XUANZANG (596?–664), religious name of the Chinese pilgrim-monk who became a leading cleric of the early Tang dynasty after returning from an eighteen-year journey to the homeland of Buddhism in India. Famous in his own day as a Buddhist scholar and adviser to the emperor, Xuanzang eventually came to be best known as the historical prototype for the legendary Tripiṭaka, Master of the Three Collections of the Buddhist Dharma, whose mythical adventures with his companion, the supernatural monkey king Sun Wukong, are elaborated in the great sixteenth-century Chinese folk epic, the Xiyou ji (Journey to the West).
Born into a family of relatively important government officials and court scholars under the Sui dynasty (581–618), Xuanzang grew up during a period of great turmoil and transition, a time that saw the reunification of the Chinese empire after almost three centuries of division. With the encouragement perhaps of his father, he decided early to follow the example of an elder brother in pursuing a monastic career. The young monk is depicted as a precocious, even impetuous student, one who diligently sought out the best scholars of the realm, only to decide while still in his twenties that he had already exhausted the resources available to him in China. To truly master the Buddhist teaching, he felt, he would have to travel to the source of the tradition, to the Ganges River valley, thousands of miles away across some of the most inhospitable terrain in Asia.
In 627 Xuanzang set out on his pilgrimage, surreptitiously crossing the western frontier of China after failing to secure the official bureaucratic approval he had sought. After an arduous journey across mountain and desert with several long sojourns at the oases of Central Asia, he finally reached India two years later, there slowly to make his way to the various sites associated with the career of the Buddha and also to spend a number of years studying with Buddhist teachers, including the aged Yogācāra master Śīlabhadra at the great university-monastery of Nālandā. We are told that the gifted Chinese monk mastered the intricacies of Buddhist philosophy, both Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna, while also pursuing studies in the standard curriculum of the day: Vedic literature, logic, grammar, medicine, and mathematics. Excelling at philosophical debate, an important spectator sport in the prosperous urban centers, Xuanzang's fame increased steadily. He was chosen to represent Nālandā in important contests, and in 642, fourteen years after leaving China, he was summoned to the court of King Harṭa, a patron of the arts and ruler of most of northern India. With the generous patronage of Harṭa, which ensured his victory at a royal debate held in Kanauj later that year, Xuanzang reached the apogee of his career in India and began to make plans for a return to China.
After traveling for more than a year, Xuanzang arrived back in China in 645 bringing an extensive collection of Buddhist texts and artifacts. The new Tang dynasty was a powerful and recently consolidated regime ready to initiate an expansionist policy in the west, a campaign that would eventually extend China's frontier across much of the very terrain that Xuanzang had come to know so well. The emperor Taizong was quick to recognize the strategic military value of his extensive knowledge of the geography, customs, and politics of the many kingdoms to the west, but Xuanzang politely declined to return to lay life in order to serve as a court official. The monk did agree, however, to record his knowledge in a long and detailed travelogue, the Da Tang xiyu ji (Record of western realms), a document that remains one of the best historical sources for Central and South Asia during this period. In recognition of his unique knowledge, Xuanzang was received as a national hero and eventually installed as the director of a lavishly funded translation project that greatly expanded the Chinese Buddhist canon.
Taizong's imperial patronage gave Xuanzang a position of great prestige and power within the Chinese Buddhist establishment of Chang'an. As a Buddhist philosopher and scholar, he is probably best characterized as a radical conservative. The radical aspect of his character was evident already in the restlessness of his youth, in the dissatisfaction with the state of Chinese Buddhism that inspired his long pilgrimage to India. His primary concern was to preserve faithfully the roots of the tradition, and he had little interest in the new, more indigenous Chinese Buddhist thought that was being formulated in the late sixth century. It was surely no accident that once in India he allied himself with the most conservative faction of Mahāyāna thought then current, the scholastic Yogācāra doctrine represented by Śīlabhadra, a school that was vigorously resisting the innovations of tathāgata-garbha thought and Tantric practice. The Yogācāra thought he followed sought to revitalize the old Abhidharma program of systematic soteriology, undertaken anew in light of the Mahayana concept of emptiness (śūnyatā ). His respect for older Buddhist traditions is demonstrated further by his devotion to the Maitreya cult and by the conspicuous absence of any reference to the increasingly popular Amitābha cult in his travelogue and his biographies.
