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Xuanzang ( ) [602/603? - 664 CE] was a famous Chinesemarker Buddhist monk, scholar, traveler, and translator that brought up the interaction between China and India in the early Tang period.

Born in Henanmarker province of China in 602 or 603 CE, he displayed signs of intellectual and spiritual greatness even at an early age. From boyhood he took to reading sacred books, mainly the Chinese Classics and the writings of the ancient sages.

While residing in the city of Luoyangmarker, Xuanzang entered Buddhist monkhood at the age of thirteen. Due to the political and social unrest caused by the fall of the Sui dynasty, he went to Chengdumarker in Sichuanmarker (Szechuan), where he was ordained at the age of twenty. From Xingdu, he travelled throughout China in search of sacred books of Buddhism. At length, he came to Chang'anmarker, then under the peaceful rule of Emperor Taizong of Tang. Here Xuanzang developed the desire to visit Indiamarker. He knew about Faxian's visit to India and, like him, was concerned about the incomplete and misinterpreted nature of the Buddhist scriptures that reached China.

He became famous for his seventeen year overland trip to India and back, which is recorded in detail in his autobiography and a biography, and provided the inspiration for the epic novel Journey to the West.

Nomenclature, orthography and etymology

Xuanzang is also known as Táng-sānzàng (唐三藏), Xuánzàng Sānzàng (玄奘三藏), Xuánzàng Dàshī (玄奘大師), or simply as Táng Sēng (唐僧), or Tang (Dynasty) Monk in Mandarin; in Cantonese as Tong Sam Jong and in Vietnamese as Đường Tam Tạng. Less common romanizations of Xuanzang include Hhuen Kwan, Hiouen Thsang, Hiuen Tsiang, Hsien-tsang, Hsyan-tsang, Hsuan Chwang, Hsuan Tsiang, Hwen Thsang, Xuan Cang, Xuan Zang, Shuen Shang, Yuan Chang, Yuan Chwang, and Yuen Chwang. Hsüan, Hüan, Huan and Chuang are also found. In Korean, he is known as Hyeon Jang. In Japanese, he is known as Genjō, or Genjō-sanzō (Xuanzang-sanzang). In Vietnamese, he is known as Đường Tăng (Tang Buddhist monk), Đường Tam Tạng ("Tang Tripitaka" monk), Huyền Trang (the Han-Vietnamese name of Xuanzang)

Sānzàng (三藏) is the Chinese term for the Tripitaka scriptures, and in some English-language fiction he is addressed with this title.

Early life

Xuanzang was born near Luoyangmarker, Henanmarker in 602 as Chén Huī or Chén Yī (陳 褘) and died 5th Feb. 664 in Yu Hua Gong (玉華宮). Xuanzang, whose lay name was Chen Hui, was born into a family noted for its erudition for generations. He was the youngest of four children. His great-grandfather was an official serving as a prefect, his grandfather was appointed as professor in the Imperial College at the capital. His father was a conservative Confucianist 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 superb intelligence and earnestness, 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.

Although his household in Chenhe Village of Goushi Town (緱氏 gou1), Luo Prefecture (洛州), Henanmarker, was essentially Confucian, at a young age Xuanzang expressed interest in becoming a Buddhist monk as one of his elder brothers had done. After the death of his father in 611, he lived with his older brother Chensu (later known as Changjie) for five years at Jingtu Monastery (淨土寺) in Luoyangmarker, supported by the Sui Dynasty state. During this time he studied Mahayana Buddhism and various early Buddhist schools, preferring Mahayana.

In 618, the Sui Dynasty collapsed and Xuanzang and his brother fled to Chang'an, which had been proclaimed as the capital of the Tang state, and thence southward to Chengdumarker, Sichuanmarker. Here the two brothers spent two or three years in further study in the monastery of Kong Hui, including the Abhidharmakosa-sastra (Abhidharma Storehouse Treatise). 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 knowledge.

Xuanzang was fully ordained as a monk in 622, at the age of twenty. The myriad contradictions and discrepancies in the texts at that time prompted Xuanzang to decide to go to India and study in the cradle of Buddhism. He subsequently left his brother and returned to Chang'an to study foreign languages and to continue his study of Buddhism. He began his mastery of Sanskrit in 626, and probably also studied Tocharian. During this time Xuanzang also became interested in the metaphysical Yogacara school of Buddhism.


