The Most Influential
People in History
c. 602 – c. 664
Chinese Buddhist Monk
Exploration Ranking 13th of 26
Hsuan with walking stick and backpack, Republic of China stamp from 1970.
Xuanzang was instrumental in spreading Buddhism in China and Japan after spending sixteen years on the road, most importantly in India for about twelve years. He returned with hundreds of Buddhist scrolls which he translated from Sanskrit into Chinese. Xuanzang’s account of his travels, The Great Tang Dynasty Record of the Western Regions, is an indispensable source for the history of India in the 600s since few native Indians wrote significant historical documents while Xuanzang wrote a detailed account of the places he visited and the things he saw during his travels in India studying Buddhism.(1) Xuanzang’s adventures also provided the inspiration for the sixteenth-century, classic Chinese novel, Journey to the West, better known to Western audiences as Monkey. Today Monkey is a very well-known part of Chinese culture and one of the best-loved classics of Chinese literature. In the novel, three companions--Monkey, Pigsy and Sandy--accompany the pilgrim Xuanzang (called Tripitaka, in the novel, which means “Three Baskets [of Scripture]”) on his long journey to India.
Xuanzang is the religious name of Chen Yi, born in Henan. At the age of twelve, he followed the example of his elder brother and became a Buddhist monk. He established himself as a learned Buddhist master, but he was dissatisfied with the available Chinese versions of Buddhist sutras. They were often translated from Central Asian versions and by people whose knowledge of either Chinese or the original language was inadequate.
Emperor Taizong did not favor Buddhism at that time, and Xuanzang's request to leave on a pilgrimage to India was repeatedly refused. In 629, against Emperor Taizong’s strict instructions not to travel, Xuanzang set out from China with the aim of learning more about his Buddhist religion. His route to India, the birthplace of Buddhism, took him west through the Gobi Desert where he almost died of thirst. He was detained by the King of Gaochang in Turfan, who wanted to keep him as a teacher. Xuanzang persuaded the King to let him go and he continued over perilous roads and through dark gorges to Bactria, over the Hindu Kush and east into Kashmir. Xuanzang saw and wrote about the two great Bamiyan Buddha statues, in what is now Afghanistan, and after three years he finally reached northern India.
Xuanzang’s Time in India
Xuanzang stayed in India for twelve years, visiting the libraries of monasteries in the Ganges Valley. He also went to important Buddhist sites in northern India including Sankasya, where the Buddha descended from Heaven; Lumbini, the Buddha’s birthplace; and Kushinagar, where Buddha died. Xuanzang spent five years of study at the famous Nalanda University, then the greatest center of Buddhist learning.
He visited Allahabad where he was captured by pirates and nearly sacrificed. In Assam, he joined the procession of King Harsha, in the company of 20,000 elephants and 30,000 boats. While crossing the Indus River, he lost many of his rare manuscripts and his entire collection of flower seeds. He set off north across the mountains, this time accompanied by an elephant with a huge appetite which ate forty bundles of hay and hundreds of buns every day.
Despite all the perils, Xuanzang finally arrived back in China in 645, after an absence of sixteen years. He entered Ch’ang-an, the then Chinese capital, with a chariot drawn by twenty horses piled with more than 600 Sanskrit religious books and statues and relics of the Buddha. His expedition was considered so important that, far from being reprimanded for disobeying the Emperor’s order years before, he was showered with honors. Xuanzang retired to a monastery, where he spent his remaining years translating the Buddhist texts he had collected into Chinese. The output eventually totaled 1,335 chapters and more than 13 million characters.(2)
Xuanzang’s Role in Chinese and Japanese Buddhism
The process of full-scale adaptation of Indian Buddhism was long under way in China when Xuanzang was born around 600. He was born a little more than twenty years before the founding of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 C.E), during which Buddhism reached the height of its flowering in China. When the dynasty was founded, Buddhism had already been present on Chinese soil for six centuries. From its beginnings there as a religion of the common people, it gradually came to be recognized as a great system of religion and thought that originated a thousand years earlier in northern India.
