Xuanzang 玄奘 (602–664) is likely the most famous of Chinese Buddhist monks who traveled to India to pursue studies and retrieve texts. He stayed in India between 633–645 and upon returning to China enjoyed patronage from an imperial government engaged in aggressive expansionist conquests (see here). There were therefore ample resources directed his way to support his translation work. In the following decades another generation or two of Chinese monks followed in his footsteps and made their way to India. None of them became as famous as Xuanzang, but nevertheless some of them made significant contributions to the development of Buddhism in East Asia. The modern historian can also learn a great deal about the India of the time from not only their direct accounts and travelogues, but also short remarks in margins and colophons. One problem in reconstructing the history of ancient India is the paucity of contemporary accounts and historical documents, which is why Indologists since the nineteenth century have often had to rely on surviving accounts by Chinese travelers.
One Chinese traveler to India who is less known but nevertheless was quite important was a certain monk by the name of Wuxing 無行 (b. 630). He was from Jiangling 江陵 in Jingzhou 荊州 (modern Hubei). He also had a Sanskrit name of Prajñādeva, a custom which seems to have been fairly common among Chinese monks in the Tang dynasty. It seems he was an erudite scholar monk, having studied under Huiying 慧英, who was a disciple of the Chinese Madhyamaka author Jizang 吉藏 (549–623). He also traveled or wandered around China before also studying under Daoxuan 道宣 (596–667), who was the leading scholar and advocate of the vinaya in China.
At some point he decided to travel to India. His account is preserved in a collection of biographies of monks in the early Tang who went to India in pursuit of the Dharma (大唐西域求法高僧傳; T 2066), which was compiled by Yijing 義淨 (635–713). Yijing himself was a very successful scholar and translator. Like Xuanzang, he studied in India and returned to translate an enormous quantity of Buddhist literature into Chinese, in particular the entire Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya and related texts. He also penned a lengthy travelogue detailing his own journey through India. This was incidentally translated into English 1896 by Takakusu and can be viewed here.
Yijing left China in 671 and returned in 695, spending time in both India and the Indonesian archipelago. The latter at the time had a thriving Buddhist sangha apparently closely modeled on the Indian system. Just like in the Tarim Basin Buddhist states, they also studied Sanskrit to full literacy. Chinese monks, we are told, would go there to learn Sanskrit before traveling onward to India. My impression is that given its central location between the sea routes linking trade between India and China, they probably had sufficient numbers of bilingual scholars to provide a suitable environment for Chinese monks to learn sufficient Sanskrit, both its spoken and written forms. The elites were also favorable towards Chinese interests, which likely stemmed from the lucrative trade and prestige provided by China.
Wuxing also traveled to India through SE Asia. Together with another monk named Zhihong 智弘 he initially arrived in *Śrībhuja 室利佛逝 before sailing onward to eastern India. He initially had to find a benefactor, which Yijing said was “somewhat difficult” in the western country. A guest monk was entitled to be fed, but nothing more. We can imagine locals happily surprised to meet a bhikṣu from the remote land of Mahācīna ('Great China'), but one has to wonder to what extent they would have been regarded as capable scholars. Even if they were well read in Buddhist literature in Chinese translation, how well could they communicate in Sanskrit or local languages? Although they had traveled a great distance, we might imagine locals not necessarily feeling inclined to pay for their education and living expenses at a prestigious institution like Nālandā.
Wuxing nevertheless managed to find a patron and studied a number of subjects at Nālandā including Yogācāra, Madhyamaka, the Abhidharmakośa-bhāṣya and the vinaya. This might also indicate the primary or popular subjects being studied there in the second half of the seventh century. Later he moved to a nearby monastery *Tilaśākya 羝羅荼寺 where he studied logic including the works of Dignāga and Dharmakīrti.
Sometime during his stay in this area he also met his compatriot Yijing. Wuxing and Yijing were just two of apparently several other known Chinese monks studying and wandering around India at the time. At the time there were three main routes to reach India from China:
- Through the Tarim Basin and then coming down through the Hindu Kush or western Himalayas.
- Through Tibet and Nepal and then south into India, though this route was only generally available when diplomatic relations allowed for it as Tang China and Yarlung Tibet were often at war.
- Coming down from southern China by sea to Indonesia and then sailing west to Sri Lanka or the eastern Indian coast.
In the seventh century there were also several diplomatic envoys from China that reached India (for some details see here).
Yijing tells us that he went with Wuxing to visit Gṛdhrakūṭa (Vulture's Peak). The distance between Nālandā and Gṛdhrakūṭa is around 15 km, so it probably took them a day to walk there. It was a memorable experience for Yijing and he remarks how they lamented being born so late and only seeing the ruins of places mentioned in scriptures.
Wuxing also told Yijing that he wanted to stay in India, but he was also inclined to return to China through northern India. When Yijing left Nālandā, Wuxing saw him off. Wuxing at the time was fifty-six years old. This parting happened in year 1 of Chuigong 垂拱元年 (685) and Yijing notes at the time of writing in 691 that he was unaware of where Wuxing was or if he was still alive.
