Stories from the Buddha School: The Real Tang Monk in History

Edited by Chen Yi

PureInsight | August 13, 2006

[] Journey to the West
is one of the most famous works of classical Chinese literature. In the
book, Tang Monk led his three disciples to the Western Paradise and
achieved Consummation after experiencing a lot of troubles and
difficulties.  Some people call it fiction. In history, there was
a real Tang monk who risked his life and traveled tens of thousands of
miles from China to India to bring Buddhist scriptures back to China.
The journey he took was also the cultivation process of a cultivator
who was eventually able to let go of life and death.

1. Becoming a Du Monk at the Tender Age of 13

Tang Monk is also known as Tang Sanzang. Before he became a monk, his
name was Chen Wei. He was born in the township of Houshi in Luo County,
Henan Province. Most historical records show that he was born in 600
A.D.  There are also some historical records that claim he was
born in 602 A.D. or 596 A.D. He passed away in 664 A.D. His Buddhist
name was Xuanzang. Therefore he was also called Fa-master Xuezang.

Chen Wei's father was a devoted student of Confucianism and had four
sons. Chen Wei's second oldest brother became a monk when he was young.
He took the Buddhist name of Changjie and cultivated at Jingtu Temple
in Luoyang City. Chen Wei was the youngest child of the family. He was
bright and gifted as a small child. His appearance and gestures were
also different from those of an ordinary child. When he was 8 years
old, he started to follow his father to learn things. He studied
diligently and unremittingly. Once, his father told him the story of
Kong Rong getting up from his seat to show respect for his elders. As
soon as he heard the story, Chen Wei got up from his seat as well. His
father asked him why. He answered, "Kong Rong got up from his seat to
show his respects to elder people. Now Father is giving me a lecture.
How dare I sit down?" His father praised him.

In addition, Chen Wei had a special character when he was young. He
didn't play with naughty children and didn't listen to gossips or
flattering words. He often followed his second elder brother Changjie
to study Buddhist literature.

During the Sui and Tang dynasties, Buddhism was very popular. The
government established a very strict examination system for people who
wished to leave home and cultivate in a temple. Those who wanted to
become monks had to participate in the examination organized by the
government. Only those who passed the examination were accepted as
monks and called "Du Monk ("Du" means "getting saved" in
Chinese).  In the 10th year of the Reign of Emperor
Yang of the Sui Dynasty (614 A.D.), the government posted a notice
looking for 10 Du Monks. At that time, Chen Wei was only 13 years old
and hadn't reached the age required to become a Du Monk. He wasn't
allowed to even enter the examination site. He was very disappointed.
He walked around the examination site and didn't want to leave. 
The main examiner was a minister named Zheng Shanguo who was a lay
Buddhist. When he heard about Chen Wei, he called him in to talk to
him. Zheng Shanguo felt that Chen Wei was gentle and educated and was
very different from everyday people even though he was quite
young.  Zheng Shanguo asked him, "Why do you want to become a
monk?" Chen Wei answered, "My wish is to become a Tathagata in the long
term and to bring honor to the inherited Fa in the short term."
Although he was young, his words were quite magnificent and shocked the
examiner for a long time. Zheng Shanguo broke the rule and allowed Chen
Wei to be a monk. Later on, Zheng said to other people, "It is
difficult to find an elegant bamboo. If this young boy is allowed to be
a monk, he will be a famous person in the Buddha school!"

2. Rising His Life to Bring Back Buddhist Scriptures

After becoming a monk, Fa-master Xuezang spent a period of time
studying Buddhist scriptures and visiting different temples. He felt
that what he had heard in various lectures at many places over the
years was inconsistent, as different schools and branches had different
answers to certain questions. In fact, the differences were quite
dramatic. He felt it was too difficult to adjust to the differences,
and made up his mind to travel to India and bring back genuine Buddhist

In the first year of Zhenguan in Tang dynasty (627 A.D.), Xuanzang made
up his mind to travel to India to bring back genuine Buddhist
scriptures. But at that time, the Tang dynasty had just been
established. The border region was in a state of unrest, and the
government put tight restrictions on people traveling outside the
country. He submitted formal applications to go to India twice. His
request was declined each time. He was left with no choice but to sneak
out of the country.

