Fa Xian

Fa Xian was a famous Chinese Buddhist pilgrim who traveled overland to India in 399 C.E. and returned via sea in 413. All Chinese men and women abandon their original names and choose ones with religious significance when they join monastic orders. Fa Xian means "Illustriousness of the Law".

His travels and journal provide important geographic information about the lands he visited, knowledge about conditions in India (which are lacking in Indian records), and vital Buddhist manuscripts that he translated into Chinese after he returned home.

Buddhism first arrived in China at the beginning of the Common Era from India and Central Asia by land along the Silk Road and by sea along the coast of Southeast Asia through Vietnam. Until Fa Xian’s epochal journey the traffic was one way, and the bringers of the Buddhist message were all non-Chinese (Indians, Persians, and Central Asians).

Some early Chinese pilgrims who attempted the journey either never reached India or never returned. The success of his journey inaugurated a movement that took many Chinese monks to Buddhism’s holy land.

Up to his journey there had been no translation into Chinese of the entire vinaya, or "rules of the discipline", of the Buddhist canon. Fa Xian’s goal was to obtain an entire version of the work to translate into Chinese. He traveled by land across the terrifying Gobi Desert, which he described in these words:
In the desert were numerous evil spirits and scorching winds, causing death to anyone who would meet them. Above there were no birds, while on the ground there were no animals. One looked as far as one could in all directions for a path to cross, but there was none to choose. Only the dried bones of the dead served as indications

After arriving at the oasis town Khotan in present-day northwestern China he crossed high mountains to northwestern India. Then he visited all the holy places of Buddhism, studied Sanskrit, collected manuscripts (including several versions of the vinaya according to different Buddhist sects), crossed to Ceylon (Sri Lanka), where he studied for two years, then boarded a ship for China at Java.

Fa Xian at the ruins of Ashoka palace
Fa Xian at the ruins of Ashoka palace

After more than 200 days at sea he arrived in Shandong (Shantung) in northern China. He spent his remaining years translating the entire vinaya and other Buddhist works into Chinese and writing a book titled Record of Buddhist Kingdoms.

Many devout Buddhist monks would follow his path in the succeeding centuries, learning about Buddhism in its native land and returning to China to spread their knowledge and spiritual faith.