In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Xuanzang

  • Introduction
  • The Abhidharma Translations of Xuanzang
  • The Demonstration of Nothing but Consciousness (Cheng weishi lun)
  • Xuanzang’s Translations of Texts on Buddhist Logic (Hetuvidyā)
  • Xuanzang’s Translation of Works from the Perfection of Wisdom Tradition
  • The Madhyamaka Translations of Xuanzang
  • Xuanzang’s Translation Techniques
  • Xuanzang’s Contributions to Buddhist Doctrinal Thought
  • Xuanzang’s Biography and Travelogue
  • Xuanzang’s “Afterlife” in Later Chinese Literature and Religious Imaginary
  • Dictionaries and Other Reference Works

Buddhism Xuanzang
Ernest Brewster
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 July 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0270


Xuanzang玄奘, the peripatetic Chinese Buddhist scholar-monk of the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE), was born into a literati family in Henan province in 600 or 602 CE. He is known by the sobriquet “Master of the Three Baskets [comprising the Buddhist Canon] .” (Skt.: Trepiṭaka; Ch.: Sanzang三藏) Xuanzang is regarded as the most prolific translator of Indic Buddhist texts from Sanskrit into Chinese—as well as the most historically significant, given that his comprehensive translations of Indic abhidharma and Yogācāra sutras and treatises (śāstras) revolutionized the study of Buddhism in East Asia. Attesting to his lasting influence on the tradition of East Asian Buddhism, all Buddhist Indic texts translated prior to Xuanzang are known as either the “ancient translations” (guyi 古譯) or “the old translations” (jiuyi 舊譯), while Xuanzang’s translations are termed “the new translations” (xinyi 新譯). By retrieving the unalloyed teachings of abhidharma and Yogācāra Buddhist traditions from India and rendering them into fluid and readable classical Chinese, Xuanzang has left a legacy in the study of Buddhism in East Asia. Many of Xuanzang’s translations, such as the Heart Sūtra (Xinjing心經), remain the most widely used and circulated versions of these texts. Xuanzang’s long and arduous trek across the Silk Road to India is famously recorded in his travelogue entitled the Da Tang Xiyu ji (Great Tang records of the western regions). During his fourteen years in India (629–643 CE), Xuanzang collected Indic Buddhist texts hitherto not translated, studied with Buddhist masters, engaged in various religious debates, and acquired and mastered a vast and comprehensive knowledge of the Indic Buddhist texts in their original Sanskrit forms. Xuanzang returned to his native China in 645 CE to much acclaim and fanfare. Turning down a prestigious civil service appointment offered by Emperor Taizong, Xuanzang engaged in massive translation projects to render the texts he had gathered during his travels in India into Chinese. Under the lavish patronage of the second and third Tang emperors, Taizong and Gaozong, Xuanzang rose in status to become the preeminent East Asian Buddhist scholar and translator of his generation. Attracting students from Korea, Japan, and China, Xuanzang engaged the finest minds of East Asia in his translation and exegetical projects. Xuanzang has lived on in Chinese popular literary imaginary as the basis for the character Tang Sanzang 唐三藏 (Trepiṭaka of the Tang Dynasty) in the Xiyou ji 西游記 (Journey to the west), one of the four great novels of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644).

