The Legend of Chinese Monk Faxian
The “Belt and Road Initiative” is China’s national strategy. The historic Silk Road is not only an ancient commercial trade route connecting Asia, Africa and Europe, but also a road between the East and the West for economic, political and cultural exchan
Faxian’s explorations expanded the vision of the Chinese and triggered an upsurge of travel to the Western Regions to acquire Buddhist scriptures.
It was on a rainy day in May, AD 412 when a violent storm swept the Indian Ocean, and a ship sailed towards the East among raging waves. Sailors and passengers were frightened and helpless.
Only one passenger, an old man, didn't pray nor panic, behaved with composure as usual. He was called Faxian (AD 337– c. 422), a Buddhist monk who had pilgrimed to India 13 years ago to learn and spread Buddhist doctrine. Having going through
plenty of hardships and perils already, he cared much more about the sacred Buddhist texts and books he brought back than his own life because he knew how much effort should be exerted to acquire the classics. Unexpectedly, another disaster was creeping up on him: merchants on the ship who believed in Brahmanism were so absurd to claim Faxian was the jinx of the ship, therefore he was thrown out into the sea as a sacrifice to Poseidon.
Heading Home after the Pilgrim
In the year AD 407, Faxian planned his journey back from Pataliputra in Magadha (ancient Central India) to China after three years' of researching in Buddhism and transcribing Buddhist scriptures. He had been in his 70s, not being able to climb up hills and trek across deserts like a young man. Just when he racked his brain on how to find a more feasible way, he was told by a local merchant that there were merchant ships setting off from the port in the south on a regular basis across the ocean to the eastern lands. This news relieved Faxian from anxiety, so he travelled south to look for a reliable sea route while studying the Dharma constantly.
The next year he arrived in Tāmralipti (present-day Tamluk, Bangladesh), the land located east of the Ganges Delta, a convenient hub for both land and water transportation in ancient Central India. Numerous Buddhist scriptures and paintings as well as a great many Buddhist monasteries could be found there. Surprised by this scene, as a monk thirsty for knowledge, Faxian believed this could be a great place for him to continue his study. He stayed here for another two years, transcribing scriptures and practising to draw the image of Buddha.
By the end of AD 409, Faxian had obtained the skill of painting Buddha, so he resumed his journey back home. He got on a merchant ship travelling south-west from Tāmralipti to the island country Sinhala (present-day Sri Lanka) in the Indian Ocean, or the Country of Lions. In a local language, Sri Lanka meant “the land of promise” or “a promising and prosperous land”, also known as “the kingdom of gems” and “the pearl in the Indian Ocean.”
Ever since Chinese diplomat Zhang Qian of the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC–AD 24) explored the Silk Road to the Western Regions, the demand of Chinese commodity from western countries had been risen day by day, however, the transport scale of the Silk Road was limited, let alone the route could even be cut off due to battles and wars. To build an alternative channel for trade, a maritime Silk Road, the first route linking the East and West on the sea in human history, was established by the joint efforts of merchants from both directions after several centuries. Sri Lanka was a major stop along the route.
Faxian's original intention was to travel to Sri Lanka and find a way back home via the maritime Silk Road, however, he stayed there for about two years. For a man who was in his seventies and eager to return home, only the Buddha's teachings could change his mind, as A Record of Buddhist Kingdoms documented.
The island of Sri Lanka had been a centre of Buddhist scholarship and learning since the introduction of Buddhism in the second century BC by the Maurya Dynasty of ancient India. Sinhalese kings had played a major role in the maintenance and prosperity of the Buddha dharma of the island. It was considered that Sri Lanka was the Island of Buddhism where the utmost classic Buddhist doctrines remained.
Anuradhapura, the capital of the Sinhalese dynasty during over 1,300 years from the third century BC to the 10th century AD, the ancient city in the central-northern part of Sri Lanka built in the fifth century BC, was famous for its well-preserved Buddhist civilisation. Faxian witnessed the city's prime time. Today there is a holy and huge Bodhi tree in Anuradhapura which has a great significance in the history of Buddhism, believed to have been propagated from the original Bodhi tree of Buddha. As elaborately described by Faxian, “the king of the Country of Lions sent envoys to Magadha to pick up the branch of Buddha's Bodhi tree and planted it in the earth next to the Buddhist Monastery; now the tree has grown over 20 zhang (66.67 metres) high, worshipped by disciples with utmost respect and honour.”
