Records of Buddhist Masters: Master Xuanzang (1)

Speaker: Ven. Zhi Tong

Fo Guang Shan Institute of Humanistic Buddhism

I. Introduction

Auspicious greetings! Welcome to a new episode of Fo Guang Shan English Dharma Services. My name is Zhi Tong from the Fo Guang Shan Institute of Humanistic Buddhism.

Throughout the 2600 years of Buddhism, generations of Buddhist disciples took it upon themselves the solemn responsibility of keeping the Dharma wheel turning. Since the Buddha’s time, monastics and lay disciples alike have propagated the teachings of the Buddha, vowing to never let the Dharma light extinguish. The life and times of these great Buddhists masters were written down in various collections of biographies, sayings, and records, which were passed down till today. When we examine these records of great masters, it is not only a biography of a great person, but an inspiration to all Buddhists, both present and future, on how we can learn from their deep faith and noble deeds.

It is also because of these great masters that Buddhism is spread far and wide: southwards to Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, and northwards to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Central Asia, Tibet, Mainland China, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan. As Buddhism spread from one region to another, it came in contact with various languages, dialects, culture, ethnicities, and traditions. Hence, one of the most important requirements for the spread of Buddhism is the translation of Buddhist texts.


In this new series on “Biographies of Buddhist Masters,” let us follow the footsteps of one of the greatest Chinese Buddhist masters, Xuanzang, from his birth to his renunciation, his journey from China to India in search of the Dharma, and his life back in China as one of the greatest translators of Buddhism.

I am referencing mainly from three books:

  1. The Great Tang Dynasty Record of the Western Regions, or 《大唐西域記》, a detailed record narrated by Master Xuanzang on the 110 countries and regions that he encountered during his journey to India.
  2. A Biography of the Tripitaka Master of the Great Ci’en Monastery of the Great Tang Dynasty, or 《大唐大慈恩寺三藏法師傳》, a biography of Master Xuanzang written by his disciples. The first and second books are translated from Chinese to English by Li Rongxi, published by BDK.
  3. The Silk Road Journey with Xuanzang, written by Sally Hovey Wriggins, an excellent book detailing Master Xuanzang’s illustrious life and legacy.

Let us begin our story.

II. Birth & Renunciation

Master Xuanzang was born in the year 602 to the Chen family. He was given the name Chen Yi, which is what we will call him for now, and was the youngest of four children.

The Chen family comes from a long line of scholars and government officials. His grandfather served as a professor in the National Academy, and his father, though declined to hold any government positions, was renowned for his virtuous nature and intellect. Hence, Chen Yi grew up in an intellectual and noble household.

Chen Yi was a keen and studious child from an early age. Once when he was eight, his father was teaching him the Book of Filial Piety, which is a recorded conversation between Confucius and his disciple, Zengzi. Chen Yi stood up to listen to his father’s teaching. When inquired why, Chen Yi replied, “Since Zengzi stood to listen to the lectures of his teacher, why should I sit comfortably while receiving instructions from my father?”

Chen Yi was a precocious child. Unlike other children, he was not interested in merriments, and instead was attentive to his parents and well-mannered.

Chen Yi’s second elder brother, Changjie, was a Buddhist monk in Jingtu Temple in Luoyang. Changjie thought his youngest brother had the capability to learn the Dharma, and brought Chen Yi to his temple. This gave Chen Yi a chance to learn about the Buddhist writings.

Shortly afterwards, an imperial decree was issued by the emperor, allowing people to become Buddhist monastics. Chen Yi was eager to apply, but he was under the age limit at thirteen years old.

On the application day, Zheng Shanguo, the government official in charge of the application, saw a teenager pacing back and forth the gates. It was Chen Yi. Despite knowing he had no chance to apply, Chen Yi still held on to a thin thread of hope and paced back and forth before the gates of the government house, hoping there might be a chance. This caught the attention of the government official. Thinking that this teenager was quite unusual, Zheng Shanguo approached him.

