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

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated by Ding Yue and Lu Zhimin, edited by Mark Zuiderveld

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.

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