Copyright 1992 by Ron Epstein
IV. Hsuan-Tsang (Tripitaka Master) (596-664)
Great enlightened master, translator, and founder of the Consciousness-Only School in China.
"This Bhikshu's contributions to Buddhism have been exceptionally
great. It can be said that from ancient times to the present, there
has never been anyone who can compare to this Dharma Master in his achievements.
His worldly name was Ch'a. His father was an official, but a poor
one. Why did he end up a poor official? It was because he didn't
take bribes. He wasn't after the citizens' money nor that of the
government. He wasn't like people today who hold office and always
feel they are earning too little money so that on top of their government
salary they force the citizens to give them their hard-earned money as
well. Dharma Master Hsuan-Tsang's father didn't want money.
He remained a poor official all his life. Even though he was poor,
he had a virtuous nature and because of that he had two sons who left the
home-life, lectured Sutras, and were adept cultivators of the Way.
"Dharma Master Hsuan-Tsang left the home-life at the age of thirteen and commenced his study of the Buddhadharma. During those early years of study, if there was a Dharma Master lecturing a Buddhist text, no matter who the Dharma Master was or how far away the lecture was being held, he was sure to go to listen, whether it was a Sutra lecture, a Shastra lecture or a Vinaya lecture. He went to listen to them all. Wind and rain couldn't keep him away from lectures on the Tripitaka, to the point that he even forgot to be hungry. He just ate the Dharma, taking the Buddhadharma as his food and drink. He did this for five years and then took the Complete Precepts.
"However, the principles lectured by the Dharma Masters he heard were all different. They all explained the same Sutras in very different ways--each with his own interpretation. And there was a big difference between the lectures of those with wisdom and those without wisdom. But Dharma Master Hsuan-Tsang had not yet really become enlightened, and he didn't have the Selective Dharma Eye, and so how could he know whose lectures to rely on? At that time he vowed to go to India, saying,
The Buddhadharma has been transmitted from India, and so there is certainly true and genuine Buddhadharma to be found in India.
Thereupon, he wrote a request for permission to go to India to seek
the Dharma and presented it to the emperor. Emperor Tai Dzung of the Tang
Dynasty did not grant his wish, but Dharma Master Hsuan-Tsang, who had
already vowed to go, said, 'I would prefer to disobey the son of Heaven
and have my head cut off than not to go and seek the Dharma.' And
so he returned to the monastery and began to practice mountain-climbing.
He piled chairs, tables, and benches together to simulate a mountain and
practiced jumping from one piece of furniture to the next. This was
his method of practicing mountain-climbing. From morning till night
he leaped from table to chair. Probably there weren't any big mountains
--where he lived, and so he had to practice in the temple. All the
young, old, and older novices wondered what he was up to, jumping on furniture
all day long instead of reciting Sutras or cultivating. He didn't
tell anyone that he was training to climb the Himalayas, and so most people
thought he was goofing off. Eventually he trained his body so that
it was very strong, and then when he was physically able, he started his
trip through Siberia.
"On the day of his departure, when Emperor Tai-Dzung learned he intended to go even without imperial consent, the emperor asked him, 'I haven't given you permission and you still insist on going. When will you be back?'
"Dharma Master Hsuan-Tsang replied, 'Look at this pine tree. The needles are pointing toward the west. Wait until those needles turn around and face east. That is the time when I will return.' He didn't say how many years that would be. And so he set out. At that time there were no airplanes, steamboats, buses, or trains. There were boats, but they were made of wood and not too sturdy. Besides, since he didn't have imperial permission, he probably could not have gotten the use of a boat anyway. And so he travelled by land through many countries, from the Siberian area of the Russian border to India. He was gone for more than a decade. When he reached India, he didn't know the language at all. But bit-by-bit he studied Sanskrit and listened to many Dharma Masters lecture the Buddhadharma. Some people say this took him fourteen years. Others say it took nineteen. In general he went through a great deal of suffering and difficulty to study the Buddhadharma and then when he'd completed his studies, he returned to China.
"When his return was imminent, the needles on the pine tree turned to the east. As soon as the emperor saw that the pine needles were indeed pointing east, he knew that Dharma Master Hsuan-Tsang was coming back and he sent out a party of officials to the western gate to welcome him and escort him back. When they reached the gate, there indeed, was Dharma Master Hsuan-Tsang returning.
"Dharma Master Hsuan-Tsang then concentrated on translating the Sutras and other works that he had brought back with him. He translated from Sanskrit into Chinese. At the time when he was translating the Mahaprajnaparamita-sutra, within one single year, the peach trees blossomed six times. That was a sign of the auspiciousness of the Mahaprajnaparamita-sutra and its importance to all of us. The fact that it was being translated moved even the wood and plants to display their delight.
"Dharma Master Hsuan-Tsang translated a great many sutras. While in India, he bowed to the Buddha's sarira and bones. He saw where the Buddha in a previous life had given up his eyes, and went to the place where the Buddha in a previous life had practiced the conduct of patience, and went to the place where the Buddha in a previous life had given up his life for the sake of a tiger. He also went to see the Bodhi tree under which the Buddha realized the Way. He went to all of those places celebrated in Buddhism. These pilgrimages are another indication of the extent of his true sincerity. While in India, whenever he met Dharma Masters, he never looked down on them, no matter how little they may have cultivated. He was extremely respectful. He wasn't the least bit arrogant or haughty. When he finished his studies, many Small vehicle Dharma Masters and masters of externalist ways came to debate with him, but none was able to defeat him.
Dharma Master Hsuan-Tsang is known as a Tripitaka Master (Tripitaka='Three Treasuries', 'Three Baskets'). The Tripitaka includes the Sutra Treasury, the Shastra Treasury, and the Vinaya Treasury. He was honored with this title because he understood all three Treasuries without obstruction. . . .
"As to his name, Sywan means 'esoteric and wonderful.' He was esoteric in the sense that none could really understand him. Dzang means 'awe-inspiring.' He was awe-inspiring in that he could do what others could not do. He was an outstanding person among his peers. . . ." (HD 15-17)
The Master's name has also been transliterated as follows: Xuanzang, Sywan-Dzang, Yuan Chwang, etc.