Chinese Monk Faxian Travels to India Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Faxian, the first Chinese monk to travel from China to India and back, brought a wealth of Buddhist texts back to his homeland and left a narrative account of his journey.

Summary of Event

In 399 c.e., the Buddhist monk Faxian and four companions left the Chinese capital of Changan by foot on their way to India. The purpose of their journey was to obtain copies of the monastic rules of discipline (vinaya) and return with them to China. By the end of the fourth century, a handful of Chinese monks had made the journey to Central Asia to study with flourishing Buddhist communities there, but no one had ever successfully traveled to India, the heartland of Buddhism, and returned to tell about it. Faxian Buddhabhadra

Most of what is known about Faxian and his travels comes from his autobiographical account, Fo guo ji, also known as Faxian Zhuan (fourth century c.e.; Fo Koue Ki, 1836; also known as The Travels of Fa-hsien) written after his return to China. Although the precise dates of his birth and death are unknown, most scholars agree that Faxian must have been close to sixty when he left on his historic journey. His biography in the Gao seng zhuan (seventh century c.e.; biographies of eminent monks) relates that his surname was Gong (Kung) and that his family was from present-day Shanxi Province. He received full ordination into the Buddhist order when he was twenty. Nothing is known about the intervening forty-odd years, but at the close of the fourth century, he left the Chinese capital, heading west along the northern Silk Road. The dangers of the first leg of his tour were vividly described by Faxian, who said the route was plagued by evil spirits and burning winds, marked only by the bones of the dead. His small party of travelers, eleven at this point, passed the Buddhist cave temples at Dunhuang (Tun-huang) and continued on to the Central Asian kingdoms of Shanshan and Agni. Faxian’s group remained in the kingdom of Khotan for three months in order to attend an important festival and image procession. Continuing west, they passed through Chakarka and made the dangerous crossing of the Pamir Mountains, at the far west of the Tarim Basin. After Faxian’s party crossed the harrowing Hanging Passage, a series of scaffolds and suspension bridges along the upper reaches of the Indus River, they had finally reached India proper, the ultimate goal of their travels and the farthest place any Chinese pilgrim had ever ventured. Three years had passed since they had first left Changan.

Faxian then traveled south through Gandhara to Peshawar, where three members of the party turned back toward China. The group was further reduced by the death of another companion during the difficult crossing of the Little Snow Mountains. In the early phases of his travel in India, Faxian traveled to many of the sites associated with the life of the historical Buddha, and the corresponding passages of his autobiographical The Travels of Fa-hsien are filled with tales regarding the events of the Buddha’s life rather than detailed descriptions of the sites themselves. The group traveled to Mathura and Sankisa, where the monastic communities were thriving. In Savatthi, he visited the site of Jetavana Monastery, a longtime residence of the Buddha. Moving east, Faxian went to Kapilavastu and Kuśinagara, the locations of the Buddha’s birth and death, respectively. Next he visited Eagle Peak in Rajagaha, the site of many of the Buddha’s sermons, Bodh Gayā, where the Buddha was enlightened, and Deer Park, where he first began to teach.

It was during this time in northern India that Faxian and his party arrived at Mahāyāna Monastery in Pataliputra, where they would remain for more than two years. Six years earlier, Faxian had lamented the incomplete condition of the Buddhist monastic code in China and decided to undertake the journey to India. It was here that Faxian was finally able to obtain copies of several versions of the Buddhist monastic code. In addition to learning Sanskrit, Faxian was occupied with the copying of texts. At least four of these are mentioned in his narrative: the monastic code of the Sarvāstivāda in six or seven thousand verses, the Samyutābhidharma-hrydaya Śāstra in six thousand verses, the Mahāparinirvāna Sūtra in five thousand verses, and the Mahāsāmghika Abhidharma.

