Wednesday, August 12, 2009


"Around his dreams the dead leaves fall;
Calm as the starred chrysanthemum
He notes the season glories come,
And reads the books that never pall."
L. Cranmer-Byng.Map shows route taken by Xuanzang, starting from Xian, (ancient Ch'ang An). Click to enlarge.

Xuanzang [600--664CE] was born into a world that beheld the tree of Buddhism slowly dying from the top. He bore witness, if unconsciously, to a time of transition and a noble faith in decay, and the swift, silent growth of jungle mythology around the crumbling temples of Buddha. His record of these sixteen years of travel is a priceless one, for through it we are able to reconstruct the world and ways of Buddhist India of the centuries that have passed. Yet far more priceless is that record, read between the lines, of a human soul dauntless in disaster, unmoved in the hour of triumph, counting the perils of the bone-strewn plain and the unconquered hills as nothing to the ideal that lay before him, the life-work, the call of the Holy Himalayas and the long toil of his closing years. It is difficult to over-estimate his services to Buddhist literature. He returned to his own country with no less than 657 volumes of the sacred books, seventy-four of which he translated into Chinese, while 150 relics of the Buddha, borne by twenty horses, formed the spoil reverently gathered from the many lands we call India.

And so we leave him to rest upon Mount Sumeru, where once his venturous soul alighted in the dreams of youth, with the serpents coiled beneath its base, with its seven circling hills of gold and the seven seas between, and the great salt ocean encompassing them all. There... "he waits with Maitreya until in the fullness of time the latter comes into this world. With him Xuanzang hoped to come back to a new life here to do again the Buddha's work for the good of others." Till then we leave him to the long interval of bliss transcending all planes of human ecstasy."
May 16th, 1911.
The Chinese monk Xuanzang was one of the greatest travelers in history and, while practically unknown in the West, is a household name in China and known to most educated Indians. The actual journey to what he called "the West" took place from 629 to 645 CE, of which he left a detailed account, "Buddhist Records of the Western World," regarded as one of the great classics of Chinese literature, translated into English in the nineteenth century by a clergyman scholar named Samuel Beal.Xuanzang went on horseback, on camel-back, on elephant-back, or on foot from the ancient capital of Chang-an (today's Xian) all the way to southern India, a distance of roughly five thousand miles, and then back via a somewhat different route, crossing the harshest deserts and the tallest mountains in the world in both directions. His purpose was to search out what he called the Law, the original classics of Buddhist thought that would enable Chinese Buddhism, a doctrine borrowed from India in a language very foreign to China, to be put on an authentic footing.

When he returned to China he wrote about the countries he had visited on his journey. But while the monk performed that task for the emperor, his concern was with an India that for him stood as the source of supreme wisdom. He went there to achieve exalted understanding, what he saw as the Ultimate Truth, that alone permits us to achieve the purpose of Buddhism, which is the cessation of otherwise inevitable and inescapable suffering.
(From Ultimate Journey, Richard Bernstein, who retraced the path of the ancient Buddhist monk, probably in considerably greater comfort.) To be continued.

The country of Gandhara is that of the lower Kabul valley, lying along the Kabul river between the Khoaspes (Kunar) and the Indus. It is the country of the Gandarae of Ptolemy. The capital was Purushapura now Peshawar. The Gandarii are mentioned by Hekataios and Herodotos, and the district of Gandaritis by Strabo. (Samuel Beal.)
The Royal family is extinct, and the kingdom is governed by deputies from Kapisa. The towns and villages are deserted, and there are few inhabitants. At one corner of the royal residence there are about 1000 families. The country is rich in cereals, and produces a variety of flowers and fruits; it abounds also in sugarcane, from the juice of which they prepare "the solid sugar." The climate is warm and moist, and in general without ice or snow. The disposition of the people is timid and soft: they love literature; most of them belong to heretical schools [Hinduism]; a few believe in the true law [Mahayana Buddhism]. From old time till now this borderland of India has produced many authors of sastras; for example, Narayanadeva, Asanga Bodhisattva, Vasubandhu Bodhisattva, Dharmatrata, Manorhita, Parsva the noble, and so on. There are about 1000 sangharamas, which are deserted and in ruins. They are filled with wild shrubs, and solitary to the last degree. The stupas are mostly decayed. The heretical temples, to the number of about 100, are occupied pell-mell by heretics.