Abhayagiri Monastery (lit. the Fearless Mountain Monastery) in the northern part of Anuradhapura was the residence of Faxian then. According to a description in his book
A Record of Buddhist Kingdoms, “there is in it a hall of Buddha, adorned with carved and inlaid work of gold and silver, and rich in seven precious substances, in which there is an image (of Buddha) in green jade, more than twenty cubits in height, glittering all over with those substances and having a solemn appearance of dignity which goes beyond words.” The Monastery was one of the most sacred Buddhist pilgrimage centre with 5,000 monks studying there, in this complex of monastic buildings there were numerous Buddha images open to the public for both day visits and longer stays. In its scripture chambers plenty of invaluable historical records and Buddhist classics such as the Mahīśāsaka Vinaya and the Dirghagama-sutra were maintained, and which fascinated Faxian the most, if not by the profound atmosphere of studying the Dharma. To study and copy the classics that were never seen in China, Faxian decided to stay longer in Sri Lanka, until AD 411 when he finally finished transcribing all
Buddhist scriptures he had found, marking a satisfying end to his 12-year pilgrimage with a complete collection of Buddhist classics.
Years of travel made Faxian feel lonely and homesick, especially when he thought that other monks who had travelled with him either passed away or migrated. One day in the Monastery, he saw a Chinese silk fan given by a merchant to the Buddha, whose memory was triggered by this home-made object. He decided to return home.
Thrilling Homeward Journey
In August AD 411, 74-year-old Faxian started the journey to return his hometown with plenty of Buddhist scriptures. Twelve years ago, Faxian departed from Chang'an for India in search of Buddhist sutras. He finally embarked on his homeward journey.
However, Faxian was not sure if he could return to his hometown through unpredictable weather and a vast ocean. After a severe storm for more than 100 days, the ship finally reached a place called Yava-dvipa.
For a long time, scholars interpreted Yava-dvipa as either Java or Sumatra. However, this explanation doesn't answer readers' doubts. The problem lies in the distance. There are 1,800 nautical miles from Sri Lanka to Java. Normally, it takes about fifteen days to sail across this distance under the forcethree wind. The ship started in August of the lunar calendar, when the Bay of Bengal was in monsoon season with average five or six wind force. Moreover, the ship came across a strong storm lasting for thirteen days shortly after departure. There was enough time to send them to Java, but where did they go for the next 90 days? People are still searching for the answer to that question.
In 1520, Ferdinand Magellan's global fleet sailed across the Pacific Ocean from the southern tip of South America to the Philippines, in exactly 90 days. In view of this, the time required for sailing across the Pacific Ocean is 90 days. Some people came to the conclusion that Faxian had been to the American continent, but this caused great controversy. Anyway, whether Faxian was the first Chinese who ever arrived in America or not, his sailing experience was of great significance in the maritime history of China and the world.
According to Faxian's records, they stayed in Yava-dvipa for five months. In May AD 412, he finally boarded the repaired merchant ship and continued his journey eastwards to China.
On a dark night, struck suddenly by a storm, the ship drifted into the fierce and frightening waves and faced the danger of a shipwreck at any moment. At this point, the terror-struck Brahman merchants decided to throw Faxian into the sea as a sacrificial offering to God. They thought it was this pagan Chinese monk who made them suffer a disaster. Brahmans soon took action. At this critical moment, a devout Chinese merchant stepped forward to protect Faxian. Awed by his warning, these Brahmanists finally gave up their conspiracy and Faxian was saved.
After three months of sailing, the ship finally arrived at Changguang Prefecture of Qingzhou (present-day Laoshan in Qingdao, Shandong Province) of the Eastern Jin Dynasty (AD 317–420). Located in the east of China, Laoshan (Mount Lao) had always been the departure point for any Chinese dreaming of going abroad. In the past, the First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty (reign: 246–209 BC) and Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty (140–86 BC) placed their dream of longevity on imaginary overseas mountains. Countless explorers set off from Laoshan without any message were sent back. In the year AD 412, Laoshan finally received a 75-year-old homing voyager.
Since Faxian left Chang'an 13 years ago, he travelled through more than 30 countries and experienced numerous hardships. What he brought back to China was an invaluable amount of spiritual wealth. Heading west for Buddhist scriptures in his sixties and coming back in his seventies, Faxian created a great miracle. However, he didn't feel at ease after this journey, because he felt a new mission was about to begin.
