Xuanzang, one of the most famous translators in the world was a Seventh Century Chinese monk. Xuanzang is known for his translations, and leading a spiritually and intellectually enriching life. He traveled to India in search of Buddhist scriptures, returning seven years later in a pack of animals.

Xuanzang was born into a family of sophistication. He was the youngest of four; and boasts of a lineage of grandfathers and great-grandfathers serving as officials in the capital. His father, however, withdrew from office into isolation, once the political scene grew tumultuous in the early to mid-600s. When Xuanzang was young, he impressed his father by being extremely intelligent. His father taught him and his siblings Confucianist thought. As young as eight, Xuanzang expressed an aptitude and a desire to learn about Confucianism. One of his brothers became a monk, and Xuangzang soon followed suit. He studied Buddhism for five years as he lived with his older brother.

At the age of 20, Xuanzang was ordained as a monk. Prior to Xuanzang’s journey to India, he traveled through China in search of sacred books of Buddhism. He still lived with his brothers studying Buddhism until he decided he would go explore India. Once he had made this decision, he proceeded to learn Sanskrit. Xuanzang’s overland journey to India took seventeen years.

Part of the reason for Xuanzang’s journey was because of a dream he had. During this time, the Tang Dynasty was at war and prohibited travel. As such, Xuanzang had to literally escape by persuading Buddhist guards to let him exit a certain gated area in the province of Qinghai. He then made his way to the Gobi Desert, moving westward. Along the way he met a king, who was Buddhist and helped fund his journey. Before he reached India, he came across a community of over a thousand Buddhist monks.

During his seventeen year pilgrimage, Xuanzang returned to China as a venerated monk. The Emperor of Tang greeted him upon his arrival home. Instead of retiring to a monastery or anything of the like, Xuanzang translated Buddhist texts for nineteen years, until his death.

(The above statue is of Xuanzang in Xi’an.)

Xuanzang made a profound impact on Chinese Buddhism by translating texts from Sanskrit.  When Xuanzang returned from his pilgrimage, he set up a translation firm in Chang’an, or present-day Xi-an. This translation firm attracted students and collaborators from East Asia. It was through this effort that Xuanzang is credited with translating roughly 1,330 fascicles of scriptures into Chinese.

Another initiative that Xuanzang did during this time was establishing the Faxiang School in East Asia. This school’s principles on perception, consciousness (Xuanzang’s favorite aspect of Buddhism), karma and rebirth later permeated other doctrines of more successful schools.

Further, Xuanzang’s extensive translations of Indian Buddhist texts to Chinese have enabled recoveries of lost Indian Buddhist texts from the translated Chinese copies. He is credited with writing or compiling the Cheng Weishi Lun, which serves as a commentary on these texts. His translation of the Heart Sutra remains the standard in all East Asian Buddhist sects. He also founded the short-lived but influential Faxiang school of Buddhism. Additionally, he was known for recording the events of the reign of the northern Indian emperor, Harsha.

Xuanzang, with a team of disciple translators, translated the voluminous work of Mahaprajnaparamita Sutra. Many of his disciple translators urged Xuanzang to render an abridged version. Xuanzang’s work, the Great Tang Records on the Western Regions, is the longest and most detailed account of the countries of Central and South Asia that has been bestowed upon posterity by a Chinese Buddhist pilgrim. While his main purpose was to obtain Buddhist books and to receive instruction on Buddhism while in India, he ended up doing much more. He has preserved the records of political and social aspects of the lands he visited.