Inside the royal city, towards the northeast, is an old foundation. Formerly this was the precious tower of the patra [begging bowl] of Buddha. After the nirvana of Buddha, his patra coming to this country, was worshipped during many centuries. In traversing different countries it has now come to Persia.

Outside the city, about 8 or 9 li to the southeast, there is a pipala tree about 100 feet or so in height. Its branches are thick and the shade beneath somber and deep. The four past Buddhas have sat beneath this tree, and at the present time there are four sitting figures of the Buddhas to be seen here. During the Bhadrakalpa, the 996 other Buddhas will all sit here. Secret spiritual influences guard the precincts of the tree and exert a protecting virtue in its continuance. Sakya Tathagata sat beneath this tree with his face to the south and addressed Ananda thus: -- "Four hundred years after my departure from the world, there will be a king who shall rule it called Kanishka; not far to the south of this spot he will raise a stupa which will contain many various relics of my bones and flesh."

[It is a firm belief of Buddha that all buddhas would be born at the same place. This indicates that the people of Gandhara also considered that Gautama Buddha lived and gained enlightenment under a pipal tree in their country, which of course is the thesis of this blog.]

To the south of the Pipala tree is a stupa built by King Kanishka; this king ascended the throne four hundred years after the Nirvana, and governed the whole of Jambudvipa. He had no faith either in wrong or right and he lightly esteemed the law of Buddha. One day when traversing a swampy grove he saw a white hare, which he followed as far as this spot, when suddenly it disappeared. He then saw a young shepherd-boy, who was building in the wood hard by a little stupa about three feet high. The king said, "What are you doing?" The shepherd-boy answered and said, "Formerly Sakya Buddha, by his divine wisdom, delivered this prophecy: "There shall be a king in this victorious land who shall erect a stupa, which shall contain a great portion of my bodily relics." The sacred merits of the great king (Kanishka) in former births, with his increasing fame, have made the present occasion a proper one for the fulfilment of the old prophecy relating to the divine merit and the religious superiority of the person concerned. And now I am engaged for the purpose of directing you to these former predictions." Having said these words he disappeared.

The king hearing this explanation, was overjoyed. Flattering himself that he was referred to in the prophesy of the great saint, he believed with all his heart and paid reverence to the law of Buddha. Surrounding the site of the little stupa he built a stone stupa, wishing to surpass it in height, to prove the power of his religious merit. But in proportion as his stupa increased the other always exceeded it by three feet, and so he went on till his reached 400 feet, and the circumference of the base was a li and a half. The storeys having reached to five, each 150 feet in height, then he succeeded in covering the other. The king, overjoyed, raised on the top of this stupa twenty-five circlets of gilded copper on a staff, and he placed in the middle of the stupa a peck of the Sariras [bodily relics] of Tathagata, and offered them religious offerings. Scarcely had he finished his work when he saw the little stupa take its place at the southeast of the great foundation, and project from its side about halfway up. The king was disturbed at this, and ordered the stupa to be destroyed. When they had got down to the bottom of the second storey, through which the other projected, immediately that one removed to its former place, and once more it surpassed in height the other. The king retiring said, "It is easy to commit errors in human affairs, but when there is divine influence at work it is difficult to counteract it. When a matter is directed by spiritual power, what can human resentment effect?" Having confessed his fault, he retired. [Buddhist Records of the Western World.]

Early Buddhism was a religion that depended heavily on royal support, as can be seen from the above legend of King Kanishka and the shepherd-boy, as related by Xuanzang. Before Kanishka Ashoka had also lent support to Buddhism. But in the dependence on royal support lay the seed of its own unraveling, in Gandhara and India; for when this royal support was not forthcoming, the Buddhist kings themselves having been overthrown by foreign invaders, the monastic system crumbled into dust.

