Though the Buddha was born in the West, his Dharma has spread to the East. In the course of translation, mistakes may have crept into the texts, and idioms may have been misapplied. When words are wrong, the meaning is lost, and when a phrase is mistaken, the doctrine becomes distorted. So wrote Xuanzang (602 – 664 CE; aka Hiuen Tsang) in his book, Record of the Western Regions – about the reasons for his strenuous journey to the West – in search of something authentic and enlightening he held dearest to his heart. This is unique in the annals of human history – that perilous journeys after journeys were undertaken by devout Buddhist monks and travelers to get to the root of the Great Teachings of the Buddha (The Tathagata).
I am delighted to pay tribute to one of the greatest minds that made a significant contribution to the development of Buddha Dharma in the East. His accurate and detailed records of the culture and the Dharma – he witnessed in countries and regions he crossed on his East-West forward travel, and West-East return journey – stand out in details and accuracy to inspire future generations.
In the pleasant season of autumn in 2018, I along with my elder daughter Dipa visited the Dust of India that was happy to be trodden by the sacred feet of the Buddha. The pasted photos of the Xuanzang Memorial compound and hall in Rajgir-Nalanda – represent a spectacular image of stunning Chinese Architecture. Our travels were featured in Bodhgaya; Lumbini; Rajgir, Nalanda and Sarnath and Vaishali, Shravasti and Kushinagar. It was a pleasing experience to see that the statues of Xuanzang and Anagarika Dharmapala (1864 – 1933, another great Buddhist icon of modern times) – were honored in several temples and monasteries representing different cultures and countries.
This piece is built upon several website articles including: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Brook Larmer in National Geographic, June 2010; and T Sen 2006, The Travel Records of Chinese Pilgrims Faxian, Xuanzang, and Yijing, Education About Asia, 11(3). In addition, the essence of this piece can best be appreciated when read with other WIDECANVAS articles: The Fundamental Laws of Nature; Something Different; The Tathagata; Enlightenment, Emptiness and Nirvana with links to others in the Website Links and Profile.
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Before moving on to Xuanzang – here is a short brief on the other two great Chinese travelers – Faxian and Yijing.
Faxian’s (337 – 422 CE aka Fa-Hsien) travel to the West in 399 CE precedes Xuanzang’s. His forward travel to India was through the formidable land route – the Silk Road via Central Asia – where he visited Buddhist establishments in . . . Dunhuang > Loulan > Karashahr > Khotan > Tashkurghan > Jalalabad > Taxila > India. The return back travel via sea route started at Tamralipti on the Indian eastshore – taking him to see Buddhist establishments in Sri Lanka > Palembang, Indonesia > and back to China. In his book, A Record of Buddhist Kingdoms, he outlined that the main purpose of his travel – was to find the authentic source of the Buddhist monastic rules or Vinaya.
Yijing’s (635 – 713 CE) travel to India in the period between 671 and 695 CE – closely followed Xuanzang’s – but via a to-and-fro sea route. The eastshore point in India was Tamralipti < > Kedah in Malaysia < > Srivijaya in Indonesia < > with the starting and end shore point in China at Guangzhou. His two works of travel are:
The Illustrious Xuanzang
This great monk took the perilous journey to West in 627 CE to personally witness the practices of the Buddha Dharma in the lands of its birth. In his pursuit, he visited sacred Buddhist sites – and brought back authentic Buddhist texts for the benefit of Chinese society. In the process, he observed and noted in detail – local customs, culture, and governance system of the countries he visited – and compared them with his own country. He was received in royal courts with honor – and his depth of the knowledge of Buddha Dharma had been received with great admiration and respect.
He traveled extensively in India and lived there for nearly 15 years. He lamented the existence of caste-based fragmented social system in parts of India – the Hindu Varna superiority-inferiority complex in Indian societies – a country where the compassionate Buddha was born. He witnessed in great sadness, how the lowest castes were obliged to avoid roads, drinking-water-wells and other places of amenities – frequented by higher hierarchical castes – the Brahmins and Kshatriyas. This observation indicates that different regions of India were still living in the dark periods of very rigid Varna discriminatory practices. Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s (1861 – 1941) dance drama Chandalika is one such portrayal of Varna cruelty - and of the serene compassion and assurance of a Buddhist monk, who said to the lowest-caste girl: you are as much a human like me and others.
