Fa Hsien

Great Teacher Series @ Theosophy Trust


The sands are full of evil spirits and burning winds, and
anyone who encounters them dies; no one is left unharmed. No
birds fly overhead, no animals run across the ground. Squint
one's eyes, gaze as one may in the four directions, he can find
no place to turn, nothing to guide him. Only the dried bones of
the dead serve as markers on the trail.


It was Master Fa Hsien who first opened up the road
through the wilderness.


Buddha's Teaching entered China along the great Silk Route, which passed through the kingdoms of northwest India, across the Pamirs and the Takla Makan Desert, through Tun-huang and on to Ch'ang-an. By the early fifth century, great luminaries had brought buddhavachana, the word of Buddha, to northern and central China, established monastic communities and rendered sacred texts into Chinese. By the time buddhadharma was established in China, its current had engendered a desire amongst some monks to trace it back to its Indian sources. Singly and in groups, monks made their way westward, across terrible wastelands and deserts towards the Pamirs and Buddha's terrestrial home in the south. Most of them gave up the quest, stopping in one or another oasis kingdom along the way or, more likely, perishing before their goal had been reached. Fa Hsien was one of the first to make the entire journey and return home, and he was the first to put his story into writing.

Fa Hsien was born about 340 C.E. in the town of Wu-yang in Shansi province. Each of his three elder brothers had died in childhood, and his fearful parents dedicated him to the service of the Buddhist monastic community in the hope that he might gain some divine protection. When he fell seriously ill as a child, he was sent to the local monastery for medical and spiritual attention. He soon recovered, but refused to return home, declaring that he wished to become a monk and serve Buddha. When he was ten years old, his father died, and an uncle urged him to leave the monastery and live with his mother. Professing a deep love for her, he nonetheless refused, since he had chosen monkhood not simply to satisfy his father but to renounce the world. When his mother died some years later, he saw to the funeral and meticulously disposed of her estate but returned at once to his monastery.

Although he became a fully ordained monk around the age of twenty, almost nothing is known about his life before he set out for India. Eventually he came to Ch'ang-an and familiarized himself with all the work nurtured there. Whether or not he ever met Tao-an, he was profoundly aware of Tao-an's concern that the monastic community have a proper vinaya, or set of disciplinary rules. He probably knew that Kumarajiva had tried to come to Ch'ang-an, but apparently he did not realize that the great translator possessed the full Sarvastivadin vinaya. Even if he did, he would have watched many years pass by without seeing Kumarajiva released from Lu Kuang's grip in Ku-tsang. In 399 Fa Hsien decided to travel to India to obtain a copy of the vinaya. Ironically, before he achieved his goal, Kumarajiva had entered Ch'ang-an and begun to translate the rules of discipline into Chinese. To the great benefit of history, however, Fa Hsien made a record of his journey, which survives as the sole account of the Buddhist world then flourishing throughout India and Central Asia. The journal he took as incidental to his major work became a precious treasure for the future. While he primarily went in quest of a complete text of the vinaya and other Buddhist scriptures, he also longed to revere in person places sanctified by Buddha's presence. It is easy to believe that his daring journey became for him a geographic analogue of the perilous stages traversed on the path to Enlightenment.

One can imagine the thrill a sojourn of this magnitude might hold for an energetic youth excited by the prospect of exploring unfamiliar places and experiencing exotic realms in the name of a spiritual quest. Fa Hsien was not young, however. Having spent a lifetime in the Chinese Sangha, he was about sixty years old when he departed from Ch'ang-an. From a practical standpoint, such a journey for an individual of his advanced age should have seemed hopeless, but the importance of his mission moved him to start, and he never looked back, even though others died or gave up the effort along the way. The only factor in his favour was his monkhood, which served as a passport through twenty-seven kingdoms, each of which welcomed him and assisted him with guidance and supplies. Perhaps because Buddhist teachings prevailed everywhere he travelled, he witnessed neither war nor military action of any kind – a virtually unique experience in the history of the areas he visited.