The Abhidharma Translations of Xuanzang

As indicated, Xuanzang is renowned for gathering a large body of abhidharma Buddhist texts from India, and overseeing their Sanskrit-to-Chinese translations. The abhidharma texts contain doctrinal materials that elaborate a comprehensive analysis of the dharmas, the fundamental constituents of mental and physical experience. Xuanzang’s abhidharma translation corpus includes the Treatise on the Activation of Accurate Cognition through the Abhidharma (*Jñānaprasthānaśāstra) of Kātyayaniputra, the *Mahāvibhāṣā, theWheel of the different divisions of the Tenets (Skt.: *Samayabhedoparacanacakra), a doctrinal digest attributed to Vasumitra, the Abhidharmakośabhāṣya by Vasubandhu, and two critical exegetical works by Vasubandhu’s contemporary, Saṅghabhadra. A number of doctrinal treatises and compendia in the Sarvāstivāda abhidharma tradition are extant only in the Chinese versions of Xuanzang. Western Buddhist studies pioneer la Vallée Poussin’s richly annotated translation of Vasubandhu’s Abhidharmakośabhāṣya, first published as la Vallée Poussin 1926, was made upon the basis of Xuanzang’s Chinese translation, before the Sanskrit original was recovered. Pradhan 1967 comprises the editio princeps of the Sanskrit original of this seminal abhidharma treatise reflecting Vasubandhu’s sharply reasoned, if often idiosyncratic, doctrinal views. Shastri 1970 is the standard edition of the earliest surviving Sanskrit commentary on the Kośa by Yaśomitra, the Sphuṭārthā-Abhidharmakośavyākhyā. This work, extant in Tibetan translation by Viśuddhasiṃha, et al. (Derge, Vol. 142, No. 4092), constitutes an invaluable source for the study of abhidharma Buddhist traditions. Buswell 1997 examines the doctrinal views of Buddhadeva, an important Sarvāstivādin theorist whose views are recorded in the *Mahāvibhāṣā (Taishō, Vol. 27, No. 1545), regarding the nature of time and temporality. Park 2014 investigates the views of Śrīlāta, aspects of whose thought on psycho-somatic “seeds” (bījāni), the existence of which accounts for the retention and latency of psychological and physical dispositions over time, is believed to have prefigured Vasubandhu’s fully fledged Sautrāntika doctrines. Tsukamoto 2004 provides an English translation and analysis of Xuanzang’s Chinese rendering of the *Samayabhedoparacanacakra, extant also in the Tibetan Derge (sde dge) Tengyur (bstan ‘gyur) Canon (Vol. 167, No. 4138). This tract provides a concise overview of the systems of tenets found in the various abhidharma traditions and introduces the overall contours of their doctrinal disagreements. Cox 1995 is a study of Saṅghabhadra’s critique of Vasubandhu’s “unorthodox” doctrinal position denying the reality of the partially mental and partially material “dharmas disassociated from mind” (cittaviprayuktasaṃskāradharmāḥ) postulated by Sarvāstivāda theorists, elaborated in Saṅghabhadra’s two understudied doctrinal treatises. Dhammajoti 2010 elaborates a systematic investigation of the Sarvāstivāda taxonomy of seventy-five dharmas falling under five basic categories.

  • Buswell, Robert E. “Buddhadeva: Materials Toward an Assessment of His Philosophy.” Journal of Indian Philosophy 25.6 (1997): 561–587.

    DOI: 10.1023/A:1004256424891

    A critical study of the doctrine of Buddhadeva, one of the four great masters said to have played a dominant role in the compilation of the *Mahāvibhāṣā. In particular, Buswell examines Buddhadeva’s philosophical analysis on the nature of time (Skt.: kāla; Chi.: shi時).

  • Cox, Collette. Disputed Dharmas: Early Buddhist Theories on Existence. Tokyo: International Institute for Buddhist Studies of the International College for Postgraduate Buddhist Studies, 1995.

    Investigates the philosophical problem of the ontological status of the “dharmas dissociated from mind” (Skt.: cittaviprayuktasaṃskāradharmāḥ). In an analysis of this category of conditioned dharmas, which are neither entirely physical nor psychological, Cox enlists Saṅghabhadra’s two extant doctrinal treatises, the *Nyāyānusāra and the *Abhidharmasamayapradīpikā, both framed as critical commentaries on Vasubandhu’s Kośa.

  • Dhammajoti, Kuala L. Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma. Hong Kong: Center for Buddhist Studies, 2010.

    This study comprises the most systematic investigation of the Sarvāstivāda abhidharma teachings available in print. In reconstructing the Sarvāstivāda doctrinal system, Dhammajoti heavily relies upon the Sarvāstivāda abhidharma literature preserved within Xuanzang’s translation corpus.

  • la Vallée Poussin, Louis de. L’Abhidharmakośa de Vasubandhu. Paris: Paul Geutner, 1926.

