From New World Encyclopedia
A portrait of Xuanzang

Xuanzang (玄奘, Xuán Zàng, Hsüan-tsang, Xuanzang, original name Ch'en I, honorary epithet San-tsang, also called Mu-ch'a T'i-p'o, Sanskrit: Moksadeva, or Yüan-tsang) was a famous Chinese Buddhist monk, scholar, traveler and translator who traveled on foot from China to India in the early Tang period and studied at the great Nalanda monastery. When he returned, he brought with him some 657 Sanskrit texts. With the emperor's support, he set up a large translation bureau in Chang'an (present-day Xi'an), drawing students and collaborators from all over East Asia. He is credited with the translation of some 1,330 fascicles of scriptures into Chinese. Influenced by the Yogacara school, he established the Weishi ("Ideation Only") school of Buddhism. Though it flourished for only a short time, its theories regarding perception, consciousness, karma, and rebirth found their way into the doctrines of other, more successful, schools. A Japanese monk, Dosho, who studied under him, founded the Hosso school, the most influential school of Buddhism in Japan during the seventh and eighth centuries.

Xuanzang’s detailed account of his travels, Journey to the West in the Great Tang Dynasty (大唐西域記, Ta-T'ang Hsi-yü-chi), has become one of the primary sources for the study of medieval Central Asia and India. The classic Chinese novel Xiyou ji (Journey to the West) was inspired by his life.


Xuanzang was born near Luoyang, Henan, China, in 602 as Chén Huī or Chén Yī (陳 褘).[1] He became famous for his seventeen year trip to India, during which he studied with many famous Buddhist masters, especially at the famous center of Buddhist learning at Nālanda University. His strongest personal interest in Buddhism was in the field of Yogācāra (瑜伽行派) or Consciousness-only (唯識).


Xuanzang is also known as Táng-sānzàng (唐三藏) in Mandarin; in Cantonese as Tong Sam Jong and in Vietnamese as Đường Tam Tạng. Less common romanizations of Xuanzang include Hhuen Kwan, Hiouen Thsang, Hiuen Tsiang, Hsien-tsang, Hsuan Chwang, Hsuan Tsiang, Hwen Thsang, Xuan Cang, Xuan Zang, Shuen Shang, Yuan Chang, Yuan Chwang, and Yuen Chwang. In Japanese, he is known as Genjō, or Genjō-sanzō (Xuanzang-sanzang). In Vietnamese, he is known as Đường Tăng (Tang buddhist monk), Đường Tam Tạng ("Tang Three Collection" monk), Huyền Trang (the Han-Vietnamese name of Xuanzang)

Sānzàng (三藏) is the Chinese term for the Tripitaka scriptures, and in some English-language fiction he is addressed with this title.

Early Life

Xuanzang was born near Luoyang, Henan, China, in 602 as Chén Huī or Chén Yī (陳 褘), into a family which had possessed erudition for generations. He was the youngest of four children. His great-grandfather was an official serving as a prefect, his grandfather was appointed as professor in the Imperial College at the capital. His father was a conservative Confucianist who gave up office and withdrew into seclusion to escape the political turmoil that gripped China at that time. According to traditional biographies, Xuanzang displayed unusual intelligence and earnestness, surprising his father with his careful observance of the Confucian rituals at the age of eight. Along with his brothers and sister, he received an early education from his father, who instructed him in classical works on filial piety and several other canonical treatises of orthodox Confucianism.

Although his household in Chenhe Village of Goushi Town (緱氏 gou1), Luo Prefecture (洛州), Henan, was essentially Confucian, at a young age Xuanzang expressed interest in becoming a Buddhist monk as one of his elder brothers had done. After the death of his father in 611, he lived with his older brother Chensu (later known as Changjie) for five years at Jingtu Monastery (淨土寺) in Luoyang, supported by the Sui Dynasty state. During this time he studied both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism, preferring the latter.

In 618, the Sui Dynasty collapsed and Xuanzang and his brother fled to Chang'an, which had been proclaimed as the capital of the Tang state, and thence southward to Chengdu, Sichuan (Szechwan, 四川, in western China). Here the two brothers spent two or three years at the monastery of Kong Hui, in the study of Buddhist scriptures, including the Abhidharmakosa-sastra ("Abhidharma Storehouse Treatise"). When Xuanzang asked to take Buddhist orders at the age of thirteen, the abbot Zheng Shanguo made an exception in his case because of his precocious knowledge.

Xuanzang was fully ordained as a monk in 622, at the age of twenty. He began the study of Buddhist philosophy, but was troubled by the myriad contradictions and discrepancies in the texts available at that time. Not satisfied with the explanations of his Buddhist masters, he decided to go to India and study in the cradle of Buddhism. He subsequently left his brother and returned to Chang'an to study foreign languages and to continue his study of Buddhism. He began his mastery of Sanskrit in 626, and probably also studied Tocharian. During this time Xuanzang also became interested in the metaphysical Yogacara school of Buddhism.