In the spring of 399 Fa Hsien and a small party of monks set out from Ch'ang-an for India. Travelling west, they crossed the Lung mountains and entered Ch'ien-kuei, where they kept the traditional summer retreat. When they again moved west, through Nu-t'an and across the Yang-lou mountains, they came to Chang-yeh, a western Chinese outpost. There they encountered another group of monks who had set out for the same goal, and they joined together for the trek to India. Arriving in Tun-huang, the extreme western limit of Chinese influence, they were welcomed by the prefect Li Sung, who generously provisioned them for the stark rigours of the Gobi Desert which lay before them. The first of Tun-huang's renowned cave temples had been occupied by Buddhist monks about thirty years before Fa Hsien arrived, and he glimpsed the magnificent centre it would become. Perhaps he even met a few of the first Nestorian Christians who eventually found refuge there, but Zoroastrian refugees from Islamic persecution would not appear for several centuries. Tun-huang became a haven not only for travelling Buddhists but also for pilgrims of many faiths, and early in the twentieth century some twenty thousand carefully preserved and hidden manuscripts were discovered, including Buddhist, Nestorian, Zoroastrian and Taoist sacred texts.

Even with Prefect Li's support, it took great courage to set out across a desert whose trail markers consisted solely of "the dried bones of the dead". After seventeen arduous and sometimes terrifying days, the group came to the oasis kingdom of Shan-shan near Lop Nor Lake and found themselves in friendly, helpful Buddhist hands again. This was the beginning of Fa Hsien's discovery that adjacent kingdoms might follow alternatively Mahayana or Hinayana (so-called southern Buddhist or Theravadin) practices, whilst living next to one another with respect, friendship and mutual support. Despite the small size of Shan-shan, it supported about four thousand monks. When he moved northwest to Wu-i (Karashahr), a taxing journey, he found another four thousand monks supported by the kingdom and practising strict monastic discipline.

Turning southward, Fa Hsien came to Khotan (Ho-t'ien), the most wealthy kingdom on the southern Silk Route at that time and the complement of Kumarajiva's native Kucha on the northern route. He was overwhelmed by what he saw.

The land is exceedingly prosperous and happy, and its people are numerous and thriving. All of them are followers of buddhadharma and delight in practising its teachings. The monks number several tens of thousands, and the majority of them are dedicated to the Mahayana. They all receive food and alms from the ruler of the kingdom. The people of the state live here and there like so many stars, and each household has a small stupa or pagoda erected in front of its gate.

Fa Hsien saw in Khotan an almost utopian Buddhist kingdom, peaceful, prosperous and pious. Having come from a nation long at war with itself and others, the quiet and gracious atmosphere of Khotan moved him deeply. Although he wrote of his travels in a terse style – the book was not of any great importance to him he was a shrewd observer of human beings and institutions. His impressions of Khotan were neither simplistic nor romantic, for he tarried in the kingdom for three months, ostensibly to see a grand annual festival but also because he admired the irenic spirituality of the place.

Another monk joined Fa Hsien's party in Khotan, and together eleven monks trekked for twenty-five days across the Takla Makan Desert before reaching the oasis of Karghalik. Although a small kingdom, its Buddhist ruler supported a thousand Mahayana monks and willingly helped Fa Hsien prepare to cross the Pamirs. Taking fifteen days to ready themselves, the little group set out for the Pamir plateau, the average height of which is over twelve thousand feet.

The Pamirs are covered with snow both winter and summer. They are inhabited by poison dragons. If one arouses the ill humour of the dragons, they will at once call forth poisonous winds, cause the snow to fall, or send showers of sand, gravel and stones flying. Of the persons who have encountered such difficulties, hardly one in ten thousand has escaped without injury. The natives of the region call the poison dragons the Snow Mountain people.

Although such a journey would be daunting to anyone who risked undertaking it, one can only imagine the light of daring burning in Fa Hsien's heart, urging him forward when he was already about sixty-five years old.

On the way, he stopped at Mamuk for the summer retreat, then pushed ahead to Tashkurghan in Afghanistan, where he witnessed the king sitting on a plain mat and listening to the discourses of enthroned monks. Leaving these Mahayana kingdoms, he eventually came to T'o-li or Darel, a Hinayana kingdom marking the northernmost region of India. His awesome journey was not complete, however, for he still faced the renowned Hanging Passage through the gorges of the upper Indus River.

The trail is precarious and the cliffs and escarpments are sheer, the mountains forming stone walls which plunge thousands of feet to the valley below. Peering down, one's eyes grow dizzy, and when one tries to go forward, one can find no spot on which to place one s foot.

Traversing the Hanging Passage required crossing seven hundred ladders, sets of footholds carved in the sheer rock faces of the gorge, and suspension bridges. But when he arrived on the Gandhara plain below, he knew he had truly set foot on the sacred soil of Mother India. His party visited Udayana, Swat and Taxila, where several centuries earlier Apollonius of Tyana had heard of the Eighteen Sages. When they reached Peshawar, several monks decided to turn back. One of them, Pao-yun, successfully returned to Ch'ang-an and met Fa Hsien years later.