In 629, Xuanzang reportedly had a dream that convinced him to journey to India. The Tang Dynasty and Eastern Türk Göktürks were waging war at the time; therefore Emperor Tang Taizong prohibited foreign travel. Xuanzang persuaded some Buddhist guards at the gates of Yumen and slipped out of the empire via Liangzhou (Gansumarker), and Qinghaimarker province. He subsequently travelled across the Gobi Desert to Kumulmarker (Hami), thence following the Tian Shanmarker westward, arriving in Turpanmarker in 630. Here he met the king of Turpan, a Buddhist who equipped him further for his travels with letters of introduction and valuables to serve as funds.

Moving further westward, Xuanzang escaped robbers to reach Yanqi, then toured the non-Mahayana monasteries of Kuchamarker. Further west he passed Aksumarker before turning northwest to cross the Tian Shan's Bedal Pass into modern Kyrgyzstanmarker. He skirted Issyk Kulmarker before visiting Tokmakmarker on its northwest, and met the great Khan of the Western Türk, whose relationship to the Tang emperor was friendly at the time. After a feast, Xuanzang continued west then southwest to Tashkentmarker (Chach/Che-Shih), capital of modern day Uzbekistanmarker. From here, he crossed the desert further west to Samarkandmarker. In Samarkand, which was under Persian influence, the party came across some abandoned Buddhist temples and Xuanzang impressed the local king with his preaching. Setting out again to the south, Xuanzang crossed a spur of the Pamirsmarker and passed through the famous Iron Gates. Continuing southward, he reached the Amu Daryamarker and Termezmarker, where he encountered a community of more than a thousand Buddhist monks.

Further east he passed through Kunduzmarker, where he stayed for some time to witness the funeral rites of Prince Tardu, who had been poisoned. Here he met the monk Dharmasimha, and on the advice of the late Tardu made the trip westward to Balkhmarker (modern day Afghanistanmarker), to see the Buddhist sites and relics, especially the Nava Vihara, or Nawbahar, which he described as the westernmost monastic institution in the world. Here Xuanzang also found over 3,000 non-Mahayana monks, including Prajnakara, a monk with whom Xuanzang studied early Buddhist scriptures. He acquired the important Mahāvibhāṣa text here, which he later translated into Chinese. Prajnakara then accompanied the party southward to Bamyanmarker, where Xuanzang met the king and saw tens of non-Mahayana monasteries, in addition to the two large Bamyan Buddhasmarker carved out of the rockface. The party then resumed their travel eastward, crossing the Shibar Passmarker and descending to the regional capital of Kapisi (about 60 km north of modern Kabulmarker), which sported over 100 monasteries and 6,000 monks, mostly Mahayana. This was part of the fabled old land of Gandhara. Xuanzang took part in a religious debate here, and demonstrated his knowledge of many Buddhist sects. Here he also met the first Jains and Hindus of his journey. He pushed on to Adinapur (later named Jalalabadmarker) and Laghman, where he considered himself to have reached India. The year was 630.

South Asia

Xuanzang left Adinapur, which had few Buddhist monks, but many stupas and monasteries. His travels (in the present day Pakistanmarker) included, passing through Hunza and the Khyber Passmarker to the east, reaching the former capital of Gandhara, Peshawarmarker, on the other side. Peshawar was nothing compared to its former glory, and Buddhism was declining in the region. Xuanzang visited a number of stupas around Peshawar, notably the Kanishka Stupa. This stupa was built just southeast of Peshawar, by a former king of the city. In 1908 it was rediscovered by D.B. Spooner with the help of Xuanzang's account.

Xuanzang left Peshawar and travelled northeast to the Swat Valleymarker. Reaching Oḍḍiyāna, he found 1,400 old monasteries, that had previously supported 18,000 monks. The remnant monks were of the Mahayana school. Xuanzang continued northward and into the Buner Valley, before doubling back via Shabaz Gharni to cross the Indus rivermarker at Hund. Thereafter he headed to Taxilamarker, a Mahayana Buddhist kingdom that was a vassal of Kashmirmarker, which is precisely where he headed next. Here he found 5,000 more Buddhist monks in 100 monasteries. Here he met a talented Mahayana monk and spent his next two years (631-633) studying Mahayana alongside other schools of Buddhism. During this time, Xuanzang writes about the Fourth Buddhist council that took place nearby, ca. 100 AD, under the order of King Kanishka of Kushana.He visited Lahoremarker as well and provided the earliest writings available on the ancient city.