In spite of his prestige, Xuanzang's best efforts to restore a more Indian style of scholastic Buddhism in China were swept away by the new schools of Chinese Buddhism, schools that better addressed the Chinese philosophical problematic. Court patronage proved fickle, the influence of his disciples waned quickly, and in the end his teaching survived as a distinct lineage only in Japan, where it was known as the Hossō school. Modern scholars have gained an invaluable picture of early India through Xuanzang's prodigious efforts. Yet it is not as scholar or philosopher that he is most venerated within the tradition. For East Asian Buddhists, Xuanzang came to epitomize the sincerely devout and pious pilgrim, the itinerant seeker ever in arduous pursuit of ultimate enlightenment.
The grandeur of the Tang dynasty and the drama of Xuanzang's journey are well captured by René Grousset in his popular history, Sur les traces du Bouddha (1929; reprint, Paris, 1977), translated by Mariette Leon as In the Footsteps of the Buddha (London, 1932) and translated again under the same title by J. A. Underwood (New York, 1971). The best scholarly survey currently available is Genjō by Kuwayama Shōshin and Hakamaya Noriaki (Tokyo, 1981). On Xuanzang's relationship to the Tang court, see Stanley Weinstein's Buddhism under the T'ang (Cambridge, U.K., 1987).
In addition to his many translations, Xuanzang wrote a record of his journey and several philosophical treatises, including most notably an essay reconciling Mādhyamika and Yogācāra. Only the travelogue has survived, however, and of it there are several translations, all now rather dated and in need of revision. The best is Samuel Beal's Si-yu-ki: Buddhist Records of the Western World, 2 vols. (1884; reprint, Oxford, 1906). There is no complete translation of the main biographical document, that written by Xuanzang's contemporaries Huili and Yanzong. Beal published a partial translation of this work also, The Life of Hiuen-Tsiang (London, 1911). Preferable, though difficult to obtain, is the more complete and more accurate version published by the Chinese Buddhist Association of the People's Republic of China in commemoration of Xuanzang's anniversary: The Life of Hsüan-tsang, translated by Li Yung-hsi (Beijing, 1959).
Xuanzang's understanding of the Vijñaptimātratā school of Yogācâra thought is best seen in the Cheng weishi lun, a synoptic edition of ten Indian commentaries on the Thirty Verses of Vasubandhu prepared by Xuanzang and his main disciple, Kuiji. This work was translated by Louis de La Vallée-Poussin as Vijñaptimātratāsiddhi: La Siddhi de Hiuan-tsang, 2 vols. with separate index (Paris, 1928–1929), and less adequately by Wei Tat as Ch'eng Wei-Shih Lun: The Doctrine of Mere Consciousness (Hong Kong, 1973).
On the complex problems with Xuanzang's chronology, see especially Luo Xianglin's "Xuanzang Fashi niandai kao," published with an English summary in the Journal of Oriental Studies 3 (1956): 34–47. For further research on the geographical and historical data in Xuanzang's travelogue, see Thomas Watter's monograph On Yuan Chwang's Travels in India (London, 1904) along with the extensive review by Paul Pelliot in Bulletin de l'École Française d'Extrême-Orient 5 (1905): 423–457. On Xuanzang's rather tenuous relation to the mythical Tripiṭaka in the folk epic Xiyou ji, see the introduction to Anthony C. Yu's four-volume translation, The Journey to the West (Chicago, 1977–1983).
Barat, Kahar, ed. and trans. The Uygur-Turkic Biography of the Seventh-Century Chinese Buddhist Pilgrim Xuanzang, Ninth and Tenth Chapters. Bloomington, Ind., 2000.
Kuwayama, Shoshin. "How Xuanzang Learned about Nalanda." In Tang China and Beyond: Studies on East Asia from the Seventh to the Tenth Century, edited by Antonino Forte, pp. 1–33. Kyoto, 1988.
Lusthaus, Dan. Buddhist Phenomenology: A Philosophical Investigation of Yogācāra Buddhism and the Chʾeng Wei-shih lun. New York, 2002.
Rongxi, Li, trans. A Biography of the Tripiṭaka Master of the Great Ci'en Monastery of the Great Tang Dynasty. Berkeley, 1995.
Wriggins, Sally. Xuanzang: A Buddhist Pilgrim on the Silk Road. Boulder, Colo., 1996.
Alan Sponberg (1987)
"Xuanzang." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 17, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/xuanzang
"Xuanzang." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Retrieved June 17, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/xuanzang
Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).
Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.
Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
- Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
- In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.