Pilgrimage of Xuanzang Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Xuanzang’s long journey from China to India and back again had a major impact on the spread of Buddhism in China and elsewhere in Asia.

Summary of Event

One scholar has called the Buddhist monk Xuanzang the greatest traveler in all history. His journey from China to India and back again has long been known in China, India, and much of Asia, both in history and myth. Since the monk passed that way in the years between 629 and 645, many other adventurers have followed his route over deserts and mountains. Travel by land;Xuanzang [kw]Pilgrimage of Xuanzang (629-645) [kw]Xuanzang, Pilgrimage of (629-645) Xuanzang (Buddhist monk) China;629-645: Pilgrimage of Xuanzang[0320] Central Asia;629-645: Pilgrimage of Xuanzang[0320] India;629-645: Pilgrimage of Xuanzang[0320] Religion;629-645: Pilgrimage of Xuanzang[0320] Cultural and intellectual history;629-645: Pilgrimage of Xuanzang[0320] Xuanzang Taizong (599-649)

Xuanzang was born into a family of scholars and officials, a class highly esteemed in imperial China with its long tradition of the centrality of the ancient sages such as Confucius to the cultural, intellectual, and political life. The scholar gentry were invariably of higher status than either successful military officers or wealthy merchants. Xuanzang’s grandfather was president of the Imperial College of Beijing, and he was sufficiently rewarded economically so that his descendants could rely on inherited wealth rather than having to pursue other, less prestigious occupations.

As with many influential figures, the earliest biographies of Xuanzang are more hagiography than objective history. As a child, he is portrayed as preferring his studies to playing games, and as an adult he was described as tall, handsome, and charming. He could have followed his family’s scholarly profession, achieving a high level governmental position, but instead he chose to follow the path of Siddhārtha Gautama, the Buddha (c. 566-c. 486 b.c.e.).

In the centuries that had elapsed since the death of the Buddha, Buddhism Buddhism;China had evolved into numerous movements, some mainly philosophical, others moral and ethical, still others primarily religious. Some stressed extensive study of Buddhist texts, others found enlightenment through the immediacy of individual insight, and some through ritual and chanting. Suffering and ignorance kept one bound to the wheel of birth and rebirth, but it was possible to escape reincarnation through enlightenment and to achieve nirvana, likened to the blowing out of a candle. In Mahāyāna Buddhism Mahāyāna Buddhism[Mahayana Buddhism] , the prevailing form of Buddhism in China, a few figures who had achieved enlightenment, bodhisattvas, postponed progressing to nirvana in order to assist and to save others on the path to enlightenment and bliss.

Introduced to Buddhism by an elder brother, by the age of thirteen Xuanzang had already become a noted preacher and explicator of Buddhist texts, works that he mastered after only two readings. Because of the chaos and violence engendered by the fall of the Sui Dynasty (581-618), he and his brother moved to Sichuan Province. During these years, he had come to question some of the available Buddhist texts, believing that many were corrupted and unintelligible because of inadequate translations from Sanskrit into Chinese.

After the Tang Dynasty (T’ang; 618-907) had restored order, Xuanzang moved to the Tang capital of Chang’an (now Xi’an), soon to become the world’s largest city. Even though he was only about twenty years old, Xuanzang believed he could be Buddhism’s savior. To accomplish this, he decided to journey to India, the Buddha’s birthplace. There, he would obtain additional Buddhist manuscripts not available in China, bring them back to China, and translate them from Sanskrit into Chinese, thus bringing greater truth and clarity to Chinese Buddhism.





Xuanzang left Chang’an for India in 629, when he was about twenty-seven years old. The new Tang Dynasty was consolidating its authority, and the emperor, Taizong Taizong (Tang emperor) , had forbidden anyone to travel beyond China’s borders, particularly to the west into areas then under the rule of Huns, Mongols, and Turks. Xuanzang was not the first Chinese Buddhist monk to travel to India, but he became the most famous and the most influential.

Because of Taizong’s prohibitions, Xuanzang traveled secretly, often at night. Beyond the fabled Jade Gate, little but desert and occasional oases could be found in what became today’s Xinjiang Province, then largely controlled by Turkish-speaking peoples, usually Buddhist and thus often willing to assist Xuanzang in his travels. Beyond the deserts were the mountains, equally challenging, with cold, ice, and high mountain passes to traverse. It took the monk about a year before he reached the lands of the Buddha after traveling through a number of Central Asian republics as well as what would become modern-day Afghanistan and Pakistan.