Faxian left Pataliputra alone. The last remaining member of his original party had decided to remain in India. He traveled to Tāmraliptī, where he would remain for another two years, making copies of scriptures and images. From there, Faxian set sail for Sri Lanka, where he obtained additional texts, unknown in China: the Dīrghāgama, the Samyuktāgama, and the Zazang jing. Like Central Asia and North India, the island of Sri Lanka had a flourishing Buddhist community. For two years, Faxian visited famous sites said to be associated with the historical Buddha, observed various festivals, and attended lectures. Once his work there was complete, he began what was an arduous return journey by sea to China. Encountering terrible storms, his ship was forced to land at the island of present-day South Sumatra. After another five months, the ship set sail once again. More bad weather drew the journey out to three months before they finally landed on the Shandong Peninsula in 412 c.e. Some fifteen years and thirty kingdoms later, Faxian had returned home.

The remainder of Faxian’s life was spent translating many of the texts he brought back with him from India and Sri Lanka. In this, he was aided by the Indian Buddhist missionary Buddhabhadra. More of these texts were translated after his death by other Indian monks. It is known that Faxian died at Xin Monastery in Jing Zhou (Hubei Province), but the precise date of his death has not been recorded (the scholar Jan Yün-hua gives 418; some Chinese sources place it between 418 and 423).

Significance

By the time Faxian left for India at the close of the fourth century c.e., more than three hundred years had passed since the introduction of Buddhism to China in the first century. The centuries that followed saw Buddhism transformed from an exotic faith practiced by foreigners to an intellectual pursuit of the upper classes, and finally to a living practice carried out by a large population of native Chinese monks, nuns, and lay people. When Faxian left on his journey, he was motivated by a desire to learn from great Indian masters and to retrieve the rules for monastic discipline (vinaya) that he felt were an essential element to the proper practice of Chinese Buddhism. He was not unique in this concern. When Kumārajīva, the famous Central Asian translator of Sanskrit texts, arrived in Changan in 402, one of his first tasks was to translate the ten verses of the vinaya of the Sarvāstivāda school, in sixty-one volumes. Thus the establishment and observance of the vinaya was a primary concern for the Chinese Buddhist community. The success of Faxian’s journey, along with the activity of translators such as Kumārajīva, can be viewed as the culmination of a unique phase in the history of Chinese Buddhism, when the faith became irrevocably grounded in Chinese soil.

Faxian’s account of his travels is a great mine of information for anyone interested in the history of Buddhism in general or the history of South Asia in particular. Not only do his interests and motivations provide insight into what was important to Chinese Buddhists of his time, but also Faxian’s descriptions of the kingdoms, monks, ministers, kings, and the customs he observes also afford a rare glimpse into these ancient cultures. At the time of his journey, Buddhism was flourishing throughout Central Asia, India, and Sri Lanka. Faxian recounted visiting monasteries whose populations ranged into the thousands and whose needs were looked after by the king and the local populace. Nowhere is he detained by war or unrest, but rather everywhere Faxian visited on his long journey, he was welcomed as an honored guest and provided with provisions for the remainder of his travels. In contrast, many of the Chinese monks who later were inspired to make similar journeys, such as Xuanzang (602-664) and Yijing (635-713), found that the state of Buddhism in India never again attained the prosperity described by Faxian.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Faxian. The Pilgrimage of Fa Hian. Translated by J. W. Laidley. 1848. Reprint. Delhi: Cosmo, 2000. The first English translation of Faxian’s Fo guo ji, which was translated from the 1836 French translation, Foé Koué Ki: Ou, Relation des royaumes boudhiques: Voyages dams la tartarie, dans l’ Afghanistan et dans l’Inde.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Faxian. A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms. 1886. Reprint. Translated by James Legge. New York: Dover, 1991. This translation of Faxian’s Fo guo ji is both reliable and easily available.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Faxian. A Record of the Buddhist Countries. Translated by Li Yongxi. Peking: Chinese Buddhist Association, 1957. A twentieth century translation of Faxian’s Fo guo ji.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ikeda, Daisaku. The Flower of Chinese Buddhism. Translated by Burton Watson. New York: Weatherhill, 1986. A selective history of Chinese Buddhism from its Indic origins through the Tang Dynasty, with special attention given to the Tiantai school. Contains a map showing the locations visited by Faxian during his journey.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tsukamoto, Zenryū. A History of Early Chinese Buddhism: From Its Introduction to the Death of Hui-yüan. Translated from the Japanese by Leon Hurvitz. New York: Kodansha International, 1979. A useful summary of the major events of the early phases of Chinese Buddhism in general and the life of Faxian in particular.
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