After saying farewell to those who chose to return to China, Fa Hsien and his diminished party moved west to Nagarahara (near modern Jalalabad), where they passed the winter waiting to cross the Safed Koh (White Mountain) range. Although hardly as formidable as ranges they had already crossed, the weather of the Safed Koh could be treacherous. When they did make their way through the mountains, severe icy winds blasted them from all sides. Hui-ching, who had accompanied Fa Hsien from Ch'ang-an, suddenly fell ill and soon died in the mountains. Weeping bitterly, Fa Hsien lamented Hui-ching's fate, since he had come so far and was denied the opportunity to see Buddha's birthplace. Moving southward, Fa Hsien entered north-central India, where the weather grew fair and travelling became relatively easy, to the great relief of the whole party.

Fa Hsien found Mathura, ruled by a Buddhist royalty, to be prosperous and peaceful. He was especially struck by the way Buddha's teachings had been translated into laws and institutions. Citizens were not required to register with the government and were free to move around at will and to reside wherever they might choose. They were also free to open up new lands for cultivation. The death penalty was unknown and most crimes were punished by fines. The general populace did not eat meat and refrained from alcoholic beverages. Numerous schools had their votaries amongst the three thousand monks he encountered there. Stupas were dedicated to Buddha's major disciples – to Shariputra, 'foremost in wisdom', to Maudgalyayana, 'foremost in magical powers', and to Ananda, especially revered by nuns, since Ananda was reputed to have first requested Buddha to allow women into the Sangha. He also found that Manjushri and Avalokiteshvara were revered as great Bodhisattvas and that prajna, perfect wisdom, was held as the highest ideal towards which a monk or nun might strive.

Fa Hsien next visited Sankisa, a small kingdom in which monks and nuns dined together and studied both Mahayana and Hinayana scriptures. Farther on he arrived in Kanauj, the monastic establishments of which were devoted to Hinayana teachings. Pressing ahead, he came to Savatthi (Ayodhya), capital of Koshala and the site of the Jetavana Grove, where Buddha taught for almost twenty-five years. He wrote of his experience in the third person:

When Fa Hsien and Tao-cheng arrived at the Jetavana Monastery, they recalled that He Who is Honoured by the World had lived there for twenty-five years. They themselves had been born in a faraway barbarian region and with their companions had journeyed onward from state to state. Along the way, some of the members of their group had gone back to China, while others, as they recalled with pain, had perished on the way. And now, as they arrived at this spot and gazed at these remains of the place where Buddha had once been, they were filled with sorrow and grieved in their hearts.

Koshala had once been a great kingdom and Savatthi a flourishing city, but war and religious strife after the passing of Buddha had undermined Koshala's prosperity, and Fa Hsien found hardly two hundred households amidst the ruins of the city. Filled with sadness, Fa Hsien reflected on the impermanence of all things.

Travelling to the east he came to Kapilavastu, where Buddha had been born. "Within the city there was no sign of a ruler or his subjects, everything being reduced to ruin." Farther east he visited the royal gardens of Lumbini, where Queen Maya had given birth to Buddha, and there drew water from the pool which had refreshed her. Then he saw Kushinagara, where Buddha entered parinirvana and passed from the earthly scene, and Vaishali (Vesali), where he taught the Licchavi people. For Fa Hsien, visiting these sites was the fulfilment of a holy pilgrimage, yet the fact that they were only sparsely inhabited and in ruins made them more relics to be venerated than living centres to take joy in.

Fa Hsien was delighted when he entered the kingdom of Magadha. Of the sixteen kingdoms said in Buddhist scriptures to have existed at the time of Buddha, Magadha was most receptive to his teachings. King Bimbisara was a lay disciple who listened attentively to Buddha's discourses, and King Ajatashatru, his son and successor, supported the Sangha during Buddha's last years and after his death. He also launched an energetic policy of expansion and unification which culminated in the rule of King Ashoka of the Mauryan dynasty over almost all the Indian subcontinent. The early receptivity of Magadha to Buddhist principles found fruition in King Ashoka's method of government. He renounced war as an instrument of state policy, built free hospitals and guest houses, provided a state-sponsored social security system, and established tolerance in respect to religion and honesty in administration. Six centuries after King Ashoka's remarkable rule, Fa Hsien found his capital, Pataliputra, flourishing as one of the greatest cities in India.

