Xuanzang was born to a wealthy and scholarly family in 602. He was raised as a Confucian and read all the classical texts. This was typical for child the upper or ruling class. The common people adhered to Buddhism which in some ways was at tension with Confucian thought. The family based loyalty of Confucian ethics conflicted with the monastic tendencies of Buddhism. So it was a radical shift for a Confucian scholar to show an interest in Buddhism.
Xuanzang made and epic journey to India when we was 28 years old. When he should have been practicing a life based on Confucian principle he abandoned his homeland and spent 18 years in India mostly at Nalanda Universiy. His motive for going to India and studying Buddhism was due to his Confucian training. As a Confucian scholar he was trained in strict logic and consistent thought. In Buddhist texts he saw many conflicting texts. It struck him that he perhaps could solve these problems and bring harmony to the Buddhist corpus. He saw a vision of his future in this great mission.
This vision was one of either deluded arrogance or deep trust in his great abilities. To think he could solve the problems that had developed over 1100 years of Buddhism requires a reformer on the level of a Martin Luther or Zoroaster.
His journey was an act of courage because the Sui Dynasty did not allow travel outside of China. Because he left without permission it was possible that he might not be allowed to return to China from India. He did not know that the Sui Dynasty was ready to collapse and the Tang Dynasty, perhaps the greatest Chinese Dynasty to ever exist was about to begin its epic reign. I also accounts for his long 16 year journey. The disruptions of a rising and falling Dynasty did not make it safe for him to return until the Tang Dynasty was well establish. It is hard to imagine that his family was happy with his conversion to Buddhism. What they did not know is that he would found a new school of Buddhism in his effort to unify the doctrines and texts.
The story of Xuanzang reads very much like the New Testament story of Apostle Paul of 600 years earlier. He converted thieves and murders who threatened his life and property, and endured Typhoons, and debated a King and intellectuals of a foreign court. All this prepared him to be the great ambassador of Buddhism to China when he returned.
He wrote a letter to the Tang Emperor and listed all his achievements and was allowed to return. Also because he carried with him a vast treasure-trove of wisdom and because the Tang Dynasty was hungry for knowledge they were welcomed his return.
He retuned with 657 manuscripts:
Mahayanist sutras: 224 items
Mahayanist sastras: 192
Sthavira sutras, sastras and Vinaya: 14
Mahasangika sutras, sastras and Vinaya: 15
Mahisasaka sutras, sastras and Vinaya: 22
Sammitiya sutras, sastras and Vinaya: 15
Kasyapiya sutras, sastra and Vinaya: 17
Dharmagupta sutras, Vinaya, sastras: 42
Sarvastivadin sutras, Vinaya, sastras: 67
Yin-lun (Treatises on the science of Inference): 36
Sheng-lun (Etymological treatises): 13
These manuscripts were housed in Chang’an (Xian) at the the Big Goose Pagoda 大雁塔Subsequently restored by the great Tang patron of Buddhism, Wu Zetian 武則天 in the early eighth century in the style of the “Central Plains,” the Big Goose Pagoda was recognized as an important cultural site in its day, not only by the monks of the surrounding Da Ci’en Temple, who were actively engaged in the translation of its scriptures and the veneration of its treasures, but by contemporary literati and poets, such as Du Fu 杜甫, who were inspired by this literal and symbolic monument of Chinese participation in Silk Road high culture.
Da Ci’en temple, which was organized by Xuanzang, its first abbot, as a place of Buddhist scholarship on the model of Nalanda.
It maintained a library of over 5000 Buddhist books, including complete versions of Buddhist canons in Pali, Chinese and Tibetan.
Xuanzang’s is entombed at the site and his relics, a portion of which are kept in the “Great Enlightenment Chamber.”
Xuanzang is the most important figure in Chinese Buddhism after the Buddha himself for bringing such a wealth of Buddhist culture into China. Thus it is perhaps unsurprising that the monastery he established, particularly the storehouse of its most sacred Buddhist treasures, the Big Goose Pagoda, should continue to stand out in Xi’an today.
Nine hundred years after Xuanzang a fictional account of his journey was written that included fantastic characters like a monkey, a monkey, and a collection of other characters that make for a classical tale. Unfortunately the tale obscures the depth and genius of Xuanzang as a scholar and traveler of the highest order and fact is hidden by the fiction.