Between A.D. 399 and 414, the Chinese monk Faxian (Fa-Hsien, Fa Hien) undertook a trip via Central Asia to India to study Buddhism, locate sutras and relics and obtain copies of Buddhist books that were unavailable in China at the time. He traveled from Xian in central China to the west overland on the southern Silk Road into Central Asia and described monasteries, monks and pagodas there. He then crossed over Himalayan passes into India and ventured as far south as Sri Lanka before sailing back to China on a route that took him through present-day Indonesia. His entire journey took 15 years.
Faxian means "illustrious master of the 1aw.” Orphaned at an early age, he decided to continue the religious life planned for him by his father rather than to be incorporated into the family of his uncle. Little is known of his novitiate, though one legend tells of how he shamed a band of thieves from stealing the grain of his monastery. At the age of 25 Faxian began a quest to learn about Buddhist traditions in India and to discover authentic Buddhist writings. His travels, in Sumatra, Ceylon, India, and Tibet, coincided with a general curiosity of Chinese Buddhists about the practice of their religion abroad. Faxian recovered a large quantity of Buddhist writings and returned to China where he devoted the rest of his life to translating them from Sanskrit. It is recorded that he died at the age of 88. “A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms (394-414CE) is an account of the journey Faxian and his companions, mostly in India. They visited as many of the Buddhist sacred shrines as they could, especially those associated with the presence of the Buddha.
Tansen Sen wrote in Education about Asia: “Faxian was one of the first and perhaps the oldest Chinese monk to travel to India. In 399, when he embarked on his trip from the ancient Chinese capital Chang’an (present- day Xi’an in Shaanxi province), Faxian was more than sixty years old. By the time he returned fourteen years later, the Chinese monk had trekked across the treacherous Taklamakan desert (in present-day Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China), visited the major Buddhist pilgrimage sites in India, traveled to Sri Lanka, and survived a precarious voyage along the sea route back to China. [Source: Tansen Sen, Education about Asia, Volume 11, Number 3 Winter 2006 ]
“Sometime in 408 or 409, Faxian reportedly traveled on a mercantile ship from the port of Tamralipti, in eastern India, to Sri Lanka. After about two years’ stay at the island, Faxian again boarded a seagoing vessel to return to China through Southeast Asia. Faxian’s narrative of his voyage on the mercantile vessels, albeit marked by near-catastrophic experiences due to the ravages of the sea, demonstrates the above-mentioned relationship between Buddhist monks and itinerant traders as well as the existence of maritime trading channels linking the coastal regions of India and China. It is also evident from Faxian’s account that maritime travel between southern Asia and China was perilous and the navigational techniques extremely rudimentary.” Faxian was about 77 years old when he reached the Chinese coast.
Good Websites and Sources on the Silk Road: Silk Road Seattle washington.edu/silkroad ; Silk Road Foundation silk-road.com; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Silk Road Atlas depts.washington.edu ; Old World Trade Routes ciolek.com;
Chapter XXXVII: Champa to Tamalipti to Sri Lanka
According to “A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms”: “Following the course of the Ganges, and descending eastwards for eighteen yojanas, he found on the southern bank the great kingdom of Champa [eastern Bihar state, India], with stupas reared at the places where Buddha walked in meditation by his vihara, and where he and the three Buddhas, his predecessors, sat. There were monks residing at them all. Continuing his journey east for nearly fifty yojanas, he came to the country of Tamalipti [an ancient on the Bay of Bengal, (the capital of which is) a seaport. In the country there are twenty-two monasteries, at all of which there are monks residing. The Law of Buddha is also flourishing in it. Here Fa-Hsien stayed two years, writing out his Sutras, and drawing pictures of images. [Source: “A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms” by Fa-Hsien (Faxian) of his Travels in India and Ceylon (A.D. 399-414), Translated James Legge, 1886, gutenberg.org/ /]
“After this he embarked in a large merchant-vessel, and went floating over the sea to the south-west. It was the beginning of winter, and the wind was favourable; and, after fourteen days, sailing day and night, they came to the country of Singhala. The people said that it was distant (from Tamalipti) about 700 yojanas. /
