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Haraprasad Ray


People in India remember Xuanzang (also spelled as Xuanzhuarlg, Hsuan Tsang, Yuan Chuang or Hiuen Tsang etc.) primarily for his Records of the Western Regions during the Tang Dynasty (Da Tang Xiyu Ji), as if the pilgrim-scholar came here only to write a travelogue after his return to China, thus doing grave injustice to this great “Master of the Tripitakas”(sanzang). In order to correct this let me first refer to the popular Chinese novel XiyOtJji (Pilgrimage to the West) which was processed into a jewel of Chinese literature by Wu Cheng’en (1500? -1582?). This novel which was quoted by Jawaharlal Nehru in The Discovery of India as “Monkey” (p. 207) was not the creation of its author’s imagination. A historical perspective should treat this novel as the climax of the development of the Xuanzang legend for 900 years beginning from the day he returned to the Chinese capital .as national hero, and his subsequent achievement in China to raise the status of Buddhism to that of a “State Religion” so to say. Stories about Xuanzang’s undergoing the perilous journey to reach India and his subsequent return to China with the Buddhist sutras were in circulation among the masses in a typical Chinese fashion even when the Tripitaka Master was still alive. The erection of Dayan Pagoda (the “Pagoda of the Great Swan”, likening Xuanzang’s return to a migratory bird) at the imperial capital Changan in 652 to commemorate Xuanzang’s historic return by the imperial government was the creation of the monument of Xuanzang and the starting point of the Xuanzang legend. In subsequent post- Tang dynasties, fantastic Xuanzang stories were told, retold, performed, written, re-written umpteen times till they became Xiyouji- China’s equivalent of Ramayana. In the novel Xiyouji, Xuanzang acquired two supreme images: (1) being the purest of human beings whose flesh could make demons immortal; (2) entering the Heaven as a new incarnation of the Buddha. The novel has immortalized Xuanzang’s pilgrimage to India which has been well known in China for many centuries as “Xitian qujing”, i.e. “Obtaining Truth from the Western Heaven”. So, the eulogizing of Xuanzang’s pilgrimage also immortalized the image of India as the “Western Heaven”.

Xuanzang has since become a historical monument, a legend, a semi-deity, a man of many parts: Buddhologist, traveller, philosopher, translator, as well as an outstanding messenger and promoter of culture among the nations of Asia. His outstanding feats have been eulogized not only in China, but also in India, Korea, Japan, Vietnam and other countries. Xuanzang has become a household name both in China and India. He has left for us an extremely rich cultural heritage in the fields of theory, science of translation, history, geography, folk customs, cultural intercourse and commerce.

Xuanzang was born in 600 in a family of scholars in Henan province. He learnt the Confucian classics. Having been converted to Buddhism at a young age, he went to Sichuan (in which the main city, Chengdu was a seat of Sanskrit learning then as it is today), and other places in China and in India to acquire knowledge of Buddhism from the renowned scholars like Silabhadra. About Xuanzang’s pilgrimage to India we are not quite sure when he started the journey (either in 627 or in 629). But, he returned from India to China in 645 for sure. He left his country being chased by a government warrant of arrest (for violating the imperial ban on travelling abroad imposed by the new Emperor Taizong who usurped the throne in 626). When he returned, a red carpet reception was laid for him. Air this added colour to his historic pilgrimage. He was soil bound, and finally returned to his motherland, although his Indian colleagues entreated him to stay on in India. In his accounts and lectures he often mentioned Confucianism and Taoism, and even translated into Sanskrit the Taoist text, Daodejing at the request of the Kamarupa king Bhaskara Varman, whom Xuanzang mentions as “Kumara Raja”. Xuanzang must have been pained at heart to see the ignorance among the Indians about China except some at the royal courts. His translation of Daodejing was a very thoughtful endeavour to introduce Chinese philosophy and culture to the Indians. But alas, this translated text in Sanskrit is lost to us.

At the time of Xuanzang, Buddhism was firmly established in China. Before his departure for India, he -studied Hinayana and Mahayana texts, specially the latter. He had mastered the treatises on epistemology (Vijnanavada), particularly the “Compendium of Mahayana” (Mahayana-samgraha) of Asanga which had already been translated into Chinese three times. Through the translations of the treatises of this school done in the 6th century by Paramartha, Xuanzang had come to know about the existence of the Yogacarabhumisasrra (Treatise of the Lands of the Practice of Yoga) concerning the seventeen stages of spiritual progress, a monumental compendium of the epistemological school, also known as Yogacara (Practice of Yoga). Paramartha had translated a fragment. Xuanzang wanted to study the Sanskrit original. He eventually took it home from Nalanda, and translated it after his return to China between 646 and 648 AD, and circulated his translation under the title Yujia Shidi Lun.1

Xuanzang devoted his life to a conscientious and scrupulous study of the Buddhist texts and translated into Chinese 75 treatises into 1,335 fascicles of Buddhist classics, bringing systematically the Vinayas, surras and Sasrras, and other discourses to China. He developed the indigenous Chinese school of consciousness, and founded the Weishi (Vijnanavada) sect. His theories and thoughts were also disseminated abroad by foreign scholars.