This is not however the last we hear of Wuxing. Zhisheng 智昇 (669–740) in his catalog of Buddhist texts compiled in 730 (開元釋教錄 T 2154) reports the following:
The śramaṇa Wuxing had traveled west and upon completing his studies in India said he would return. He unfortunately died in northern India. It was ordered that the Sanskrit texts he carried be retrieved. These were deposited at Huayan-si in the western capital [Chang'an]. Śubhakarasiṃha [637–735] and Yixing 一行 [683–727] selected a number of Sanskrit scriptures there plus dhāraṇī practices. They had previously never been translated. In year 12  they followed the emperor to Luoyang where they were posted to the temple Dafuxian-si. The Mahāvairocana-sūtra was subsequently translated by śramaṇa Yixing [and Śubhakarasiṃha].1
It therefore would appear that the Sanskrit edition of Mahāvairocana-sūtra that Śubhakarasiṃha's team translated into Chinese was based on the edition carried by Wuxing who had perished in northern India. Although this account may be spurious, all of the modern scholars I have surveyed so far accept it as plausible. I think it is plausible too because the account was written down only a few years after the translation was completed. In addition, there is a seldom cited source which is the letter Wuxing sent to China from India.
At one point in India he translated an account excerpted from the Sarvāstivāda Vinaya 一切有部律 of the Tathāgata's nirvāṇa 涅槃 in three fascicles which was forwarded to China. It is unclear to me who conveyed this back to China (it was perhaps Yijing). He might also have forwarded his letter to the Chinese sangha with this text. Regardless of who delivered it to China, it was preserved and eventually more than a century later a copy of it was brought back to Japan by the Tendai monk Ennin 圓仁 (794–864). He includes Wuxing’s letter to China from India (南荊州沙門無行在天竺國致於唐國書一卷) in his record of texts brought back from China.
Unfortunately, it seems the letter is not extant. However, a single line from it is fortunately quoted by the Japanese monk Annen 安然 (841–915?) in his Shingon shūkyō jigi 眞言宗教時義: “Recently the new Mantra teachings have become revered in the country” 近者新有眞言教法擧國崇仰.2
This simple remark is actually very historically significant. Xuanzang, who returned to China in 645, never mentions Mantrayāna in India. Some have speculated this might have been because he was interested in other subjects, but he was also interested in dhāraṇī practice so it is unlikely in his detailed account of India that he would have excluded mentioning Mantrayāna if it had existed at the time. Wuxing, however, was already living in India for awhile before 685. It would seem that between 645 and 685 there emerged an identifiable tradition of Mantrayāna. Wuxing also recognized this as a new development.
This actually corresponds well with the traditional lineage of the Mahāvairocana-sūtra in East Asia that we have discussed before (see here). Śubhakarasiṃha's guru was a certain Dharmagupta from Nālandā who received the text or its associated Dharma from Vajrapāṇi Bodhisattva, which suggests he might have been the compiler or author of the text. Disregarding the legend that he was eight-hundred years old, he would have presumably been senior to Śubhakarasiṃha who was born around 637. Dharmagupta therefore likely lived around the time when Mantrayāna was emerging and perhaps was one of its leading early proponents. A case can therefore be made that Mantrayāna as an identifiable tradition emerged in the latter half of the seventh century.
It is significant that Dharmagupta was identified with Nālandā because Wuxing lived in that area as well, so presumably the bulk of the texts he carried back with him also came from the region of 'Greater Magadha'. It seems more and more likely to me that the early Tantric tradition was a product of that region. The archaeological evidence from what is now Bihar and Orissa also support this theory (see Yoritomi 1999).
It begs the question why did early Tantra arise around Nālandā and the neighboring regions? Was it a response to some outside influence or pressure, or simply the result of several centuries of creative development? We know that Nālandā scholars studied more or less the entirety of Buddhist learning including philosophy and logic, and the more conventional monastic subjects like the vinaya. Was this insufficient or felt to be lacking in practical application? The question of why Tantra emerged is an intriguing question on which much has been already written. Here I just want to point out that its early form seems to have been connected with Nālandā, which was only one of several major centers of Buddhist learning on the subcontinent.
So, although Wuxing never made it back to China, his deeds still echoed throughout history. If Śubhakarasiṃha had not translated the Mahāvairocana-sūtra, Buddhist history in East Asia would have taken on a very different form.
1 T 2154, 55: 572a15-21.
2 T 2396, 75: 431a11.
Yamamoto Shōichirō 山本 匠一郎. “Dainichikyō no shiryō to kenkyūshi gaikan” 『大日經』の資料と研究史概觀. Gendai mikkyō 現代密教 23 (2012): 73–102.
Yoritomi Motohiro 頼富本宏. “Mikkyō no kakuritsu” 密教の確立. In Indo mikkyō インド密教, ed. Tachikawa Musashi 立川武蔵 and Yoritomi Motohiro, 32–56. Tōkyō: Shunjūsha 春秋社, 1999.