Ashoka's royal palace and halls in the midst of the city, which exist now as of old, were all made by spirits which he employed, and which piled up stones, reared walls and gates, and executed the elegant carving and inlaid sculpture-work – all in a way no human hand of this world could have accomplished. . . .
Next to the stupa of Ashoka a Mahayana monastery has been built, very grand and beautiful. Here also is found a Hinayana monastery, and the two together contain six or seven hundred monks. Their rules of demeanour and the schools in them are worthy of observation. . . . There also resides in this monastery a Brahmin teacher, Manjushri by name, whom the Hindus of greatest virtue in the kingdom, as well as the Mahayana monks, honour and look up to.

Fa Hsien was delighted to see the Ashokan policy of universal religious toleration actively carried out in the capital, and he was stunned to discover enormous wealth wedded to generosity and good works. "The inhabitants are rich", he wrote, "and vie with one another in the practice of benevolence and righteousness. While in Pataliputra, he witnessed a marvellous festival. Enormous carts were constructed, each in the shape of a stupa. Devas formed from gold, silver and lapis lazuli and covered with cashmere and silk adorned the whole moving edifice, and a Buddha with a Bodhisattva standing in attendance was placed on each of its four sides. In all, about twenty such carts were constructed, and then monks and lay people from all over the kingdom gathered at Pataliputra and reverenced the images on them. When this had been done, a delegation of Brahmins came to the stupas and invited the Buddhas to enter the city, where they were entertained with music and offerings for two nights. Meanwhile, the chief Vaishya families created open houses where the poor could come for food, clothing and medical treatment, all of which was given freely. Fa Hsien was astounded by the spiritual unity he found amongst the religions and sects of Magadha.

Fa Hsien journeyed on to Rajagriha, the capital of Magadha in King Bimbisara's day, and to Mount Gridhrakuta or Vultures Peak nearby, where Buddha had delivered a number of discourses. He also saw the Sattapanni Cave where, after Buddha's parinirvana, the First Buddhist Council convened to fix in mind his teachings. Here Ananda had recalled everything he had heard Buddha say. Fa Hsien hastened to Buddh Gaya, the place of Buddha's Enlightenment, and to the Deer Park in Sarnath (near Benares), where the first discourse was delivered. Fa Hsien was now about seventy years old and he knew he had to think of returning to China. He had found in Pataliputra the cherished vinaya he sought and had taken time to learn its language. It was the text used by the Mahasanghika school, and he later found a Sarvastivadin text of the vinaya as well as a copy of the Maha Parinirvana Sutra.

Fa Hsien made his way down the Ganges to Tamralipti, at whose seaport he spent two years translating the texts he had obtained. Then he took passage on a ship and came to Sri Lanka, where he tarried another two years, studying the scriptures there and acquiring a copy of the Mahishasaka vinaya and some Sarvastivadin texts. Only then did he set sail for China, a journey which was almost as perilous as his Asiatic trek to India. A storm drove his ship into an island, probably Java or perhaps Sumatra, and he had to take another vessel to Canton. That ship too suffered storms and eventually found a port, not in south China, but somewhere on the Shantung peninsula. From there he made his way south to Chien-k'ang (now Nanking).

When Pao-yun left Fa Hsien at Peshawar, he had returned to Ch'ang-an, where he became a disciple of Buddhabhadra, an Indian monk who came to China in 406. Eventually Buddhabhadra moved to Chien-k'ang and permanently resided in a temple there with Pao-yun as his devoted assistant. When Fa Hsien came to Chien-k'ang in about 416, he entered that temple and found Pao-yun. One can only guess at the moving words they might have shared at this remarkable reunion. Fa Hsien remained in Chien-k'ang and devoted the remainder of his life to translating the texts he had obtained in India, passing from the world of conditioned existence when he was well into his eighties. The disciple who encouraged Fa Hsien to write out a short account of his travels has left no name. Yet his brief conclusion to the work expresses his own devotion to Fa Hsien and summarizes what subsequent generations have come to feel as well.

This man is one of those who have seldom been seen from ancient times to the present. Since the Great Doctrine flowed on to the East, there has been no one to be compared with Fa Hsien in his forgetfulness of self and search for the Law. Henceforth I know that the influence of sincerity finds no obstacle, however great, which it does not overcome, and that force of will does not fail to accomplish whatever service it undertakes. Does not the achievement of such service arise from forgetting what is generally considered important and attaching importance to what is generally forgotten?


Works do not bind him who renounces all acts through yoga, who by wisdom has cut asunder all doubts, who is self-possessed, O Dhananjaya.

Bhagavad-Gita IV.41 SHRI KRISHNA