In 633, Xuanzang left Kashmir and journeyed south to Chinabhukti, thought to be modern Firozpurmarker in present day Indiamarker, where he studied for a year with the monk-prince Vinitaprabha.

In 634 he went east to Jalandharmarker in eastern Punjabmarker, before climbing up to visit predominantly non-Mahayana monasteries in the Kulu valley and turning southward again to Bairatmarker and then Mathuramarker, on the Yamuna rivermarker. Mathura had 2,000 monks of both major Buddhist branches, despite being Hindu-dominated. Xuanzang travelled up the river to Srughna before crossing eastward to Matipura, where he arrived in 635, having crossed the river Gangesmarker. At Matipura Monastery Xuanzang studied under Mitrasena From here, he headed south to Sankasya (Kapitha), said to be where Buddha descended from heaven, then onward to the northern Indian emperor Harsha's grand capital of Kanyakubjamarker (Kannauj). Here, in 636, Xuanzang encountered 100 monasteries of 10,000 monks (both Mahayana and non-Mahayana), and was impressed by the king's patronage of both scholarship and Buddhism. Xuanzang spent time in the city studying early Buddhist scriptures, before setting off eastward again for Ayodhyamarker (Saketa), homeland of the Yogacara school. Xuanzang now moved south to Kausambimarker (Kosam), where he had a copy made from an important local image of the Buddha.

Xuanzang now returned northward to Sravastimarker, travelled through Terai in the southern part of modern Nepalmarker (here he found deserted Buddhist monasteries) and thence to Kapilavastumarker, his last stop before Lumbinimarker, the birthplace of Buddha. Reaching Lumbini, he would have seen a pillar near the old Ashoka tree that Buddha is said to have been born under. This was from the reign of emperor Ashoka, and records that he worshipped at the spot. The pillar was rediscovered by A. Führer in 1895.

In 637, Xuanzang set out from Lumbini to Kusinagaramarker, the site of Buddha's death, before heading southwest to the deer park at Sarnathmarker where Buddha gave his first sermon, and where Xuanzang found 1,500 resident monks. Travelling eastward, at first via Varanasimarker, Xuanzang reached Vaisalimarker, Pataliputra (Patnamarker) and Bodh Gayamarker. He was then accompanied by local monks to Nalandamarker, the great Buddhist university of Bengalmarker, where he spent at least the next two years. He was in the company of several thousand scholar-monks, whom he praised. Xuanzang studied logic, grammar, Sanskrit, and the Yogacara school of Buddhism during his time at Nalanda. René Grousset notes that it was at Nalanda (where an "azure pool winds around the monasteries, adorned with the full-blown cups of the blue lotus; the dazzling red flowers of the lovely kanaka hang here and there, and outside groves of mango trees offer the inhabitants their dense and protective shade") that Xuanzang met the venerable Silabhadra, the monastery's superior. Silabhadra had dreamt of Xuanzang's arrival and that it would help spread far and wide the Holy Law. Grousset writes: "The Chinese pilgrim had finally found the omniscient master, the incomparable metaphysician who was to make known to him the ultimate secrets of the idealist systems...The founders of Mahayana idealism, Asanga and Vasubandhu...Dignaga...Dharmapala had in turn trained Silabhadra. Siladhadra was thus in a position to make available to the Sino-Japanese world the entire heritage of Buddhist idealism, and the Siddhi Hiuan Tsang's great philosophical none other than the Summa of this doctrione, the fruit of seven centuries of Indian [Buddhist] thought."

From Nalanda, Xuanzang also went east to the ancient city of Pragjyotishpur (modern Guwahatimarker) in the kingdom of Kamarupa (modern Assam) at the invitation of its Buddhist king Kumar Bhaskaravarman. Later the king escorted Xuanzang back to the Kannauj at the request of king Harshavardhana who was an ally of Kumar Bhaskaravarman to attend a great Buddhist council there which was attended by both the kings.

