Records of Buddhist Masters: Master Xuanzang (3)

Speaker: Ven. Zhi Tong

Fo Guang Shan Institute of Humanistic Buddhism

I. Introduction

Auspicious greetings! Welcome to the third episode of the biography of Master Xuanzang. Last week, we traveled along with Master Xuanzang through the desert, snowy mountains, and tropical rainforests. This week, we 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.

II. Study in Nalanda

 In the many years Master Xuanzang spent in India, he travelled to all the sacred Buddhist sites, including:

  • Lumbini, where the Buddha was born, 
  • Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha attained enlightenment,
  • Sarnath, where the Buddha taught the first teaching, 
  • And Kushinagar, where the Buddha passed into parinirvana.

Besides paying respect in these sacred sites, Master Xuanzang learned from many Buddhist masters that he met on the way. Sometimes, he would stay with the teachers for a few months, sometimes even up to a few years, to study deeply on the Buddhist concepts he had not learned in China. But it was in Nalanda, the great Buddhist monastery, that Master Xuanzang met the most important teacher in his life.

At this point, Master Xuanzang was about thirty-five years old, and had been travelling for eight years. When he was travelling in Bodh Gaya, the place where the Buddha attained enlightenment, monks from the Nalanda Monastery came to welcome him to the great monastery. When they arrived, hundreds of monks and thousands of lay disciples stood on the sides of the road leading to the monastery, holding banners, canopies, flowers, and incense as they welcomed Master Xuanzang. They led Master Xuanzang to meet with the most respected Dharma teacher in the Buddhist community, Master Silabhadra. 

When Master Xuanzang saw the old and frail sage, over a hundred years old, he went down on his knees and elbows, kissed the teacher’s feet, and paid homage to the teacher. Master Xuanzang took Master Silabhadra as his personal teacher, the person whom he had been looking for in his travels.

Similarly, Master Silabhadra was waiting for Master Xuanzang. Twenty years ago, Master Silabhadra suffered from gout. Whenever the illness attacked him, his hands and feet were convulsed as painfully as if  they were burned by fire or pricked by a knife. Three years ago, he was in such unbearable pain that he wanted to end his life by starvation. However, one night, he had a dream where three bodhisattvas told him that his pain was caused by his past unwholesome deeds, and his body would gradually heal. The bodhisattva also prophesied that a Chinese monk would come to study under him, and told him to wait for the monk’s arrival.

Master Xuanzang was extremely moved by this account. He prostrated again and said to Master Silabhadra, “If it is just as you have said, I shall study with the utmost effort. May the teacher be compassionate and accept me as your pupil.”

Master Xuanzang began his learning in the great Nalanda Monastery. He recorded that there were ten thousand monks living in the monastery, not only learning on Buddhist teachings but also other subjects such as logic, grammar, and medicine. Those who had mastered the most texts were highly respected by the community, and those who did not studied diligently without wasting any time. Master Xuanzang learned the Yogacarabhumi Sastra from Master Silabhadra, along with many other important Buddhist commentaries from different schools. He also studied the Sanskrit language, which laid the foundation of him as a great translator. After a few years of study, Master Silabhadra asked Master Xuanzang to teach the Nalanda community, a sign that he was convinced of Master Xuanzang’s mastery.

III. A Debate to Fame

When Master Xuanzang was about 41 years old, he had left his country for fourteen years. He had criss-crossed India five times, travelling to all the sacred places, and learned from all the great Buddhist masters. He had debated against other Buddhist schools as well as representatives of other religions, gaining an honorable reputation throughout India. He knew, deep in his heart, that it was time to return home.

The monastic community in Nalanda pleaded with him to change his mind. They even took him to Master Silabhadra, hoping that the wise old sage could change Master Xuanzang’s mind.

Master Silabhadra asked Master Xuanzang, “What is your final decision?”

Master Xuanzang answered, “My intention in coming here was to acquire the Great Dharma in order to benefit all living beings. Since my arrival at this place, I had the honor to attend your lectures and have my doubts resolved. I have worshipped the holy sites and studied the very profound teachings of various schools. I am glad in my heart that my journey has not been fruitless. I wish to return home to translate into Chinese the texts I have learned here, so that those who have the good opportunity may also learn them as I did. In this way I may repay the kindness of my teachers. That is why I have no leisure to linger here any longer.”

