Proto-Hippie Fa Hien

by Kenneth Champeon, Jun 9, 2003 | Destinations: China / Beijing

As Marcus Aurelius famously reminded us, history has its consolations. "Consider," he writes in his Meditations, "the times of Vespasian," former emperor of Rome. "You will see all the same things, people marrying, bringing up children, sick, dying, fighting, feasting, trafficking, farming, flattering, pushing, suspecting, plotting, wishing for someone to die, grumbling about the present, loving, heaping up treasure, coveting the consulship and kingly power. Well, the life of those people is all over. Come on next to the time of Trajan. Again, all is the same."

That nothing is new under the sun, of course, is an idea predating even Marcus Aurelius - and remains credible despite the never-ending catalogue of new things, including cell phones, nuclear weapons, me, and you.

But consider this: In the year 399 AD, a Chinese monk by the name of Fa Hien set forth on a 15-year journey that would take him to, among other places, Peshawar, Pakistan; Afghanistan; Varanasi and Bodh Gaya, India; down the Ganges to the Bay of Bengal and thence to Sri Lanka and Java before returning to China. Risking life and limb, losing members of his travelling party to illness, encountering demons and dragons, he made the trip to collect Buddhist wisdom in order to elevate Buddhism in his homeland, and, of course, in himself.

If you are reading this, chances are you have an abiding interest in Buddhism, grand adventure in Asia, or both. Well, it's been done. Not discouraged, but consoled? Then read on.

According to James Legge, translator of Fa Hien's A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms, Fa Hien entered a Buddhist monastery at a very young age, and shortly after becoming ordained he set out for India in search of complete versions of a fundamental Buddhist text. He betrays a partiality to India by calling central India the "Middle Kingdom", a term commonly reserved for China, which to Fa Hien is a mere "Border land." Yet, eventually, he returns. Not so his friend Tao-ching, who renounced the "mutilated and imperfect condition" of Buddhism back home in the "frontier land", and, not unlike a few of my acquaintances, stayed in India to become enlightened. During his journey, Fa Hien encounters all manner of menacing things. The desert contains "evil demons and hot winds" and travelers "who encounter them perish all to a man." The only way to determine the correct path is to look for "the dry bones of the dead" - presumably, that would be the wrong path. In the merrily named country of Kapilavastu, Fa Hien must be vigilant against white elephants and lions, while amidst the "Onion" mountains of North India there dwell "venomous dragons, which, when provoked, spit forth poisonous winds, and cause showers of snow and storms of sand and gravel. Not one in ten thousand of those who encounter these dangers escape with his life." Travelers have always been given to hyperbole: "The suffering which they endured were unparalleled in human experience." Fa Hien learns many stories of the Buddha's life, all of which strike the modern Buddhist sensibility as peculiar. (Did you know that the Buddha had a spittoon, for example?) In essence, the Buddha went about performing miracles, which so astounded the credulous locals that they hastily constructed pagodas. The miracles included giving away his own head, and, on a separate occasion, his eyes; allowing himself to be devoured by a starving tigress; transforming a woman into a king; cutting off "a piece of his own flesh to ransom the life of a dove"; and, finally, planting a chewed willow branch that subsequently became a seven-cubit-high tree.

Like Jesus, the Buddha is reputed not only to have performed such magic tricks, and, in Fa Hien's view, to have undergone "pain for the sake of all living"; but also to have raised the hackles of the powers-that-be. The Buddha's adversaries were the Brahmanists, whose doctrines he had studied but ultimately repudiated. For his apostasy, he is constantly beset by Brahmans "full of hatred and envy", who threaten to raze the Buddha-inspired stupas or destroy the miraculous willow tree. Needless to say, these reactionaries do not succeed: the heavens rumble, the tree grows back, the Buddha prevails.

In the kingdoms, Buddhist relics are so highly valued that wars are waged to secure ownership, like "a King of Yueh-she" who "raised a large force", and invaded and "subdued" a country containing the Buddha's alms-bowl. But supernatural forces stymied the king's efforts to abscond with the relic. He realized his error, "was sad and deeply ashamed of himself", and built a stupa and a monastery as acts of contrition. Elsewhere, a kingdom is besieged by the 1000 orphaned sons of the king's "inferior wife". The sons do not believe that she is their mother. She presses her breasts, each sending forth "500 jets of milk, which fell into the mouths of the thousand sons." That did it.

Just before embarking on his return trip to China, Fa Hien learns of a prophecy foretelling the near-end of the world. "The Law of the Buddha," says an Indian devotee, "will go on gradually to be extinguished.... Men will become exceedingly wicked. The grass and trees which they lay hold of will change into swords and clubs, with which they will hurt, cut, and kill one another. Those among them on whom there is a blessing will withdraw from society among the hills; and when the wicked have exterminated each other, they will again come forth, and say among themselves, '.... Let us now unite together in the practice of what is good....'"

There is indeed something consoling in the idea that the wicked could have at each other while the good retire to some secure up-on-high. But history since Fa Hien tells a very different story, and in this nuclear age no place - save underground - is secure. Thus, once again, let the wisdom of the ancients speak: "Let us now unite together" - particular emphasis on "now".

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Review of A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms, trans. James Legge, an account of a Chinese monk's travels in search of Buddhist wisdom, ca. 5th century AD.

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Fact File

Read the entire text of A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms by Fa-Hien at the Project Gutenberg or the Nalanda Digital Library.

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