“The kingdom is on a large island, extending from east to west fifty yojanas, and from north to south thirty. Left and right from it there are as many as 100 small islands, distant from one another ten, twenty, or even 200 le; but all subject to the large island. Most of them produce pearls and precious stones of various kinds; there is one which produces the pure and brilliant pearl,—an island which would form a square of about ten le. The king employs men to watch and protect it, and requires three out of every ten such pearls, which the collectors find.” /
Chapter XL: Rough Sea Journey from Sri Lanka to Java
According to “A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms”: ““Fa-Hsien abode in this country two years; and, in addition (to his acquisitions in Patna), succeeded in getting a copy of the Vinaya-pitaka of the Mahisasakah (school); the Dirghagama and Samyuktagama (Sutras); and also the Samyukta-sanchaya-pitaka;—all being works unknown in the land of Han. [Source: “A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms” by Fa-Hsien (Faxian) of his Travels in India and Ceylon (A.D. 399-414), Translated James Legge, 1886, gutenberg.org/ /]
“Having obtained these Sanskrit works, he took passage in a large merchantman, on board of which there were more than 200 men, and to which was attached by a rope a smaller vessel, as a provision against damage or injury to the large one from the perils of the navigation. With a favourable wind, they proceeded eastwards for three days, and then they encountered a great wind. The vessel sprang a leak and the water came in. The merchants wished to go to the small vessel; but the men on board it, fearing that too many would come, cut the connecting rope. The merchants were greatly alarmed, feeling their risk of instant death. Afraid that the vessel would fill, they took their bulky goods and threw them into the water. Fa-Hsien also took his pitcher and washing-basin, with some other articles, and cast them into the sea; but fearing that the merchants would cast overboard his books and images, he could only think with all his heart of Kwan-she-yin, and commit his life to (the protection of) the church of the land of Han, (saying in effect), "I have travelled far in search of our Law. Let me, by your dread and supernatural (power), return from my wanderings, and reach my resting-place!" /
“In this way the tempest continued day and night, till on the thirteenth day the ship was carried to the side of an island, where, on the ebbing of the tide, the place of the leak was discovered, and it was stopped, on which the voyage was resumed. On the sea (hereabouts) there are many pirates, to meet with whom is speedy death. The great ocean spreads out, a boundless expanse. There is no knowing east or west; only by observing the sun, moon, and stars was it possible to go forward. If the weather were dark and rainy, (the ship) went as she was carried by the wind, without any definite course. In the darkness of the night, only the great waves were to be seen, breaking on one another, and emitting a brightness like that of fire, with huge turtles and other monsters of the deep (all about). The merchants were full of terror, not knowing where they were going. The sea was deep and bottomless, and there was no place where they could drop anchor and stop. But when the sky became clear, they could tell east and west, and (the ship) again went forward in the right direction. If she had come on any hidden rock, there would have been no way of escape. /
Chapter XL: Rough Sea Journey from Java to China
According to “A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms”: “After proceeding in this way for rather more than ninety days, they arrived at a country called Java-dvipa, where various forms of error and Brahmanism are flourishing, while Buddhism in it is not worth speaking of. After staying there for five months, (Fa-Hsien) again embarked in another large merchantman, which also had on board more than 200 men. They carried provisions for fifty days, and commenced the voyage on the sixteenth day of the fourth month. [Source: “A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms” by Fa-Hsien (Faxian) of his Travels in India and Ceylon (A.D. 399-414), Translated James Legge, 1886, gutenberg.org/ /]
