Indian Buddhist Monks Who Travelled to China Before the Tang Dynasty

Xuanzang almost lost his life travelling in the desert, which he described as “no birds in the sky, no animals on earth; neither river nor grass.
By Cecelia Lim
Epoch Times Staff

Thanks to the famous novel ‘Journey to the West’ (西游记), the names of Tang Seng (唐僧) and his three disciples – Monkey King Sun Wukong (孙悟空), Pigsy Zhu Bajie (猪八戒) and Sha Wujing (沙悟净) – have been made known to many.

Can you still recall how Tang Seng and his three disciples encountered dangerous situations and evils along their way? It was a tough journey, and the adventures written in the novel were not all fictitious.

The main character Tang Seng was based on the historical Buddhist monk Xuanzang (玄奘) who went on a perilous trip to India to obtain Buddhist sutras and bring them back to China in the 7th century during the Tang Dynasty.

We can imagine how difficult it was for Xuanzang to travel to India on foot over a thousand years ago without the aid of modern transport.

He had to travel across the Gobi desert (戈壁沙漠) and Ling Shan (凌山), which translates to “Ice Mountain”, located in the now Xinjiang region in western China, which borders on Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan.

He almost lost his life travelling in the desert, which he described as “no birds in the sky, no animals on earth; neither river nor grass (上无飞鸟,下无走兽,复无水草)” in his biography titled ‘A Biography of the Tripitaka Master of the Great Ci’en Monastery of the Great Tang Dynasty’ (大慈恩寺三藏法師傳).

It is hard to imagine how he actually spent five days in the desert without having any water to drink!

In total, Xuanzang travelled 50,000 Li (25,000 km) passing through over a hundred kingdoms during his 19 years of pilgrimage.

While in India, after he had spent five years at Nalanda Monastery studying Buddhist scripts, Xuanzang continued travelling around the Indian perimeter hoping to further his study of Buddhist teachings. He even reached as far as Kanchipuram in southern India.

At Kanchipuram, he learned from monks from the Sinhala Kingdom (now Sri Lanka) about the temples and Buddhist teachings in Sinhala. It is a pity, however, that little trace of Buddhism can be found in today’s Kanchipuram.

After returning to Chang’an (长安), the Tang capital, Xuanzang started recounting what he had experienced over his 19-year trip while his disciple Bianji (辨机) compiled and edited his narration into a book titled ‘Great Tang Records on the Western Regions’ (大唐西域记). The book described the geography, climate, language, history, economy, politics, religions and customs of 110 countries that Xuanzang had actually been to as well as another 28 countries that he had heard about.

Did Xuanzang encounter language barriers along the way?

It probably wouldn’t be a big problem for him when he was in India, as he had studied Sanskrit before leaving Chang’an and also received systematic training in Sanskrit at Nalanda Monastery.

While travelling around Central Asia, however, language differences could be an issue. Fortunately, some of the kings Xuanzang met helped him by commissioning an officer well-versed in Chinese and other Central Asian languages to accompany him, as well as by preparing introduction letters for him to various countries.

Xuanzang made a remarkable journey in history, but he was not the first Buddhist monk to travel between India and China. There were actually monks from India who travelled a long distance to China centuries ahead of Xuanzang.

Who were they? How were their journeys like?

China’s Earliest Indian Buddhist Monks

It is said that there were already Buddhist monks from India travelling to China to spread Buddhism during the reign of Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇) around 259 BC to 210 BC. That was more than 2,000 years ago!

At the time, India was ruled by Ashoka who was also a Buddhist. He actively promoted the spread of Buddhism by sending Buddhist missionary monks to countries as far as Egypt, Syria and Greece. The Buddhist monks that visited China during Qin Shi Huang’s time could be one of the groups sent by Ashoka.

However, Qin Shi Huang did not seem very receptive to Buddhism. It was about two and a half centuries later that Buddhism was finally introduced to and took root in China – and it all started with a mysterious dream by an emperor.

The Indian Monks Who Translated Buddhist Scriptures Into Chinese

In 64 AD, China was under the rule of Emperor Ming of Han (汉明帝), the second emperor of the Eastern Han Dynasty. One night, while sleeping, he dreamed of a deity shining like gold with a golden halo behind him. As he tried to approach the deity, the deity flew away westward.

White Horse Temple (白马寺)

The second day, while the emperor was holding a meeting with his officials, he detailed what he had dreamed about the previous night, and asked everyone what it meant.

