Xuan Zang

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Xuan Zang


Pilgrim and translator


His Goal. In the early Tang period (618-907), Xuan Zang, one of the greatest persons in the history of Chinese Buddhism, was the most prominent pilgrim and translator. At the age of thirteen he went into the Buddhist temple, and in 629, provoked by a strong wish to visit the holy places in India, he began a journey that made him famous. When Xuan started out alone across the deserts of Central Asia, he was already one of the authorities on Buddhist beliefs. His goal was to obtain a manuscript of the great treatise on metaphysics titled Land of the Masters of Yogaand to expand his understanding so as to be able to solve the inconsistencies among the different philosophical schools of Buddhism.

Expedition. After a dangerous trip through the deserts and mountains of Central Asia, during which Xuan Zang several times barely escaped death, he arrived in India in 633. After spending two years in Kashmir he arrived at the holy ground of early Buddhism in Magadha and spent five years learning in the famous Buddhist monastery of Nalanda near Rajagrha (Rajgir). He then traveled around India listening to the most-renowned masters. By that time he had an excellent knowledge of Sanskrit. He spent the next ten years traveling and learning before starting his trip home, again across Central Asia. He had collected much information about the foreign countries he visited and carried home a total of 657 Buddhist texts.

Return. In 645 he returned to the Chinese capital, Chang’an, and was welcomed in triumph. Emperor Taizong received the respected monk and tried to convince him to return to lay life and become a foreign policy adviser. Xuan refused the offer. Taizong, however, sponsored the translation of the texts, a project to which the scholarly Xuan committed himself for the rest of his life.

Translation. Alongside his pupils Xuan directed the most productive translation teams in Chinese Buddhist history. In eighteen years his team of 185 workers translated about a quarter of the Indian texts—1,338 chapters out of 5,084. Xuan translated at least 75 works himself, which both in style and accuracy are regarded as the first Chinese translations of Sanskrit.

Achievements. Xuan was largely concerned with bringing to China the specific form of Buddhism that was developed by Vasubandhu in the fourth century and Dharmapala in the fifth century. Xuan’s writings were more Indian than Chinese in spirit and provided an interesting contrast with the more purely Chinese responses to Buddhism. His account of the pilgrimage was one of the most valuable records of India of that time, as well as of the countries located between India and China. From 644 to 648 Xuan translated the great Summa of the Land of the Masters of Yoga. He introduced the learned and complicated philosophy of the Vijnanavada epistemological school, which argued that the world observed by the senses was a creation of the mind.

Books. A year after Xuan’s return to China one of his students used Xuan’s travel journals to produce a general work on the kingdoms where he had traveled, from Central Asia to the southern Deccan and from the Kabul area to Assam. This book was the DatangXiyouji (The Record on the West in Great Tang). It provided information on the weather, goods, behavior, ways of life, political systems, and history—in addition to the state of Buddhism—in those regions of Asia. The biography of Xuan was finished soon after his death and was rewritten in 688. It focused mainly on a detailed account of his trip, which thereafter provided motivation for the sixteenth-century novel, Journey to the West (1592), a major work of the Ming dynasty.

Significance. Xuan’s influence on his disciples, as well as on Japan, was not limited to the monastic circles. As an extraordinary scholar of India and an exacting philologist, he created a system of tremendously exact regulations for translating. He was the only Chinese scholar successfully to master the enormous field of Buddhist philosophy in all its width and complexity.


Jacques Gernet, Buddhism in Chinese Society: An Economic History from the Fifth to the Tenth Centuries, translated by Franciscus Verellen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995).

Peter N. Gregory, Inquiry into the Origin of Humanity: An Annotated Translation of Tsung-mi’s Yuan jen lun with a Modern Commentary(Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1995).

Gregory, Tsung-mi and the Sinification of Buddhism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991).