Hsuan-tsang (sometimes transcribed Xuan Tsang or Xuanzang) was a Chinese Buddhist monk who in 627 AD traveled overland from China to India to obtain Buddhist scriptures. He returned to China in 643, bringing with him precious manuscripts that he then translated to Chinese.
During his travels, he visited places that we today know as Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and – of course – India.
Hsuan-tsang left detailed accounts of his travels, and also wrote about the interaction between Chinese Buddhism and Indian Buddhism during the early Tang dynasty. His book “Great Tang Records on the Western Regions” is a classic in Chinese literature, and contains a lot of first-hand information about the lands and people found along this stretch of the Silk Road in the 7th century AD. Roughly 900 years later, the book served as inspiration for the famous novel “Journey to the West” written by Ming dynasty author Wu Cheng’en.
Hsuan-tsang was born in China around 602 AD, in what is now the Henan province.
As a child, he developed a great fascination for religion. He read numerous religious books, including the Chinese classics and writings from ancient sages.
At the age of 13, he was ordained as a novice monk (sramanera) by the Temple of Heavenly Radiance in Hangchow.
The political and social mayhem prompted by the end of the Sui dynasty made Hsuan-tsang move to Chengdu in Sichuan. There, he was ordained full monk (bhiksu) at the age of 20.
Eventually, he was transferred to the Temple of Great Learning in Chang-an, joining a community of Buddhist monks devoted to translating Buddhist books from India into Chinese.
Traveling to India
As a translator, Hsuan-tsang grew considered about the incomplete and misinterpreted nature of many Buddhist texts in China. Therefore, he wanted to travel to India to bring back original Indian Buddhist texts and translate them himself. He was aware of the Buddhist monk Fa-hsien’s journey from China to India and back in 399-412, and wanted to do something similar. Hsuan-tsang was already a somewhat experienced traveler at this point, as he had traveled around in China looking for Buddhist texts.
Hsuan-tsang started his journey to India in 627 AD, traveling overland, and largely following the Silk Road.
Caught by the Chinese army
Even before getting out of China, Hsuan-tsang ran into trouble. As he approached one of the final Chinese outposts before the Taklamakan Desert, he was apprehended by the Chinese army for traveling without a travel permit. They wanted to send him to a monastery in Tun-huang, but Hsuan-tsang refused, offering them to take his life instead. The officer in charge, himself a Buddhist, decided to let the monk go instead of forcefully bringing him to Tun-huang.
Near death in the desert
To avoid getting into the same situation at the next army outpost, Hsuan-tsang left the main path with his horse and made a detour. In his book, he describes the desert as “so wild that no vestige of life could be found there. There is neither bird, nor four-legged beasts, neither water nor pasture”.
The detour through the arid land proved near fatal for the monk, but his horse saved his life by finally – when Hsuan-tsang was already very weak – taking charge of the situation and turning off in another direction than what Hsuan-tsang wanted. The horse took them both to a place where there was water and pasture, saving them from dying of thirst.
A few days later, they reached Turfan.
Hsuan-tsang stayed for some time in Turfan, where he got to know the king who was fascinated by the monk’s knowledge of sacred Buddhist texts. Regrettably, the king became so mesmerized that he banned Hsuan-tsang from leaving Turfan, and the monk had to threatened a hunger strike to make the ruler change his mind. To help the monk on his continued journey, the king provided him with letters of introduction that he could show other rulers along the way.
One of the cities that Hsuan-tsang passed through on his way to India was Samarkand, a major trading hub along the Silk Road. In his book, he describes Samarkand as a great imperial city, surrounded by a wall, an governing a powerful state. “This is a rich land, where the treasures of distant countries accumulate, where there are powerful horses and skilled artisans, and the climate is most pleasant.”
After Samarkand, Hsuan-tsang continued south through the famous Iron Gate, a defile between Samarkand and Balkh. Eventually, he reached Amu Darya and Termez, and found a community consisting of more than a thousand Buddhist monks.
In Kunduz, a city located in the Tokharistan region of Bactria, he stayed for a while to observe the funeral rites of Prince Tardu who had died from poisoning. While in Kunduz, Hsuan-tsang met a Buddhist monk who advised him to go to Balkh, even though it was to the west and not the south, since there would be many interesting Buddhist sites, relics and scriptures for him to see there.
Balkh turned out to be home to over 3,000 Buddhist monks of the non-Mahayana kind, and Hsuan-tsang acquired the text Mahavibhasa which he later translated into Chinese.
One of the monks living in Balkh was a man named Prajnakara, with whom Hsuan-tsang studied early Buddhist scriptures. When it was time for Hsuan-tsang to continue his trip to India, Prajnakara accompanied him.
In Bamyan, the two monks visited the two large Buddhas of Bamiyan; enormous statues carved into the rock face.
After Bamyan, the two monks traveled east, crossing the Shibar Pass and reaching the regional capital of Kapisi. Hsuan-tsang reports that there were over a hundred Buddhist monasteries there and circa 6,000 monks. This was also the place where Hsuang-tsang for the first time in his life met Jains and Hindu.
From Kapisi, the journey continued to Adinapur and Laghman. Now, in the year 630, Hsuan-tsang considered himself to have reached India.
(Nowadays, this area is a part of eastern Afghanistan, near the border to Pakistan.)