Ding-hwa HSIEH

Paper cutout of Xuanzang (602–664), a monk during the Tang dynasty who endured great troubles as he traveled to India to retrieve Buddhist scriptures. His adventures were the basis of the famous Chinese novel Journey to the West.

Xuanzang of the Tang dynasty was one of the most influential figures in the history of Chinese Buddhism. He is best known for his sixteen-year pilgrimage to India in search of the true Buddhist teachings, from which he brought back hundreds of scriptures. Xuanzang and his chief disciple, Kuiji, founded the Faxiang (Characteristics of the Dharmas) school.

Xuanzang ?? was a Buddhist monk-scholar, pilgrim, and translator in the early Tang ? dynasty (618–907 CE). He traveled to India in search of the true dharma (divine law) and brought back with him hundreds of Buddhist texts. In addition to translating and commenting on the texts, he wrote Record of the Western Regions during the Great Tang (Datang xiyu ji) about his sixteen-year journey to India. His biography can be found in Zanning’s (919–1001) Song [Compiled] Biographies of Eminent Monks (Song gaoseng zhuan). He and his chief disciple, Kuiji ?? (632–682), founded the Faxiang ?? (Characteristics of the Dharmas) school, a Chinese version of the Indian Yogâcâra (Consciousness-only) school of thought.

Xuanzang, surnamed Chen (known as “Chen Yi”), was a native of Henan Province. His family for generations produced erudite Confucian scholar-officials. He was the youngest of four children. After the death of his father in 611, Xuanzang, under the influence of his elder brother, a Buddhist monk, joined the monastery at the age of thirteen. He became a fully ordained monk in 622. Troubled by the discrepancies and contradictions in the Chinese translations of scriptures, he began to learn Sanskrit and decided to go to India to study Buddhism.

Xuanzang sneaked out of the Tang capital of Chang’an in 629 after the imperial court refused his petition to travel westward. He crossed the Gobi Desert and took the Silk Roads route via central Asia to India. Having endured numerous hardships and escaped from life-threatening dangers, he eventually arrived in India, where he studied with many renowned masters and visited important Buddhist centers.

Xuanzang returned to Chang’an in 645. This time he received a warm welcome from the Tang imperial court. He declined the emperor’s offer of an official position, however; instead, assisted by a group of well-trained Buddhist scholars and linguistic experts, he spent the rest of his lifetime translating the texts that he had brought back from India.

Xuanzang is said to have brought back 657 items in 520 cases, and he himself translated 73 items in 1330 fascicles (divisions of a book published in parts) of scriptures into Chinese. His scholarly efforts not only made a great number of Mahayana scriptures and treatises available in Chinese but also contributed significantly to the Chinese understanding of Indian Buddhist doctrines and philosophies.

Xuanzang and his disciple, Kuiji, founded the Faxiang school on the basis of the Yogâcâra theory of the mind. It teaches that so-called reality is simply a result of how the mind functions; in particular, the storehouse consciousness (Sanskrit: âlayavijñâna) is the repository of all the mental projections and perceptions. Although the Faxiang school soon died out in China, it had a profound impact on Chinese Huayan and Chan Buddhism.

Xuanzang’s Record of the Western Regions during the Great Tang, completed in 646, has become a valuable primary source of information about medieval central Asia and India. Based on Xuanzang’s pilgrimage, Wu Cheng’en (1500–1582) of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) wrote the novel Journey to the West, which is one of the most popular classics in Chinese literature.

Further Reading

Bernstein, R. (2001). Ultimate journey: Retracing the path of an ancient Buddhist monk who crossed Asia in search of enlightenment. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Ch’en, K. K. S. (1973). Buddhism in China: A historical survey. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Devahuti, D. (Ed.). (2001). The unknown Hsuan-Tsang. New York: Oxford University Press.

Li Rongxi (Trans.). (1995). A biography of the Tripitaka master of the great Ci’en Monastery of the great Tang dynasty. Berkeley, CA: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research.

Wriggins, S. H. (2004). The Silk Road journey with Xuanzang. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Source: Hsieh, Ding-hwa. (2009). Xuanzang. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2534–2536. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Painting of the traveling monk Xuanzang by a Japanese artist of the Kamakura period (fourteenth century).

Xuanzang (Xuánzàng ??)|Xuánzàng ?? (Xuanzang)

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