Xuanzang in Nalanda memorial

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

After about three years of travel, via western China, Central Asia and Afghanistan, Xuanzang made it to India in A.D. 630 or 633, depending on the source. Sally Hovey Wriggins wrote: “When Xuanzang finally reached the area near Jalalabad in Pakistan, he felt as Alexander the Great did 9 centuries earlier, that he had entered a new world. He stops his travel narrative to devote a long chapter to a consideration of the land of India. He says: India “ was above 90,000 li in circuit, with the Snowy Mountains (The Hindu Kush) in the north and the sea on its three other sides... It was politically divided into above seventy kingdoms; the heat of the summer was very great.” [Source: “Xuanzang on the Silk Road” by Sally Hovey Wriggins, author of books on Xuanzang, mongolianculture.com \~/]

“He then gives us Indian measures of space and time, tells us about the castes of India, notes the characteristics of the people, their education, customs, products, dress (“the people have no tailoring”) in a kind of ethnographic survey. He describes the Indian languages as did the Muslim historian Alberuni (973-1094 C.E.) in his book about India in the 11th century. Both Xuanzang and Alberuni took great pains to master Sanskrit so they describe India not merely as observers but as scholars. Although both writers regarded Brahmins as heretics, both do justice to their intelligence, love of learning and intellectual labors. In the broadest sense, both devoted themselves to “Indian” thought at a very high level; Alberuni to Hinduism and Xuanzang to Buddhism. Alberuni,as a Muslim, deplored the worship of idols and Xuanzang as a moderation-loving Chinese, deplored Hindu excesses such as “the Hindu who covers himself with ashes like a cat who has slept in a chimney.” \~/

“Xuanzang has a greater interest in the affairs of government,the royal families, the army as an institution, assessing political strength etc which shows itself in this summary of India as well as in his book as a whole. He is after all writing a report on the Western Regions about the very countries where he had been to the Tang Emperor who needed information on the new Asian relationships in his expanding empire. \~/

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; Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project silkroadproject.org ; International Dunhuang Project idp.bl.uk ; Marco Polo: Wikipedia Marco Polo Wikipedia ; Works by Marco Polo gutenberg.org ; 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 Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Gavin Menzies’s 1421 1421.tv ; First Europeans in Asia Wikipedia ; Matteo Ricci faculty.fairfield.edu 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). 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.

Xuanzang in India

Tang records of Xuanzang's journey

Sally Hovey Wriggins wrote: “In the course of Xuanzang’s travels around the Indian continent, he characterizes each kingdom, describing the length and breadth of the kingdom, the size of the capital, tells us about the soil, products, climate, describes the inhabitants, their clothes, style of writing, money government, kings, codes of law along with his purely Buddhist concerns. [Source: “Xuanzang on the Silk Road” by Sally Hovey Wriggins, author of books on Xuanzang, mongolianculture.com \~/]

“As he drew closer to the Buddhist Holy Land in the northeastern part of India, he tells us more about Buddhist history and doctrines. He relates the famous legends or incidents from the life of the Buddha, as well as the many tales of the Buddha in previous incarnations. He also gives a history of the Great Buddhist Councils and locates the places associated with the famous philosophers such as Vasubandu and Arjuna, often citing their principal works. Like many another Chinese pilgrim who visited India, he was also interested in observing the practice of Buddhism outside China and so he reports on the number of monks and monasteries, the variety of sects, Buddhist festivals and the custom of Buddhist debates. Xuanzang is sure to tell us about the good works of kings who were patrons of Buddhism like King Asoka , King Kanishka or King Harsha (7th CE). \~/

“His travels were not without danger... Robbers also tried to ambush his caravan in the Punjab. Pirates very nearly burned him at the stake not far from Ayodha. While on the pirate’s altar, Xuanzang was able to concentrate on the figure of the Maitreya Buddha so that he lost all awareness of his surroundings. He does not report his narrow escapes to the Emperor and so we are indebted to his biographer, Hui Li, for the accounts of them.” \~/

