Fa Xian’s Travels
NOTE: Fa Xian was drawn for inspiration for this essay. It is said that he never actually met Chandragupta II, but this essay postulates how a meeting of the two would have gone. Some sources were used to ensure accuracy (see bibliography), but some artistic license was used. I could not personally find an account of Amaravati stupa in Fa Xian’s accounts, but I did find an account of Xuanzang’s visit to the same, and drew inspiration from it.)
As I walked into the crowded courtroom, even I could recognize some of the brightest scholars and luminaries of the region. It was an impressive gathering, but none as impressive as the man sitting at the end of the huge room- Chandragupta II. His eyes fell upon me, and he rose, announcing what I presumed to be his greeting. My translator, my good friend Buddha-bhadra, whispered to me, “He’s glad to see you, Fa Xian. He hopes to learn much about your travels.”
(From now on, I shall write as though the King and I were addressing each other directly, for the sake of convenience.)
He led me into another chamber, equally large but more private, and had me seated before him. “We meet, finally, my good man. I’ve heard much of you from my courtiers, of your travels and your own incredible story. I was anxious to hear a first hand account from you. So tell me, first, how does a foreigner like your good self find himself in our land?”
I cleared my throat, undeniably nervous. This was a man whose sharp wit and reputation preceded him, but I had also heard of his immense love and patronage of the arts, and thus a poor writer like myself couldn’t help but feel comfortable in his mighty presence. “My story, my lord, is a little different from that of other pilgrims you might have encountered. I turned to Buddhism at a young age, not out of my own choice, but of my father’s desperation. He had lost my three older brothers before they even shed their first tooth, and so he devoted me to service as a sramanera, believing it to be a form of protection. I remained at home, hateful of the identity he tried to give me, and refusing to adopt it fully. Then one day, I fell ill. Father thought he was losing me too, and rushed me to the monastery. There. Not only was I totally healed, but also I experienced my very first spiritual awakening. I felt a calling from the Buddha himself, and I understood the cyclical nature of life. I refused to return home with my parents- I understood that I had been saved for a purpose. I had work to do. My parents passed, and yet this did not shake me from my monastic life. I knew even they saw in me the calling to monkhood, and took pride in this nature.
I walked to your country, my lord. It was a difficult experience, but I wanted no aid from ships on this momentous occasion in my life. Passing icy deserts and unforgiving mountain peaks, I undertook this journey to the birthplace of the Buddha, to search for a complete text of the Vinaya Pitaka- all the rules and regulations for the sangha. The condition of the books of discipline we have in China is deplorable, and I swore I would remedy this.
It is only a happy coincidence that, being a writer, I was able to explore you kingdom and its administration in my pilgrimage to each and every site of importance to Buddhism.”
The king’s eyes had widened almost amusingly when my translator mentioned I had travelled here by foot. “You are a brave man, Fa Xian!” he replied, “That is an arduous journey. Such dedication is a pleasure to see, I can only hope someday my own followers shall be willing to sacrifice so much. Tell me; were you able to visit all your sites? I hope you find that they are satisfactorily preserved. It must have evoked something within you, to see the birthplace of the religion that you’ve dedicated your lifetime to.’
I closed my eyes, as images of my travels swam before my eyes. It had been an esoteric, magnificent experience, and I almost didn’t know where to begin.
“I burst into tears at three occasions, on my travels, my lord. The first, was upon losing my dear friend Huijing in a terrible cold storm near the Pamir mountains. The second, was at Vulture Peak (Gijjhakuta). I could feel the energy the Buddha had left there, and could only weep at having missed his presence and seen only his relics. I dedicated some flowers, lit a lamp, and recited the Shurangama Sutra that he had preached at this very spot. Last, was only a few months ago. In the island to the south, Sri Lanka, I visited the Abhagyiri Temple, and found a white silk fan that was produced in my home country, China. A man who has been away from his home for ten years can only weep at such a reminder.
I visited the four great stupas, too. The sites where the bodhisattva as King Sibi sacrificed his flesh to ransom a dove from a hawk, where he willingly gave up his eyes when asked for them, where he lay down his body to feed a hungry tigress, and finally, where he as King Candraprabha cut off his own head as a gift to a Brahmin. All of these are tales from the Jataka emphasizing ‘gifts from the body’ (dehadana), which truly represent the generous spirit of the Buddha.