“Fa-Hsien kept his retreat on board the ship. They took a course to the north-east, intending to fetch Kwang-chow. After more than a month, when the night-drum had sounded the second watch, they encountered a black wind and tempestuous rain, which threw the merchants and passengers into consternation. Fa-Hsien again with all his heart directed his thoughts to Kwan-she-yin and the monkish communities of the land of Han; and, through their dread and mysterious protection, was preserved to day-break. After day-break, the Brahmans deliberated together and said, "It is having this Sramana on board which has occasioned our misfortune and brought us this great and bitter suffering. Let us land the bhikshu and place him on some island-shore. We must not for the sake of one man allow ourselves to be exposed to such imminent peril." A patron of Fa-Hsien, however, said to them, "If you land the bhikshu, you must at the same time land me; and if you do not, then you must kill me. If you land this Sramana, when I get to the land of Han, I will go to the king, and inform against you. The king also reveres and believes the Law of Buddha, and honours the bhikshus." The merchants hereupon were perplexed, and did not dare immediately to land (Fa-Hsien). /
“At this time the sky continued very dark and gloomy, and the sailing-masters looked at one another and made mistakes. More than seventy days passed (from their leaving Java), and the provisions and water were nearly exhausted. They used the salt-water of the sea for cooking, and carefully divided the (fresh) water, each man getting two pints. Soon the whole was nearly gone, and the merchants took counsel and said, "At the ordinary rate of sailing we ought to have reached Kwang-chow, and now the time is passed by many days;—must we not have held a wrong course?" Immediately they directed the ship to the north-west, looking out for land.” /
Chapter XL: Finally Back in China
According to “A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms”: “After sailing day and night for twelve days, they reached the shore on the south of mount Lao, on the borders of the prefecture of Ch'ang-kwang, and immediately got good water and vegetables. They had passed through many perils and hardships, and had been in a state of anxious apprehension for many days together; and now suddenly arriving at this shore, and seeing those (well-known) vegetables, the lei and kwoh, they knew indeed that it was the land of Han. [Source: “A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms” by Fa-Hsien (Faxian) of his Travels in India and Ceylon (A.D. 399-414), Translated James Legge, 1886, gutenberg.org/ /]
“Not seeing, however, any inhabitants nor any traces of them, they did not know whereabouts they were. Some said that they had not yet got to Kwang-chow, and others that they had passed it. Unable to come to a definite conclusion, (some of them) got into a small boat and entered a creek, to look for some one of whom they might ask what the place was. They found two hunters, whom they brought back with them, and then called on Fa-Hsien to act as interpreter and question them. Fa-Hsien first spoke assuringly to them, and then slowly and distinctly asked them, "Who are you?" They replied, "We are disciples of Buddha?" He then asked, "What are you looking for among these hills?" They began to lie, and said, "To-morrow is the fifteenth day of the seventh month. We wanted to get some peaches to present to Buddha." He asked further, "What country is this?" They replied, "This is the border of the prefecture of Ch'ang-kwang, a part of Ts'ing-chow under the (ruling) House of Tsin." When they heard this, the merchants were glad, immediately asked for (a portion of) their money and goods, and sent men to Ch'ang-kwang city. /
“The prefect Le E was a reverent believer in the Law of Buddha. When he heard that a Sramana had arrived in a ship across the sea, bringing with him books and images, he immediately came to the seashore with an escort to meet (the traveller), and receive the books and images, and took them back with him to the seat of his government. On this the merchants went back in the direction of Yang-chow; (but) when (Fa-Hsien) arrived at Ts'ing-chow, (the prefect there) begged him (to remain with him) for a winter and a summer. After the summer retreat was ended, Fa-Hsien, having been separated for a long time from his (fellow-)masters, wished to hurry to Ch'ang-gan; but as the business which he had in hand was important, he went south to the Capital; and at an interview with the masters (there) exhibited the Sutras and the collection of the Vinaya (which he had procured). /
Chapter XL: Reflecting Back on the Long Journey