Xuanzang in Kashmir

Sally Hovey Wriggins wrote: He stopped in Taxila in modern-day Pakistan and wrote it “was above 2,000 li in circuit, its capital being above 10 li in circuit. The chiefs of the states were in a state of open feud, the royal family being extinguished; the country had formerly been subject to Kapisa but now it was a dependency of Kashmir; it had a fertile soil and bore good crops, with flowing streams and luxuriant vegetation; the climate was genial; and the people, who were plucky, were adherents of Buddhism. Although the Monasteries were numerous, many of them were desolate, and the Brethren, who were very few, were all Mahayanist. [Source: “Xuanzang on the Silk Road” by Sally Hovey Wriggins mongolianculture.com \~/]

“Aurel Stein, the great Central Asian explorer and archeologist, credits Xuanzang with the first ethnographic survey of Kashmir, where the pilgrim studied Buddhist philosophy for two years from 631-633 C.E. This long stay was not surprising for as his biographer reports: “This country from remote times was distinguished for learning, and these priests were all of high religious merit and conspicuous virtue, as well as of marked talent, and power of clear exposition of doctrine: and though the other priests {i.e, of other nations} were in their own way distinguished, yet they could not be compared with these so different were they from the ordinary class.” \~/

Xuanzang and the Buddhist Sites in India and Nepal

Sally Hovey Wriggins wrote:“Along with his search for Buddhist texts and sacred knowledge, Xuanzang went to India as a pilgrim. As he approaches the Buddhist Holy Land, he venerates the stupas containing relics of the Buddha. What he wrote of a small well from which the Buddha drew water for drinking shows his heartfelt response to many religious sites. “A mysterious sense of awe surrounds the precincts of the place; many miracles are manifested also. Sometimes heavenly music is heard, at other times divine odours are perceived.” His goal was Bodh Gaya at the Bodhi tree where the Buddha attained Enlightenment. Here he cast himself down on the ground and wept. “At the time when the Buddha perfected himself in wisdom, I knew not in what condition I was, in the troublous whirl of birth and death. “Xuanzang knew the perfection of the Buddha and his own unworthiness. [Source: “Xuanzang on the Silk Road” by Sally Hovey Wriggins mongolianculture.com \~/]

“Xuanzang’s interests extended to art and architecture. He admires the Buddhist monastic buildings “with a tower at each of the four quarters of the quadrangle and three high walls {stories} in a tier.” He depicts the chief forms of Buddhist architecture such as the stupa, solid mounds which encased relics and around which the devout proceeded in a form of worship. King Asoka (ruled 3rd c B.C.E.), the first great patron of Buddhism is said to have started the building of stupas. Xuanzang visits these stupa mounds all over India and describes the numerous massive stone pillars of Asoka which are reminiscent of the pillars of Darius. He does not mention his famous edicts of good government which were inscribed in a vernacular language instead of the literary language of Sanskrit[xi]. Xuanzang relates the legend concerning the erection of the giant tower stupa of King Kanishka near Peshawar in Pakistan said to be the tallest skyscraper in Asia. He gives the exact location which centuries later led to the discovery of the Kanishka reliquary. \~/

Xuanzang at Nalanda

Der Huey Lee of Peking University wrote:“At long last, Xuanzang reached his ultimate destination, where his strongest personal interest in Buddhism was located and the principal portion of his time abroad was spent: the Nalanda monastery, located southwest of the modern city of Bihar in northern Bihar state. As a far-famed metropolis of Buddhist monastic education, Nalanda was a veritable monastic city consisting of some ten huge temples with spaces between divided into eight compounds, surrounded by a high wall. There were over ten thousand Mahayana monks there engaged in the study of the orthodox Buddhist canon as well as the Vedas, arithmetic, and medicine. According to legend, Silabhadra (529-645), abbot of Nalanda, was considering suicide after years of wasting illness when he received instructions from deities in a dream, commanding him to endure and await the arrival of a Chinese monk in order to guarantee the preservation of the Mahayana tradition abroad. [Source: Der Huey Lee, Peking University, China Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu/xuanzang ^^]