There were a host of great Indian Buddhist scholars like Kumarajiva (AD 344-413 or 350-409), Buddhabhadra (359-429), Dharmaksema (385-433), Paramartha (499-569), Bodhiruci I (5th to 6th century), Bodhiruci II (died 727), Amoghavajra (705-774), and many others who worked tirelessly to expound the Dharma to the Chinese elite as well as the laity, and also translated Buddhist literature from Sanskrit into Chinese. They were actively supported by the Chinese ruling class, and a great number of Chinese intellectuals of whom Faxian (337?-422?), Xuanzang and Yijing (635-713) were the finest examples. We observe in this scenario a Sino-Indian intellectual joint venture in the creation of a new spiritual order. Fed with ancient Indian symbols and imageries, the entire undertaking went through a long process of hard work and internalization, and, finally became an integral part of Chinese heritage.

Before embarking on his pilgrimage, Xuanzang was already adequately equipped with the knowledge of the latest developments in Buddhist philosophy, but it was his insatiable urge for higher learning that inspired him to come to India, so that he could enrich the Chinese Buddhist culture with additional treasures that had not been available in China. He also wanted to collect the texts and take them to China for rendering them into Chinese for dissemination of the right kind of Dharma. He, thus, set the model for modern students: To deepen your knowledge in a particular branch of science or art, by obtaining it from the place of its origin- This is particularly important for present Indian China scholars who have not firmly cultivated the habit of studying first-hand source-materials.

Xuanzang is regarded as one of the best scholars of Buddhism for all times. Some of the works translated by him are among the largest, namely, “The great Sutra of the Perfection of Wisdom” (Mahaprajna-paramira sutra) in 600 juans (fascicles), translated in 659, “The Treatise of the Lands of the Masters of Yoga” (Yogacaryabhumisasrra) in 100 juans, translated in AD 646- 648 and “The Great Exegesis” (Mahavibhasa) which is a compendium of the scholastic scriptures of the Sarvastivada school of Hinayana. Although a Mahayanist by faith, Xuanzang’s ideal was to possess a perfect knowledge of all the trends represented by various Buddhist schools, particularly of the Sarvastivada school, a very elaborate system, whose knowledge is essential for an understanding of the intricacies of the Buddhist doctrine. He studied the different treatises of Sarvasrivada-Abhidharma with the most competent teachers in India.

Xuanzang was fully aware of the fact that a knowledge of the non-Buddhist systems of philosophy was essential for a thorough understanding of the Buddhist doctrine, and also to refute the arguments of the opponents. The result was his translation of Dasapadarrhasasrra (The Treatise on the Ten Elements), a Vaisesika treatise by Candramati or Maticandra whose Sanskrit original is lost. We are grateful to the pilgrim that this valuable treatise is preserved for us in his Chinese translation.

Xuanzang’s Cheng Weishi Lun (completed in AD 659) is the translation of a commentary on Vasubandhu’s Trimsika (Thirty Verses), a basic text of the Vijnanavadasa school. It repudiates all belief in the reality of the objective world, maintaining that citta (cirramarra) or vijnana (vijnana-marra) is the only reality. The wor1< represents the views of the ten masters among whom Sthiramati and Dharmapala represented the schools of Valabhi (West India) and Nalanda (East India) respectively. Being the disciple of Silabhadra of Nalanda, Xuanzang naturally adopts the views of the Nalanda school as final. Xuanzang has preserved, through this work, records of inestimable value which otherwise would have been lost forever. In the 1930s the great scholar- explorer Rahula Sankrityayana started re-translating this work into Sanskrit with the help of a Chinese scholar, but unfortunately, the task remained incomplete

The establishment and development of various sects of Buddhism underwent significant evolution in China. In the wei and Jin periods (AD 220-420), Buddhism of the South (that now practised in India, Sri Lanka and other South and Southeast Asian countries except Vietnam) emphasized the theoretical sides, while Buddhism of the North (that is now practised in East Asia including Vietnam) honoured Chan (dhyana -meditation). During the years of Sui and Tang (581-907), Buddhism foll(JNed the path of unification, most sects upholding the cultivation of both ding (samadhi -self hypnotisation) and hui Unana -knowledge) simultaneously with the enlargement of both chan and yi (theory). It was at this time that the Tiantai sect reached its zenith synthesizing both Southern and Northern Buddhism.