Xuanzang turned southward and travelled to Andhradesa to visit the famous Viharas at Amaravati and Nagarjunakondamarker. He stayed at Amaravati and studied 'Abhidhammapitakam'. He observed that there were many Viharas at Amaravati and some of them were deserted. He later proceeded to Kanchimarker, the imperial capital of Pallavas and a strong centre of Buddhism.

Traveling through the Khyber Passmarker of the Hindu Kushmarker, Xuanzang passed through Kashgarmarker, Khotanmarker, and Dunhuangmarker on his way back to China. He arrived in the capital, Chang'an, on the seventh day of the first month of 645, and a great procession celebrated his return.

Return to China

On his return to China in AD 645 Xuanzang was greeted with much honour but he refused all high civil appointments offered by the still-reigning emperor, Emperor Taizong of Tang. Instead, he retired to a monastery and devoted his energy to translating Buddhist texts until his death in AD 664.

His influence on Chinese Buddhism

During his travels he studied with many famous Buddhist masters, especially at the famous center of Buddhist learning at Nālanda Universitymarker. When he returned, he brought with him some 657 Sanskrit texts. With the emperor's support, he set up a large translation bureau in Chang'anmarker (present-day Xi'anmarker), drawing students and collaborators from all over East Asia. He is credited with the translation of some 1,330 fascicles of scriptures into Chinese. His strongest personal interest in Buddhism was in the field of Yogācāra (瑜伽行派) or Consciousness-only (唯識).

The force of his own study, translation and commentary of the texts of these traditions initiated the development of the Faxiang school (法相宗) in East Asia. Although the school itself did not thrive for a long time, its theories regarding perception, consciousness, karma, rebirth, etc. found their way into the doctrines of other more successful schools. Xuanzang's closest and most eminent student was Kuiji (窺基) who became recognized as the first patriarch of the Faxiang school. Xuanzang's logic, as described by Kuiji, was often misunderstood by scholars of Chinese Buddhism because they lack the necessary background in Indian logic. Another important disciple was the Korean monk Woncheuk.

Xuanzang was known for his extensive but careful translations of Indian Buddhist texts to Chinese, which have enabled subsequent recoveries of lost Indian Buddhist texts from the translated Chinese copies. He is credited with writing or compiling the Cheng Weishi Lun as a commentary on these texts. His translation of the Heart Sutra became and remains standard.He also founded the short-lived but influential Faxiang school of Buddhism. Additionally, he was known for recording the events of the reign of the northern Indian emperor, Harsha.

The Perfection of Wisdom Sutra

Xuanzang returned to China with three copies of the Mahaprajnaparamita Sutra. Xuanzang, with a team of disciple translators, commenced translating the voluminous work in 660 CE, using all three versions to ensure the integrity of the source documentation. Xuanzang was being encouraged by a number of his disciple translators to render an abridged version. After a suite of dreams quickened his decision, Xuanzang determined to render an unabridged, complete volume, faithful to the original of 600 chapters.

His Autobiography and Biography

In 646, under the Emperor's request, Xuanzang completed his book Great Tang Records on the Western Regions (大唐西域記), which has become one of the primary sources for the study of medieval Central Asia and India. This book was first translated into French by the Sinologist Stanislas Julien in 1857.

There was also a biography of Xuanzang written by the monk Huili (慧立). Both books were first translated into English by Samuel Beal, in 1884 and 1911 respectively. An English translation with copious notes by Thomas Watters was edited by T. S. Rhys Davids and S.W. Bushell, and published posthumously in London in 1905.

His Legacy

Xuanzang's work, the Great Tang Records on the Western Regions, is the longest and most detailed account of the countries of Central and South Asia that has been bestowed upon posterity by a Chinese Buddhist pilgrim. While his main purpose was to obtain Buddhist books and to receive instruction on Buddhism while in India, he ended up doing much more. He has preserved the records of political and social aspects of the lands he visited.

His record of the places visited by him in Bengalmarker — mainly Raktamrittika near Karnasuvarnamarker, Pundranagara and its environs, Samatata and Tamralipti — have been very helpful in the recording of the archaeological history of Bengal. His account has also shed welcome light on the history of 7th century Bengal, especially the Gauda kingdom under Shashanka, although at times he can be quite partisan.

Xuanzang obtained and translated 657 Sanskrit Buddhist works. He received the best education on Buddhism he could find throughout India. Much of this activity is detailed in the companion volume to Xiyu Ji, the Biography of Xuanzang written by Huili, entitled the Life of Xuanzang.