In 629, Xuanzang reportedly had a dream that convinced him to journey to India. The Tang Dynasty and Eastern Türk Göktürks (known in medieval Chinese sources as Tūjué, 突厥) were waging war at the time; and Emperor Tang Taizong, the second emperor of the Tang Dynasty, prohibited foreign travel. Xuanzang persuaded some Buddhist guards at the gates of Yumen to let him go, and slipped out of the empire via Liangzhou (Gansu), and Qinghai province. He subsequently traveled across the Gobi desert to Kumul (Hami), thence following the Tian Shan (天山, “celestial mountains") westward, arriving in the oasis city of Turfan (تۇرپان; Turpan, 吐魯番, Tǔlǔfān) in 630. Here he met the king of Turfan, a Buddhist who equipped him further for his travels with letters of introduction and valuables to serve as funds.

Moving further westward, Xuanzang escaped robbers to reach Yanqi, then toured the Theravada monasteries of the ancient kingdom of Kucha. Further west he passed Aksu before turning northwest to cross the Tian Shan's Bedal Pass into modern Kyrgyzstan. He skirted Issyk Kul before visiting Tokmak on its northwest, and met the great Khan of the Western Türk, whose relationship to the Tang emperor was friendly at the time. After a feast, Xuanzang continued west then southwest to Tashkent (Chach/Che-Shih), capital of modern day Uzbekistan. From here, he crossed the desert further west to Samarkand. In Samarkand, which was under Persian influence, the party came across some abandoned Buddhist temples and Xuanzang impressed the local king with his preaching. Setting out again to the south, Xuanzang crossed a spur of the Pamir Mountains and passed through the famous Iron Gates. Continuing southward, he reached the Amu Darya and Termez, where he encountered a community of more than a thousand Buddhist monks.

Further east he passed through Kunduz, is a city in northern Afghanistan, where he stayed for some time to witness the funeral rites of Prince Tardu, who had been poisoned. Here he met the monk Dharmasimha, and on the advice of the late Tardu made the trip westward to Balkh (modern day Afghanistan), to see the Buddhist sites and relics, especially the Nava Vihara Buddhist monastery, or Nawbahar, which he described as the westernmost monastic institution in the world. Here Xuanzang also found over 3,000 Theravada monks, including Prajnakara, a monk with whom Xuanzang studied Theravada scriptures. He acquired the important Mahāvibhāṣa text here, which he later translated into Chinese. Prajnakara then accompanied the party southward to Bamyan, where Xuanzang met the king and saw many Theravada monasteries, in addition to the two large Bamyan Buddhas carved out of the rockface. The party then resumed their travel eastward, crossing the Shibar pass and descending to the regional capital of Kapisi (about 60 km north of modern capital Kabul), which sported over 100 monasteries and 6,000 monks, mostly Mahayana. This was part of the fabled old land of Gandhara, the ancient kingdom Mahajanapada. Xuanzang took part in a religious debate here, and demonstrated his knowledge of many Buddhist sects. Here he also met the first Jains and Hindus of his journey. He pushed on to Jalalabad and Laghman, where he considered himself to have reached India. The year was 630.


Xuanzang left Jalalabad, which had few Buddhist monks, but many stupas and monasteries. He passed through Hunza and the Khyber Pass to the east, reaching the former capital of Gandhara, Peshawar, on the other side. Peshawar was nothing compared to its former glory, and Buddhism was declining in the region. Xuanzang visited a number of stupas around Peshawar, notably the Kanishka Stupa, built southeast of Peshawar, by a former king of the city. (In 1908 it was rediscovered by D.B. Spooner with the help of Xuanzang's account.)

Xuanzang left Peshawar and traveled northeast to the Swat Valley. Reaching Udyana, he found 1,400 old monasteries that had previously supported 18,000 monks. The remnant monks were of the Mahayana school. Xuanzang continued northward and into the Buner Valley, before doubling back via Shabaz Gharni to cross the Indus river at Hund. Thereafter he headed to Taxila, a Mahayana Buddhist kingdom that was a vassal of Kashmir, which he visited next. Here he found 5,000 more Buddhist monks in 100 monasteries. He met a talented Mahayana monk and spent his next two years (631-633) studying Mahayana alongside other schools of Buddhism. During this time, Xuanzang wrote about the Fourth Buddhist council that took place nearby, ca. 100 C.E., under the order of King Kanishka of Kushana.

In 633, Xuanzang left Kashmir and journeyed south to Chinabhukti (thought to be modern Firozpur), where he studied for a year with the monk-prince Vinitaprabha.