Meanwhile, the continuous infl(JN of Buddhism resulted in the formation of the Faxiang sect (Weishi -Vijnanavada). This sect created by Xuanzang inherited its theory from the teachings of the two sects of Indian Mahayana Buddhism (Dacheng). In the early Tang period Faxiang or Weishi coexisted with the Sanlun (the Three Madhyamika Treatises School) and Tiantai (named after Mount Tiantai) sects.2 But Faxiang which preserved the true Indian Buddhist theories survived only for a short time. In its place came the new sects which were adopted to fit with the social milieu of China. They were the Huayan and the Chan sects that began to flourish during the reign of Empress Wu Zetian (684-704).3

Xuanzang’s pilgrimage to India has set a brilliant example of internationalism and interculturalism. No wonder this pilgrimage for obtaining authentic scriptures has been kept alive for more than a thousand years in China as an idiom of “qujing” (to “obtain scriptures”). Today, this bisyllable hangs on the lips of every Chinese who show sincerity of learning from other cultures. Such a culture may be called the Xuanzang tradition. To India, Xuanzang’s pilgrimage yields an additional benefit. This benefit can be quantified by the total times of mention of Xuanzang’s name in the introductions engraved on stones and metal put up by the Archaeological Survey of India at the sites of ancient Indian monuments. As accurate information about these monuments have not been passed down by their creators, the archaeological authorities of India have found in the name of Xuanzang the best historical witness. Xuanzang has led other Chinese chroniclers of fill in a good number of blanks in ancient India historiography. One can imagine what darkness Indian historians would have to grapple with had Xuanzang’s pilgrimage not taken place, or had he not left his immortal account Da-Tang xiyuji. Here, we have a case of Xuanzang’s helping the posterity of his Indian gurus, colleagues, and friends to revisit the living and doings of their ancestors even after more than a millennium.

China is the first country in the world to have espoused translation work as a serious task of scholarship. Starting as an individual enterprise, the cause was very soon promoted by the Chinese emperors for centuries through the establishment of regular Translation Bureaus. In the history of translation of the Buddhist texts which were the firsts in the world to be ever translated, the task was given great importance both during the Sui (581-618) and Tang (618-907) dynasties. A Translation Society was organized at high levels at the Daxingshan Monastery in the capital, Changan. Indian scholars played an important role in translation work. For instance, Narendrayasas of the Sui dynasty spent four years translating 23 volumes. Prabhakaramitra in the Tang Dynasty finished 35 volumes in three years.4

Before Xuanzang, translation of Buddhist scriptures was always piloted by Indian scholars who often did not have good command of Chinese; they were aided by the Chinese who, in turn, were not conversant in Sanskrit. As a result, the interpretation was often both rigid and insipid. There had been long discussions over centuries about the merits and demerits of literal translation and free translation. Kumarjiva (AD 344-413), for example, strongly argued for free translator). Aided by the Chinese scholars his translations were both elegant and fluent, but they were not always faithful to the originals.5

Xuanzang combined both these methods for the first time. He sponsored a new period of translation initiated by the Chinese themselves. With his great learning and profound command over Sanskrit, Xuanzang’s interpretations avoided all the defects of the earlier period. When Xuanzang directed his translation-work, his assistants used to listen to his expositions of the scriptures. While being faithful to the meanings of the original words, his translations were both fluent and elegant. Among other numerous translations, he had rendered the abstruse theories of Mahaprajnaparamitasutra into 600 fascicles of natural and fluent four-word poems, and made the presentation of the doctrine more vivid.6 Here is a case of transcreation which marks the pinnacle point of translation.

Before starting his epoch-making venture in transcreation, Xuanzang considered the propriety of following Paramartha’s method which sometimes omitted repetitions and made certain additions. After thoughtful deliberations he resolved to exercise some liberty in order to make the original meaning clear while retaining the beauty of the language. Along with his disciples, he followed a method of translation which was a departure from that followed by Paramartha. Xuanzang’s method subsequently came to be known as the “New Method”. Thus, the pedantic tendency found in the translation of Paramartha and his disciples was replaced by freedom-cum-faithfulness of Xuanzang and his school. The method of Paramartha came to be called the “Old Method”.7

