This is part of the ongoing Scholar Monks series, which explores the lives and works of people who have chosen to further knowledge while grounded in practice.
Xuanzang (loosely pronounced shwen-zahng) lived in Tang Dynasty China during the 7th century (1). The tale of this scholar monk’s life is nothing short of epic. At 26, he had studied the most advanced Buddhist theories and philosophies available to him in China, and found that there were questions that couldn’t be answered. So he decided to break the imperial decree against international travel and set off for India in search of the true teachings.
It took three years of travel before arriving at the Buddhist university of Nalanda in northern India. During his trek, he dodged an attempted stabbing by his guide, traversed deserts and high mountain passes, and refused numerous offers from kings to stay and hold positions in their royal courts, once fasting for three days to convince a particularly stubborn ruler. He was dedicated to moving forward with his quest.
Once arriving at Nalanda, a tremendous center for Buddhist study at the time, Xuanzang studied under the abbot for five years, reading Buddhist texts, studying math, logic, and Sankrit, and writing treatises. On his way back to China he lost some scriptures in a river crossing and waited months for replacements. He continued through Dunhuang, in Western China where this image is from, and arrived back in his homeland after being gone for 16 years.
Back in China, Xuanzang became a topic of interest of the emperor, who endorsed a giant translation project, led by Xuanzang, to convert the nearly 700 sutras and relics Xuanzang brought back from India. Xuanzang trained many in the imperial court in Buddhism, including the crown prince, although he declined an official position, stating that his life’s work was to clarify Buddha’s teaching. Interestingly, he did not write any commentaries on the texts, he translated.
Xuanzang’s legacy is vast. He greatly influenced the development of Buddhism in China, contributing to the founding of numerous new schools of thought and introducing Chinese Buddhisms to hundreds of new texts. The Heart Sutra, a brief and profound text that is considered by Zen to capture the essence of Buddhism, was translated by Xuanzang. It is the most widely chanted Zen text in the world. The Journey West, a 16th century Chinese epic tale involving a monk protected by a monkey king and other fantastic creatures, is based on the life and writings of Xuanzang. For any fans of the anime series Dragonball, a number of the themes of The Journey West would look very familiar.
Some key points, as I see them: Xuanzang was persistent in his single-minded focus to clarify spiritual teachings. He refused multiple offers from many kings and an emperor to take positions of power within their governments. That didn’t keep him from benefitting from the patronage of those governments, though. He went to great lengths to study, gather materials of study, and translate those materials, though not to comment on them. His writings were concentrated on theoretical issues and one exposition of the geographies he traversed in his travels.
What can we learn from this scholar monk? Perhaps, don’t get sucked in by power, but rather direct it for the benefit of many. Don’t lose track of what’s important to you, what drives you forward in your learning and practice. Maintain focus. Seek truth. Study with people you admire.
What are some of your takeaways? Please share any thoughts in the comments.
(1) All of my information on Xuanzang I take from the fantastic book by Kazuaki Tanahashi, The Heart Sutra: A Comprehensive Guide to the Classic of Mahayana Buddhism. Boston: Shambhala, 2014.
(2) The image of Xuanzang is from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Xuan_ Zang.jpg