Hsüan-tsang Forges a Link Between China and India

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Hsüan-tsang Forges a Link Between China and India


Though Fa-hsien in the fifth century was the first Chinese Buddhist pilgrim to visit India, the trip by Hsüan-tsang more than two centuries later was equal if not greater in terms of historical significance. As Fa-hsien spurred Chinese interest in Buddhism by bringing back scriptures from its birthplace in India, Hsüan-tsang helped influence much wider acceptance of the faith among Chinese. He also became the first Chinese visitor to go to all major regions of India, and he is remembered today as the initiator of Sino-Indian relations.


Buddhism had its origins in the sixth century b.c. ministry of an Indian prince named Siddhartha Gautama (563-483 b.c.) After years of spiritual seeking in which he rejected wealth and worldly pleasures, as well as the precepts of both Hinduism and Jainism, he experienced a spiritual transformation, after which he was known as the Buddha, or "the awakened one." A faith grew up around his teachings, which included the idea that desire is the cause of pain. The Buddha also taught that only through reaching nirvana, a state of inner peace, can the individual transcend the cycles of reincarnation that characterize the Hindu worldview.

Buddhism initially gained adherents in India, but it was destined to enjoy its greatest influence in China. The new faith made its first appearance there during the Later Han period (a.d. 23-220), but initially the Chinese rejected it as a "foreign" religion. Only later, during a period of turmoil between dynasties (220-589), did Mahayana or "Great Vehicle" Buddhism finally begin winning Chinese adherents.

One of the principal agents of this change was the monk and pilgrim Fa-hsien (c. 334-c. 422). Dissatisfied with existing Chinese translations of Sanskrit Buddhist scriptures, Fa-hsien set out for India at age 65, intent on finding originals. What followed was an odyssey of some 10,000 miles (16,000 kilometers) in 15 years, during which he traveled through Buddhist lands in China, central Asia, Indian, Ceylon, and the East Indies. He finally returned to his own country bearing the scriptures he had sought, and as a result of his work, knowledge and acceptance of Buddhism in China increased enormously in the years that followed.


More than two centuries after Fa-hsien, another pilgrim named Hsüan-tsang (c. 602-664) set out for India with much the same purpose in mind: to increase his understanding of the Buddha's teachings by going to the source—not only the original Buddhist texts, but the geographical homeland of Buddhism.

A child prodigy, Hsüan-tsang had been raised as a Buddhist monk, but under the Sui Dynasty (589-618) and the newly founded T'ang Dynasty (618-907), he and other monks faced a government suspicious of their influence. Not only did T'ang China's first ruler, Kao Tsu (r. 618-626), embrace the rival faith of Taoism, but he had placed restrictions on travel in western portions of the country—precisely the area through which Hsüan-tsang would have to pass if he wanted to go to India.

And Hsüan-tsang certainly wanted to go. Whereas Fa-hsien's mission started from his dis-satisfaction with Chinese translations of the Buddhist scriptures, Hsüan-tsang's longing arose from his preoccupation with difficult theological questions. If he intended to answer these growing quandaries, he needed to consult the Yogacarabhümi sastra (fourth and fifth century a.d.), which could only be found in India. Therefore he resolved to make the arduous, extremely challenging, journey across the mountains.

It should be noted that though civilizations thrived in India and China during ancient times, their two peoples were ignorant of one another for nearly two millennia, a fact that highlights the great barrier posed by the Himalayas and other ranges that separate the two lands. Added to this was the emperor's restriction on travel, which made Hsüan-tsang's trip across China doubly dangerous.

Starting from Ch'ang-an, the T'ang capital in east-central China, Hsüan-tsang followed a route more southerly than that of Fa-hsien. He made his way deep into the west, but he was preceded by messengers from the emperor, bearing news of a monk trying to defy imperial orders against travel in the west. He later wrote, "As I approached China's extreme outpost at the edge of the Desert of Lop, I was caught by the Chinese army. Not having a travel permit, they wanted to send me to Tun-huang to stay at the monastery there. However, I answered, 'If you insist on detaining me I will allow you to take my life, but I will not take a single step backwards in the direction of China.'"