This is the country of Buddha’s birth… Speaking generally, the country of Kapilavastu is the tract of land lying between the Ghagra river and the Gandara, from Faizabad to the confluence of these rivers. The direct measurement gives a circuit of 550 miles, which would represent upwards of 600 miles by road. Xuanzang estimates the circuit is 4000 li. (Samuel Beal.)
This country is about 4000 li in circuit. There are some ten desert cities in this country, wholly desolate and ruined. The capital is overthrown and in ruins. Its circuit cannot be accurately measured. The royal precincts within the city measure some 14 or 15 li round. They were all built of brick. The foundation walls are still strong and high. It has been long deserted. The peopled villages are few and waste.
There is no supreme ruler; each of the towns appoints its own ruler. The ground is rich and fertile, and is cultivated according to the regular season. The climate is uniform, the manners of the people soft and obliging. There are 1000 or more ruined sangharamas remaining; by the side of the royal precincts there is still a sangharama with about 3000 (read 30) followers in it, who study the Little Vehicle of the Sammatiya school.

There are a couple of Deva [Hindu] temples, in which various sectaries worship. Within the royal precincts are some ruined foundation walls; these are the remains of the proper palace of Suddhodana-raja; above is built a vihara in which is a statue of the king. Not far from this is a ruined foundation, which represents the sleeping palace of Mahamaya, the queen. Above this they have erected a vihara in which is a figure of the queen.

By the side of this is a vihara; this is where Bodhisattva descended spiritually into the womb of his mother. There is a representation of this scene drawn in the vihara. The Mahastharvira school say that Bodhisattva was conceived on the 30th night of the month U-ta-lo-an-sha-cha (Uttarashadha). This is the 15th day of the 5th month (with us). The other schools fix the event on the 23rd day of the same month. This would be the 8th day of the 5th month (with us).

To the northeast of the palace of the spiritual conception is a stupa; this is the place where Asita the Rishi prognosticated the fortune of the royal prince. On the day when the Bodhisattva was born there was a gathering of lucky indications. Then Suddhodana-raja summoned all the soothsayers, and addressing them said , “With respect to this child, what are the fortunate and what the evil (signs)? As it is right, so do you clearly answer me.” In reply they said, “According to the record of the former saints the signs are especially fortunate. If he remains in secular life he will be a Chakravartin monarch; if he leaves his home he will become a Buddha.

At this time the Rishi Asita, coming from afar, stood before the door, and requested to see the king. The king, overjoyed, went forth to meet and reverence him, and requested him to be seated on a precious chair; then addressing him he said, “It is not without an object that the Great Rishi has condescended to visit me this day.” The Rishi said, “I was quietly resting in the palace of the Devas, when I suddenly saw the multitude of the Devas dancing together for joy. I forthwith asked why they rejoiced in the extravagant way, on which they said, “Great Rishi, you should know that today is born in Jambudvipa, of Maya, the first queen Suddhodana-raja of the Sakya line, a royal son, who shall attain the complete enlightenment of sambodhi, and become all-wise. Hearing this, I have come accordingly to behold the child; alas! that my age should prevent me awaiting the holy fruit.”
At the south gate of the city is a stupa. This is where the royal prince, when contending with the Sakya princes, cast the elephant away. The royal prince having contended in the public competition (of arts and athletic exercises), was left entirely alone among them all. And now the Maharaja Suddhodana, after receiving congratulations, was about to go back to the city.

At this time the coachman was leading out the elephant and just about to leave the city. Devadatta, confident as ever in his brute strength, was just entering the gate from without; forthwith he asked the coachman, “Who is going to ride on this gaily caparisoned elephant?” He said, “The royal prince is just about to return, therefore I am going to meet him.” Devadatta, in an excited manner, pulled the elephant down, and struck his forehead and kicked his belly, and left him lying senseless, blocking the way so that no one could pass. As they could not move him out of the way, the passersby were stopped on their route. Nanda coming afterwards, asked, “Who has killed the elephant?” They said, “It was Devadatta.” Forthwith he (Nanda) drew it on one side of the road. The prince-royal then coming, again asked, “Who had done the foul deed of killing the elephant?” They replied, "Devadatta killed it and blocked up the gate with it, and Nanda drew it on one side to clear the road.” The royal prince then lifted the elephant on high and threw it across the city moat; the elephant falling on the ground caused a deep and wide ditch; the people since then have commonly called it “the fallen-elephant ditch.” 

