Hsüan Tsang (ca. 602-664) was the most famous Chinese Buddhist pilgrim and traveler in India and a translator of Buddhist texts. His "Hsi-yü Chi," or "Record of Western Countries," remains an indispensable source book to students of 7th-century India and central Asia.
Hsüan Tsang, also spelled Hsüan Chuang, whose name is romanized in a wide variety of ways, is the Buddhist designation of the Chinese holy monk whose family name was Ch'en and personal name, Chen. He was born in Honan midway in the brief Sui dynasty (589-617), which represented the first successful attempt at reunifying the Chinese Empire since the end of the Han dynasty (220). The intervening centuries saw much chaos and suffering together with a phenomenal expansion of Buddhism. Hsüan Tsang followed the example of an elder brother and joined the Buddhist monastic order in Loyang at the age of 12. The boy monk traveled extensively in China in pursuit of Buddhist learning, particularly the Vijnanavadin school.
Travel to India
A burning desire for firsthand clarification prompted Hsüan Tsang to leave for India in 627, stealthily, as it was against the law to travel abroad. Surviving the rigors of forbidding deserts and mountains and narrowly escaping the jaws of death, he passed through the central Asiatic regions of Turfan, Karashahr, Tashkent, Samarkand, and Bactria. He kept a journal of his unique experiences and observations during his 19-year sojourn, which later became known as the Hsi-yü Chi. This Record of Western Countries stands today as the single written record of conditions at that time in India and central Asia. After visiting some 34 "kingdoms" along the way, he finally entered India in 631 by crossing the Hindu Kush into Kapisa. His first impressions of the Hindus inhabiting northwest India were recorded as follows: "The people are accustomed to a life of ease and prosperity and they like to sing. However, they are weak-minded and cowardly, and they are given to deceit and treachery. In their relations with each other there is much trickery and little courtesy. These people are small in size and unpredictable in their movements."
Study and Travel in India
After a 2-year study period in northwest India, Hsüan Tsang sailed down the Ganges to visit the holy land of Buddhism. His itinerary included Kapilavastu, the birthplace of Buddha; Benares; Sarnath, where Buddha delivered his first sermon; and Bodhgaya, where Buddha attained his nirvana under the bodhi tree. The trip terminated at Nalanda, the leading center of Buddhist learning in India, where Hsüan Tsang took up the study of Vijnanavada in earnest under the tutelage of the grand, old Silabhadra, the authoritative representative of the Asanga-Vasubandhu tradition.
After a study period of 15 months at Nalanda, Hsüan Tsang resumed his travel, going south along the east coast. Being unable to visit Ceylon because of local civil strife, he made his way north along the west coast, returning finally to Nalanda. In his Records, Hsüan Tsang made entries of more than 100 "kingdoms" scattered over all of the "Five (Regions of) Indias." Hsüan Tsang devoted his second stay at Nalanda to the study of Indian philosophy. His scholarly achievements began to attract the attention of kings and princes as well as men of learning.
Through the introduction of the king of Kamarupa (Assam), Hsüan Tsang was received with full honors by Harsha, the emperor of India. The Emperor convened a grand assembly to honor the visitor from afar and to give the Brahmins and Hinayana followers a lesson. The disputations lasted 18 days among the contestants, and Hsüan Tsang emerged triumphant against all challengers. He was accorded the exalted titles of Moksadeva and Mahayanadeva.
Return to China
In spite of the respect and affection shown him by many people in India, Hsüan Tsang was determined to return to China. Emperor Harsha provided him with escorts and gifts. Hsüan Tsang took the southern route across central Asia and arrived back in Ch'ang-an in 645. He was received with royal honors and elaborate ceremonials. To Emperor T'ai Tsung, Hsüan Tsang presented the 657 Buddhist texts which were packed in 520 cases and carried by a caravan of 20 horses.
Rejecting all other offers, Hsüan Tsang settled down to the monastic routine and devoted himself to the translation of the texts which he had brought back. Working almost to his dying day, he was able to complete the translation of 75 items, totaling 1,335 fascicles. The superior quality of Hsüan Tsang's translations was to be expected, as he was completely at home in both Chinese and Sanskrit. At the Emperor's suggestion he also wrote the Hsi-yü Chi in Chinese and translated the Tao Te Ching into Sanskrit. When Hsüan Tsang died at the age of 62, the Emperor canceled his audiences for 3 days, and just about every resident of Ch'ang-an marched in the funeral procession.
The Ta-yen-t'a, a pagoda of seven stories 194 feet high, built in the southern suburb of Ch'ang-an at Hsüan Tsang's request to house the Buddhist sutras and mementos brought back from India, is still standing. Popularly referred to as the Big Geese Pagoda, this rare T'ang-dynasty structure stands as a vivid reminder of the great Buddhist monk, traveler, and translator.
Further Reading on Hsüan Tsang
Works that have information on Hsüan Tsang are Shaman Hwuili, The Life of Hiuen-Tsiang (1911); René Grousset, In the Footsteps of the Buddha (1929; trans. 1932); and Arthur Waley, The Real Tripitaka and Other Pieces (1952).