Sally Hovey Wriggins wrote: “ Xuanzang had been traveling in northern India for 5 years before he finally arrived at Nalanda, the most famous monastery- university in India in 637 CE. Monks from all over Asia attended lectures on grammar, logic, Buddhist philosophy, Sanskrit, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, literature, and works of magic. Xuanzang remained here for a total of 2 years, returning for a final visit in 642 CE.[xvi] He was also particularly interested in the lectures on Yogachara Buddhism, the mystic philosophy that had drawn him to India in the first place. As he was a special guest from far away, he was given the use of a palanquin or an elephant for trips outside Nalanda to visit famous sites of the Buddha where he preached at Vulture Peak and the Buddha’s miracle at Rajagriha. [Source: “Xuanzang on the Silk Road” by Sally Hovey Wriggins mongolianculture.com \~/]

Xuanzang Studies at Nalanda

Xuanzang Memorial Hall in Nalanda

Der Huey Lee of Peking University wrote: “Xuanzang became Silabhadra's disciple in 636 and was initiated into the Yogacara lineage of Mahayana learning by the venerable abbot. While at Nalanda, Xuanzang also studied Sanskrit and Brahmana philosophy. Subsequent studies in India included hetu-vidya (logic), the exegesis of Mahayana texts such as the Mahayana-sutralamkara (Treatise on the Scripture of Adorning the Great Vehicle), and Madhyamika ("Middle-ist") doctrines. [Source: Der Huey Lee, Peking University, China Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu/xuanzang ^^]

“The name of the Madhyamika School, founded by Nagarjuna (2nd century CE), derives from its having sought a middle position between the realism of the Sarvastivada (Doctrine That All Is Real) School and the idealism of the Yogacara (Mind Only) School. Xuanzang appears to have combined these two systems into each other in a more eclectic and comprehensive Mahayanism. With the approval of his Nalanda mentors, Xuanzang composed a treatise, Hui zong lun (Hui-tsüng-lun or On the Harmony of the Principles), which articulates his synthesis. ^^

“At Nalanda, Xuanzang became a critic of two major philosophical systems of Hinduism opposed to Buddhism: the Samkhya and the Vaiseshika. The former was based upon a dualism of Nature and Spirit. The latter was a realist system, immediate and direct in its realism, resting upon the acceptance of the data of consciousness and experience as such: in brief, it was a melding of monism and atomism. Such beliefs were in absolute contradiction to the acosmic idealism of the Buddhist Yogacara, which evenly repelled the substantial entity of the ego and the objective existence of matter. Xuanzang also critiqued the atheistic monism of the Jains, especially inveighing against what he saw as their caricature of Buddhism in terms of Jain monastic garb and iconography. ^^

“Xuanzang's success in religious and philosophical disputes evidently aroused the attention of some Indian potentates, including the King of Assam and the poet-cum-dramatist king Harsha (r. 606-647), who was regarded as a Buddhist patron saint upon the throne like Ashoka and Kanishka of old. An eighteen-day religious assembly was convoked in Harsha's capital of Kanauj during the first week of the year 643, during which Xuanzang allegedly defeated five hundred Brahmins, Jains, and heterodox Buddhists in spirited debate. ^^

Xuanzang After Nalanda

Sally Hovey Wriggins wrote: Leaving Nalanda in 638, Xuanzang “traveled along both coasts of India and much of the interior - a trek of 3,000 miles and more. Was it, that having opened the door to Buddhist philosophy and metaphysics, he found that there was always more to know, always another school to master? Another attraction must have been to visit the birthplaces of some of the great Buddhist philosophers in the south such as Nagarjuna the skeptic, Dharmapala, the teacher of his master at Nalanda, and Dignaga the logician, just as he had been to the northern places connected with the Idealist philosophers Asanga and Vasubandhu, who had meant so much to him. And he probably hoped to collect more scholarly treatises, works on logic and grammar and healing sutras to add to the library of Buddhist works he hoped to take back to China. His account of the kingdoms he visited in the southern part of India is much less detailed than his previous accounts of northern India. [Source: “Xuanzang on the Silk Road” by Sally Hovey Wriggins mongolianculture.com \~/]

