Buddhism is a religion that extended over much of Asia. It did so not through a disembodied dharma descending on one culture after another, but rather through a more material movement – of monks, texts, relics and icons – along trade routes and across deserts, mountains and seas. And among those who received it, there were some who were inspired to retrace its route, travelling from their distant homelands, by land and by sea, to India, the domain of the Buddha. Their motivations were many. They would travel to Vulture Peak and lament that their karma had caused them to be reborn elsewhere in samsara when the Buddha had preached the dharma there. They could make pilgrimages to the Mahabodhi temple built at the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment in Bodhgaya. And, if they learned Sanskrit, they could study the dharma at the great monastic universities of northern India, encountering texts and teachings unknown in their homelands. Thus, the Buddhist universe does not only encompass distant pure lands and infernal realms, to be reached in future lives by the power of prayer or by the winds of karma, but also sites in this world, to be reached on ships, on camelback and on foot.
Three Chinese monks were among the most famous travellers, beginning with Faxian (who arrived in India in 400ce), to be followed by Xuanzang and Yijing in the seventh century. Their fame derives in part from the detailed records they made of their journeys, in part from the difficulties they braved along the way. In 629 Xuanzang set out from the capital of the Tang Dynasty and travelled west until he reached India. He was a scholar, and so went in search of texts, but he was also a devotee of the Buddha, and went to make offerings to the footprints of the teacher. His pilgrimage is considered one of the most remarkable journeys in history, made all the more remarkable by the fact that he returned safely in 645, carrying with him 675 Buddhist texts. The story of his journey became the basis for the famous Chinese novel, Journey to the West.
But there were many other pilgrims whose stories are not well known, some of which are collected in a work by Yijing entitled Biographies of Eminent Monks Who Sought the Dharma in the Western Regions during the Tang (Nanhai jigui naeifa zhuan). The preface to that work appears below, along with the biography of a monk named Xuanzhao, who made the journey to the West not once, but twice.
Biographies of Eminent Monks who Sought the Dharma in the Western Regions during the Tang
From earlier times there have been in China people who risked their lives in search of the dharma. Dharma-master Faxian [c.339- 420] of the Eastern Jin first opened up this dangerous path;
dharma-master Xuanzang [602-664] later established a regular route. Between these two some monks made the journey, either by the western route, going beyond the Great Wall and travelling by themselves, or by the southern route, crossing the great ocean and journeying alone. They all yearned to visit the holy sites and prostrate themselves to pay their respects. They intended then to return to China and repay the four kinds of debts they had received at home, from their parents, rulers, other sentient beings and the three jewels. But the passage was plagued by many difficulties, and the holy places were distant. Many rice plants sprout, but only a few bear fruit. As they travelled vast distances in the desert and along great rivers, the hot sun burned them; as they proceeded over the great sea, waves reaching the sky rose in front of them. Walking alone beyond the Iron Gate pass, they crossed mountain after mountain, only to fall from a cliff. Alone they threw their lives away at the Copper Pillar in Jiaozhi, or they went over to the Kingdom of One Thousand Rivers [in the region around Cambodia] and died there. Sometimes there was nothing to eat or drink for several days. Anxious thoughts destroyed their spirits; worries and weariness ruined their health. Of those numbering fifty who left, only a few survived. Even when they reached India, China had no Chinese temples there where Chinese monks could freely take refuge, so they roamed from one foreign temple to another without a place to settle down. Seldom did they find a fixed place to settle down. Their personal well-being was not secured; how could they contribute to the flourishing of the dharma? Their virtues are indeed to be praised. Hoping to pass on the fragrance of their lives, dedicated to the Buddha’s dharma, I composed their biographies, basing myself on what I have heard and seen in India.
Dharma-master Xuanzhao was from Xianzhang in Taizhou; his Indian name was Prakasamati (‘Bright Wisdom’). His grandfather and father were both high government officials, but while he was still wearing his hair in two topknots in the manner of an infant, he removed the hair pin, abandoning the official career and renounced the householder’s life. In the year he attained adulthood, he formed the aspiration to pay homage at holy sites, and went to the capital city Chang’an where he heard lectures on sutras and sastras in different temples. During the Zhenguan period [627-649] under the teacher Xuanzheng at Daxingshansi temple he began to study Sanskrit. Then he took the monk’s staff, and set out as a pilgrim towards the west, with the thought of visiting the Jetavana garden.
Leaving behind Lanzhou, the Golden City, he travelled through the ‘moving sands’ of the Taklamakan Desert; passing through the Iron Gate, he climbed the Snowy Peaks. Rinsing his mouth at a Fragrant Pond [of Anavatapta], he made the resolve to carry out the four broad vows of a bodhisattva [to liberate numberless beings, to eradicate endless afflictions, to enter measureless doors to the dharma and to achieve unsurpassed enlightenment]; he crossed the
Pamirs in search of the dharma, promising himself eventually to pass beyond the three realms of existence. The route of his travel went through Sogdiana, then Tokhara, and around distant border regions to Tibet. He saw there the Chinese Princess Wencheng, who had married the Tibetan ruler; with her support Wangzhao [Xuanzhao] travelled towards north India, heading towards Jalandhara [Jullundur]. Before he reached there, in the course of the long passage that was dangerous and difficult, he was captured by robbers. Fellow travellers could not think of good plans of escape and in the absence of worldly authorities to appeal to, Wangzhao prayed for supernatural assistance. A response appeared in a dream; as he woke up the thieves were all fast asleep; quietly freeing himself from the confinement, Wangzhao escaped from this difficulty.
