Records of Buddhist Masters: Master Xuanzang (2)

Speaker: Ven. Zhi Tong

Fo Guang Shan Institute of Humanistic Buddhism

I. Introduction

Auspicious greetings! Welcome to the second episode of the biography of Master Xuanzang. Last week, we learned about Master Xuanzang’s upbringing, how he renounced to be a Buddhist monastic, and his vow to journey westwards to India to search for the Buddha-Dharma. This week, let us journey with Master Xuanzang through barren deserts, snowy mountains, and tropical forests to reach our destination.

II. Death in the Desert

Master Xuanzang had successfully snuck past the five watchtowers that marked the final frontier between China and the wild lands beyond. He now stood before a seemingly endless stretch of desert. There were no birds, no animals, no water, no pasturage. The desert landscape shifted like waves of the ocean as the hot wind blew through. Before long, Master Xuanzang was completely lost. His next location should be the Spring of Wild Horses, where he could replenish his waterskins for both himself and his horse, but the spring was nowhere in sight. He was lost.

With shaking hands, he took out his waterskin to take a sip of water, but to his horror, the waterskin slipped from his hands and rolled down the dunes, spilling its contents into the sand. 

Without water, he would not last two days in the desert, especially now he was lost and not sure where his next location was. The only thing he could do was to turn back to the fourth watchtower and to get more water. Master Xuanzang started to walk back, but after a few paces, he thought to himself:

“I vowed not to turn back even one step to the East before I reached India. Why am I going back now? I would rather die on my way to the West than return to the East and live.”

Master Xuanzang took the reins of his horse and pulled it, turning back to where he had just come, back to the depth of the desert.

In such a time, Master Xuanzang could only rely on the power of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva as he walked, with his trusty horse beside him, single-mindedly through the sea of sand. For four nights and five days, he had not a drop of water to moisten his throat. Finally, his legs gave away and he slumped down to the ground.

Even upon the brink of death, Master Xuanzang continued to chant the name of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva.

“I am undertaking this journey not for the purpose of gaining wealth nor for winning reputation. It was simply to acquire the supreme Right Dharma that I have come here. I sincerely pray that the Bodhisattva will have compassion upon all living beings and save those who are in distress. Am I not in distress? Cannot you hear my prayers?”

And thus he prayed as the last strength in his body slowly faded away. When it was midnight, a cool breeze suddenly came and made him feel as chilly as if he were taking a bath in cold water. He was able to open his eyes, and his horse also found its feet. Being refreshed by the cool air, he fell asleep for a while and dreamed that a giant deity several tens of geet tall, holding a spear and a flag in his hands. The deity growled at him, “Why are you sleeping here instead of forging ahead?”

Master Xuanzang was so startled he woke up. He got back to his feet, climbed onto his horse, and proceeded. Walking forward a few paces, the horse suddenly went out of control and galloped to another direction. Before long, a stretch of green pasture was seen, and then a sparkling pond.

The relief that both Master Xuanzang and the horse felt was indescribable. He could only thank the bodhisattva for her compassion as he drank from the pond. After resting for a day, Master Xuanzang replenished his waterskins, and resumed his travel west.

III. Detained in Gaochang

After crossing the desert, Master Xuanzang now arrived in inhabited regions. One of the countries that he encountered was Gaochang, which is located in present-day Turfan, China. The king of Gaochang, Qu Wentai , was a devout Buddhist, and he sent an envoy to request the presence of Master Xuanzang in the court of Gaochang. Master Xuanzang agreed. It took him six days of rigorous travel, finally reaching the kingdom at midnight.

The king waited eagerly for Master Xuanzang’s arrival and welcomed him with pomp and circumstance. The important people of the countries, including the queen and highly esteemed Buddhist masters came to pay deep respect to Master Xuanzang. After staying in Turfan for 10 days, Master Xuanzang wished to take his leave and proceed with his journey.

