Faxian (337 – c. 422) was a Chinese Buddhist monk, translator, and the earliest successful Chinese Buddhist pilgrim to India.
Faxian’s family name was Gong; he was born in Wuyang in Pingyang Prefecture (now Linfen, Shanxi province).
After being fully ordained at the age of 20, Faxian recognized that the Buddhist monastic rules (the Vinaya) available in China at the time were incomplete and confused and thus vowed to journey to India to search for Vinaya texts.
After years of preparation he organized a party of 5 monks, who left Chang’an in 399 and passed out of China through Qiangui, Zhangye and Dunhuang (all in north-western China).
From Dunhuang they proceeded along the southern marches of the Tarim basin to the central Asian kingdoms of Shan-shan, Agni, and Khotan, where they watched the religious procession of the Buddha’s image.
From there they travelled to Chakarka, crossed the Pamirs and Agzi, and finally arrived at the kingdom of Oḍḍiyāna in North India, via Darada and the Indus River valley.
So long and arduous was their journey that it took 3 years for the Chinese pilgrims to reach North India from China.
Faxian spent a summer retreat in Oḍḍiyāna then travelled to the south, passed through Suvastu (Swat), Gandhāra, Takṣaśīla (Taxila), and arrived at Puruṣapura (Peshawar).
There, 3 members of the mission decided to return to China.
Faxian and the others continued the journey, traveling to Hilo and paying homage to the Buddha’s shadow at Nagārhara (now Jalālābād, east-Afghanistan).
They crossed over the Lesser Snow Mountain, where Huijing, one of the 3 members of the party, died.
Faxian then travelled to Lakki, where he had the summer retreat in 403, after which he went on to Mathura via Harana and Uccha.
He passed the summer retreat in 404 at Śaṁkāśya (Sankassa).
Turning south-eastward, he then passed through Kanyakubja (Kannauj), Vaiśākha, the Jetavana grove at Śrāvastī, and the birthplace of the Buddha at the Lumbinī near Kapilavastu on the Indo-Nepal border.
From there he travelled eastward to Rāmagrāma, Kuśinagara, Vaiśālī, and finally arrived at Pāṭaliputra, the capital of Magadha kingdom. After a short stay at the city, Faxian went to the south-east.
In Rājagriha he performed a rite of worship at the top of Gṛdhrakūṭa. He worshiped the Bodhi tree at Bodh Gayā, visited other places nearby, and returned to Pāṭaliputra.
From there he went westward, made a pilgrimage to Vārāṇasī, the Mṛgadava, or the Deer Park at Sarnath, and concluded the trip with a visit to Kauśāmbi.
Between the years 405 and 407, Faxian stayed at the Mahāyāna monastery of Pāṭaliputra, concentrating on the study of the Sanskrit language and Buddhist scriptures.
From the monastery, he obtained a collection of the widely observed monastic discipline of the Mahāsaṁghika School.
He also obtained a condensed version of the monastic rules according to the Sarvāstivāda school along with several other texts, including
- the Saṁyukta-abhidharma-hṛdaya Śāstra in 6 000 verses,
- the Mahā-Parinirvāṇa Sūtra in 2 500 verses,
- the Vaipulya-Parinirvāṇa Sūtra in 5 000 verses, and
- the Abhidharma collection of the Mahāsaṁghika school.
Although most of these texts seem to have been copied by Faxian himself,
at least one was presented to him by a lay Buddhist named Jialuo at the Mahāyāna monastery as a token of appreciation for Faxian’s journey to India.
After the completion of his study at Pāṭaliputra, Daozheng, the other remaining member of the mission, declared his intention to stay in India permanently, leaving Faxian alone to complete his mission.
In 407 he left Pāṭaliputra for Tāmraliptī via Champa. He remained at Tāmraliptī for 2 years (408-409), after which he travelled to Śrī Lanka:
He stayed on the island for 2 years, made pilgrimages to the holy places, and attended lectures delivered by an Indian monk.
He also obtained additional scriptures there, including:
- the Vinaya of the Mahīśāsaka school,
- the Dīrghāgama ("Long Discourses"),
- the Saṁyuktāgama ("Connected Discourses"), and
- the Zazang jing (miscellaneous collections),
- none of which was available in China.
In 411 he embarked on a merchant ship and sailed for home with the Sanskrit manuscripts he had collected during the trip.
90 days later, after being blown off course by a typhoon, the ship arrived at the kingdom of Yavadvīpa (South Sumatra island). The monk remained on the island for 5 months, then embarked on another ship for Guangzhou (Canton).
A month into the voyage another typhoon disrupted the journey. After nearly 90 days the ship landed at a place that the travellers later discovered was Laoshan in Zhangguang prefecture (Shandong Peninsula).
The year was 412.
Eventually, Faxian went to Jiankang (Nanjing) and began to translate the Sanskrit texts he had collected in India and Śrī Lanka.
He had travelled to approximately 30 kingdoms in 15 years, and was the first Chinese Buddhist monk to successfully journey to India and return with Buddhist scriptures.
In 416, Faxian was asked by his colleagues to write an autobiographical account of his journey:
The resulting chronicle, known as Foguo ji (A record of the Buddhist countries), is an important historical and religious document for South Asian history and for the Buddhist tradition.
5 of Faxian’s translations are extant. All of them have been translated jointly by Faxian and Buddhabhadra (359-429 CE), an Indian Buddhist missionary.
- 2 of these translations are of the Vinaya of the Mahāsaṁghika school,
- 2 are Mahāyāna scriptures, and
- 1 is a Hīnayāna scripture.
There could be more translations also ascribed to him and Buddhabhadra, but they have been lost.
2 other Sanskrit texts brought back to China by Faxian have been translated into Chinese by Buddhajīva and Guṇabhadra (394–468) respectively.
Faxian continued to translate until the time of his death in 422 at the Xin Monastery of Jingzhou (in Hubei province).
His successful journey to India and his search for an authentic tradition of Buddhism remained a source of inspiration for later generations of Chinese Buddhists.