Hiuen Tsang

Hiuen Tsang spent seventeen years travelling from China to India and back in the seventh century CE, at the time of the Tang dynasty emperor Taizong. His adventures inspired Wu Ch’en-en’s sixteenth century novel, Journey to the West, which refers to India as ‘Buddha’s pure land’.



An azure pool winds around the monasteries, adorned with the full-blown cups of the blue lotus; the dazzling red flowers of the lovely kanaka hang here and there, and outside groves of mango trees offer the inhabitants their dense and protective shade.

—Hiuen Tsang on Nalanda





A half-monk at thirteen

restless to find the truth

one night I saw in my dream


an azure pool

a blue lotus

dazzling red flowers


thick mango groves

wrinkled face of a Bhikchhu

I set out for Yintu


secretly escaping the Middle Kingdom

at night, like the young Siddhartha

against the Emperor’s diktats


I travelled alone for years

a fakir along the Silk Road

hungry, naked but blessed


crossing Gobi, Tien Shan,

Samarkand, Jalandhar, Kashmir,

Kannauj, Varanasi, Patliputra


On my way I met kings and queens

saw blossoming monasteries;

decaying, crumbling ruins


Finally, I found Nalanda

hidden as a jewel

under the thick mango groves


Silbhadra had always known

I would come to Nalanda

as a bee comes to a flower seeking nectar


He took me in as one of his own

taught me Yogacara

and gave me a new name, Mokshadeva


Spending many blissful years

with the Guru and fellow monks

I absorbed their profound wisdom


set out to travel across the moon land

visiting Kanchipuram, Ajanta, Malva, Multan

Nostalgic, I returned to Nalanda


before bidding a final farewell

to head for Kamrupa, the land of Brahmaputra

ruled by the learned Kumar Bhaskar Varman


but my friend King Harshavardhan

could not bear my absence for long

I was brought to attend the Great Assembly at Kannauj


extolled Mahayana Buddhism there, visited Prayag

then journeyed home, my horses laden with texts

statues, rare relics of the Enlightened


I nearly drowned crossing the Indus

washed away by its mighty currents

but was saved by local fishermen


Continuing my journey back

passing Khyber, Kashgar, Khotan,

arriving in Chang’an where


a great procession celebrated my return

the Emperor himself at the city gates

welcomed me with open arms


showered on me

the highest honours of the land

but gently I refused them all


I presented Emperor Taizong

my Great Tang Records (On Western Regions)

and retired to the monastery at Da Ci’en


translating precious gems

gathered on my odyssey

to the Buddha’s pure land.





Hieun Tsang

come back to Nalanda

King Harsha is long gone

but here is a new dawn


Hieun Tsang

it won’t take you seventeen years

you don’t have to cross

Gobi or Tien Shan


Hiuen Tsang

the prince of pilgrims

you don’t have to stop

at Liangzhu or Turpan


Hiuen Tsang

take a non-stop flight

from Beijing to Bodh Gaya

straight to the pure land


Nalanda has risen from its ashes

to embrace you once again

with open arms

Rise like a phoenix


Hiuen Tsang

bring along I-tsing and Faxian

come back to Nalanda

Hiuen Tsang




Yintu or Indu (land of the moon), was the name by which India was known in China.

I-tsing and Faxian were other prominent Chinese travellers to India, respectively 673–695 and 399–412 CE.

Hiuen Tsang studied Yogacara (pure consciousness) at the famous Nalanda University under the guidance of the abbot Silbhadra. He was fêted by King Harshavardhana and returned to China with over 600 Buddhist texts and more than a hundred relics of the Buddha’s body. He then recounted his adventures in The Great Tang Records on the Western Regions.

The Great Assembly at Kannauj: In 643 CE Harsha summoned an assembly, the object of which was to take advantage of the presence of Hiuen Tsang to extol Mahayana Buddhism and refute Hinayana. Hiuen Tsang at Nalanda had written The Destruction of Heresy – a refutation of Hinayana. A large number of kings attended the assembly, as well as 3,000 Mahayana and Hinayana Buddhist monks, 3,000 Brahmanas and Jains and about 1,000 Buddhist scholars from Nalanda University.

Nalanda is considered the oldest university in the world and an important seat of Buddhist learning. Destroyed in the twelfth century, Nalanda was forgotten until the late 1800s. Excavated in the early twentieth century with the help of Hiuen Tsang’s writings, Nalanda University has been revived as an international centre for learning. In 2014 it began to function again as a university. 

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