When he reported his request to the king, the king said, “I would like to extend my invitation to you, Master. Please consider extending your stay.”

Master Xuanzang replied respectfully but firmly, “Your majesty, you have bestowed a great favor on me by extending your invitation. But in consideration of my intention of taking the journey, I must not do that.”

The king entreated further, “In my time, I have met many monks of high reputation, but none of them won my admiration. When I heard your name, I was so glad that I danced with delight. I planned that when you come here, you should stay here and receive my offerings for the rest of your life. I will order all the people of my country to be your disciples and receive your instructions. I sincerely pray that you will consider and accept my humble suggestion, and give up the idea of travelling West.”

At this point of his life, Master Xuanzang had already faced many challenges. He saw the ups and downs of his homeland, he experienced betrayal from people whom he thought he could trust, and he had faced more than one near-death experience. Now, he was faced with a new challenge. The king was now promising a future of endless offerings as well as immense power over the country.

However, Master Xuanzang did not waver. He implored to the king, “How can a man as poor in virtue as I be worthy to accept your majesty’s kind hospitality? The purpose of my journey is not to obtain offerings. It is because I regretted that the teachings of the Dharma were not complete and the scriptures deficient in my own country. I have doubts that no one can resolve. This is why I decided to travel to the West at the risk of my life. I hope your majesty will recall your words and not bother about my personal welfare.”

The king was not so easily persuaded. “I, your disciple, have a great adoration for the Master. It is decided. You will stay here so that I may make offerings to you. Nothing will change my mind. Please believe in my sincerity.”

Master Xuanzang stood his ground firmly and declined, again and again, to the king’s earnest request. The exchange quickly turned sour and the king lost his temper.

“I have ways to make you stay, or I will send you back to your country. Please consider it well. It is better for you to comply with my wishes.”

Master Xuanzang knew there was no way he could change the king’s mind, just as the king had no way to persuade him. The king ladened Master Xuanzang with even more offerings, and every day during mealtime, the king would hold a tray of food with his hands to serve the master, hoping to change the master’s mind.

Given that there was no way to communicate to the king, Master Xuanzang knew he had to put his words into action. He started to fast, refusing to eat or drink. He sat on a seat, unmoved like a great mountain, and refused to open his lips. One day passed, and another. By the fourth day, the king found that the Master’s breath had become very feeble. A wave of guilt washed over the king, and he fell to his knees in repentance.

“I will allow you to go to the West. Please take food immediately!”

Master Xuanzang was not reassured by the king’s words. “Do you mean it, your majesty? If you truly mean your words, take an oath.”

The king cried, “I mean my words, and I will say it before the Buddha.”

The king and the master went to the temple and paid homage before the Buddha. The king vowed, “I will let you seek the Dharma. But on your return journey, you must come to stay in this country for three years to receive my offerings.”

Master Xuanzang agreed. The king pressed Master Xuanzang to stay for another month to teach the Dharma to him. In this month, the king also prepared twenty-four letters to the rulers of the twenty-four countries ahead, asking the rulers to assist Master Xuanzang in his journey, and loads of treasures for the Master to both present them to the rulers as well as to use on his journey. Master Xuanzang was very moved by the king’s benevolence. The king and the master swore as oath-brothers, and Master Xuanzang left the country with the whole of Turfan crying and sending him away, hoping to see this magnificent master again.

Perhaps Master Xuanzang had hoped to return again to repay the kindness of the king, but it was not to be, for soon after, the country of Turfan was overthrown by the Tang Dynasty, and the king of Gaochang died along with his land.

IV. Arrival in India

In Master Xuanzang’s personal narrative of his journey from China to India, he recorded some 110 countries and regions. He did not pass through these places as a disinterested traveller. Instead, he met with local rulers, visited Buddhist temples and sacred sites, and taught the Dharma should the need arise. We cannot help but wonder: how did Master Xuanzang interact with the local rulers? How did he adapt himself to the food, drinks, customs, and culture of these countries? How did he even communicate with them? Moreover, Master Xuanzang experienced some of the harshest locations in the world, and managed to survive despite the fact that even though he might not be killed by other people or the climate, there were still the dangers of animals and insects. Yet, against all odds, Master Xuanzang survived.