As it turned out, the leading government official in the region was a devout Buddhist, and he chose to look the other way, allowing Hsüan-tsang to pass the military outposts that separated China from the lands of central Asia. Hsüan-tsang continued on, making his way over mountains and across deserts, where he encountered both bandits and marauding tribes, as well as admiring rulers and welcoming groups of sages. Much of what is "known" about his journeys comes from hagiographic accounts that exaggerate many of Hsüan-tsang's accomplishments; in any case, he traveled much further west than Fa-hsien, visiting the cities of Tashkent, Samarkand, and Balkh. (The first two are today in Uzbekistan, and the last in Afghanistan. All three were important trading and cultural centers of the premodern era.)

In about 631 Hsüan-tsang reached India, where he visited numerous sites important to the Buddha's life and ministry. In time he made his way to the monastery at Nalanda, India's largest Buddhist center, where the esteemed master Silabhadra taught him personally for 15 months. Hsüan-tsang would spend a total of five years at Nalanda, off and on, during which time he composed three religious treatises in Sanskrit.

He also traveled from his base at Nalanda to various parts of India, including Bengal in the east, the Deccan Plateau of central India, and both the Coromandel (eastern) and Malabar (western) coasts. In addition, he journeyed through the Indus River Valley by which he had entered the country, and in time he became eager to follow that route back to China.

However, a king named Kumara invited Hsüan-tsang to visit him in Assam, in northeastern India, an offer Hsüan-tsang could not safely refuse. This in turn led Kumara's rival Harsha (c. 590-647)—India's greatest ruler of the early medieval era—to make an invitation of his own. At Harsha's court in 642, Hsüan-tsang greatly impressed a gathering of several thousand kings and wise men, winning arguments with Hindu and Jain theologians. Harsha showered him with gifts, but Hsüan-tsang accepted only a buffalo-skin coat to keep him warm and dry, and an elephant to transport the many books he had brought with him. Finally, in 643, he set off for China.

Given the fact that he had left illegally, Hsüan-tsang undoubtedly returned with much apprehension. From the oasis at Khotan, he sent a letter to the emperor announcing his return, and eight months later he received a welcoming reply. As it turned out, Kao Tsu had been ousted by his son T'ai Tsung (r. 626-649), who was a Buddhist and eager to meet Hsüan-tsang. The latter arrived at Ch'ang-an early in 645, and the crowd that came out to greet him was so large that at first he could not enter the city.

He met with the emperor, who debriefed him on all manner of details concerning the lands he had visited. T'ai Tsung even offered him a position as his personal advisor, and when Hsüan-tsang demurred, the emperor instead set him up at nearby Hung-fu Monastery with a fleet of assistants to help him in his translation work. The only stipulation was that Hsüan-tsang write a record of his travels, Ta T'ang Hsi-yü-chi, or "The Great T'ang Record of Travels to the Western Lands," which he completed in 646.

Hsüan-tsang's translation work continued under the reign of Kao Tsung (r. 649-683), and after 19 years yielded 76 books. When the great monk died in 664, it was said that some 1 million people attended his funeral, and in later years he became a legendary figure. Not only did his translations, commentaries, and those of his close followers make up fully one-quarter of the extant Buddhist literature in Chinese, but the contact he had initiated with India led to increased T'ang relations with the southern power.

Nine hundred years after his death, Hsüan-tsang became the subject of a fictional narrative, Hsi-yü-chi by Wu Ch'eng-en (c. 1500-c. 1582). Translated in the twentieth century as The Journey to the West (1977-83), the book is one of the classics of Chinese literature, an enthralling comic adventure in which Hsüan-tsang becomes the quixotic monk Tripitaka, accompanied by the companions Monkey and Pigsy. Much like legends such as that of King Arthur in the West, this fictionalized version of Hsüan-tsang's story has permeated virtually every facet of Chinese cultural life, from opera to comic books and animated cartoons.


Further Reading


Boulting, William. Four Pilgrims. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1920.

Grousset, René. In the Footsteps of the Buddha. London: G. Routledge & Sons, 1932.

Hwui Li. The Life of Hiuen-Tsiang. Translated, introduced, and edited by Samuel Beal. Westport, CT: Hyperion, 1973.

Kherdian, David. Monkey: A Journey to the West: A Retelling of the Chinese Folk Novel by Wu Ch'eng-en (fiction based on the life of Hsüan-tsang). Boston: Shambhala, 1992.

Waley, Arthur. The Real Tripitaka, and Other Pieces. London: Allen and Unwin, 1952.

Internet Sites

Marx, Irma. "Travels of Hsüan-Tsang—Buddhist Pilgrim of the Seventh Century." Silk Road. http://www.silkroad.com/artl/hsuantsang.shtml.