[That is, the “Hastigarta.” There is a circular tank about 340 feet to the south of the ditch of Bhuila which is still called the “Hathi Kund” or “Hathi Gadhe.” General Cunningham is perfectly convinced that this is the spot indicated in the text. But of course, the whole matter is legendary. (Samuel Beal). Not only that, at the time of Beal's writing the city of Kapilavastu had not yet been identified.]

By the side of this is a vihara in which is a figure of the royal prince. By the side of this again is a vihara; this was the sleeping apartment of the queen and the prince; in it is a likeness of Yasodhara and (the child) Rahula. By the side of the queen’s chamber is a vihara with a figure of a pupil receiving his lessons; this indicates the old foundation of the schoolhouse of the royal prince.

At the southeast angle of the city is a vihara in which is the figure of the royal prince riding a white and high-prancing horse; this was the place where he left the city. Outside each of the four gates of the city there is a vihara in which there are respectively figures of an old man, a diseased man, a dead man, and a Sraman. It was in these places the royal prince, on going his rounds, beheld the various indications, on which he received an increase of (religious) feeling, and deeper disgust at the world and its pleasures; and, filled with this conviction, he ordered his coachman to return and go home again. (Buddhist Records of the Western World, Xuanzang.)

Xuanzang is aware that Buddha was supposed to have been born at Kapilavastu and of the legends associated with him there. However, that he actually located the correct site is problematic. From his tone he doesn't seem to be in particular awe of the fact that he is actually witnessing the site where his master supposedly lived for 29 years before venturing forth to seek enlightenment.


The frontier line of Kalinga cannot have extended beyond the Godavari river on the southwest, and the Gaoliva branch of the Indravati river on the northwest (Cunningham). The chief town was probably Rajamahendri, where the Chalukyas perhaps established their capital. Either this place or Koringa, on the seacoast, agrees with the bearing and distance given in the text. If, however, we accept Mr. Fergusson’s hypothesis that the capital of Konyodha was near Katak, and calculating the li to be one-seventh of a mile, we shall have to seek for the capital of Kalinga near Vijayanagram. (Samuel Beal).
This country is 5000 li or so in circuit; its capital is 20 li or so round. It is regularly cultivated and is productive. Flowers and fruits are very abundant. The forests and jungle are continuous for many hundred li. It produces the great tawny elephant, which are much prized by neighboring provinces. The climate is burning; the disposition of the people vehement and impetuous. Though the men are mostly rough and uncivilized, they still keep their word and are trustworthy. The language is light and tripping, and their pronunciation distinct and correct. But in both particulars, that is, as to words and sounds, they are very different from Mid-India. There are a few who believe in the true law, but most of them are attached to heresy. There are ten sangharamas, with about 500 priests, who study the Great Vehicle according to the teaching of the Sthavira school. There ae some 100 Deva temples with very many unbelievers of different sorts, the most numerous being the Nirgranthas [Jains].

In old days the kingdom of Kalinga had a very dense population. Their shoulders rubbed one with the other, and the axles of their chariot wheels grinded together, and when they raised their arm-sleeves a perfect tent was formed. There was a Rishi possessed of the five supernatural powers, who lived on a high precipice, cherishing his pure thoughts. Being put to shame because he had gradually lost his magic powers, he cursed the people with a wicked imprecation, and caused all dwelling in the country, both young and old, to perish; wise and ignorant alike died, and the population disappeared. After many ages the country was gradually repeopled by emigrants, but yet it is not properly inhabited. This is why at the present time there are so few who dwell here.

Not far from the south of the capital there is a stupa about a hundred feet high; this was built by Ashoka-raja. By the side of it there are traces where the four past Buddhas sat down and walked.

Near the northern frontier of this country is a great mountain precipice, on the top of which is a stone stupa about a hundred feet high. Here, at the beginning of the kapla, when the years of men’s lives were boundless, a Pratyeka Buddha reached Nirvana.

From this going northwest through forests and mountains about 1800 li, we come to the country of Kosala. (Buddhist Records of the Western World, Xuanzang.)

[Kalinga was supposedly the kingdom that was devastated by Ashoka’s army, resulting in the whole of Kalinga being plundered and over 100,000 people killed. Thousands of men and women were deported. This apparently showed Ashoka the error of his ways and turned him into a man of peace and Dharma. But Xuanzang doesn’t say a word of this.]

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