In 634 he went east to Jalandhara, an ancient city in eastern Punjab, before climbing up to visit predominantly Theravada monasteries in the Kulu valley in the north-west of India, and turning southward again to Bairat and then Mathura, on the Yamuna river, a major tributary river of the Ganges (Ganga). Mathura, despite being primarily Hindu, had 2,000 monks of both major Buddhist branches. Xuanzang traveled up the river to Srughna before crossing eastward to Matipura, where he arrived in 635, having crossed the river Ganges. From here, he headed south to Sankasya (Kapitha), said to be where Buddha descended from heaven, then onward to the northern Indian emperor Harsha's grand capital of Kanyakubja (Kanauji). Here, in 636, Xuanzang encountered 100 monasteries of 10,000 monks (both Mahayana and Theravada), and was impressed by the king's patronage of both scholarship and Buddhism. Xuanzang spent time in the city studying Theravada scriptures, before setting off eastward again for Ayodhya (Saketa), homeland of the Yogacara school. Xuanzang now moved south to Kausambi (Kosam), where he had a copy made from an important local image of the Buddha.

Xuanzang now returned northward to Sravasti, traveled through Terai in the southern part of modern Nepal (where he found deserted Buddhist monasteries) and thence to Kapilavastu, his last stop before Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha. Reaching Lumbini, he would have seen a pillar near the old Ashoka tree that Buddha is said to have been born under. This was from the reign of emperor Ashoka, and records that he worshipped at the spot. (The pillar was rediscovered by A. Fuhrer in 1895.)

In 637, Xuanzang set out from Lumbini to Kusinagara in Kushinagar district, the site of Buddha's death, before heading southwest to the deer park at Sarnath where Buddha gave his first sermon, and where Xuanzang found 1,500 resident monks. Traveling eastward, at first via Varanasi, Xuanzang reached Vaisali, Pataliputra (Patna) and Bodh Gaya. He was then accompanied by local monks to Nalanda, the great ancient university of India, where he spent at least the next two years in the company of several thousand scholar-monks, whom he praised. Xuanzang studied logic, grammar, Sanskrit, and the Yogacara school of Buddhism during his time at Nalanda.

Return to China

When Xuanzang returned to the Tang capital of Ch'ang-an in 645, after an absence of sixteen years, he was welcomed by cheering crowds. The Emperor received him in audience, and was so impressed by Xuanzang’s tales of foreign lands that he offered him a post the government, which was declined.

Xuanzang had brought with him some 657 Sanskrit texts, packed in 520 cases. With the emperor's support, he set up a large translation bureau in Chang'an (present-day Xi'an), drawing students and collaborators from all over East Asia. He is credited with the translation of about 73 texts, containing 1,330 fascicles of scriptures, including some of the most important Mahayana scriptures, into Chinese. Xuanzang died on February 5, 664.[1] Out of respect, the T'ang emperor canceled all audiences for three days after his death.

Thought and Works

Xuanzang was known for his industrious translation of Indian Buddhist texts to Chinese. Some lost Indian Buddhist texts were subsequently recovered from translated Chinese copies. He is credited with writing or compiling the Cheng Weishi Lun (成唯識論, Discourse on the Theory of Consciousness-only), as a commentary on these texts. In 646, at the Emperor's request, Xuanzang completed his book "Journey to the West in the Great Tang Dynasty" (大唐西域記, Ta-T'ang Hsi-yü-chi), which, with its wealth of detail, has become one of the primary sources for the study of medieval Central Asia and India. He was known for recording the events of the reign of the northern Indian emperor, Harsha. This book was first translated into French by the Sinologist Stanislas Julien in 1857. There was also a biography of Xuanzang written by the monk Huili (慧立). Both books were first translated into English by Samuel Beal, in 1884 and 1911 respectively.[2][3] An English translation with copious notes by Thomas Watters was edited by T. S. Rhys Davids and S.W. Bushell, and published posthumously in London in 1905. These books are however all seriously outdated and full of inaccuracies, and recent attempts are not much better.

Wei-shih School

Xuanzang 's main interest was the Yogacara (Vijñanavada) school. Together with his disciple K'uei-chi, he founded the Wei-shih (Consciousness Only, or Ideation Only), school in China. Its doctrine was set forth in Hsüan-tsang's Ch'eng-wei-shih lun (“Treatise on the Establishment of the Doctrine of Consciousness Only”), a translation of the essential Yogacara writings, and in K'uei-chi's commentary. Its main premise was that the universe is but a representation of the mind.

