Fa-Hien (Fa Xian)
In the year 399 AD, a Chinese Buddhist Scholar monk named Fa-Hien embarked on a heroic odyssey, on foot, from China to Sri Lanka crossing the great Gobi desert. Fa-Hien writes: “There is not a bird to be seen in the air above, nor an animal on the ground below.” It was an overland travel of supreme scale of courage and endurance until Khotan, an oasis to the North of Kashmir was arrived at. At Khotan, Fa-Hien was to quench his thirst, physical to the content of his heart and spiritual to a certain stage: Khotan was home to monasteries inhabited by scholars of Theravada (Hinayana) Buddhism.
The oasis of Khotan was a dream following an almost endless nightmare of day after day, night after night in the Gobi desert. Fa-Hien narrated: “This country is prosperous and happy; its people are well to do; they have all received the Faith, and find their amusement in religious music.”
The next stop of Fa-Hien was in the country of Kasghar where a monastery that claimed among its holiest belonginings, a spittoon that was once used by Buddha. Though Fa-Hein found scholars of Thervada Buddhism at Khotan, on his onward journey from Kasghar, Fa-Hein was to meet the scholars of Mahayana Buddhism.
At Udayana, which lies north of India Fa-Hien discovered a foot print of Buddha which “appears to be long or short according to the faith in each particular person” From the north of India, to India over the Himalaya, it was a perilous descent of “ten thousand cubits” Fa-Hien spent no less than a decade studying Buddhist manuscript in the “central Buddhist realm”: both sides of the Himlayas: Kabul region as well as Ganges valley. Kapilavastu, Gaya, Benares, Pataliputra (Patna) were stopovers of Fa-Hien. At Patapaliputra, the capital of the greatest emperor ever, Mayuran Asoka, Fa-Hein spent three years learning Sanskrit language and copying Vinaya Pitakaya (Discipline at the monasteries) and Pataliputra and followed up with another two years at the seaport of Tamluk, down steam of Ganges, at the delta of Hoogly, copying “sutras”. At Tamluk, Fa-Hien began his sea-journey to Sri Lanka.
Fa-Hien narrates in third person:
“At the end of this time he took passage on a large merchant vessel, and setting sail proceeded towards the south-west with the first of the favorable monsoon. After fourteen days and nights, he came to the country of the Sinhala, said by the inhabitants to lie at a distance of about seven hundred yojanas from Tamaluk.”
“Through the coming and the going of the merchants in this way, when they went away, the people of the various countries heard how pleasant the land was, and flocked to it in numbers till it became a great nation. The climate is temperate and attractive, without any difference of summer or winter. The vegetation is always luxuriant, cultivation proceeds whenever men think fit: there are no fixed seasons for it.”
Fa-Hien narrated the cremation of the High priest of Maha Vihara at Anuradhapura, Arhat (Sanskrit: supremely enlightened) Mahinda of India, the great Buddhist missionary, whom he didn’t see alive, but had just arrived in time in Sri Lanka at the time of funeral.
“At the time of the cremation, the king and his subjects collected from all quarters and with offerings of flowers and incense followed the car to the burial ground, the king himself making personal offerings of flowers and incense. When these ceremonies were finished, the car was placed on the top of the pyre, oil of basil was poured all over it and light was applied. While the fire was blazing, everyone was moved with a reverence, and each took off his upper garment, and together with feather-fan and umbrella, threw it from a distance into the midst of the flames so as to help on the cremation. When it was all over, the bones were collected and a pagoda raised over them.”
Fa-Hien lived in Anuradhapura of Sri Lanka Holidays, the greatest monastic city of the world, during its glorious days. Fa-Hien narrates extensively on Abhayagiri Dagoba of Sri Lanka Holidays and the monastery and a priceless colossal Buddha statue carved in Jade, a gem material.
“Where there are now five thousand monks. There is in it a hall of Buddha, adorned with carved and inlaid work of gold and silver, and rich in the seven precious substances, in which there is an image (of the Buddha) in green jade more than twenty cubits high.”
Fa-Hien, who had refrained from narrating on Chinese companions, wrote of his first sight of a Chinese at Anuradhapura. “Suddenly, one day, when he was standing by the side of the image of jade, he saw a Chinese merchant presenting as his offering a Chinese fan of white silk; and tears of sorrow involuntary filled his eyes and fell down,’’ he writes. Twelve years had elapsed since Fa-Hien left China.
Fa-Hien ’s description of Anuradhapura of Sri Lanka Holidays, the greatest monastic city in the world then, is particularly revealing of the ancient urban planning of ancient Sri Lanka.
“The dwellings of the merchants are very grand; and the side streets and main thoroughfares are level and well-kept. At all points where four roads meet there are chapels for preaching the Faith: and on the eighth, fourteenth and fifteenth of each month, a lofty dais is arranged where ecclesiastics and laymen come together from all quarters to hear the Faith expounded.”
Fa-Hien went on to narrate what would have been the earliest precursor to the modern Kandy Esala Perehera Pageant.
“The sacred Tooth is then brought out and passes along the central street, receiving the homage of offerings as it goes by. Arriving at the Hall of the Buddha in the shrine of the Abhayagiri monastery, ecclesiastics and laymen flock together in crowds, burn incense, light lamps and perform the various ceremonies of the Faith day and night without ceasing.
Fa-Hien spent two years in Sri Lanka copying the Vinaya Pitakaya (Sinhala: Book of Discipline) of Theravada Buddhism and returned to China by sea.
A Record Of Buddhistic Kingdoms Being An Account By The Chinese Monk Fa-Hien Of His Travels in India And Ceylon (A. D. 399-414) In Seacrh Of The Buddhist Books Of Discipline.
Translated and Annotated With A Corean Recension Of The Chinese Text By James Legge, M.A., Oxford,1886
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