Fa-Hsien: Scholar monk par excellence
Fa-Hsien was born in 374 AD in the village of Wu-yang in China’s Shansi province. His surname, it is said, was Kung. Because his three older brothers had all died in childhood, his father dedicated him to a Buddhist monastery in the hope of safeguarding his life. When Fa-Hsien was ten his father died, and his uncle urged him to return home but he decided to continue the religious life his father had chosen for him.
There are many stories attributed to him to show his wisdom and courage even during his Samanera period. On one occasion he was harvesting paddy with a score of his fellow-disciples, when some thieves came upon them to take away their grain by force. The other Samaneras all fled, but Fa-Hsien stood his ground, and said to the thieves, “If you must have the grain, take what you please. But, Sirs, it was your former neglect of charity which brought you to your present state of destitution; and now, again, you wish to rob others.
I am afraid that in the coming ages you will have still greater poverty and distress;—I am sorry for you beforehand.” With these words he followed his companions into the monastery, while the thieves left the grain and went away.
At the age of twenty, Fa-Hsien was ordained as a fully fledged monk. By that time he has already become a respected young and enterprising Buddhist scholar. However, Fa-Hsien felt that the Chinese translations of the Buddhist texts were of poor quality and wished to make his own translations from the original texts, which were written in Sanskrit. In A.D. 399, when he was about twenty-five years old, he decided to set off on a hazardous quest to India to discover the authentic Buddhist writings. He planned to cross central Asia into India, following an ancient spice trading route.
Travelling with few other monks, Fa-Hsien began his journey towards northern China and after months of walking he made his way town of Khotan located on the southern part of the “Silk Road” trading route that ran between China and India. He crossed present Turkestan and then passed with difficulty through the Pamir Mountains on his way to the Indus River. A second mountain range gave the travellers even more trouble, for it had frequent storms and was deep with snow. Later, in his memoirs, Fa-Hsien would write of the mountains: “There are also among them venomous dragons, which, when provoked, spit forth poisonous winds, and cause, showers of snow and storms of sand and gravel.”
Fa-Hsien and his party managed to reach the great city of Peshawar. Now closer to his destination, he crossed the Punjab plains into northern India. In the holy city of Magadha (near modern-day Patna), he spent the next three years collecting and copying Buddhist texts. During that time he also visited many shrines and holy sites where important events in Buddha’s life had taken place. He is most known for his pilgrimage to Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha. Travelling down the Ganges River, Fa-Hsien reached the port of Tamralipti, where he spent another two years.
Leaving India, Fa-Hsien sailed to the nearby Sri Lanka, which was an important centre of Buddhism at that time. He spent two more years in Sri Lanka doing extensive research in Anuradhapura and other areas. In 413 AD Fa-Hsien began his journey back to China by sea. It was not destined to an easy trip.
Heading eastward across the Indian Ocean, Fa-Hsien’s ship was wrecked on a small island near Sumatra. He managed to make it to the nearby island of Java, where he spent the next five months waiting for a second ship to China. That boat, which was headed for the south Chinese city of Canton, got blown off its course and was adrift for seventy days. Finally, it touched land on the Shantung Peninsula in northern China. The year was 414 AD.
Upon his return, Fa-Hsien went to Nanking (Nanjing), then China’s capital city. He spent the next several years working on Chinese translations of the Sanskrit texts he had brought back. He then retired to a monastery in the province of Hupei, where he wrote the story of his travels, titled Fo-Kwe-Ki (Memoirs of the Buddhist Realms). It was an excellent geographic account of his journey along the Silk Roads, and an comprehensive report of the history and customs of Central Asia and India and Sri Lanka. Fa-Hsien stayed at the monastery until his death at the age of eighty-eight.
About Sri Lanka
Fa-Hsien mentions several events and customs he has seen and experienced during his stay in Sri Lanka. The following are few extracts.
“When Buddha came to this country wishing to transform the wicked nagas, by his supernatural power he planted one foot at the north of the royal city. Over this footprint the king built a large tope, 400 cubits high, grandly adorned with gold and silver, and finished with a combination of all the precious substances.
By the side of the top he further built a monastery, called the Abhayagiri, where there are (now) five thousand monks. There is in it a hall of Buddha, adorned with carved and inlaid works of gold and silver, and rich in the 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 an appearance of solemn dignity which words cannot express. In the palm of the right hand there is a priceless pearl”.
“The king practices the religious purifications, and the sincerity of the faith and reverence of the population inside the city are also great. Since the establishment of government in the kingdom there has been no famine or scarcity, no revolution or disorder.” “In the city there are many elders and merchants, whose houses are stately and beautiful.
The lanes and passages are kept in good order. At the heads of the four principal streets there have been built preaching halls, where, on the eighth, fourteenth, and fifteenth days of the month, they spread carpets, and set forth a pulpit, while the monks and commonalty from all quarters come together to hear the sermons.
The people say that in the kingdom there may be altogether sixty thousand monks, who get their food from their common stores. The king, besides, prepares elsewhere in the city a common supply of food for five or six thousand more. When any want, they take their great bowls, and go (to the place of distribution), and take as much as the vessels will hold, all returning with them full”.
“The tooth of Buddha is always brought forth in the middle of the third month. Ten days beforehand the king grandly caparisons a large elephant, on which he mounts a man who can speak distinctly, and is dressed in royal robes, to beat a large drum, and make the following proclamation “Behold! ten days after this, Buddha’s tooth will be brought forth, and taken to the Abhayagiri-vihara. Let all and each, whether monks or laics, who wish to amass merit for themselves, make the roads smooth and in good condition, grandly adorn the lanes and by-ways, and provide abundant store of flowers and incense to be used as offerings to it.”
“When this proclamation is over, the king exhibits, so as to line both sides of the road, the five hundred different bodily forms in which the Bodhisattva has in the course of his history appeared. All these figures are brightly coloured and grandly executed, looking as if they were alive. After this the tooth of Buddha is brought forth, and is carried along in the middle of the road. Everywhere on the way offerings are presented to it, and thus it arrives at the hall of Buddha in the Abhayagiri-vihara.
There monks and laity are present. They burn incense, light lamps, and perform all the prescribed services, day and night without ceasing, till ninety days have been completed, when (the tooth) is returned to the vihara within the city. On fast-days the door of that vihara is opened, and the forms of ceremonial reverence are observed according to the rules”.
“Forty le to the east of the Abhayagiri-vihara there is a hill, with a vihara on it, called the Chaitya, where there may be 2000 monks”.