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Durable Link to this BlogFriday, January 7, 2005

Chinese Monk Fa-Hsien (c. 345-420 AD)

Buddhism had taken roots in China by 1st century A.D. But the learned scholars and the laiety felt the need of authentic texts of tenets of Buddhism as also rules and regulations regarding the monastic order. Many wanted to visit the birthplace of Buddha and other holy places of his first sermon, the caves where he had meditated, the spot of his cremation etc. But the land journey was extremely hazardous and the sea route was yet to be established. Trade links between India and China did exist from very early times but the first written documents regarding India in China are by the Buddhist monk Fa-Hsien (a.k.a Fa-Hien) who visited India during the Guptas.

Fa-Hsien was already 65 years old when he started on his historical pilgrimage in 399 A.D., with some companions. He crossed the Gobhi desert "filled with evil spirits and howling winds". The roads could be detected in the vast desert only by the sculls and bones of the dead. He lost two of his fellow travelers on the way. It took him six years to cross the Indus river and reach Middle India since he had left his native Chaangan. From Khotan Gandhara Swat, Takshashila and Purushapura (Taxila & Peshawar both now in Pakistan), he had crossed thirty countries.

He stayed at Mathura and Pataliputra for six years. He studied Sanskrit and started collecting texts of Vinaya or rules of discipline for translating into Chinese. But he faced a lot of difficulty in getting written books. As per Indian oral tradition (Chinese have a very ancient system of written documents), the precepts were handed down by memory from master to disciples. But Fa-Hsien persisted "The decency the gravity, the piety of the clergy (Bhikkus) are admirable. They cannot be described". Was his observation. He often mentions that the grants and donations of the Royalty to Buddhistic monasteries were engraved on iron sheets. These do not exist today.

Fa-Hsien travelled to Sravasti, Vaishali, Kapilavastu, Kushinagar, Kosambi, Champa and other places, which were Buddhist centers. He stayed in "Buddha Country" (probably Bihar) and copied manuscripts. He sailed back form Tamralipti (Tamluk- Bengal coast), stayed at Simhala (Ceylon) for two years. The Buddha statue at mountain Abhayagiri was twenty feet high. Carved of green jade it had decoration of seven types of jewels. When he saw a fan made of Chinese silk in the hand of the statue, he remembered his homeland left long back and tears fell from his eyes.

He returned to China by a big ship, which could accommodate two hundred passengers. But a terrible storm blew and the passengers threw away all their valuables. Fa-Hsien also disposed all his personal belongings, clutching only the books he had painfully collected. His prayers to Buddha were answered. They reached Java.

Another ship for onward journey met with the same fate. The non-Buddhist travelers thought that this old monk was a bad omen and wanted to throw him over-board. His prayers saved him. Finally after three years of hazards he reached China and spent the rest of his life, translating the books he brought from India.

Fa-Hsien has left a valuable record of contemporary history and geography of the places he visited. Banaras was a holy place for all religions. He admired the efficient administration and the complete freedom people enjoyed in moving through different kingdoms, untroubled by passport regulations. The system of justice and restraint of the rulers were of high order.

Amma's Column by Jyotsna Kamat

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Jyotsna Kamat

Jyotsna Kamat Ph.D. lives in Bangalore.


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