“Toward the end of his stay, Xuanzang had the heady experience of being quarreled over by two kings -- the King of Assam and the illustrious King Harsha (reigned 607-647 C.E.) who was one of the last of the great Buddhist rulers before the triumph of Hinduism and the invasion of Islam. The year before he had finally met the pilgrim in 642 C.E., King Harsha had already established diplomatic relations with China. King Harsha was so impressed with the pilgrim that he staged a great debate to show off his skills. He invited the kings of 18 vassal kingdoms, 3,000 Buddhist monks, 2,000 Hindus and Jains to hear him proclaim the superiority of Mahayana Buddhism over Hindu and Jain beliefs as well as other kinds of Buddhism. It was a grand finale for his years in India. \~/

20080321-xzmap xuanzang sk rd founf.jpg

Xuanzang and King Harsavardhana

Tansen Sen wrote in Education about Asia: In his writing, “Xuanzang proceeds to give a detailed account of the kingdoms and towns he visited in India, including, in fascicle five, the city of Kanauj, the capital of King Harsavardhana’s empire. Xuanzang reached the city sometime in 637 or 638, when Harsavardhana was at the height of this rule, his empire extending from northwestern Bengal in the east to the river Beas in Punjab in the west. Harsavardhana had, for the first time since the collapse of the Gupta empire in the fifth century, brought peace and prosperity to northern India; and both Buddhism and Hinduism are said to have flourished under his reign. [Source: Tansen Sen, Education about Asia, Volume 11, Number 3 Winter 2006 ]

“As with other sections of his work, Xuanzang begins the fascicle with a general description of Kanauj and a narration of the legend associated with its founding. The reigning king, he points out, was Harsavardhana, and notes his virtues, valor, and sympathy for the Buddhist doctrine. Xuanzang then reports his audience with the Indian king, who, we are told, was aware of the reign of a “compassionate” ruler in China. Xuanzang explained to Harsavardhana that the ruler he had heard about was none other than the reigning Tang emperor Taizong. “He has,” Xuanzang told the Indian king, “reduced taxes and mitigated punishments. The country has surplus revenue and nobody attempts to violate the laws. As to his moral influence and his profound edification of the people, it is exhausting to narrate in any detail.” Har.savardhana responded: “Excellent! The people of your land must have performed good deeds in order to have such a saintly lord.”

The praise notwithstanding, this meeting between Xuanzang and Harsavardhana resulted in the establishment of diplomatic relations between Kanauj and the Tang court. The contributionof the Chinese pilgrim to the initiation of official exchanges is fully acknowledged by theofficial scribes of the Tang dynasty. In fact, after returning to Tang China, Xuanzang continued to play a key role in promoting Buddhist and diplomatic exchanges between the two courts. Xuanzang’s motivation to promote such relations may have been related to the fact that the major Buddhist pilgrimage sites in India and the learning center at Nalanda were part of Harsavardhana’s empire. Xuanzang might have believed that a cordial relation between the two courts would facilitate Buddhist exchanges between Tang China and northern India.”

Xuanzang’s Desire to Raise China’s Importance in the Buddhist World

Xuanzang Temple in China

Tansen Sen wrote in Education about Asia: “In a conversation between his Indian hosts at the Nalanda Monastery just after he decided to return to Tang China, Xuanzang was reminded of the peripheral position of China in regard to the Buddhist world in India. “Why do you wish to leave after having come here?” enquired one of the monks at Nalanda. “China,” he continued, “is a borderland where the common people are slighted and the Dharma despised; the Buddhas are never born in that country. As the people are narrow-minded, with deep moral impurity, saints and sages do not go there. The climate is cold and the land is full of dangerous mountains. What is there for you to be nostalgic about?” Xuanzang replied, “The King of the Dharma (i.e., the Buddha) has founded his teachings and it is proper for us to propagate them. How can we forget about those who are not yet enlightened while we have gained the benefit in our own minds?” He argued that China was a civilized land with laws, principled officials, and cultured people. [Source: Tansen Sen, Education about Asia, Volume 11, Number 3 Winter 2006 ]

“Such dialogues between Xuanzang and Indians make the account of his travels unique and significant for the study of cross-cultural perspectives. It not only offers the views on India and the Indian society of the Chinese pilgrim, it also provides rare glimpses into the Indian perception and knowledge of China, seldom available in contemporary Indian sources. Xuanzang’s account is also exceptional because of his meticulous records of Buddhist sites such as Bamiyan and Nalanda. These notices have already aided the work of modern archeologists and historians of medieval South Asia.Thus, The Records of the Western Regions is a rich resource for historians, archeologists, Buddhologists, and those interested in studying cross-cultural interactions in the premodern world.”

