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A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms
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Pages (PDF): 111
Publication Date: 1920
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A Record of Buddhist Kingdoms--Being an Account by the Chinese Monk Fa-Hien of Travels in India and Ceylon (Ad 399-414) in Search of the Buddhist Books of Discipline, is one of the most important source for reconstructing the life and conditions of the times. Though brief, his account of the general characteristics and tendencies of Gupta imperial administration is very valuable. Likewise, the account also gives a fair deal of information on the religious usages and practices and is invaluable for the graphic information it provides about Buddhism in India, Central Asia and Ceylon. Equally interesting and useful is the thrilling account of the perilous sea-voyage to South-East Asia and his journey through Central Asia to India.
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1. Nothing of great importance is known about Fa-Hsien in addition to what may be gathered from his own record of his travels. I have read the accounts of him in the "Memoirs of Eminent Monks," compiled in A.D. 519, and a later work, the "Memoirs of Marvellous Monks," by the third emperor of the Ming dynasty (A.D. 1403-1424), which, however, is nearly all borrowed from the other; and all in them that has an appearance of verisimilitude can be brought within brief compass.
His surname, they tell us, was Kung, and he was a native of Wu-yang in P'ing-Yang, which is still the name of a large department in Shan-hsi. He had three brothers older than himself; but when they all died before shedding their first teeth, his father devoted him to the service of the Buddhist society, and had him entered as a Sramanera, still keeping him at home in the family. The little fellow fell dangerously ill, and the father sent him to the monastery, where he soon got well and refused to return to his parents.
When he was ten years old, his father died; and an uncle, considering the widowed solitariness and helplessness of the mother, urged him to renounce the monastic life, and return to her, but the boy replied, "I did not quit the family in compliance with my father's wishes, but because I wished to be far from the dust and vulgar ways of life. This is why I chose monkhood." The uncle approved of his words and gave over urging him. When his mother also died, it appeared how great had been the affection for her of his fine nature; but after her burial he returned to the monastery.
On one occasion he was cutting rice with a score or two of his fellow-disciples, when some hungry thieves came upon them to take away their grain by force. The other Sramaneras all fled, but our young hero stood his ground, and said to the thieves, "If you must have the grain, take what you please. But, Sirs, it was your former neglect of charity which brought you to your present state of destitution; and now, again, you wish to rob others. I am afraid that in the coming ages you will have still greater poverty and distress;—I am sorry for you beforehand." With these words he followed his companions into the monastery, while the thieves left the grain and went away, all the monks, of whom there were several hundred, doing homage to his conduct and courage.
When he had finished his noviciate and taken on him the obligations of the full Buddhist orders, his earnest courage, clear intelligence, and strict regulation of his demeanour were conspicuous; and soon after, he undertook his journey to India in search of complete copies of the Vinaya-pitaka. What follows this is merely an account of his travels in India and return to China by sea, condensed from his own narrative, with the addition of some marvellous incidents that happened to him, on his visit to the Vulture Peak near Rajagriha.
It is said in the end that after his return to China, he went to the capital (evidently Nanking), and there, along with the Indian Sramana Buddha-bhadra, executed translations of some of the works which he had obtained in India; and that before he had done all that he wished to do in this way, he removed to King-chow (in the present Hoo-pih), and died in the monastery of Sin, at the age of eighty-eight, to the great sorrow of all who knew him. It is added that there is another larger work giving an account of his travels in various countries.
Such is all the information given about our author, beyond what he himself has told us. Fa-Hsien was his clerical name, and means "Illustrious in the Law," or "Illustrious master of the Law." The Shih which often precedes it is an abbreviation of the name of Buddha as Sakyamuni, "the Sakya, mighty in Love, dwelling in Seclusion and Silence," and may be taken as equivalent to Buddhist. It is sometimes said to have belonged to "the eastern Tsin dynasty" (A.D. 317-419), and sometimes to "the Sung," that is, the Sung dynasty of the House of Liu (A.D. 420-478). If he became a full monk at the age of twenty, and went to India when he was twenty-five, his long life may have been divided pretty equally between the two dynasties.
2. If there were ever another and larger account of Fa-Hsien's travels than the narrative of which a translation is now given, it has long ceased to be in existence. In the Catalogue of the imperial library of the Suy dynasty (A.D. 589-618), the name Fa-Hsien occurs four times. Towards the end of the last section of it (page 22), after a reference to his travels, his labours in translation at Kin-ling (another name for Nanking), in conjunction with Buddha-bhadra, are described. In the second section, page 15, we find "A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms;"—with a note, saying that it was the work of the "Sramana, Fa-Hsien;" and again, on page 13, we have "Narrative of Fa-Hsien in two Books," and "Narrative of Fa-Hsien's Travels in one Book." But all these three entries may possibly belong to different copies of the same work, the first and the other two being in separate subdivisions of the Catalogue.
In the two Chinese copies of the narrative in my possession the title is "Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms." In the Japanese or Corean recension subjoined to this translation, the title is twofold; first, "Narrative of the Distinguished Monk, Fa-Hsien;" and then, more at large, "Incidents of Travels in India, by the Sramana of the Eastern Tsin, Fa-Hsien, recorded by himself."
There is still earlier attestation of the existence of our little work than the Suy Catalogue. The Catalogue Raisonne of the imperial library of the present dynasty (chap. 71) mentions two quotations from it by Le Tao-yuen, a geographical writer of the dynasty of the Northern Wei (A.D. 386-584), one of them containing 89 characters, and the other 276; both of them given as from the "Narrative of Fa-Hsien."
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