The Wei-shih school flourished under Xuanzang and K'uei-chi, but its subtle philosophy and detailed analysis of the mind and senses was alien to Chinese tradition, and the school declined soon after their death. Its theories regarding perception, consciousness, karma, and rebirth found their way into the doctrines of other more successful schools. Xuanzang's closest and most eminent student K'uei-chi, (Kuiji, 窺基, 632–682 ) became recognized as the first patriarch of the Faxiang school (Dharma-character, 法相宗) school. A Japanese monk, Dosho, arrived in 653 to study under Xuanzang. He returned and introduced the doctrines of the Wei-shih school to Japan, where, known as the Hosso school, it became the most influential Buddhist school during the seventh and eighth centuries.


Statue of Xuanzang at the Great Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi'an.

Xuanzang's journey along the so-called Silk Roads, and the legends that grew up around it, inspired the Ming novel Journey to the West (Xiyou ji), one of the great classics of Chinese literature. The Xuanzang of the novel, also known as “TripiṠaka,” is the reincarnation of a disciple of Gautama Buddha, and is protected on his journey by three powerful disciples. One of them, the monkey, became a popular favourite in Chinese culture. In the Yuan Dynasty, there was also a play by Wu Changling (吳昌齡) about Xuanzang obtaining scriptures.


A skull relic purported to be that of Xuanzang was held in the Temple of Great Compassion, Tianjin until 1956, when it was taken to Nalanda, allegedly by the Dalai Lama, and presented to India. The relic is now in the Patna museum. The Wenshu Monastery in Chengdu, Sichuan province also claims to have part of Xuanzang's skull.

See also

  • Silk Road transmission of Buddhism
  • Buddhism in China
  • Zhang Qian
  • Faxian
  • Sun Wukong
  • Genjō-sanzō
  • Hyecho
  • Yi Jing


  1. 1.0 1.1 Sally Hovey Wriggins, Xuanzang: A Buddhist Pilgrim on the Silk Road (Westview Press, 1996). Revised and updated as The Silk Road Journey With Xuanzang (Westview Press, 2003, ISBN 0-8133-6599-6), 7, 193.
  2. Samuel Beal, Si-Yu-Ki: Buddhist Records of the Western World, by Hiuen Tsiang 2 vols., Translated by Samuel Beal (London, 1884; Reprint: Delhi, Oriental Books Reprint Corporation, 1969).
  3. Samuel Beal, The Life of Hiuen-Tsiang. Translated from the Chinese of Shaman Hwui Li (London, 1911; Reprint Munshiram Manoharlal, New Delhi, 1973).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Beal, Samuel (trans.). 1884. Si-Yu-Ki: Buddhist Records of the Western World, by Hiuen Tsiang. 2 vols. London, 1884. Reprint: Delhi, Oriental Books Reprint Corporation, 1969.
  • ———. 1911. The Life of Hiuen-Tsiang. Translated from the Chinese of Shaman (monk) Hwui Li. London, 1911. Reprint Munshiram Manoharlal, New Delhi, 1973.
  • Bernstein, Richard. 2001. Ultimate Journey: Retracing the Path of an Ancient Buddhist Monk (Xuanzang) who crossed Asia in Search of Enlightenment. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. ISBN 0-375-40009-5
  • Grousset, René. 1971. In the footsteps of the Buddha. New York: Grossman Publishers. ISBN 0670400211 ISBN 9780670400218
  • Li, Rongxi (trans.). 1995. A Biography of the TripiSaka Master of the Great Ci’en Monastery of the Great Tang Dynasty. Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research. Berkeley, California. ISBN 1-886439-00-1
  • ———. 1995. The Great Tang Dynasty Record of the Western Regions. Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research. Berkeley, California. ISBN 1-886439-02-8
  • Watters, Thomas (trans.). 1996. On Yuan Chwang’s Travels in India. Reprint. New Delhi, Munshiram Manoharlal. ISBN 81-215-0336-1
  • Saran, Mishi. 2005. Chasing the Monk’s Shadow: A Journey in the Footsteps of Xuanzang. Penguin/Viking, New Delhi.
  • Sun Shuyun. 2003. Ten Thousand Miles without a Cloud (retracing Xuanzang's journeys). Harper Perennial. ISBN 0-00-712974-2
  • Wriggins, Sally Hovey. 2004. The Silk Road Journey with Xuanzang. Boulder, Colorado, WestviewPress. ISBN 0-8133-6599-6
  • Waley, Arthur. 1952. The Real Tripitaka, and Other Pieces. London: G. Allen and Unwin.
  • Wriggins, Sally Hovey. 1996. Xuanzang: A Buddhist Pilgrim on the Silk Road. Westview Press. Revised and updated as The Silk Road Journey With Xuanzang. Westview Press, 2003. ISBN 0-8133-6599-6

External links

All links retrieved May 20, 2023.

General Philosophy Sources


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