Master Silabhadra was most pleased. “This is the wish of a bodhisattva, and it is also what I expected of you. Let him pack his luggage, you people need not try to detain him any more.”

Master Xuanzang started to arrange his journey home. He had acquired many copies of Buddhist texts, as well as treasured images and relics that he wanted to bring back to China. But before he could leave, his reputation had reached the ears of the kings of India, especially King Harsha. King Harsha was very impressed by Master Xuanzang’s extensive understanding of the Dharma. In view that many people in India still stick to their ignorance and delusions, King Harsha wished to convene an assembly in the city of Kanyakubja, inviting all Buddhist monks, Brahmans, and representatives of other faiths so that they may listen to the Buddhist Mahayana teachings from Master Xuanzang.

It was a magnificent occasion indeed! A new gold buddha image was cast in the palace and paraded into the assembly. Showers of flowers were scattered as the procession took place, with musicians beating on drums following behind. Eighteen kings from all over India, as well as four thousand monks and two thousand Brahmans participated, arriving on elephants and carriages, each with their own processions of standards. Heaps of offerings were presented to Buddha and the monastic community, and meals were served to every person, no matter monastic or laity.

Master Xuanzang was invited to take the important place to expound the Mahayana teachings. He wrote a treatise on the subject matter, and the treatise was both read out to the assembly and hung outside to show to everyone. The rule is that if one word was found illogical or refutable in the treatise, the writer, which was Master Xuanzang, would cut off his head in apology. From morning till evening, and for eighteen days, no one refuted Master Xuanzang. Nobody started a debate. On the last day, Master Xuanzang, again, expounded the Dharma again and touched many people with his teachings. King Harsha was so moved by Master Xuanzang that he wanted the master to stay in India, but Master Xuanzang again, stood his ground. Finally, King Harsha consented, and gave the master an elephant as a ride, along with letters to the rulers of other countries, and money to spend on the road. Perhaps the king knew that they would never meet again, for he cried as he bid Master Xuanzang farewell. In the short span of four years, King Harsha died. He was one of the last Buddhist kings in India, and after his demise, Buddhism gradually dwindled and faded away in India.

IV. Return to China

 The journey home was as challenging as when Master Xuanzang started his travel, now sixteen years ago. He lost some of the precious Buddhist texts along the way, as well as his elephant. Despite travelling with companions, they, too met with robbers along the way, and had to suffer through the harsh regions. Just as he was worried about reaching India alive, Master Xuanzang was as worried about returning home. Sixteen years earlier, he had left without official approval from the emperor. Now that he was returning, how would he be received? Would the emperor allow it? 

The only thing Master Xuanzang could do was to write a letter to the emperor, detailing his intention in journeying west, the result of his travels, and the Buddhist texts and relics that he brought with home, as well as the names and details of his travelling companions. It was surprising that the emperor was welcoming of Master Xuanzang’s return, and even prepared horses and people along the road ahead to carry the Buddhist texts that Master Xuanzang brought.

When Master Xuanzang finally stepped foot on Chinese soil, in Chang’an, the capital city, he was given a hero’s welcome. The books, relics, and Buddha images that he brought back were paraded throughout the city. Monastics and laity alike lined on the sides of the road, welcoming the master and gazed upon the foreign objects. Flowers were scattered, incense burned, all to welcome this great Buddhist master from his long expedition in search of the Buddha-Dharma. Tang Taizhong, the emperor himself, met with Master Xuanzang, and was quite impressed with the master, especially on the master’s accounts of all the countries and regions that he encountered. The emperor ordered Master Xuanzang to write down his journey, which was the book The Great Tang Dynasty Record of the Western Regions.

V. Conclusion

Thank you for listening to this episode. Next week, we will learn how Master Xuanzang conduct his translation court, as well as the legacy that he left behind. Thank you for listening to this Dharma talk. If you like to receive more English Dharma contents, be sure to like and subscribe. See you next week. Omitofo.