“To whose family do you belong?” asked Zheng.

“I am of the Chen family,” replied Chen Yi.

“Do you intend to enter the monastic life?”

“Yes,” said Chen Yi. “But as my learning is shallow and my merit small, I was not allowed to take part in the competitive examination.”

“What is your purpose in becoming a monk?” asked Zheng.

“I wish to carry on the Buddha’s teachings far into the future and glorify his bequeathed Dharma in the present.” replied Chen Yi firmly.

Zheng Shanguo was quite amazed by his answer. There was no quavering in the teenager’s voice, and no hesitance. After seeing hundreds of applicants and reviewing their results, none of the applicants struck him as much as this teenager did. He thought to himself, “This lad will be the light of Buddhism.”

“I grant you special permission to join the monastic order,” said Zheng. “And I hope you will stay true to your ambition.”[Slide 18]This is how Chen Yi—now given the Dharma name Xuanzang—renounced and became a Buddhist monastic at the young age of thirteen.

III. Study Across China

After renunciation, Master Xuanzang continued to stay with his brother in Luoyang. 

Both brothers learned many Buddhist texts from renowned Buddhist masters. However, it was also a great period of unrest. [Slide 21]The whole country was thrown into a turmoil as the emperor was overthrown, bringing an end to the Sui Dynasty and the arising of the Tang Dynasty. In such a tumultuous time, tyrants and bandits popped up around the country, leaving trails of death behind. People fled their homelands, and the Buddhist community dispersed. It was around this time that Xuanzang’s parents passed away.

Though still in his youth, Master Xuanzang accepted the turbulent circumstances and adapted himself to the changes. He suggested to his elder brother that they should leave Luoyang and seek shelter in Chang’an, the city where the new dynasty occupied, and perhaps there might be active monasteries.

However, the city of Chang’an was also in war, and no Dharma activities could be found. The brothers heard that most of the monastic community had fled to the region of Shu, which is present day Sichuan, and so they traveled there. In the Shu region, they met with well-respected Buddhist teachers and learned about different Buddhist commentaries. In the span of two or three years, Xuanzang thoroughly mastered the Buddhist texts of different schools, and was slowly gaining a reputation among the Buddhist community.

When Master Xuanzang reached twenty years old, he received full ordination. He continued his Buddhist studies, now on the Vinaya rules, but found himself soon learned all the scriptures and commentaries that could be found in the region. Even though he had learned and studied extensively, there were still many doubts in his mind. Hence, Master Xuanzang wished to travel to the capital city to further his studies.

But travelling was prohibited by regulations due to the fact that the country was still in unrest, and Master Xuanzang’s brother stopped him from going. However, he was not deterred. Instead, he snuck away one night to continue his pursuit of the Dharma.

In his travels, not only was he a student, Master Xuanzang also became a Dharma teacher and taught many people that he met, including a royal prince. However, the more he studied, the more he found out that their teachings, as well as the Chinese Buddhist texts, were conflicting and inadequate. Therefore, his doubts were not resolved and instead grew deeper. He knew this problem stemmed from the Chinese translations of the Buddhist texts.

What could he do? How can he resolve his doubts on the Dharma? Where could he find the true teachings of the Buddha?

To him, there was only one thing he could do, which was to travel to India, back to the place where the Buddha himself taught, search for Sanskrit manuscripts that had recorded the Buddha’s teachings to discover what are the true teachings of the Buddha.

IV. Out of China

Having made up his mind to go west and travel to India, Master Xuanzang met a few companions that shared his will to seek the Dharma, and they submitted a petition to the court. However, their petition was forbidden. The country was in a war both within and without, and the government forbade anyone from leaving the country. His companions gave up on their expedition, but Xuanzang tried to find ways to leave the country. His yearning for the Dharma was so great that he had no fear of death. He started to travel westwards to the borders of China, travelling as well as teaching to the people he met on the way.