As of today, besides five complete Vinayapitakas which were mostly translated from Sanskrit, some being rendered into Chinese from local dialects, there are also Chinese translations of shorter texts belonging to the various Vinaya schools, such as the Pratimoksa or “the Rules of ordination” of the monks and the nuns, and numerous other miscellaneous texts including the commentaries on the Vinayas called Vibhasa and Matrika. The Pali Vinayapitaka in Chinese belongs to only one school, whereas the Chinese collection is the richest collection of the Vinaya literature known so far. Thus it provides us with the greatest opportunity for the study of the ancient Vinaya literature.8

A comparison of the Vinayapitakas in Chinese translation with their Pali counterparts often yields new and significant insight. The accounts in the Chinese Vinayas are often more complete than those in the Pali Vinayas and shed more light on many aspects of early Indian life and society. They are also the source of information on the doctrinal schism between the various Buddhist schools. According to P.C. Bagchi, “In fact a study of the Chinese Vinayas is indispensable if we want to reconstruct the history of the early Buddhist church in India.”9 The scholars of Buddhism and Chinese Language should now pay attention to these fundamentals about Sino-Indian studies so that our understanding of India-China cultural synergy firms upon Xuanzang and other Buddhist masters of China and India.

For a long time Buddhism played the role of a great medium of cultural exchange between India, China and the neighboring countries. The scholar-monks from India and China made outstanding contributions to the friendly intercourse between both the countries. Xuanzang’s work “Records of the Western Region” has always been held in high esteem by the Indian historians as a mine of data. Cunnigham, the great archaeologist always carried a copy of the translation of this travelogue during his archaeological survey throughout India. It is presumably during this period (Tang dynasty) that the art of paper-making was introduced from China to India, and Indian medicine, astronomy, calendar and phonetics were extensively in use in China, and produced indelible impact on almost all aspects of Chinese life and culture.

It is possible to surmise that being of foreign origin, paper did not find a permanent place in India’s academic domain, as it was thought to be sacrilegious to use an object of foreign origin for use in writing sacred scriptures. Hence, use of palm- leaf (bhurya-patra) continued even after the advent of paper in India. In the realm of literature, Chinese bianwen (a literary style by mixing prose and poetry, like the Campukavya in India) had its source directly from the Buddhist texts, and influenced greatly the advancement of Chinese literature in the succeeding age. But, this Bianwen literature has been enshrined on paper for more than a thousand years which has served a wonderful purpose of keying into memory in black and white what the Tang monks used to speak, chant, sing, and perform in sound and body language. Xuanzang who had carried a rich stock of mythological stories from India to China must have given a fillip to this new genre of Chinese literature.

The shining example of Xuanzang as a trans-cultural bind between India and China can never be over-emphasized:

“One does not know what most causes wonder in the translations of Xuanzang: the rapidity with which they are executed, the rigor of the terminology, or the erudition and penetration shown by this scholar, who was the only one in China to combine a first-rate Chinese culture with a perfect knowledge of Sanskrit.”10

These weighty commendation were offered by the famous French Sinologist, Paul Demieville (1894-1979). Such a high appreciation of Xuanzang’s achievement can come only when the commentator himself becomes highly conversant in Sanskrit and classical Chinese.

Taking a cue from Demieville, we should regard Xuanzang as a cultural giant whose one foot was firmly planted in Chinese soil and another in Indian soil. That such a cross-cultural giant could emerge is mighty evidence the India-China cultural interface and synergy. Xuanzang and many eminent monk-scholars of China and India were instrumental to carve out the contours of this image between India and China. Other names in mind are Kumarajiva, Bodhiruci I (in China in the first half of the 6th century), Bodhiruci II (as alluded to earlier), and Amoghavajra {705-774). Xuanzang’s difference from these eminent Indians lies in the fact that he was translating Buddhist scriptures virtually single-handedly, while his senior and junior colleagues above mentioned had a brigade of Chinese scholars to assist them. In other words, none of the eminent Indians possessed his easy facility with both Chinese and Sanskrit. This amphibious habituation between two great cultures is exemplified by Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) who could saunter in the gardens of English and Bengali literatures and pluck their flowers freely. But, we need a modern Xuanzang who can do as Tagore did half a century ago in the gardens of Chinese and Indian literatures. And this was exactly what Xuanzang did 1,300 years ago. If China could produce such a great Sino-Indian cultural amphibian (like Xuanzang), India surely can. If India could produce an Indian-English cultural amphibian (like Tagore), she surely can produce another Indian-Chinese cultural amphibian. That we have not }’et produced one proves only our weakness in the desire, not capability.