Over several centuries other Chinese preceded Xuanzang to India or into Indian-dominated areas of Central Asia and maritime Southeast Asia, going as pilgrim monks who sought direct knowledge of the Buddha’s teachings. Many Indians and others from those regions came to China, bringing texts and knowledge of religious practice, to introduce them to the Chinese. Chinese and other merchants traveling the trade routes between eastern and western or southern Asia, especially those who followed the various sources of the Silk Road overland from northwest China into northern India, became ardent Buddhists. They had long patronized the growing institutions, the temples, shrines and monasteries, that sustained the religious community. The young Xuanzang could conceive of the idea of traveling to the source because so much had already been accomplished in making the Buddha’s truths known within the sphere of Chinese life.(3)
Yet even given this history, without Xuanzang the character of Chinese Buddhism would be quite different.(4) Xuanzang brought the Emperor of China, Tang Taizong, to wholehearted acceptance of Buddhism as a component of Chinese life. Because of him, the Emperor began the patronage of Buddhist institutions, starting with his extraordinary favor toward Xuanzang himself. The Emperor founded a teaching and study monastery at the capital and agreed to Xuanzang’s call for increased licensing of Chinese monks throughout the realm. Because of that, patronage of Buddhism by the Chinese elite greatly increased. This patronage occurred at the beginning of a stable and rich cultural era that lasted two centuries, during which the fullest flowering of Chinese Buddhism took place within a highly cosmopolitan phase of Chinese civilization.
Buddhism’s transmission into China and from China through East Asia had an authoritative quality because of the depth of Xuanzang’s mastery of the sacred texts and teachings he brought back from India.(5) He greatly expanded the corpus of authentic texts available for study in China, and his life work of translating and commenting on those texts purified and expanded Buddhist doctrines. He was completely at home in both Sanskrit and Chinese. His translations greatly exceeded in precision and in intelligibility those produced in earlier periods. One important example of Xuanzang’s influence involves a Japanese monk named Dosho who arrived in China in 653 to study under Xuanzang. After he completed his study, he returned to Japan to introduce the doctrines of the Ideation Only school in that country. During the seventh and eighth centuries, this school, called Hosso by the Japanese, became the most influential of all the Buddhist schools in Japan.(6)
Xuanzang became a powerful human image that fascinated all manner of Chinese who knew him, an image that lived through the centuries thereafter. He was portrayed in popular storytelling, in drama, and in several fictional guises. As a Chinese folk hero, he was a devoted believer under the protection of his Buddhist guardians, one who struggled to attain enlightenment and bring religion to the masses of suffering humans. This image is in many ways fanciful, but it was powerfully projected and undoubtedly touched more human lives than did his intellectual feats.(7) It may be the most important aspect of Xuanzang’s legacy, the most influential—if unanticipated—consequence of his daring pilgrimage in search of truth and wisdom.(8)
(1) Victor H. Mair, Sanping Chen and Frances Wood, Chinese Lives: The People Who Made a Civilization (London, 2013), p. 80.
(2) Ibid., p. 80.
(3) Sally Hovey Wriggins, The Silk Road Journey with Xuanzang (Boulder, 1996), p. xii in Foreword by Frederick W. Mote.
(3) Ibid., p. xiii.
(4) Ibid., p. xiii.
(5) Encyclopaedia Britannica, Micropaedia, Volume 6, 1993, 15th Edition, p. 104.
(6) Wriggins., p. xiv.
(7) Ibid., p. xiv.
1. By Xuanzang –- The Great Tang Dynasty Record of the Western Regions translated by Li Rongxi, Berkeley: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 1996.
2. The Silk Road Journey with Xuanzang by Sally Hovey Wriggins, revised edition, 2003.
3. The Monkey and the Monk: An Abridgment of the Journey to the West by Anthony C. Yu, 2006.