Every one knew how laborious the usual Method is of attaining to Arts and Sciences; whereas by his Contrivance, the most ignorant Person at a reasonable Charge, and with a little bodily Labour, may write Books in Philosophy, Poetry, Politicks, Law, Mathematicks and Theology, without the least Assistance from Genius or Study.

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Xuan Zang and the Third Buddha

Posted on Friday 9 March 2007

Then and now: A gap in a cliff is all that remains of the Bamiyan Buddhas–as they were in a photo taken in 1997 and again after the Taliban demolished the them in March, 2001

Does an enormous statue of a reclining Buddha lie buried somewhere near the ex-feet of the Bamiyan Buddhas?

Archaeologist Zemaryali Tarzi thinks so and claims to have "50 percent confirmed" its existence. This belief in the existence of a third Bamiyan Buddha comes from a very good source: the observant and highly regarded writings of Xuan Zang, a 7th century Chinese monk who had visited Bamiyan in 630. Xuan Zang described seeing a 200 foot long statue of the Buddha inside a monastery at Bamiyan which was "reclining on his death bed".

Xuan Zang undertook the extraordinarily arduous and perilous journey from China to India to study Buddhism at its source and also to bring back and translate its sacred canon into the Chinese language. He achieved both of these goals: after studying at the famous Buddhist univerisity at Nalanda for there several years he returned home with more than 600 scriptures and established an institute for their translation in the imperial capital at Chang'an. His legacy was the establishment of Buddhism as a highly influential and enduring strain in Chinese thought as well as the preservation of many scriptures which have been lost in their original versions.

In 629, Xuan Zang set out for India along the Silk Route into Central Asia, passing through Tashkent, and Samarkand. He reached Bamiyan the following year before pressing on to Gandhara, the ancient heartland of Central Asian Buddhism.

From there he entered India proper, travelling through the Punjab, crossing the Ganges and passing through the topical rainforests of Southern Nepal to Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha. He travelled to Patna and spent two years studying at the university at Nalanda before finally returning home to China in 645.

Xuan Zang preserved in his eye witness accounts many aspects of ancient India that would have otherwise been lost to history. He keenly observed and accurately recorded geographical details, architectural features, cultural practices, local histories and legends which have since proved to be of immeasurable value to modern scholars and archaeologists. His writings have led to several discoveries over the years, for example he described a great stupa, now lost, which had been built by the Buddhist monarch King Kanishka near his capital at Peshawar in the second century (note: the name Xuan Zang when rendered in the older style Wade-Giles romanization is spelt Huan Tsang).

Among all [King Kanishka's] buildings one of his remarkable structures was his greatest Stupa (a place where the ashes of Buddhist priests, monks, nobles, etc. are enshrined, and a big domical structure erected on it, and it became a place of worship for the Buddhists).


It is said that Gautama Buddha had predicted that four hundred years after his death a king would erect a stupa to contain many relics of the Buddha's bones and flesh. Kanishka had heard this story.

One day while hunting a white hare in the forest (Peshawar area), he met a shepherd boy building a stupa of mud. Fa-hien said that the shepherd was Indra in disguise. Kanishka ordered to build a stupa on the spot and enshrined a number of relics of the Buddha in it. Buddha had also predicted that the stupa would be seven times burnt down and seven times rebuilt, and the religion itself would disappear from here (Gandhara).

At the time of Huan Tsang's visit, it had been again reduced to ashes for the fourth time. Both the pious travelers relate the same legend according to which after the seventh time, the law of the Buddha would become finally extinct in the country. A Chinese source said that Kanishka himself placed a ball of clay on the stupa praying that it might become an image of the Buddha and the image at once appeared. Huan Tsang had mentioned in his accounts that there were big images of Buddha on the eastern side of the stupa, some were painted and some were gold-washed.

Xuan Zang described the stupa as having a square-shaped plinth which was 100 meters wide on each side and decorated with Stucco images of Buddha. Above this projected a stone tower some 50 meters metres high and above that a further 100 meters of wood. The tower was capped with 10 metres of gold-leafed iron finial and was in total height the equivalent of a modern 13 storey building. This was quite a remarkable engineering feat and it would have undoubtedly been considered an architectural marvel in its time. Using Xuan Zang's account, the foundations of the lost stupa were identified in 1895-97 by Alfred Foucher and excavated by D. B. Spooner in 1908-09. In another example, Xuan Zang described a pillar at Lumbini in Nepal. The pillar had been erected by Asok, the great Mauryan emperor, near the tree which was said to mark the Buddha's birthplace. This pillar, which was subsequently lost for a millennia was only rediscovered in 1895, again largely thanks to Xuan Zang's writings.