Of course, the stupa which truly stuck in my mind, is the Amaravati. The massive circular structure with giant granite pillars, railings, and drum slabs. The gates adorned with sculptures of youth and animals, of the Buddha preaching and of the Great Departure. I very nearly wept again at the magnificence of this structure. I could only imagine how beautifully it shall be preserved for thousands of years, how humankind shall forever cherish the mastery that this building shows and the reverence for the Buddha. It is here that I studied the Abhidhamma Pitaka, and the emotions swelled within me at being a part of something so historic.”
I closely watched the King’s expression as Buddha-bhadra related what I said to him. He looked so warm and open that I could hardly believe this was the great fearful monarch everyone was ruled by.
“And now,” the king said, smiling, “How have you liked my administration? I know you have spent years among the people, are there any complaints you have heard? How does my kingdom compare to your Chinese monarchs?”
I could have answered candidly at once, but I hesitated. I remembered that this was not just a friend I was speaking to casually, but a king rumoured to have assassinated his own brother for power, a cunning war leader who disguised himself as a queen to slay his enemy rulers. I would be honest, but I had to stop my tongue from revealing too much despite the comfort of the situation.
“I have nothing but praise to offer, my lord. The citizens live happily, and have no worries. Prosperity is rampant, I almost can’t believe my eyes. To the poor Chinese boy who came here ten years ago, it is impossible to think of so many charitable institutions, rest houses for travelers, even free hospitals as you see here! It warms me to see that people do not cling to their wealth, and instead aid the poor and helpless with it. I have learnt much about dharma from my friends here. People in Malwa do not even lock their houses, register their households, or attend any magistrate. They live in utmost peace, refusing to kill living things, eat root vegetables or drink wine. There is no dealing of cattle, no butchery, no keeping of pigs and fowl. The kings in other places I visit show such greed, they seize any wealth that their citizens manage to chance upon, and closely regulate all their attempts at business. Here sir, you leave people be, and they find success their own way. For that, they are ultimately grateful to you.
I have seen many Chandalas however, who offend the order of dharma. But I suppose every society has its outcasts, its non-believers, and it is good these are marked by the pieces of wood they carry.
Your tolerance of my religion, dear lord, and of the Jains, is most benevolent and kind of you. I know that you have great love for your Hindu gods, and your free interaction with me displays your enlightenment in such matters.
I would thank you, my lord, for making my experience here so good it wrenches my heart to leave behind. Thank you for giving me this opportunity to take your blessings.”
Chandragupta II smiled, his wise eyes twinkling. “You have always had my blessings, good fellow, all men of God do- whatever God they may follow. Do you leave for China soon? Walking again, eh?”
I laughed, relieved at his obvious good humour. “No no, I have got permission to take board of a ship with many others, this time. I have collected eleven books of great importance to Buddhists. Mahaparinirvana Sutra, Mahasamghika Vinaya, Samyuktabhidharmahdaya Sastra, Vaitulyanirvana Sutra, Mahasanhga Sila, Zazang Sutra, Dirghagama Sutra, Samyuktagama Sutra, Mahisasaka Vinaya and Mahisasakah Vinaya (Sarvastivada). Buddha-bhadra here and I intend to translate them in China, so everyone can access them as we are able to. This is my life’s mission, which I hope I can complete before I leave to begin the next stage. I take your leave now, my lord. Many thanks for your gracious kindness, and the honour of this meeting. You have the protection of your Gods, I know, but this poor monk too would add his blessings to that. May your kingdom be forever as prosperous as seen today”
The King rose gracefully, and shook my hand firmly. “Safe journey, Faxian, and may your life’s mission find completion with you.”
1. Relics of the Boddhisattva- John Strong.
2. Faxian’s Biography and his Contributions to Asian Buddhist Culture: Latest textual Analysis- Xican Li.
3. Wikipedia pages on Fa Xian, Chandragupta II, Amaravati.
4. A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms Being an Account by the Chinese Monk Fa-Hien of His Travels in India and Ceylon- James Legge.