A Heroic Undertaking Creates a Legend
At that time in China, due to the lack of Buddhist classics and misunderstanding in translation, the debate over Buddhist disciplines was becoming increasingly fierce, with many monks lost in their ways of practice. According to historical records, Faxian brought back 12 Buddhist sutras in more than 60 volumes, totalling over one million characters. He was eager to translate these Sanskrit scriptures copied by himself into Chinese and spread them everywhere. Translating scriptures was a painstaking job, and choosing a suitable place for doing it became a big challenge for Faxian.
In the early fifth century, Chang'an, the capital of the Later Qin Dynasty (AD 384–417) in North China, became devastated by wars and the prevalence of Buddhism was no longer seen there. However, Jiankang (present-day Nanjing of Jiangsu Province), the capital of the Eastern Jin Dynasty, became the Buddhist centre for its peace and prosperity. In order to complete the heavy task of translating Buddhist scriptures, Faxian didn't return to Chang'an where he had lived, but headed towards Jiankang.
In Daochang Temple at Jiankang, Faxian, together with Bhadra, a monk from Nepal, began to translate the many volumes of Buddhist scriptures. This was a very difficult task. In addition to his roundthe- clock translation of scriptures, Faxian also expounded the texts of Buddhism to his young disciples, because he knew that a man's life is limited, but also that Buddhist sutras should be passed down from generation to generation.
In AD 414, the 77-year-old Faxian left Daochang Temple and came to Xin Temple in Jiangling of Jingzhou. In this remote temple, Faxian wrote one of the most important works in his life, the world-famous A Record of Buddhist Kingdoms. In this book, he recorded his 13 years of experience searching for Buddhist scriptures in the Western Regions, revealing his tenacity in the face of endless hardships as well as his own pious devotion to the Buddhist dharma.
After finishing A Record of Buddhist Kingdoms, Faxian knew that his life was coming to an end. Faxian worshipped Buddha in the temple for the last time. In AD 423, Faxian died peacefully at the age of 86 in Xin Temple in Jiangling of Jingzhou. For this great monk, the purpose of his life was to become a Buddhist and he had followed in the Buddha's footsteps, without a moment of weakness. Faxian became a Buddhist at the age of three, became a monk at 20, came to Chang'an at 50, and started his western pilgrimage at 62. Dedicated to his beliefs, he completed an unprecedented undertaking with persistence.
In Chinese history, Faxian was not only an outstanding traveller and translator, but also an immortal pioneer. The exploration of Faxian greatly expanded the vision of the Chinese and triggered an upsurge of travel to the Western Regions to acquire Buddhist scriptures. Following his footsteps, 230 years later, Xuanzang of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618– 907) also embarked on a journey westward, becoming yet another pilgrim legend.
In Kalutara, a city near Colombo, today's capital of Sri Lanka, a piece of “Faxian Stone” was preserved in the memory of the Chinese pioneer for cultural exchange between China and Sri Lanka. In 1981, the governments of the two nations jointly established the “Faxian Stone Village” named after the great monk at the original site of the Abhayagiri Monastery, as a testimony of the traditional friendship between the Chinese and Sri Lankans. Coincidentally, in Gongjia village of today's Xiangyuan County in Shanxi Province, the birthplace of Faxian, although there is only one family remaining surnamed Gong (Faxian's surname was Gong before he became a monk), the village's name has been preserved in the memory of one fellow villager.
With 1,600 years passed, Faxian has never been forgotten. His book A Record of Buddhist Kingdoms has been translated into many languages, such as English, French, Japanese, and Hindi, leaving a precious heritage for cultural exchange between China and other countries.
Today, a bronze statue of Faxian stands on Xiantang Mountain in Xiangyuan County commemorating the legendary monk. As a pioneer devoted to seeking Buddhist scriptures, what Faxian left for later generations weren't only pilgrimage experiences to the West and Buddhist texts, but also a spirit, perseverance of the Chinese nation for pursuing the ideal. Faxian once explained his understanding of this spirit to the world:
“I crossed the vast desert to visit India to acquire Buddhist sutras. Through snowcapped mountains and huge waves, I finally succeeded in returning to my home country with scriptures. Because there is always constant ambition in my mind, to realise my dream, I will never give up!”
Statue of Faxian located at Laoshan beach, Qingdao, Shandong Province, where he disembarked on a homeward journey in AD 411.