According to “A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms”: “Fa-Hsien set out from Ch'ang-gan, it took him six years to reach Central India; stoppages there extended over (other) six years; and on his return it took him three years to reach Ts'ing-chow. The countries through which he passed were a few under thirty. From the sandy desert westwards on to India, the beauty of the dignified demeanour of the monkhood and of the transforming influence of the Law was beyond the power of language fully to describe; and reflecting how our masters had not heard any complete account of them, he therefore (went on) without regarding his own poor life, or (the dangers to be encountered) on the sea upon his return, thus incurring hardships and difficulties in a double form. He was fortunate enough, through the dread power of the three Honoured Ones, to receive help and protection in his perils; and therefore he wrote out an account of his experiences, that worthy readers might share with him in what he had heard and said. [Source: “A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms” by Fa-Hsien (Faxian) of his Travels in India and Ceylon (A.D. 399-414), Translated James Legge, 1886, gutenberg.org/ /]
“It was in the year Keah-yin, the twelfth year of the period E-he of the (Eastern) Tsin dynasty, the year-star being in Virgo-Libra, in the summer, at the close of the period of retreat, that I met the devotee Fa-Hsien. On his arrival I lodged him with myself in the winter study, and there, in our meetings for conversation, I asked him again and again about his travels. The man was modest and complaisant, and answered readily according to the truth. I thereupon advised him to enter into details where he had at first only given a summary, and he proceeded to relate all things in order from the beginning to the end. /
“He said himself, "When I look back on what I have gone through, my heart is involuntarily moved, and the perspiration flows forth. That I encountered danger and trod the most perilous places, without thinking of or sparing myself, was because I had a definite aim, and thought of nothing but to do my best in my simplicity and straightforwardness. Thus it was that I exposed my life where death seemed inevitable, if I might accomplish but a ten-thousandth part of what I hoped." These words affected me in turn, and I thought:—"This man is one of those who have seldom been seen from ancient times to the present. Since the Great Doctrine flowed on to the East there has been no one to be compared with Hsien in his forgetfulness of self and search for the Law. Henceforth I know that the influence of sincerity finds no obstacle, however great, which it does not overcome, and that force of will does not fail to accomplish whatever service it undertakes. Does not the accomplishing of such service arise from forgetting (and disregarding) what is (generally) considered as important, and attaching importance to what is (generally) forgotten?"” /
Impact of Faxian’s Journey
Tansen Sen wrote in Education about Asia: Faxian’s “A Record of the Buddhist Kingdoms”was the first eyewitness account of the Buddhist practices and pilgrimage sites in Central and South Asia written in Chinese. It was no doubt immensely popular among the contemporary Chinese clergy, many of whom considered India as a holy land. This unique perception of India among the members of the Chinese clergy and their feeling of melancholy because they lived in the borderland, far removed from the sites frequented by the Buddha, can be discerned in Faxian’s work.8 Daozheng, one of the Chinese monks who accompanied Faxian, was so moved by the Buddhist sites and monastic institutions in India that he decided not to return to China. “From now until I attain Buddhahood,” Daozheng is supposed to have remarked, “I wish that I not be reborn in the borderland.” [Source: Tansen Sen, Education about Asia, Volume 11, Number 3 Winter 2006 ]
“Faxian’s account seems to have contributed to the formation of the Chinese perception of India as a sophisticated and culturally advanced society. In the sixth century, Li Daoyuan (d. 527) in his commentary on the third-century work “Shui jing” (“The Water Classic”) gives the following account of Middle India (referred to as “Madhyadésa”) based on Faxian’s “A Record of the Buddhist Kingdoms”: “From here (i.e., Mathura) to the south all [the country] is Middle India (Madhyadésa). Its people are rich. The inhabitants of Madhyadésa dress and eat like people in China.”
“This statement in the context of Chinese discourse on foreign societies, where eating habits and manner of clothing were usually associated with the sophistication of a non-Chinese culture, indicates the unique status of the Indians in the Chinese world order. This perception of India as a civilized society persisted until the tenth century, kindled through the reports of later Chinese pilgrims and the works of Chinese clergy that highlighted the erudition of Indian people and the complexity of their society and cultural traditions.”
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu ; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.
Last updated September 2020