A collection of legends about Asoka, included in the Divyävadana, a work composed probably in the 1st or 2nd century A.D., tells us (pp. 389, 390) how Asoka, the Buddhist emperor, visited the traditional site of this grove, under the guidance of Upagupta. This must have been about 248 B.C. Upagupta (Tissa: see PALl) himself also mentions the site in his Kathd Vatihu (p. 559). The Chinese pilgrims, Fa Hien and Hsuan Tsang, visiting India in the 5th and 7th centuries A.D., were shown the site; and the latter (ed. Watters, ii. 15-19) mentions that he saw there an Asoka pillar, with a horse on the top, which had been split, when Hsuan Tsang saw it, by lightning. This pillar was rediscovered under the following circumstances.

The existence, a few miles beyond the Nepalese frontier, of an inscribed pillar had been known for some years when, in 1895, the discovery of another inscribed pillar at Nigliva, near by, led to the belief that this other, hitherto neglected, one must also be an Asoka pillar, and very -probably the one mentioned by Hsuan Tsang. At the request of the Indian government the Nepalese government had the pillar, which was half- buried, excavated for examination; and Dr Führer, then in the employ of the Archaeological Survey, arrived soon afterwards at the spot.

The stone was split into two portions, apparently by lightning, and was inscribed with Pall characters as used in the time of Asoka. Squeezes of the inscription were sent to Europe, where various scholars discussed the meaning, which is as follows:

"His Majesty, Piyadassi, came here in the 21st year of his reign and paid reverence. And on the ground that the Buddha, the Sakiya sage, was born here, he (the king) had a flawless stone cut, and put up a pillar. And further, since the Exalted One was born in it, he reduced taxation in the village of LumbinI, and established the dues at one-eighth part (of the crop)."

Xuan Zang's writings once again proved useful to archaeologists in identifying the final resting place of the Buddha at Kushinagar.

Kushinagar (Kushinara of yore) is a revered place for Buddhist pilgrims, 55 kms away from Gorakhpur. It was here that the Tathagata, the reciter of truth, breathed his last with the words, "Behold now, brethren, I exhort you, saying, decay is inherent in all component things! Work out your salvation with diligence!" A temple dedicated to the event - the Mahaparinirvana temple today stands amidst a serene `sal' grove .... as if still reminiscing the great demise.

The huge statue of the Reclining Buddha, excavated in 1876 at the temple, is one of the most momentous of all sights for the devout. It was brought from Mathura by a devout monk, Haribala, during the reign of King Kumara Gupta in the 5th Century A.D. The whole of Kushinagar, since the Mahaparinirvana of Gautam Buddha, was turned into a memorial site with stupas including the relic stupa-Mukutbadhana and the Chaitayas and Viharas, built by the devout kings of the Gupta period.

The Chinese travellers Fa Hien, Hieun Tsang and T. Ising visited Kushinagar during different centuries and recorded a graphic account of the place which later fell to bad times, due to lack of patronage. These recordings provided the vital clues for excavations done centuries later by Sir Alexander Cunningham.

So, returning once again to Afghanistan, if Xuan Zang said that there was a reclining Buddha at Bamiyan, I think you can be fairly sure that there really was one. Unfortunately, another thing that you can be just as certain of is that the monastery that it once housed it would have been thoroughly destroyed by the Muslim iconoclasts that swarmed through Central Asia two hundred years later. But at least these guys were not the Taliban – and they didn't have at their disposal modern explosives or artillery, so some hope remains that remnants of this "Third Buddha" could still show up under the spade in an excavation.

Incidentally, Xuan Zang became so famous when he returned home to China that his remarkable journey quickly became the stuff of myth and legend. 900 years later these folk stories were compiled and rewritten by a scholar-official named Wu Ch'eng-en in a work that went on to become one of the most enduring and best loved works of Chinese literature. In the story, known as a Journey to the West, Xuan Zang is accompanied in his travels by four celestial creatures: a monkey, a pig and sea-monster and a dragon (which had transformed itself into a horse).

Unfortunately for Xuan Zang (also referred to as Tripitaka which is a pun on his name), his character in the book was reduced to something of wooden caricature whose main role it seems was to be constantly upstaged by the antics of Wu-k'ung, the delightfully mischievous monkey-god.

See also:

Travels of Hsuan-Tsang
Wikipedia on Xuan Zang.
Temple of Flourishing Teaching
Monkey Madness!!!!

Finally,a fun fact:

Q: What is the difference between a pagoda and a stupa?
A: That's easy, stupid, they're all stupas ;-)

The term "pagoda," is a Portuguese imitation of something misunderstood in India, later adopted by the British. This is not what such towers are called in the Far East. The terms was apparently a corruption of either the north Indian term " bhagavata " (blessed), applied to many deities, or the Persian but kadah (idol house). The Portuguese, who were the first Europeans in the Indies, used it for any towered religious shrine, Brahmanical, Buddhist, or any other. The British took it into English from them. And pretty much as they took the natural harbor and island location of Mumbai from them, they took it with the Portuguese corruption of the local designation. Though they eventually abandoned the term in India, the British kept the term in East Asia, where they were less familiar with local traditions.

["Pagodas" & A Reality Check]