A famine soon broke out. The government allowed people to leave their
homes and find employment elsewhere. Xuanzang used the opportunity to
leave the capital city of Changan and traveled west. He passed the
cities of Qinzhou, Lanzhou and arrived at the border town of Liangzhou.
There he found a Mongol who was a martial arts expert called Shi Pantuo
as his guide. They slept during the day and walked at night to sneak
out the country at the Yumen Pass. After they were outside the Yumen
Pass, Shi Pantuo could not tolerate the hardship of long distance
travel on foot anymore and insisted on leaving. He did point out the
locations of a few protective forts outside the border and asked
Xuanzang to be very careful.

Shortly afterwards, Xuanzang was caught by a border guard. He was
detained and questioned. The guard also happened to be a lay Buddhist.
When he learned Xuanzang's plan and saw how steadfast he was, the guard
released him. Xuanzang started walking on foot day and night. He walked
for three days and three nights straight and still couldn't walk out of
a desert that was 400 kilometers wide.

He became extremely exhausted and passed out from thirst. He was
awakened by a cool breeze and continued forward. Fortunately a miracle
happened. A piece of green land appeared in the middle of the desolate
desert. Xuanzang drank water from a spring and survived. It is hard to
use words to describe the hardships he endured. It is best to be
described from a paragraph from Journey to the West,
"There is no bird flying in the sky and no animals walking on the
ground. No grass and trees can grow and no trace of human beings is
around. Sometimes there is blowing sand and stones in a tornado,
and   sometimes there is pouring rain and teaming heat. There
is no water or food. One faints and then wakes up. One sees piles of
bones from dead bodies or broken swords from the war. Sometimes there
are evil and scary ghostly images."

After walking across the desert, Xuanzang arrived in the kingdom of
Gaochang. Qu Wentai, the king of Gaochang, was a devoted Buddhist. When
he heard about Xuanzang, he sent out an envoy to welcome him. Once he
met Xuanzang, he used all the possible ways to show his respect and
admiration to him and held a ceremony naming him as his brother. The
king tried to force Xuanzng to stay in Gaochng by saying, "If you
insist on not staying, I will have to send you back to China." Xuanzang
protested with a hunger strike and refused to stay in Gaochang.
Eventually his firmness moved the king. The king agreed to let him go.
The king also sent 20 or 30 soldiers to accompany him and gave him many
horses and valuable things. In addition, the king wrote a personal
letter to the kings of neighboring countries, asking them to treat
Xuanzang nicely.

Xuanzang continued his journey west along the southern side of Tianshan
Mountain. He passed the western highland, went through Afghanistan, and
arrived at the kingdom of Jiashiminuo (today's Kashmir). The roads
after that became even more difficult to travel. He had to climb over
mountain peaks that were covered in snow year-round as well as a huge
desolate desert. He led his white horse and walked on the narrow roads
on the icy mountain peaks on foot. If one took a wrong step, he would
fall into the abyss. There was a group of merchants traveling together
with Xuanzang. From time to time, some merchants would either freeze to
death or fall into the abyss. In Journal of Xuanzang,
he wrote, "I don't even dare to look down because there were numerous
dead bodies that had been frozen underneath." During this difficult
part of the journey, Xuanzang encountered numerous dangers. It took him
seven days and nights to climb over the mountain peaks and reach the
land of India..   

3. Receiving Hints from Bodhisattvas and Studying under a High-Level Monk

After two years of arduous travel, Xuanzang passed 110 countries in his
journey to India. Eventually he arrived in the northwestern region of
India during the 3rd year of Zhen Guan. He traveled to the
Indian cities of Jiashimiluo and Jiantuoluo and studied Xiaosheng (or
Hinayana) Buddhist scriptures from local masters. In order to better
understand Buddhist theory, he learned Feituo philosophy from Brahman
scholars. He also concentrated on studying Sanskrit so that he could
use it as a tool to do research on ancient Buddhist literature in
Sanskrit. He lived in that area for 2 to 3 years. He then traveled to
the middle region of India.  