However, words of a young monk travelling west had spread to the ears of the government, and the officials that Xuanzang met ordered him to return to the capital. Master Xuanzang knew he was in trouble, [Slide 27] and so with the help of a few Buddhist monastics, Master Xuanzang travelled by night and hid by day.

At this time, Master Xuanzang was without a companion and a horse. He could only pray to the Buddha in the monastery he was staying. [Slide 28]To his surprise, a man from the Western regions entered the monastery and prayed too. Master Xuanzang decided to approach this man.

“What is your name?” asked Master Xuanzang.

“My name is Pantuo.” The man hesitated, before continuing, “Would you allow me the taking of the Five Precepts?”

Master Xuanzang obliged, and did a simple precept-taking ceremony.

Pantuo was greatly delighted. Master Xuanzang thought Pantuo might be able to resolve his problems. 

“I am travelling west, to India, to seek the Dharma. I am now without a guide and a horse. Would you be willing to guide me out of China and to the lands beyond?”

Pantuo consented. “I can take you out of China.” They agree to leave tomorrow.

On the next day, Pantuo brought with him another old man, who brought an old horse.

The old man said to the master, “The road ahead is perilous. Death is most certain. You will get lost if you go alone. Please consider again, and not to gamble with your life.”

“I started on my journey to the West for the purpose of seeking the Great Dharma,” said Master Xuanzang. “I shall not return to the East before I reach India. I shall not regret it even if I die on the way.”

The old man sighed. “If you insist on going, you had better ride my horse. This horse has travelled across these regions fifteen times and knows the way well.”

Thanking the old man, Master Xuanzang and his new guide, Pantuo, started their journey to the very edge of the country, to the five watchtowers that guarded the land of China.

It was nighttime, and both travellers settled down to sleep. In the darkness, a cold metallic glint caught Master Xuanzang’s eyes. It was the glint from a blade. Master Xuanzang tensed as he saw Pantuo unsheathed his knife and advanced towards him. He knew Pantuo had other intentions in his mind, and waited to see what Pantuo would do while mentally chanting the name of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva. Pantuo stopped when he was about ten paces away from Master Xuanzang, and did not proceed any further. Finally, he turned and went back to his bedroll.

In the morning, Pantuo said to Master Xuanzang, “The journey ahead is long and dangerous. There’s no grass nor water along the way. We can only steal water from the five watchtowers, but if we are discovered, we’d be dead.”

Master Xuanzang stood his ground. “I am not turning back. I will continue west to search the Dharma.”

Pantuo suddenly unsheathed his sword. “You should give up now, or we’d both be dead!”

Master Xuanzang looked at Pantuo firmly. “I’d rather die then turn back.”

Pantuo suddenly lost his strength. He threw his sword on the ground and said, “I cannot go any further. I have a big family to support, and moreover, I dare not trespass against the law.”

Master Xuanzang understood his struggle, and so he said, “You may leave.”

But Pantuo was still fearful. “You will not reach your destination. Do you know what will happen to me if you are caught by the officials?”

“Do not worry, Pantuo,” said Master Xuanzang. “Even I am caught and cut to pieces, I will never implicate you in my affairs.”

Pantuo was finally satisfied, and without a backward glance, he left Master Xuanzang.

Even though he was devoid of a guide, Master Xuanzang was not afraid. He still had a trusty old horse. He successfully snuck past the five watchtowers with some friendly help along the way. Though his homeland was far, far behind him, it was only the beginning of his journey. And Master Xuanzang was twenty-seven years old.

V. Conclusion

Thank you for tuning in to this week’s Dharma talk. Next week, we will learn how Master Xuanzang crossed the Gobi Desert, climbed the Tianshan and Pamir Mountains, met with kings, robbers, and pirates, and finally reached India.  If you like our channel, please like and subscribe. May you find inspiration and joy in the Dharma. Thank you.