After 17 long years away, Xuanzang was ready to return. He chose to return by the southern route in order to visit more places. On his way back he broke his journey and sent a messenger on ahead with a letter for the Emperor. He wasn’t sure how he would be received. A letter was sent back to him assuring him of welcome and in 645 AD he was greeted by a grand procession as he neared Chang’an. The Taizong Emperor sent a military escort, court officials and ministers, chariots, the monks of the city, and much of the populace.
Xuanzang had brought with him:
1. Five hundred grains of relics belonging to the body (flesh) of Tathâgata.The Taizong Emperor greeted him as a hero and offered him a place at court. Xuanzang gracefully declined, wishing only to spend his life translating and studying the sutras.
In 646, at the request of Emperor Taizong, Xuanzang wrote a description of his travels called the Great Tang Records on the Western Regions (大唐西域 ). The book was an important resource for the Tang Emperor. Understanding the lands to the West and their customs was necessary for good diplomacy. As a byproduct of his journey, several of the kings had sent emissaries to the Tang Court to establish a relationship with China. They bore the news of Xuanzang’s work and the effect he had on people long before he contemplated a return to his homeland. He made many friends for China and the Tang Court. Coupled with the biography of Xuanzang, The life of Hiuen-Tsiang (玄奘传), written by his disciple Huili 慧立(Huìlì) and Xuanzang's own account of the sights on the journey, we have a very good picture of both Xuanzang and the culture of the time.
He retired to the Temple of Great Kindness and Grace, Da Ci'en Temple 大慈恩寺 (Dà Cí 'ēn sì ) which the Crown Prince Li Zhi had rebuilt in 648 and dedicated to the memory of his mother. This was just a year before his father died and he became Emperor Gaozong, the third Tang emperor.
To celebrate the installation of Xuanzang as the abbot of the Da Ci'en Temple, another celebration was held with the populace lining the streets to watch a grand procession of chariots festooned with silk, soldiers in their ceremonial uniforms, and the ministers and nobles of the court walking with him to the temple. The emperor brought his entire family to the gate of Xi’an and the procession passed by in review.
In 652 AD, after Xuanzang had been abbot of Da Ci'en Temple for a time, he requested that the Gaozong Emperor build a pagoda to house the manuscripts and give more work space for the translations. The emperor agreed immediately and Xuanzang was so involved that he helped design the pagoda and took part in the labor of building it. It was finished that same year. Xuanzang named the temple after a story he had heard in India.
It seems that there were two temples situated quite close to one another from different sects of Buddhism; one was vegetarian and the other ate meat at their feasts and celebrations. One year there had been a great drought and there was very little food, especially there was no meat. The monks in the one temple lamented this fact and prayed that they would be able to find some meat to eat at a great temple religious feast. The day before the feast, some monks were outside and a flock wild geese flew overhead. Suddenly, the lead goose fell out of the sky and lay dead at their feet. They took this as a sign from Buddha and stopped wishing for the death of living creatures and became vegetarians.
Resources for further study:
Huili. The Life of Hiuen-Tsiang. Introduction containing an account of the works of I-Tsing and translation by Samuel Beal; with a preface by L. Cranmer-Byng. New Delhi : Asian Educational Services, 1998.
Huili. The Life of Hiuen-Tsiang. Introduction containing an account of the works of I-Tsing and translation by Samuel Beal; with a preface by L. Cranmer-Byng. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1911.
Huili 慧立. Xuanzang zhuan 玄奘传 Yancong zhu. 彥悰著.
Hsüan-tsang, Si-yu-ki. Buddhist Records of the Western World. Translated from the Chinese of Hiuen Tsiang (A.D. 629) by Samuel Beal. New York, Paragon Book Reprint Corp., 1968.
Hsüan-tsang, Si-yu-ki: Buddhist Records of the Western World.
Wriggins, Sally Hovey. Xuanzang on the Silk Road. On-line resource.
Note: Buddhist Records of the Western World by Samuel Beal contains the accounts of three different journeys by monks from 400 AD. The 1906 version is on-line and is downloadable. Sally Wiggins rewrote Beal into modern English with excellent notes as to place names and related history. I wish I had seen her work before reading Beal.
Last update: March 2010
© Marilyn Shea, 2010