When Xuanzang was about to cross the Ganges river, he ran into a group
of robbers. When they saw how handsome and elegant he was, they wanted
to kill him as a sacrifice to gods to gain blessings for themselves. At
such a dangerous moment, suddenly a strong gust of wind started to
blow, along with lightning and thunder. The sky became dark with sand
flying in the air and stones rolling on the ground. Those robbers were
scared so badly that their faces became ashen. They dared not to do
anything because they thought that they had made gods mad. They asked
who Xuanzang was. When they learned that he was a monk from China, they
knelt down to the ground and begged for his forgiveness. They promised
to correct their evil action and behave well from then on. The news
spread widely and made Xuanzang famous near and far.

Lalantuo Temple was a famous Buddha temple in the middle of India. It
was also the institution that offered Buddhist teachings at the highest
level in all of India. Thirteen thousand Buddhist followers lived
inside the temple. Among them were many high level Buddhist monks and
scholars. When Xuanzang entered the temple, four high-level monks of
Lalantuo Temple came out to welcome him. Over two hundred monks and
thousands of lay Buddhists also stood outside in a circle to welcome

Xuanzang became a student of Jiexian, the abbot at the temple. The
abbot was 100 years old and the leader of Buddhism in India. He was
deeply respected by the king of India. Although he was quite wise and
knowledgeable, he was suffering from a strange disease From time to
time, he would feel so much pain that he wanted to die. One night,
three Bodhisattvas appeared in his dream. One was Wenshu Bodhisattva in
the color of gold, one was Guanyin Bodhisattva in the color of silver,
and the third one was Puxian Bodhisattva in the color of crystal.
Puxian Bodhisattva told him, "You were a king in this land in your
previous life. Because you killed too many living beings, you have to
suffer the pain in this life in return. Even though it is extremely
painful, you should not wish to die. Three years from now, a monk from
China will come to India to seek the Fa. You should teach what you know
so he can spread the teaching to the land of China. This way, your
karma will be eliminated and your pain will disappear." After that
dream, Jiexian eagerly waited the arrival of the Tang Monk. When
Xuanzang finally arrived, Jiexian realized that his dream had been
true. He was very happy and taught Xuanzang everything he knew. He also
arranged for Xuanzang to travel outside of the temple and learn from
various learned teachers for a number of years.

Xuanzang spent a total of 17 years in India, including 5 years at the
Lalantuo Temple where many Buddhist scholars gathered at the time. He
wanted to go back to China to widely spread what he had learned. In
January of the 19th year of Zhenguan (645 A.D.), he finally went back
to Changan city after a long distance travel. Hundreds of government
officials along with tens of thousands of ordinary people welcomed him
in Changan and held a celebration so grand that nothing like it had
never been seen before.

Xuanzang's extraordinary journey drew the attention of Emperor Taizong
of the Tang dynasty. The emperor met with him in person and asked him
to record the things that he had learned in his travel so others could
learn from his experience. Xuanzang thus wrote what is known as Journey to the West by the Sanzang Monk of the Tang Dynasty.
The whole book has 12 volumes and recorded Xuanzang's experience in 110
countries that he had personally traveled to and 28 additional
countries and regions that he had heard of.

Starting from the 19th year of Zhenguan (645 A.D.),
Xuanzhang concentrated his efforts on translating Buddhist scriptures.
For the next 19 years, he translated more than 1000 volumes of Buddhist
scriptures. At the same time, he also translated the famous ancient
Chinese philosophy book "Dao De Jing" by Lao Zi into Sanskrit and
allowed it to be spread in India.

A year after he finished his translation work, he departed this world
in February of 664 A.D. at Yuhua Temple in Tongchuan. His remains were
sent back to Changan City according to the Emperor's order and buried
there. At the funeral, millions of people from regions within 250 km of
the capital came to pay their respect. Thirty thousand people spent the
night next to his tomb to honor him.

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