The year 1998 celebrates the birth centenaries of two great savants in Sino-Indian Studies and India-China cultural affinity: Dr. P.C. Bagchi (1898-1956) and Prof. Tan Yun-Shan (1898-1983). Dr. Bagchi was a shining example of an Indian quest for indepth understanding of Chinese civilization. He came on the cultural scene at a time when most of the educated Indians were either ignorant about or indifferent to the legacy of multifaceted Chinese heritage and its importance to Indian history. The life and work of him are convincing examples of what a perfect Sino-Indologist stands for and to what extent an Indian can advance as a frontline Sinologist, if given the will power. Had there not been the sudden death to this savant (over burdened by performing the duty of running a premier university of India, i.e. Visva-Bharati), we would have seen many more decades of fruitful research in Sino-lndian studies, and bequeathed with a richer heritage from Bagchi’s generation of India-China amphibious cultural habituation. Dr. Bagchi’s example serves to strengthen my conviction that India, too, can produce her counterpart of Xuanzang, and can carry the Xuanzang spirit to her cultural and academic endeavour in forging a greater understanding between India and China.

Hetuvidya (yinming i.e. theory on causation) is an important part of Yogacara system based on Dharmalaksana school founded by Xuanzang, an offshoot of the Vijnanavada philosophy of Dharmaraksita. Xuanzang systematically introduced Hetuvidya Sastra, as a result of which it was in fashion in China for a time, but was forgotten later. In modern China, with the publication of more than a dozen books and seminar papers, the development of studies on Hetuvidya Sastra is being promoted simultaneously with the revival of Xuanzang studies.11 This is encouraging for the Indian scholars of Buddhism with a sound knowledge of Sanskrit who can take advantage of the situation so that both India and China can benefit through cooperative research programmes.

Many new archaeological and literary discoveries over an extensive area running from China to India through Central Asia have broken new grounds and shed new light on the material and spiritual culture of the past. If we combine and integrate the results through the cooperation of all concerned scholars, we shall then be doing yeoman’s service to ourselves as well as to our countries. The locations given in Xuanzang’s travelogue require to be re-investigated. The social system, the class relations, inter-sect rivalry and conflict require to be studied de novo.12 This list is far from complete, but can induce Indian scholars to take the first step. If Xuanzang can be likened to a torch-bearer, it is time now that modern scholars in India and China carry the same torch to shine upon the path so that India and China can march forward towards the utopia of sukavati.

1. P.C. Bagchi, India and China, A Thousand Years of Sino-lndian Cultural Contact, Calcutta; China Press, p. 151.

2. For an idea about the main sects of Chinese Buddhism, see, P.V. Bapat (ed.), 2500 Years of Buddhism, New Delhi, The Publications Division (Government of India), 1956, pp. 124-31.

3. Song Jiayu, Tangdai Fojiao yu Tangdai Shehui (Buddhism and Society during the Tang Dynasty), Beijing, 1978, p.4.

4. Wang Yarong, “Lun Tangdai chuqi de Fojing Fanyi” (A study of the translation of Buddhist scriptures in early Tang Dynasty), in Hu~ng Xinchuan, Ge Qianjun (eds.), Xuanzang Yanjiu Wenji (Collection of Essays on Xuanzang Studies), Zhengzhou, 1995, pp. 265-77.

5. au Junfeng, “Xuanzang fashi zai fanyi shiyeshangde gongxian” (Xuanzang’s contribution to the cause of translation), in Ibid, p. 115.

6. For a few rare examples of Xuanzang’s translation, see, Wu Baihui, “Yin sanxiangde Fanwen yuanwen he Xuarizangde yila” (The Sanskrit original text of ‘Three aspects of reason’ and its translation by Xuanzang), in Ibid, pp. 131-33.

7. P.V. Bapat, op. cit., p. 247.

8. P.C. Bagchi, op. cit., p. 138.

9. Ibid, p. 139.

10. Quoted by Kamaleswar Bhattacharya in his, “Xuanzang’s contribution to Buddhology, A non-Sinologisrs observations”, Huang  Xinchuan, op. cit., p. 467

11. Gao Zhennong, "Shilun Xuanzang xuesho zai jindai Zhonggude fuxing" (Revival of Xuanzang's doctrine in Modern China), in ibid, pp. 223-38. The author has given details of organisations engged in Xuanzang studies.

12. A humble beginning has already been made in this regard buy the present writer through three articles. The first of them, "Geographical Notes on Xuanzang's travel in the East and Northeast India has been published in Roop-Lekha, Journal of A.I.F.A.C.S., New Delhi, vols. Ixiv-Ixvi (March, 1997), pp. 28-33. The other two are awaiting publication.


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