Faxian Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Chinese Buddhist pilgrim and translator{$I[g]China;Faxian} Faxian 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.

Early Life

Not much is known about the early life of Faxian (fah-shyahn). He was born c. 337 in Wuyang in Shanxi Province. His original name was Gong. He was admitted to the Buddhist orders at the age of three and received the name Faxian (“Manifestation of the Law”).

Life’s Work

In 399 c.e. the Buddhist Faxian decided to journey to India. His reason for making the journey was his concern that “not all the canon of the Monastic Rules was obtainable in China.” He was not to return to China until 414. On his return he composed Fo Guo Ji, also known as Faxian Zhuan (fourth century c.e.; Fo Koue Ki, 1836; also known as The Travels of Fa-hsien), a journal of his travels. He also took on the task of translating the monastic rules and other works that he had brought back with him.

Faxian set out from Changan (now Xi’an) in 399 with fellow pilgrims, most notably Dao Zheng (Tao-ching). Along the way he was also joined by others, including Zheyan (Che-yen) and Baoyun (Pao-yun). These travelers separated and rejoined at various points in the journey. Some returned early. Others died. Dao Zheng traveled all the way to India and decided to remain there.

The group journeyed to Dunhuang (Tunhuang) and then passed on to Khotan, staying there for three months to see the Image Procession. From Khotan, Faxian arrived in Khalcha (modern-day Kashgar) just in time for the Great Five Year Procession (Pañcavarsa) in which the king bestowed offerings on the monks. Next Faxian crossed the Pamirs, stopping in Darada, Udyana, Suvastu, Gandhara, Taxila, Purusapura, Hilo, and Nagarahara. Many of these sites were the setting for the Jātakas (fifth-fourth centuries b.c.e.; translated into English as Buddhist Birth-Stories, 1925), stories about the former lives of the Buddha. For example Suvastu was where the jātaka of the hawk and dove is said to have taken place. Near Taxila was the setting of the Tiger jātaka. Near Darada, Faxian saw an 80-foot (24-meter) statue of Maitreya, the future Buddha. Buddhist relics were also found in these towns, including the Buddha’s alms bowl in Purusapura and his skull in Hilo. The region around Nagarahara is well known for a cave where the shadow of the Buddha or the projection of his image had been preserved. Crossing the Safed Koh (Lesser Snow Mountains) he entered into north-central India.

Faxian called this region the Middle Kingdom, with Pataliputra (modern-day Patna) as its capital. He paints an idyllic picture of the region. Here he visited the major sites connected with the life of Śākyamuni Buddha. He first came to Śrāvasti, south of which city was the Jetavana Vihāra. The Buddha is said to have spent a longer time here than anywhere else. Faxian then passed on to Kapilavastu, where he saw the ruins of the palace of King Śuddhodana Gautama, the king into whose family the Buddha was born. Not far was Lumbinī, the birthplace of the Buddha. Also he traveled to Kuśinagara, where the Buddha entered parinirvāna. Most important, Faxian visited Gayā, which he described as desolate. Here he saw the Bodhi tree and the various stupas commemorating events leading up to and following the Buddha’s enlightenment. He also noted three monasteries in the area. After Gayā he went to Vārānasī (Benares) and visited nearby Deer Park, where the Buddha delivered his first sermon. In addition to these sites related to the Buddha, Faxian stayed in Pataliputra, the capital of King Aśoka.

Faxian was disappointed that there were no written copies of the monastic rules in northern India, since these rules were handed down orally. He had to travel to central India to locate written texts. There he found copies in Sanskrit of the rules of the Mahāsānghika and the Sarvāstivāda, the Samyuktabhidharma Śāstra, the Nirvāna and Vaipulyaparinirvāna sutras and the commentaries of the Mahāsānghika. Faxian then went to Tāmralipti on the east coast of India, where he spent two years copying more manuscripts and making drawings of images of the Buddha.

Sailing from Tāmralipti (modern-day Tamluk)...

(The entire section is 1830 words.)