero. Xuanzang is like a dead star that continues to release energy year after year after year.” \~/

Der Huey Lee of Peking University wrote: “As an early and influential Chinese Buddhist monk, Xuanzang embodies the tensions inherent in Chinese Buddhism: filial piety versus monastic discipline, Confucian orthodoxy versus Mahayana progressivism, etc. Such tensions can be seen not only in his personal legacies, which include the extremely popular Chinese novel based on his travels, Xiyouji (Journey to the West), but also in the career of scholastic Buddhism in China. [Source: Der Huey Lee, Peking University, China Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu/xuanzang ^^]

“For a time during the middle of the Tang Dynasty the Faxiang School achieved a high degree of eminence and popularity across China, but after the passing of Xuanzang and Kuiji the school swiftly declined. One of the factors resulting in this decadence was the anti-Buddhist imperial persecutions of 845. Another likely factor was the harsh criticism of Faxiang by members of the Huayan (Hua-yen) School. In addition, the philosophy of this school, with its abstruse terminology and hairsplitting analysis of the mind and the senses, was too alien to be accepted by the practical-minded Chinese.” ^^

The four principal classical schools of Chinese Buddhism are :1) the Kola School, based on doctrines from India translated by Xuanzang; 2) the Satyasiddho School, based on Kumarajiva's translation of the Satyasiddhi sutra; 3) the San-Lun (Three Treatises) School; 4) the Fa-hsiang School, founded by Xuanzang.

Xuanzang and Journey to the West


Journey to the West

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: Xuanzang’s is probably the most popular Buddhist image in Chinese folklore: he is the hero of the story Journey to the West (Xiyou ji) (the “West” being India), known to all classes as the most prolific translator in Chinese history and as an indefatigable, sometimes overly serious and literal, pilgrim who embarked on a sacred mission to recover original texts from India.” [Source: “Buddhism: The ‘Imported’ Tradition” from the “The Spirits of Chinese Religion,” by Stephen F. Teiser; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia <|>]

According to foreignercn.com: “”Journey to the West” (pinyin: Xiyóujì) is one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature. Originally published anonymously in the 1590s during the Ming Dynasty, and even though no direct evidence of its authorship survives, it has been ascribed to the scholar Wú Chéng'en since the 20th century. In western countries, the tale is also often known simply as Monkey. This was one title used for a popular, abridged translation by Arthur Waley. The Waley translation has also been published as Adventures of the Monkey God; and Monkey: [A] Folk Novel of China; and The Adventures of Monkey. [Source: foreignercn.com //\\]

“The novel is a fictionalized account of the legends around the Buddhist monk Xuánzàng's pilgrimage to India during the Táng dynasty in order to obtain Buddhist religious texts called sutras. The Bodhisattva Guanyin, on instruction from the Buddha, gives this task to the monk and his three protectors in the form of disciples — namely Sun Wùkong, Zhu Bajiè and Sha Wùjìng — together with a dragon prince who acts as Xuánzàng's horse mount. These four characters have agreed to help Xuánzàng as an atonement for past sins. //\\

“Some scholars propose that the book satirises the effete Chinese government at the time. Journey to the West has a strong background in Chinese folk religion, Chinese mythology and value systems; the pantheon of Taoist immortals and Buddhist bodhisattvas is still reflective of Chinese folk religious beliefs today. Part of the novel's enduring popularity comes from the fact that it works on multiple levels: it is a first-rate adventure story, a dispenser of spiritual insight, and an extended allegory in which the group of pilgrims journeying toward India stands for the individual journeying toward enlightenment. //\\

“The novel comprises 100 chapters. These can be divided into four very unequal parts. The first, which includes chapters 1–7, is really a self-contained prequel to the main body of the story. It deals entirely with the earlier exploits of Sun Wùkong, a monkey born from a stone nourished by the Five Elements, who learns the art of the Tao, 72 polymorphic transformations, combat and secrets of immortality, and through guile and force makes a name for himself as the Qítian Dàshèng, or "Great Sage Equal to Heaven". His powers grow to match the forces of all of the Eastern (Taoist) deities, and the prologue culminates in Sun's rebellion against Heaven, during a time when he garnered a post in the celestial bureaucracy. Hubris proves his downfall when the Buddha manages to trap him under a mountain for five hundred years. Only following this introductory story is the nominal main character, Xuánzàng, introduced. //\\

“Chapters 8–12 provide his early biography and the background to his great journey. Dismayed that "the land of the South knows only greed, hedonism, promiscuity, and sins", the Buddha instructs the Bodhisattva Guanyin to search Táng China for someone to take the Buddhist sutras of "transcendence and persuasion for good will" back to the East. Part of the story here also relates to how Xuánzàng becomes a monk (as well as revealing his past life as the "Golden Cicada" and comes about being sent on this pilgrimage by the Emperor Táng Tàizong, who previously escaped death with the help of an underworld official). //\\

“The third and longest section of the work is chapters 13–99, an episodic adventure story which combines elements of the quest as well as the picaresque. The skeleton of the story is Xuánzàng's quest to bring back Buddhist scriptures from Vulture Peak in India, but the flesh is provided by the conflict between Xuánzàng's disciples and the various evils that beset him on the way. The scenery of this section is, nominally, the sparsely populated lands along the Silk Road between China and India, including Xinjiang, Turkestan, and Afghanistan. The geography described in the book is, however, almost entirely fantastic; once Xuánzàng departs Cháng'an, the Táng capital and crosses the frontier (somewhere in Gansu province), he finds himself in a wilderness of deep gorges and tall mountains, all inhabited by flesh-eating demons who regard him as a potential meal (since his flesh was believed to give Immortality to whoever eats it), with here and there a hidden monastery or royal city-state amid the wilds. //\\

“The episodic structure of this section is to some extent formulaic. Episodes consist of 1–4 chapters, and usually involve Xuánzàng being captured and his life threatened, while his disciples try to find an ingenious (and often violent) way of liberating him. Although some of Xuánzàng's predicaments are political and involve ordinary human beings, they more frequently consist of run-ins with various goblins and ogres, many of whom turn out to be the earthly manifestations of heavenly beings (whose sins will be negated by eating the flesh of Xuanzang) or animal-spirits with enough Taoist spiritual merit to assume semi-human forms.Chapters 13–22 do not follow this structure precisely, as they introduce Xuánzàng's disciples, who, inspired or goaded by Guanyin, meet and agree to serve him along the way, in order to atone for their sins in their past lives.” //\\

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu <|>; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/ Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated November 2016

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