During the Sui Dynasty (589 – 618 CE) and Tang Dynasty (618 – 906 CE), when Xuanzang lived, Chinese Buddhist Schools were sophisticated, and monasteries were numerous, rich and powerful. Buddhism was also strong in India, Central Asia and what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan.
His to-and-fro travel along the treacherous land route – the Silk Road, a well-known network of routes of travelers and merchants among Asian countries – was one of bravery and unwavering pursuit and motivation. His forward journey to the land of Buddha’s birth took him to places: Changan > Liangzhouh > Anxi > Hami > Turfan > Agni > Kucha > Aksu > Tashkent > Samarkand > Balkh > Bamiyan > Kapsi > Taxila > Sakala > Kanauj. His return journey to China was a somewhat different route: Balkh > Kashgar > Yarkand > Khotan > Nlya > Luolan > Dunhuang > Changan. His extensive visits and stay in India took him to Multan, Ujjain, Ajanta, Nasik, Kanchipuram, Dhanakataka, Tamralipti, Pataliputra, Vaishali, Lumbini, Sravasti, Mathura, Kausambi, Sarnath, Bodhgaya, Rajgir-Nalanda. He took residence and studied at the world’s second earliest university at Nalanda under the patronage of King Harshavardhana (606 – 647 CE) and the university chief abbot Ven Silabhadra. This scholar also taught at the university – and continued teaching there until the time of his return journey back to China. It is said that he became victorious in each episodes of Dharma debates he participated. Such practices are common among the members of Buddhist monastic community or Shanga.
His book, Record of the Western Regions Visited During the Great Tang Dynasty has been a rich resource for historians and archeologists all over the world. It comes with meticulous details and accounts of the Buddhist World – he saw in his to-and-fro travel route between the two great civilizations. According to it: in Turfan king Chu Wen-tai – a pious Buddhist himself – wanted to retain Xuanzang so badly – he threatened to put him to prison, unless Xuanzang agrees to his request. Seeing no other way, Xuanzang had to resort to hunger strike to persuade the King to let him go.
Brook Larmer wrote in an article in the National Geographic 2010 [cited in: Xuanzang the Great Chinese Explorer-Monk Facts and Details]: What kept Xuanzang going, he wrote in his famous account of the journey, was another precious item carried along the Silk Road: Buddhism itself. Other religions surged along this same route – Manichaeism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and later, Islam – but none influenced China so deeply as Buddhism, whose migration from India began sometime in the first three centuries A.D. The Buddhist texts Xuanzang carted back from India and spent the next two decades studying and translating would serve as the foundation of Chinese Buddhism and fuel the religion’s expansion.
When he reached Kanauj in around 637 CE – the capital of King Harshavardhana’s empire in Northern India – that extended from Bengal in the East to Punjab in the West to Gujrat in the Southwest – he saw peace and prosperity in the empire. His audience with the king was full of accounts of admiration of Harsha’s rule. He narrated the practices of Tang Dynasty ruler Taizong, of whom Harsha was aware of, as: He has reduced taxes and mitigated punishments. The country has surplus revenue and nobody attempts to violate the laws. As to his moral influence and profound edification of the people, it is exhausting to narrate in detail. King Harsha responded, Excellent! The people of your land must have performed good deeds in order to have such a saintly lord. The exchanges showed the mutual admiration between the Indian and Chinese dynasties – and indeed, Xuanzang played the role of an able monk diplomat – that paved the way to establish a relationship of Buddhist and diplomatic exchanges between them.
In reply to a question about the reasons for returning back to China – posed to him by a Nalanda University scholar, he replied: The King of the Dharma (i.e. The Buddha) has founded his teachings and it is proper for us to propagate them. How can we forget about those who are not yet enlightened while we have gained the benefit in our own minds? In this reply he essentially upheld the duties of a monk – the Bodhisattva Ideal: Gate-Gate-Paragate-Parasamgate-Bodhi-Svaha. He reasoned that China was a civilized land with laws, principled officials, and cultured people.
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The Koans of this piece:
What and who deserve admiration and respect most – something that can do things better than yours – someone who can do things better than you. Consciously or unconsciously an agitated and unguarded mind has subjective taints in perceiving things – so much so that the true nature of such things gets masked by the projection of the observer’s state of mind – therefore, when awaken the observer begins to wonder where is Ekti Kunri Duti Pata Ratanpur Bagichai?
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- by Dr. Dilip K. Barua, 12 October 2023