Xuanzang, statue at the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, Xi’an, Shaanxi, China. © fly/Shutterstock.com

It is impossible to study, practice, and learn about Chinese Buddhism without encountering the outstanding life of one of the world’s most important religious figures: Xuan-zang (玄奘大師 – Xuán Zàng Dà Shī – The Great Teacher Xuan Zang). Though, to most westerners, even many Buddhists, his life is largely unknown or at least shrouded in veils of legend and fantasy. To East Asian Buddhism, however, Xuanzang stands as one of the key figures in its history and development. His life, indeed, was nothing short of extraordinary.

There has been much written about his life. However, for those who are unfamiliar with Xuanzang, here’s a very abbreviated sketch: He was born around 602 in Henan Province, China, which is towards the eastern part of the country. His parent died early, and, at the age of 13, after expressing a deep interest in the teachings of the Buddha, was ordained a novice monk; he received full ordination at the age of 20.

He was very precocious and showed great intelligence at an early age. He spent much of his time studying sutras and learning the various doctrines present in Chinese Buddhism at that time. However, he soon came to the conclusion that China lacked key Buddhist texts that could resolve doctrinal conflicts and inconsistencies he encountered in his studies. While in his late 20’s, he resolved to travel to India, the home of Buddhism, to secure the texts and understanding necessary to help Buddhism in China resolve these misunderstandings.

What followed, then, is nothing less than the Hero’s Journey; something often found in fiction, but rarely in actuality. After escaping China, as the new Tang Dynasty Emperor Taizong forbade anyone from leaving the country at that time, Xuanzang spent the next 17 years travelling on foot, across the Silk Road, through the “western regions,” across the Himalayas, and into India, the birth place of Buddhism, where it was thriving intellectually at that time. After his studies were finished, he went back to China in 645, this time not under secrecy, but welcomed by the Emperor and the people as a great hero.

Xuangzang's route to and from China.

Here is an interesting and very detailed Google Map travel route of Xuanzang’s pilgrimage, created by some clever and helpful person, the link to which I found here.

Even though he left China anonymously and under secrecy, the importance of his journey and the quality of his person quickly created a reputation for him. Along his 16,000-mile journey, Xuanzang was welcomed by kings, robbed by bandits, debated with scholars, was taught by great Buddhist teachers, helped and was helped by travelers and merchants, gave lectures to many thousands of monks, among many other experiences. He was a greatly revered teacher at the time, as his demeanor, intelligence, and understanding of Buddhism preceded him much of his journey.

Besides learning in various monasteries and with various teachers along his journey, Xuanzang was able to study in India at the great Nalanda University for five years, focusing on the teachings of the Yogacara School of Buddhism, which was one of his primary goals of his epic pilgrimage. Through this extraordinary intellectual feat, Xuanzang was able to resolve the inconsistencies and conflicting doctrines in early Chinese Buddhism and leave an indelible mark on this great religion.

The ruins of Nalanda University in India.

However, his journey and time in India were, in one sense, just the prelude to his life’s work. When he traveled back to China, Xuanzang brought back over 650 Sanskrit texts, dozens of images of the Buddha, relics of the Buddha (both sarira and bone fragments), and other religious treasures. Once he returned from India, the Emperor helped secure a massive translation bureau for Xuanzang to begin translating many of the works he brought with him. Over the next nearly 20 years, he accomplished more than any other translator in Chinese Buddhist history. His translation of the Heart Sutra is still the standard used in just about all of East Asia, as well as in much of western Buddhism (here is an interesting .pdf comparison with the Sanskrit, Chinese, and English together, for those who are interested.)

Xuanzang returning to China with scriptures

Xuanzang died in 664, and, according to historical narratives, a million people attended his funeral. Although a great scholar and intellectual, Xuanxang was always a humble, simple, and devoted monk through his life. He was strongly devoted to Maitreya, the future Buddha; and, it is said that, when a disciple asked Xuanzang on his deathbed if he (Xuanzang) will be reborn in the Tushita Heaven where Maitreya Buddha is residing, Xuanzang replied, “Quite certain.”

Classic Korean Maitreya statue, ready to stand up to become the next Buddha. (Copyright National Museum of Korea, Seoul.)

As would be imagined from any similar, extraordinary life, common understanding of Xuanzang’s biography is a mix of both fact and legend. During his journey through the “western regions,” he kept very thorough notebooks and journals, detailing the landscape, people, politics, religion, architecture, economics, and customs of the lands he saw. These journals he published for the Tang Emperor a few years after he arrived back in China, entitled Great Tang Records of the Western Regions. Even today, almost 1,500 years later, archeologists still rely on his descriptions to locate ancient sites along the Silk Road and elsewhere. There is nothing else like this book that describes is such vibrant detail the period of Xuanzang’s travels. This alone, if the great monk did nothing else, would have been a tremendous legacy.

Xuanzang’s life also was the basis for the very famous, and very fanciful, novel called “Journey to the West,” one of the four great Classical Chinese novels. The tale told in this novel is known by most Chinese, as there have been numerous children’s books, movies, cartoons, comic books, plays, television shows, video games, website forums (at least one), and even a small theme part in China that have been produced in part from the book. Even today, the movie The Monkey King, slated for release in 2012 and staring Chow Yun-Fat (of Crouching Tiger fame) and shot in IMAX 3-D, continues the long list of media attempting to bring to life this larger-than-life story. So, the influence of this book, and of Xuanzang’s life (even if liberally interpreted), is still very much present in modern Asia.

During the years he translated sutras, Xuanzang built a large pagoda in Xi’an (called Chang-an during his time) to house the relics of the Buddha and some of the scriptures he brought back with him. It is still standing, though it has been renovated a few times over its 1,500 year history. Here is a lovely picture, if you would like to see it (click to see a bigger version):

The Great Goose Pagoda in Xi'an

The reason why I decided to describe a bit of Xuanzang in this blog post is threefold: first, I am currently reading a book about his travels, and find it very interesting, engaging, and deeply inspiring; so, he’s on my mind a lot. Secondly, for those of you who have read this far, maybe you this post can help give a sense of the extraordinary life of Xuanzang. And thirdly, whenever I sense a whining or complaining thought starting to arise (“Geez, this is kind of hard, living in Taiwan!” or “You know, maybe learning Chinese isn’t all that necessary,” or “Hmmm…I wonder what movies are playing these days…”), I try to recall Xuanzang’s profound aspiration and achievements, thriving in distant lands with very little for comfort, to uplift my mind and recall my own purpose for being here. Needless to say, these whining thoughts tend to get ultra embarrassed and take their respective places quickly when I think of monks like Xuanzang. So, he’s a source of great inspiration at the moment.

Someone recently passed along links to a very nice and fairly recent movie about Xuanzang, as posted on YouTube. It is about an hour and a half, in Chinese but with English subtitles. Although I am biased, I highly recommend watching it when you have the time. It seems to be much more historic than legendary, and it is beautifully rendered. Here’s the first 30 minutes of the film:

There is much, much more written about Xuanzang, his journey, this contribution to Buddhism (including the Buddhist sect he founded, which eventually died out in China but still is alive in Japan), and the teachings he brought into Chinese Buddhism. For anyone interested in learning more, I’d highly encourage you to pursue works such as the book I linked above, or this one (a very readable travelogue of sorts), for the details of his life only amplify his achievements. If nothing else, the YouTube movie provides more details.

In this small, abbreviated post, hopefully some of the magnitude of Xuanzang’s life has made it across the centuries and ancient lands to touch you in some way; even if only a spark of curiosity.

Xuanzang crossing the desert by himself, on the way to India.