One of the officials, Fuyi (傅毅), suggested that the emperor could have dreamed of a Buddha. According to an ancient prediction written in historical records, it was about time that Buddhism would be introduced to China.

Hearing Fuyi’s interpretation, Emperor Ming sent a delegation to India. After a tough trip, the delegation reached modern day Afghanistan where they met two Buddhist monks from India – Kasyapa Matanga and Dharmaratna.

Originally from central India, Kasyapa Matanga used to teach the Golden Light Sutra at a vassal state of India, but a war broke out at the border of the state while he was teaching.


Kasyapa Matanga believed that teaching Buddhist sutra would bring protection to people. Therefore, he swore to mediate between the two warring states and bring peace to the locals. He went to the border and after some efforts persuading both sides, he helped the countries avoid war. He became even more well-known and respected after that.

A reputed scholar throughout India, Dharmaratna was also from central India. He could recite tens of thousands of chapters of sutra and was able to speak in Chinese soon after he reached China.

It took three years before the delegation and the two well-respected Indian Buddhist monks, Kasyapa Matanga and Dharmaratna, returned to the Han capital, Luoyang (洛阳). Emperor Ming built a temple for the two monks to live in and translate the Buddhist texts.

As a white horse carried the Buddhist texts and images back, Emperor Ming named the temple ‘White Horse Temple’ (白马寺), where Kasyapa Matanga and Dharmaratna co-translated the ‘Sutra of Forty-two Chapters’ (四十二章经) into Chinese.

It is said that they were the first to introduce Buddhism to China and translate Buddhist sutra into Chinese.

Some other accounts, however, attributed the first translation of Indian Buddhist scripts into Chinese to An Shigao (安世高).

An Shigao was originally the prince of Parthia, a historical region in north-eastern Iran. After his father passed away, An Shigao abdicated the throne in favour of his uncle and became a missionary monk.

After leaving his own country, An Shigao travelled eastward and reached Luoyang in 148 AD, during the reign of Emperor Huan of Eastern Han Dynasty (汉桓帝).

Since young, An Shigao had been very diligent in studying. He used to read extensively the classics of Iran and other countries. He was also well-trained in astrology, geography and especially medicine.

After reaching Luoyang, An Shigao, too, very soon mastered the Chinese language. Upon realising the Han Chinese lacked understanding of Buddhism, An Shigao made a wish to translate Buddhist sutra into Chinese.

It is said that An Shigao translated about 35 volumes of Buddhist sutra into Chinese and he is believed to be the first Buddhist monk to introduce the teachings of Hinayana Buddhism to China.

The Legendary Indian Buddhist Monk in China Who Started Zen Buddhism

One of the most well-known Indian Buddhist monks who had travelled to China is probably Bodhidharma. As he first brought Chan Buddhism (Zen Buddhism) to China, Bodhidharma is also regarded as the first Patriarch of the Chinese Chan Buddhism.

Bodhidharma arrived in China in 527 AD during Liang (梁). At the time, China was divided into three kingdoms, and Liang was the kingdom occupying the southern half of China.

It is said that due to the conflicting understanding of Buddhist teachings between Bodhidharma and Emperor Wu of Liang (梁武帝), Bodhidharma crossed the Yangtze River entering the northern part of China.

In ancient times, crossing the Yangtze River was considered a tough or even dangerous task. Guess how Bodhidharma made it without the help of a boatman?

According to ‘Shi Shi Tong Jian’ (释氏通鉴) , a book written by Benjue (本觉) in Southern Song dynasty, Bodhidharma crossed the river standing on a reed!

Although some other books did not mention Bodhidharma crossing the Yangtze River on a reed, it has become a most famous legend about Bodhidharma.

After crossing the Yangtze River, Bodhidharma went to Mount Song (嵩山), where the famous Shaolin Monastery (少林寺) was located.

Have you ever seen or even bought a Daruma doll as a souvenir when travelling in Japan? Do you know that the Daruma doll is actually modelled after Bodhidharma?

When Bodhidharma was in Mount Song, he meditated inside a cave. Basically, he sat inside the cave facing the wall every day – for nine years!

It is said that when Bodhidharma was in deep meditation, he would sit still without moving at all. The birds flying into the cave even built a nest on his shoulder as if he were a stone.

Some say that Bodhidharma’s legs atrophied after sitting for too long. This is why the Daruma dolls sitting in meditation position have no legs.

Bodhidharma Crossing The River on a Reed by Kawanabe Kyosai

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