Wangzhao stayed in Jalandhara for four years; the king valued him greatly and requested him to stay longer, but, having made good progress in his study of sutras, vinayas [the monastic codes], and Sanskrit, Wangzhao travelled further southward to the Mahabodhi temple in Bodhgaya. He stayed there for four years. He considered it a great misfortune that he was not born at the time when he could have encountered the Buddha face to face, but felt himself fortunate to visit the holy sites of the Buddha’s life. He worshipped the image of the Buddha produced by Maitreya; the Buddha’s appearance was truly and fully presented in this image. Greatly inspired, he studied the Abhidharmakosa and mastered the abhidharma. With purified thoughts he studied the monastic discipline; the two teachings of the vinaya became clear to him.
After that Wangzhao stayed at Nalanda for three years, receiving instruction on Nagarjuna’s Middle Treatise (Madhya- makasdstra) and Aryadeva’s Treatise in One Hundred Verses (Satakasdstra) from dharma-master Jinaprabha; and on the seventeen Stages of Yoga Practice (Yogdcdrabhumi) from dharma- master Ratnasimha. He also quickly mastered the teaching of meditation. Wangzhao then went to the north of the Ganges River where he received the support of King Champu and stayed at the Believer’s Temple and at other temples. Three more years passed.
Later, when the emissary from the Tang, Wang Xuance, returned to China, he reported on the remarkable accomplishments of Wangzhao. This resulted in the imperial order: Wang Xuance was to return to the western regions and bring Wangzhao back to the court. Wangzhao’s return route passed through Nepal; the Nepalese king sent his men to accompany Wangzhao until he reached Tibet. In Tibet Wangzhao saw Princess Wencheng again. The princess treated him with great respect and gave him provisions for the trip back to the Tang. Wangzhao then travelled through Tibet and reached China. He took leave of King Champu in the ninth month, and he reached Luoyang in the first month of the following year, having travelled across ten thousand Chinese miles in the course of five months.
In the middle year of the Linde period  the emperor came to the eastern capital of Luoyang; Wangzhao was given an audience and received the order to return to the kingdom of Kashmir and bring the brahman Lokayata, known for his longevity, to the court. He had met eminent monks at Luoyang and discussed the outline of the Buddhist teaching with them. Vinaya- master Dao and dharma-master Guan of Jing’aisi temple had requested him to translate the Sarvastivada vinaya. Having received the imperial order he could not follow this earlier plan. He left all the Sanskrit manuscripts he had brought with him in the capital city.
Again crossing the ‘moving sands’, he passed through Rocky River Bank, sometimes crawling on boardwalks held up by ropes on the sides of steep cliffs, and then at other times holding on to a rope bridge, submerging all his body in water to get across. He encountered robbers in Tibet, but managed to escape safely by removing the rope around his neck. He also escaped alive from a band of Xiongnu barbarians. Having reached northern India, he ran into Wang Xuance with Lokayata in his company. Lokayata sent Wangzhao and several others to the kingdom of Lata in western India to get the medicine of longevity. The route of this travel passed through Baktra and reached Navavihara, where he saw the water bucket the Tathagata used and visited other holy sites. He then reached the kingdom of Kapisi and worshipped the Tathagata’s skull bone; he offered incense and took the seal of the skull to divine his future birth. He then passed through the kingdom of Sindhu and reached Lata. The king there paid respect to him and Wangzhao passed four summer retreats there. He then travelled extensively in south India, and, taking a variety of medicines he collected, decided to return to China.
On his way back he reached the Diamond Seat in Bodhgaya and circumambulated it. In Nalanda Wangzhao saw Yijing. Having thus realized the long-cherished wish for such a meeting, they promised to meet again under the Dragon Flower tree at the time the future buddha Maitreya appeared in this world. The passage through Nepal to Tibet was blocked and the route through Kapisi was troubled by the Arabs and difficult to pass. He was forced to wait for an opportune time by visiting the Vulture Peak (Grdhrakuta) and staying at the Bamboo Grove (Venuvana) monastery.
All the time Wangzhao was driven by the desire to transmit the lamp of teaching and never intended to end his life in India. Alas! Though he dedicated himself to a life of austerities, he could not fulfil his wish to benefit others. His thought was to fly high up and ride the cloud, yet he lost his wings in mid-air. In Amarava in Central India Xuanzhao became ill and died. He was over 60 years old.
Translated by Koichi Shinohara from Nanhai jigui naeifa zhuan, T 2125.
Source: Lopez Donald S. (2004), Buddhist Scriptures, Penguin Classics; First Edition.