When Master Xuanzang passed through Bamiyan, he found out there were more than ten Buddhist monasteries in the regions, with several thousand monks. The king of Bamiyan himself received Master Xuanzang and entertained him in the palace for several days. He saw the great Buddha statues of Bamiyan, and stood in awe as he gazed at the statues’ brillant golden color, resplendent with ornamentation of precious substances. Unfortunately, these great Buddha statues are lost forever to us now.

After travelling for about a year, Master Xuanzang finally reached India.

When he left the region of Kashmir and travelled down to the Gangetic plain of northern India, he and his caravan party were ambushed by fifty robbers. The party was stripped of their clothes, their goods stolen, and were chased into a dried-up marsh to be killed. Master Xuanzang escaped with the help of a young monk, and they sought help in a nearby village. The robbers ran away when they saw the big rescue team. Master Xuanzang’s travelling companions were thoroughly shaken by the near-death experience and the loss of their money, but the master himself was quite unaffected. He said to his companions, “What is most precious in existence in life. Since we still have our lives, what else should we worry about? There is no need to grieve over such trifling matters as clothes and travelling money.”

When they sailed down the Ganges river, they were ambushed by pirates, who not only took their possessions, but wanted to take Master Xuanzang as a human sacrifice. These pirates would find a handsome man every autumn and sacrifice him to their goddess to pray for blessings. This year, having failed to find anyone, they were taken by Master Xuanzang’s dignified features and decided to sacrifice him.

Master Xuanzang said to these pirates calmly, “I would not dare begrudge this filthy and ugly body of mine as a sacrifice to the deity. But I have come from a far distance in search of the Buddha-Dharma. If you sacrifice me while my intention has not been fulfilled, I am afraid it will bring you inauspiciousness instead of blessings.”

The pirates paid no heed to Master Xuanzang and ignored the Master’s companions, who pleaded to the pirates and even volunteered to die in the Master’s place. The pirates tied Master Xuanzang to the sacrificial altar. At this moment, Master Xuanzang thought this would be the end of his life. But he was not afraid. Instead, he sat in calm meditation, contemplating on paying respect to the buddhas and bodhisattvas. He was so concentrated that his mind transcended from the altar and the pirates.

Suddenly a gale of black wind rose from all directions, breaking the trees and blowing sand high into the air. Waves rose in the rivers and the boats were overturned. The pirates were greatly frightened, and asked the travelling companions. “Who is this monk? Where does he come from?”

The companions replied, “Oh pirates! He is the monk from China seeking the Dharma. If  you kill him, you will commit a deadly transgression!”

Fear overtook the pirates and they quickly untied Master Xuanzang. They begged for his forgiveness and repented for their actions. Master Xuanzang accepted their apology and explained that unwholesome actions will lead to undesirable effects. The pirates were touched by the Dharma teachings, and renounced their livelihood as pirates.

V. Conclusion

There are many, many more adventures which Master Xuanzang went through, and I am only recounting a few of them. But from these stories, we could imagine what kind of a person Master Xuanzang was. He was steadfast and unwavering, whole-heartedly pursuing his goal of searching and learning the Buddha-Dharma. He was kind and compassionate even to those who have harmed him, and touched their hearts with the wonderful Dharma. He was not concerned about himself, and could accept the situation even at the brink of death. He was pious and faithful, always mindful of the buddhas and bodhisattvas. And he did not bend under the seduction of power, fame, or money

Thank you for listening to this second episode on Master Xuanzang. Next week, we will learn how Master Xuanzang met the most important teacher in his life, and also his journey home with scrolls and scrolls of Buddhist texts, ready to be translated.

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