After arriving in the Indian subcontinent, Xuanzang is believed to have spent two years in Kashmir, mastering Sanskrit. He also visited numerous Buddhist sites in northern India, including the Buddha’s birthplace, Lumbinī, near Kapilavastu (now Rummindei, Nepal); Bodh Gayā, where Siddhārtha found enlightenment while sitting under the bodhi tree, and the Deer Park at Sarnath, the site of the Buddha’s first sermon where he elucidated the Middle Path between extreme asceticism and excessive sensual pleasure. Many of Xuanzang’s years in India India;Buddhism Buddhism;India were spent at Nalanda Nalanda , the intellectual and spiritual center of Buddhism for many centuries. Students numbered in the many thousands at this school, where Xuanzang studied and debated with other Buddhist scholars. He also traveled through southern India, and much of what is known about Indian society and culture during the seventh century is because of Xuanzang’s writings about his travels.

One of the major events that occurred during his long stay in India was his victory in a debate among Buddhist scholars held in the presence of Harṣa Harṣa (r. 606-647), the ruler of most of northern India. King Harṣa urged Xuanzang to remain at his court, but the monk had never intended to stay in India, and by 645, he had returned to China’s western borders, again overcoming the obstacles of geography and climate and attacks by bandits. In the interim between the monk’s departure from China in 629 and his return, Emperor Taizong had extended Chinese rule over many Turkish and other states that Xuanzang had traveled through earlier. Unsure about his reception, given that he had ignored the emperor’s decree not to leave China, Xuanzang sent a letter to the emperor, justifying his journey to India. After a wait of several months, Taizong responded, informing the monk that his arrival was eagerly anticipated.

By 645 or 646, Xuanzang was back in Chang’an. He had brought with him nearly six hundred Buddhist manuscripts. The Wild Goose Pagoda Wild Goose Pagoda was constructed to house the manuscripts, and the emperor ordered other scholars to assist Xuanzang in the task of translating Translations;Sanskrit to Chinese the many texts. Taizong had hoped to glean useful military information from Xuanzang about potential enemies in the west, but the monk was unable or unwilling to provide this information. However, he did write the story of his travels, Datang xiyouji (629; Buddhist Records of the Western World, 1884). Buddhist Records of the Western World (Xuanzang) Xuanzang continued his translations and his studies until his death in 664 at Jade Flower Palace Monastery. Five years later, a five-story brick pagoda was constructed in Chang’an to house his remains.


Xuanzang’s importance cannot be overemphasized. His Buddhist Records of the Western World is not only an exciting adventure story but also a crucial historical source about the lands to the west of China and of India during the seventh century. Because of his fame as a scholar, Xuanzang was influential in the development of Buddhism in China and beyond. The texts he brought to China were the last major additions of Indian Buddhist writings into China. Many Japanese and Koreans monks journeyed to Chang’an to study with Xuanzang, their studies subsequently having an influence in their own countries.

In China, thanks in part to the contributions and influence of Xuanzang, Buddhism retained its dominant religious position for several centuries. His translations of the Buddhist Heart Sutra and the Diamond Sutra remain the standard texts. The travels of Xuanzang and others to the west and India also influenced the direction of Chinese art and architecture, then and in the future. Lastly, he became the inspiration for one of China’s greatest literary epics. In the early sixteenth century, Wu Cheng’en wrote a marvelous literary work titled Xiyouji (c. 1570-c. 1580, oldest surviving edition, 1592; Journey to the West Journey to the West (Wu) , 1977-1983), which relates in a magical-realism style the mythic and legendary travels of Xuanzang.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bernstein, Richard. Ultimate Journey: Retracing the Path of an Ancient Buddhist Monk Who Crossed Asia in Search of Enlightenment. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001. The author, a respected journalist, followed the route of Xuanzang in the late 1990’.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Devahuti, D. The Unknown Hsüan-tsang. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. A collection of translations of Xuanzang’s translations into Chinese, with a biographical account of the monk by an Indian scholar.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hui-li. The Life of Hsüan-tsang. Translated by Li Yuang-hsi. Bejing: Chinese Buddhist Association, 1959. Early biography of Xuanzang by one of his contemporaries.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Watters, Thomas. On Yuan Chwang’s Travels in India. Delhi: Munshi Ram Manohar Lal, 1961. A classic nineteenth century account of Xuanzang’s travels.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wriggins, Sally Hovey. Xuanzang: A Buddhist Pilgrim on the Silk Road. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1996. A readable and accessible biography of Xuanzang.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wu-Ch’eng-en. Monkey. Translated by Arthur Waley. New York: John Day, 1943. A translation by a noted scholar of one of China’s most famous novels.

Categories: History