Faxian - 5th Century Buddhist Travel Writer

5th Century Chinese Monk and Travel Writer

12th Century Chinese Woodblock of Travels of Faxian (Record of the Buddhist Countries)
12th Century Chinese Woodblock of Travels of Faxian (Record of the Buddhist Countries). "In Chang'an, Faxian was distressed that the Vinaya collections were incomplete, so.. Faxian

Faxian was a Chinese Buddhist monk who traveled the Silk Road from his home in Chang'an, China to the modern countries of Nepal, Pakistan, India, and Ceylon between 399 and 414 AD. His report, written in Chinese and translated several times into numerous languages including English as A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms, has been used as a source of information for scholars interested in Asian societies of the early 5th century, and most specifically, the early roots of Buddhism in the Indian subcontinent.

Faxian's name has been transliterated into English in a number of ways: Fa-Hsien, Fa-t'ien, Fah Hien, Fâ-Hien or Fa Xian; and he is sometimes called in the literature Fa-Ming or Shung Shih.

Becoming a Buddhist Monk

Faxian was born in AD 337 and died at the age of 88 in 422, and his adult life was spent in the Tsin [317-419] and Sung [AD 420-478] dynasties of China. Faxian was his clerical name, meaning approximately "Illustrious master of the Law": Faxian's surname was Kung, and he was a native of the town of Wuyang town in Shanxi province. He was the youngest of four brothers, all of whom died young, and so Faxian's father entered him into the Buddhist society, sending him to a monastery in Chang'an as a Sramanera (novice) before the age of 10.

Travels of Faxian

Faxian started his journey from Chang'an in 399, shortly after taking on his full Buddhist orders. According to the Record (as translated by Herbert Giles and James Legge), he was "distressed" at the state of the copies of the Buddhist Disciplines (Vinaya-pitaka), and agreed to go with a handful of other monks to obtain better copies in India.

He traveled overland on the way and by sea on the way back. His last overland stop was what is today the island of Sri Lanka embarking on a merchant ship which suffered a terrific storm and stopped briefly on Java.

When Faxian returned to China, he went to Nanking where he executed translations of some of the works he had obtained in India, in conjunction with the Indian Sramana Buddha- bhadra (Legge).

Finally, he moved to King-chow (today known as Hupei), to the Monastery of Sin, where he died at age 88.

The Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms

The English versions of Buddhistic Kingdoms include the story of Faxian's travels from Chang'an overland along the Silk Road through the Gobi desert into Nepal, Pakistan, India and Ceylon, and his return to China over sea.

The text of the book is written in the third person, although it is believed to have been written by himself. It opens with Faxian setting off from Chang'an and meeting up with several other monks headed off to the "Middle Land", what they called India. Over the next few years, most of these traveling companions hared off on their own adventures or did not survive: by the time Faxian arrived at the Ganges River, they were down to two.

A Taste of the Text

Faxian visited the important Buddhist shrines of Lumbini, Kapilavastu, Kushinagar and Bodhgaya. Much of the content of the Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms is dedicated to reporting the history and legends of the Buddha and others important to the Buddhist religion. Faxian spent time in several other locations during his journey, and his descriptions of the rulers of these various kingdoms, as well as the monasteries and stupas standing at in the 5th century AD, are of interest to archaeologists as well.

Faxian's Stops in China

The following snippets of text are from Legge's 1886 translation.

Dunhuang (11-12), where Faxian received assistance from the prefect about how to cross the Gobi desert: "There is not a bird to be seen in the air above, nor an animal on the ground below. Though you look all round most earnestly to find where you can cross, you know not where to make your choice, the only mark and indication being the dry bones of the dead (left upon the sand)."

Khotan: "...a pleasant and prosperous kingdom, with a numerous and flourishing population.... Throughout the country, the houses of the people stand apart like (separate) stars, and each family has a small tope reared in front of its door. The smallest of these may be twenty cubits high, or rather more."

Stops in Pakistan/India

The Indus River, "In former times men had chiseled paths along the rocks, and distributed ladders on the face of them, to the number altogether of 700, at the bottom of which there was a suspension bridge of ropes, by which the river was crossed, its banks being there eighty paces across"

Saravasti where he visited the Jetavana monastery: {The Jetavana vihara was originally ​built in seven stories. The kings and people of the countries around ... [hung] about it silken streamers and canopies, scattering flowers, burning incense, lighting lamps so as to make the  night the day"

Kapilavastu: "The country of Kapilavastu is a great scene of empty desolation. The inhabitants are few and far between. On the roads, people have to be on their guard against white elephants and lions, and should not travel incautiously.")

Patna: "The 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 the stones, reared the walls and gates, and executed the elegant carving and inlaid sculpture- work, — in a way which no human hands of this world could accomplish."

Heading Home

Abhayagiri Monastery in Sri Lanka: "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 Buddha) in green jade, more than twenty cubits in height, glittering all over with those substances and having the appearance of solemn dignity which words cannot express."

Java: "where various forms of error and Brahmanism are flourishing, while Buddhism in it is not worth speaking of."


All of the English translations are long out of copyright and can be found in numerous places and forms throughout the Internet.