    Anannotated French translation of the Treasury of Abhidharma and the auto-commentary (svabhāṣya) by Vasubandhu in nine chapters. In his translation, la Vallée Poussin references the Chinese version as well as the interpolations and interlinear glosses made by Xuanzang into the Sanskrit text.

  • Park, Changhwan. Vasubandhu, Śrīlāta, and the Sautrāntika Theory of Seeds. Vienna: Wiener Studien zur Tibetologie und Buddhismuskunde, 2014.

    The doctrinal history of the abhidharma theory of seeds is systematically examined. Using the translations of Xuanzang, Park explains how the theory of the sequential replication of seeds provides an account for the retention of dispositions and capabilities in the body and mind that is consistent with the abhidharma doctrine of momentariness, according to which all conditioned dharmas cease immediately upon coming into being.

  • Pradhan, Prahlad, ed. Abhidharmakośabhāṣyam. Patna, India: K. P. Jayaswal Research Institute, 1967.

    This is the standard edition of the Sanskrit text of the Abhidharmakośabhāṣya, the seminal abhidharma text composed by Vasubandhu and retranslated by Xuanzang into Chinese between 651 and 654 CE. The Abhidharmakośabhāṣya offers a detailed analysis of the activity of human consciousness, its relationship to the environment, and the cognitive transformations that occur in the process of contemplative practice.

  • Shastri, Swami Dwarikadas, ed. Abhidharmakośa and Bhāṣya of Acharya Vasubandhu with Sphuṭārthā commentary of Ācārya Yaśomitra. Varanasi, India: Bauddha Bharati, 1970.

    A critical edition of the Abhidharmakośa and auto-commentary by Vasubandhu together with Sphuṭārthā commentary of Yaśomitra in the original Sanskrit.

  • Shiga, Kiyokuni. “How to Deal with Future Existence: Sarvāstivāda, Yogic Perception, and Causality.” Journal of Indian Philosophy 46.3 (2018): 437–454.

    DOI: 10.1007/s10781-017-9344-0

    In his analysis of the persistence of a dharma through the three temporal dimensions, Shiga uses the analysis by the four Sarvāstivāda masters that is preserved only in Xuanzang’s Chinese translation of the *Mahāvibhāṣā.

  • Tsukamoto, Keishō. “The Cycle of the Formation of the Schismatic Doctrines.” In The Treatise on the Elucidation of the Knowable/The Cycle of the Formation of the Schismatic Doctrines. Translated by Charles Willemen. Berkeley, CA: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 2004.

    An English translation of the *Samayabhedoparacanacakra. In this concise tract, Vasumitra reviews the tenets held by the various abhidharma traditions that had emerged in the centuries following the final nirvana of the Buddha. A Tibetan translation, made by T. Dharmakara and Bzan-skyon, can be found in the Derge canon (Vol. 167, No. 4138).

  • Xuanzang, trans. Apidamo shun zhengli lun (阿毘達磨順正理論). 80 fascicles. By Saṅghabhadra. Taishō, Vol. 29, No. 1562.

    English translation of title: Treatise according to the correct logic of abhidharma (Skt.: Abhidharmanyāyānusāraśāstra). This treatise, translated by Xuanzang between 653 and 654 CE, is a lengthy and detailed rejoinder advanced by Saṅghabhadra of the orthodox Sarvâstivāda tradition in response to Vasubandhu’s Treasury of Abhidharma.

  • Xuanzang, trans. Apidamo zang xianzong lun (阿毘達摩藏顯宗論). Taishō shinshū daizōkyo 大正新脩大藏經 (Taishō). Vol. 29, No. 1563. By Saṅghabhadra, and edited by Junjirō Takakusu and Kaikyō Watanabe. Tokyo: Daizō Shuppan, 1924–1934.

    A Chinese translation of Saṅghabhadra’s Clarification of the Treasury of Abhidharma Tenets (Skt.:*Abhidharmasamayapradīpikāśāstra) that Xuanzang completed in 651–652 CE. Along with the *Nyāyanusāra, also by Saṅghabhadra (Ch.: Zhongxian 眾賢; Tib.: ‘dus bzang), this treatise develops a critique of the views found in the Treasury of Abhidharma from the doctrinal perspective of the Sarvāstivāda abhidharma tradition.

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