Xuanzang Leaves India

Following his public successes in India, Xuanzang resolved to return to China. Sally Hovey Wriggins wrote: “When Xuanzang finally departed in 643 CE he was given a military escort to carry the books and images he had been collecting from the Indian subcontinent. King Harsha presented him with his best and biggest elephant capable of carrying eight men as well as the thousands of gold and silver pieces given him for expenses along the way. The king also provided him with letters to rulers on the homeward route. Only 4 years later this remarkable, versatile monarch was gone; for the next 3 centuries there would be disorder and famine in northern India. Beginning with the fall of the Guptas and becoming complete after the death of Harsha in 647 A.D., north Indian history is confused and obscure for some five or six hundred years. As the Dark Ages divide the classical age of the Greek and the Roman, so do these centuries divide modern from ancient India. [Source: “Xuanzang on the Silk Road” by Sally Hovey Wriggins mongolianculture.com \~/]

“Having decided not to return by sea, Xuanzang and his party turned to the northeast. They crossed northern India by way of Jalandhara and Taxila returning in the opposite direction by roughly the same route Xuanzang’s caravan had taken 13 years before. At length in 644 CE Xuanzang arrived at Hund on the Indus River but here a storm rose up and overturned his boats so that he lost 50 of his precious manuscripts. He sent to Udyana for extra copies of his scriptures, waiting 2 months hoping for their arrival at Kapisa. At length his caravan reached the Hindu Kush mountains. Like Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps with his elephant and baggage train, their crossing in 644 CE proved to be far more difficult than they had imagined. Xuanzang’s biographer stated that their caravan consisted only of 5 priests, 20 followers, 1 elephant, 10 asses and 4 horses. At length they descended to Kunduz on the Oxus river where they waited another month for copies of the lost manuscripts. \~/

Xuanzang returns to China from India, Dunhuang mural in Cave 103

Der Huey Lee of Peking University wrote: “ He followed the caravan-track that led across the Pamirs to Dunhuang. In the spring of 644, he reached Khotan and awaited a reply to his request for return addressed to the Emperor Taizong. In the month of November, Xuanzang left for Dunhuang by a decree of the Emperor, and arrived in the Chinese capital Chang'an the first month of the Chinese Lunar Year 645.” [Source:Der Huey Lee, Peking University, China Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu/xuanzang ^^]


Tansen Sen wrote in Education about Asia: “Compared to the travel records of Faxian and Xuanzang, the works of Yijing have attracted limited attention from students and scholars of Asian and world history. Yijing embarked on his trip to India in 671 and returned in 695. Before returning to China, he completed and sent to China from the kingdom of ªNvijaya (located in present-day Indonesia) two works of immense importance: The Record of Buddhism As Practiced in India Sent Home from the Southern Seas and the Memoirs of Eminent Monks who Visited India and Neighboring Regions in Search on the Law during the Great Tang Dynasty. [Source: Tansen Sen, Education about Asia, Volume 11, Number 3 Winter 2006 ]

"The former work is a detailed account of how Buddhist doctrines and monastic rules were practiced in India. The latter contains biographical information about fifty-six Chinese monks who traveled to India in the seventh century. By recording the practice of monastic rules of Indian monasteries, Yijing wanted to rectify what he calls the “errors” in the applications of the “original [Buddhist] principles” in China.

“He describes forty practices at Indian monasteries ranging from “cleansing after meals” to the “regulations for ordination” and compares them to the procedures in China. Often he underscores the consequences of not following the original intent of the monastic rules. On other occasions, he recommends a compromise due to cultural differences between India and China. “As to the mode of eating,” for example, he writes that in India people “use only the right hand, but if one has had an illness or has some other reasons, one is permitted to keep a spoon for use. We never hear of chop-sticks in the five parts of India; they are not mentioned in the “Vinaya” of the Four Schools,21 and it is only China that has them.” He suggests that since in the monastic rules “chop-sticks were never allowed nor were they prohibited” they could be used in China, “for if we obstinately reject their use, people may laugh or complain.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: 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; 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 August 2021

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