Chinese Buddhist pilgrim and translator Fa-hien (AD 399 – 413) journeyed from China to India to obtain a more complete version of the Buddhist monastic rules and participated in the translation of the Sanskrit texts into Chinese. The name of this monk may correctly be pronounced as Faxian but is also written as Fa-hien.
Fa-hien was the first Chinese monk to travel to India during the reign of Chandra Gupta II. His primary aim was to visit the Buddhist religious places and to take with him the copies of the Buddhist religious texts. He, therefore, travelled through the Gupta Empire and also wrote down his impressions about India. As his main interest was religion, nothing is known about the political condition of India from his account.
At the age of sixty-five, he travelled to India, mostly on foot, from Central China taking the southern route through Shenzhen, Dunhuang, Khotan, and then over the Himalayas, to Gandhara and Peshawar.
Fa-Hien was about 77 years old when he reached back home. He 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 travelled 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.
Fa-hien did not suffer any trouble during his journey from one place to another in India. The kings and the rich people had built rest-houses (Dharamshalas) where every convenience was provided to the travellers. They had also built hospitals for the poor where free medicine was distributed.
‘Record of Buddhist Countries’
In 414 AD he recorded his travels in ‘Record of Buddhist Countries’ today is known as the ‘Travels of Fa-Hien’. It is an excellent geographic account of his journey along the Silk Route and the first comprehensive eyewitness account of the history and customs of Central Asia and India. His account includes the description of local Buddhist monasteries, the approximate number of Buddhist monks in the region, the teachings and rituals practised by them, and the Buddhist legends associated with some of these sites.
Fa-hien claimed that demons and dragons were the original inhabitants of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). He is said to have walked all the way from China across the icy desert and rugged mountain passes. He entered India from the northwest and reached Pataliputra. He took back with him Buddhist texts and images sacred to Buddhism.
On Fa-hien's way back to China, after a two-year stay in Ceylon, a violent storm drove his ship onto an island that was probably Java. After five months there, Fa-hien took another ship for southern China but, again, it was blown off course and they ended up landed at Laoshan in what is now the Shandong peninsula in northern China, 30 km east of the city of Qingdao. He spent the rest of his life translating and editing the scriptures he had collected.
Having lost fellow pilgrims Huiying and Huiking to illness, and the surviving friend Daoching remaining in Middle India, Fa-hien travelled alone through the North, Central and East India, down to South India for nearly a decade, learning Sanskrit and transcribing manuscripts.
Momentous turn of events
Fa-hien collected and brought back eleven Buddhist books from his westbound pilgrimage. Among them, six Buddhist scriptures were co-translated into Chinese by himself and the Indian Buddhabhadra.
Upon his return to China, he was keen to translate these texts which he had taken so much trouble to bring back, as quickly as possible. Instead of going to Ch'angan to rejoin his former teachers and companions as he had initially intended, he went to Ch'ienkang(Nanjing), where he translated the sutras with the help of the Indian monk Buddhabhandra.
Fa-hien was 79 by the time he finally made his way back to China. In 414 AD the year after his return to Chienkang, he wrote the record of his travels; and later, by request added certain material to make the version which we have today.
In a postscript, Fa-hien says;
"When I look back on what I have been through my heart begins to pound and I start to sweat. I risked all those dangers with no thought for myself, because I had a fixed purpose and - simple as I am - was single-minded. That was why I embarked upon a journey in which death seemed almost certain, and had one chance only in ten thousand surviving."
A devout Buddhist
Fa-hien was a pilgrim and was a devout Buddhist. He was interested only in spiritualism pertaining to his own creed and he did not bother to note down social or political conditions of the time. It is extremely surprising that he does not even mention the name of Chandra Gupta Vikramaditya. All that he has written about the social, economic or political conditions of the time is simply a passing remark and as such, it cannot be taken to be a true picture of the time.
Relying upon his version, however, one can say that the people were prosperous and peace-loving. The Government was efficient and there were very mild punishments. There was no capital punishment and for crimes of rebellion. The king has been described as Rajya Rishi in one of the inscriptions and it indicates that he had saintly qualities. The system of administration was almost the same as those of the Mauryas.
Fa-hien described internal and foreign trade of India as well as its ports. According to him, both internal and external trade of India was in a progressive stage and the Indians carried on sea-voyages. According to him, India had trade relations with China, countries of south-east Asia and western Asia as well as with Europe. On its western sea-coast, India had ports like Cambay, Sopara and Baroach while on its eastern coast Tamralipti was a famous port from where Fa-hien went to Sri Lanka on an Indian ship.
Fa-hien studied Sanskrit for 3 years at Pataliputra and two years at the Port of Tamralipti without let or hindrance. The accounts of Fa-hien give a clear indication that India was probably never governed better than the era of Chandragupta Vikramaditya. The prosperity of the Indians and tranquillity of the empire have been tested by the account of Fa-hien and his unobstructed itinerary all around gives the details about the Golden Era of India.
Fa-hien was his clerical name, and means "Illustrious in the Law," or "Illustrious master of the Law." The Shih which often precedes it is an abbreviation of the name of Buddha as Sakyamuni, "the Sakya, mighty in Love, dwelling in Seclusion and Silence," and may be taken as equivalent to Buddhist.
Childhood of Fa-hien
Fa-hien was born in the southern Shanxi Province of China, in modern Linfen City, during the Jin dynasty (266–421 CE) that patronised Buddhism indifference to most other Chinese dynasties. He became a Buddhist monk at the age of three under the religious name Fa-hien, meaning ‘Manifest Law’.
Fa-hien had three elder brothers who died young. When he was 3 years old, his father decided to let him become a novice monk for the blessings and protection of the bodhisattvas. However, he was too young to live independently in the Buddhist temple, therefore he remained at home. A few years later, Fa-hien suffered from a serious illness. His father then sent him to a Buddhist temple, in which he surprisingly recovered after two nights. After that, he was unwilling to go home and stayed at the temple.
When Fa-hien was 10 years old, his father died. Considering the great difficulty for his mother to independently support the family, his uncle advised Fa-hien to return home to the secular life, but he refused. In order to facilitate his mother visiting, Fa-hien subsequently built a small house for her outside the temple.
One day, when Fa-hien, along with dozens of monks, was harvesting rice in a rice field, a group of famine victims came to steal the rice. All the monks fled except for Fa-hien. He said to the famine victims: “If you need the rice, you can take it as your pleasures. However, you should know, the reason why you are so poor and hungry today, is that you had never done any almsgiving in the past lives. If you now still want to grab the other’s rice, you will be hopeless. I am worried about your future lives!” Then he returned to the Buddhist temple and the famine victims gave up on their theft. Hundreds of monks in the temple all admired the behaviour of Fa-hien.
Later, Fa-hien entered into the sangha (taking the complete precepts of a Chinese Buddhist monk) and did his best to strictly fellow them. At this time, he often lamented the absence of Buddhist scriptures, especially on precepts (sila-vinaya), which he swore to seek out in India when he grew up.
As a pioneer in the 4th century, Fa-hien started a new era of pilgrimage to ancient India for Buddhist scriptures. His story has promoted tourism relevant to Buddhist culture, and even now continues to strengthen friendship among Asian countries.
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