His version of the Heart Sutra is the basis for all Chinese commentaries on the sutra, and recitations throughout China, Korea and Japan. His style was, by Chinese standards, cumbersome and overly literal, and marked by scholarly innovations in terminology; usually, where another version by the earlier translator Kumārajīva exists, Kumārajīva's is more popular.

Xuanzang's journey along the so-called Silk Roads, and the legends that grew up around it, inspired the Mingmarker novel Journey to the West, one of the great classics of Chinese literature. The Xuanzang of the novel is the reincarnation of a disciple of Gautama Buddha, and is protected on his journey by three powerful disciples. One of them, the monkey, was a popular favourite and profoundly influenced Chinese culture and contemporary Japanesemarker manga and anime, (including the popular Dragon Ball and Saiyuki series'), and became well known in the West by Arthur Waley's translation and later the cult TV series Monkey.

In the Yuan Dynastymarker, there was also a play by Wu Changling (吳昌齡) about Xuanzang obtaining scriptures.


A skull relic purported to be that of Xuanzang was held in the Temple of Great Compassion, Tianjinmarker until 1956 when it was taken to Nalandamarker - allegedly by the Dalai Lama - and presented to Indiamarker. The relic is now in the Patnamarker museum. The Wenshu Monastery in Chengdumarker, Sichuanmarker province also claims to have part of Xuanzang's skull.

Part of Xuanzang's remains were taken from Nanjingmarker by soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army in 1942, and are now enshrined at Yakushi-jimarker in Nara, Japan.

See also


Further reading

  • Nattier, Jan. The Heart Sutra: A Chinese Apocryphal Text?. Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies Vol. 15 Nbr. 2 (1992)
  • Stanislas Julien. 1857. Memoires sur les contrées occidentales. Paris.
  • Wriggins, Sally Hovey. Xuanzang: A Buddhist Pilgrim on the Silk Road. Westview Press, 1996. Revised and updated as The Silk Road Journey With Xuanzang. Westview Press, 2003. ISBN 0-8133-6599-6.
  • Watters, Thomas. On Yuan Chwang’s Travels in India Reprint. Hesperides Press, 1996. ISBN 978-1406713879.
  • Beal, Samuel (1884). Si-Yu-Ki: Buddhist Records of the Western World, by Hiuen Tsiang. 2 vols. Translated by Samuel Beal. London. 1884. Reprint: Delhi. Oriental Books Reprint Corporation. 1969.
  • Beal, Samuel (1911). The Life of Hiuen-Tsiang. Translated from the Chinese of Shaman (monk) Hwui Li by Samuel Beal. London. 1911. Reprint Munshiram Manoharlal, New Delhi. 1973.
  • Bernstein, Richard (2001). Ultimate Journey: Retracing the Path of an Ancient Buddhist Monk (Xuanzang) who crossed Asia in Search of Enlightenment. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. ISBN 0-375-40009-5
  • Li, Rongxi (translator) (1995). A Biography of the Tripiṭaka Master of the Great Ci’en Monastery of the Great Tang Dynasty. Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research. Berkeley, California. ISBN 1-886439-00-1
  • Li, Rongxi (translator) (1995). The Great Tang Dynasty Record of the Western Regions. Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research. Berkeley, California. ISBN 1-886439-02-8
  • Li, Yongshi, (translator) (1959). The Life of Hsuan Tsang by Huili. Chinese Buddhist Association, Beijing.
  • Saran, Mishi (2005). Chasing the Monk’s Shadow: A Journey in the Footsteps of Xuanzang. Penguin Books. ISBN 9780143064398
  • Gordon, Stewart. When Asia was the World: Traveling Merchants, Scholars, Warriors, and Monks who created the "Riches of the East" Da Capo Press, Perseus Books, 2008. ISBN 0-306-81556-7.
  • Sun Shuyun (2003). Ten Thousand Miles without a Cloud (retracing Xuanzang's journeys). Harper Perennial. ISBN 0-00-712974-2
  • Wriggins, Sally Hovey (2004). The Silk Road Journey with Xuanzang. Boulder, Colorado: WestviewPress. ISBN 0-8133-6599-6
  • Waley, Arthur (1952). The Real Tripitaka, and Other Pieces. London: G. Allen and Unwin.

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