Category Archives: 2. Buddhism

Faxien (FA-Hsien): Chinese traveller

Shi Faxian wrote a detailed record of his travels from the years 399-418 C.E. after noticing that the Vinaya-Pitaka, a collection of Buddhist scripture, was unfinished, particularly, the Vinaya concerning monastic rules and precepts (Li, 157). Without this knowledge, those who wished to renounce and live religious life according to the Buddha’s teaching did not have the resources to do so. A completed Vinaya would provide monks or bhiksus with rules, daily activities and bhiksus ordination ceremonies. Faxian’s travels documented these rituals at the historical time that they happened. Through the culture and customs of the people he met. His major work is the translation of the Maha-samghika-Vinaya with the help of Buddhabhadra along with the recovery of the Sanskrit text Mahisasaka-Vinaya. Several pieces of his work appear in the collections of the Tripitaka (Li, 159).

Faxian was originally named Kung but was sent to the Buddhist order at the age of three. There, he was given the religious name of Fa-hsien meaning, “Law Manifest” (Fa-hsien, 7). Fa-hsien departed from Chang-an in the year 399 C.E. at the age of sixty-five. The list of places he visited is numerous, starting from dangerous deserts to powerful kingdoms to a three-year long return voyage. He crossed deserts, the Pamir Plateau, travelled through North, Central and East India, then sailed across the Indian Ocean and the China sea, landed at Laoshan and reached Chienkang in 413 C.E. (Fa-hsien, 7). By the time he returned to China he was seventy-four years old. Before his travels, Chinese monks had yet to travel further than North India. When Fa-hsien arrived in North India, sutras were passed down orally which convinced Fa-hsien to press further into India in pursuit of monastic rules that Chinese monks deeply needed. These monastic rules are one of three main parts of the Tripitaka. The Sutra-Pitaka, contains the sayings of Buddha and his main disciples, the Vinaya-Pitaka contains Monastic rules and the Abhidharma-pikaka is known as the Basket of Commentaries (Fa-hsien, 15).

Fa-hsien’s first stop travelling west was the country of King Ju Tan where he would stay for his first summer retreat. It was a Buddhist custom for monks to take the summer or rainy days off. From there Fa-hsien would travel to Tunhaung after his summer retreat through a desert that was known to have evil spirits and hot winds that killed every man who encountered them. It was described to have skeletons of those who perished there to mark the way (Fa-hsien, 16). He visited the Country of Shenshen and Agni. Both Kings in these countries embraced Buddhism and had four thousand monks from the Hinayana School. Agni held monks who held traditions far more strictly than Shenshen and who prohibited Chinese Monks (Fa-hsien, 17). The Country of Khotan was largely prosperous and hospitable. Here they witnessed the image procession. Travelling to Khalacha, Fa-hsien witnessed the five-year assembly, a time in which the king presents offerings to monks. From Khalacha, the group journeyed west to North India where they crossed the Pamirs. (Fa-hsien, 18-22).

They arrived in Udyana, the northernmost part of India and found all the inhabitants to speak the language of Central India. Here it was rumoured that Buddha came to this country when he visited North India. After a summer retreat they travelled south to Suvastu, it is said that the king tested Buddha by transforming into a hawk and a dove. To ransom for the dove the Buddha cut off a piece of his flesh for the hawk (Fa-hsien, 26). Travelling East, the places they visited had many claims to former actions of the Buddha. He gave up his body for alms, his eyes in Gandhara and head in Takshasila. Travelling south the group eventually reached the city of Hilo where there was built a temple for Buddha’s skull. Here, the king worried about security assigned eight men of noble families each with a seal to seal up the relic. Every morning they would check to see if the seals were broken or tampered with. Fa-hsien would go on to lose a companion to the cold of the Lesser Snow Mountains (Fa-hsien, 28-34). Eventually, they reached Central India, also known as the Middle Kingdom. It is here that Fa-hsien would acquire the Maha-samghika-Vinaya. He also obtained the Sarvastivada-Vinaya (Li, 202).

Having arrived in Central India, they arrived at a country called Samkasya where Buddha descended from the Trayastrimsas Heaven after preaching the Law to his mother for three months. To the southeast, Kanyakubja was a city in which the Buddha taught the law to his disciples. Further on, the Country of Vaisakha where the Buddha planted a willow twig that he used to clean his teeth with. Heretical Brahmans would cut it down, but it would spring up in the same place as before. Northward to the City of Sravasti was a city that was scarcely populated. Southeast from here laid the city of Kapilavastu and the garden of Lumbini. Here, the Krakuchchanda Buddha was born while in the garden of Lumbini, the queen bathed in a pool. When she emerged she gave birth to a son who would be bathed by two dragon-kings. A well was made there where the monks would usually drink from. (Fa-hsien, 49). East of this is the country of Ramagrama, known for its relics. Further east they reached the city of Kushinagara, where the Buddha was said to have entered Nirvana. East, they reached the country of Vaisali, north of which is the storeyed Monastery where the Buddha lived. Eventually, they reached the country of Magadha and the city of Pataliputra which was King Asoka’s capital (Fa-hsien, 50-58). King Asoka (272-232 B.C.E.) was king during Buddhism’s spread to Asia. Heading west they arrived at the new city of Rajagriha which was mentioned to only have two monasteries (Fa-hsien, 62). Passing through the Gridhrakuta Mountain, where the Buddha used to sit in meditation at the summit, they reached the city of Gaya. This city, unfortunately, was deserted. Fa-hsien returned to Pataliputra and travelled west to reach the city of Varanasi, a short distance away to the deer park where Pratyka Buddha entered Nirvana. Fa-hsien ended his journey in central India in the country of Tamralipti where he spent three years on a voyage to Chang-an (Fa-hsien, 63-72).

Fa-hsien’s main purpose in travelling west was to obtain monastic rules in India. He travelled to India during the reign of King Chandragupta II. His account of his travels, the Record of Buddhist Countries is the earliest account of information that we have of this era besides a few coins and sculptures (Fa-hsien, 9). The places that he names are of great interest to those studying the trade routes between China and the west. One of the earliest cultural interactions noted during his time in Shenshen, was that the monks residing there all practised the religion of India, but some observed it more strictly than others. This was how it was visiting countries to the west. It was only the language that differed from country to country. One of the earliest recordings of a cultural event was the record of the image procession in the country of Khotan. The image procession has a resemblance to that of a parade. It begins on the first day of the fourth month with the cleaning of the streets. The monks that the king has favour (during this time it was the monks of Gomati Monastery) would prepare a four-wheel image car three li from the city. This image was adorned with precious substances such as gold, silver, lapis-lazuli etc. Buddha’s image would stand at the centre of the car attended by two Bodhisattvas while divas of gold, silver or carved jade are suspended in the air. When the car approached the city, the king would take off his crown and change into clean clothes. Then, carrying flowers would burn incense before them. There is a different car for each ceremonial and each monastery had one day to parade its images (Fa-hsien, 19).

During Fa-hsien’s time in Central India, he was able to acquire a copy of the Maha-samghika-Vinaya. The translation of this text would be his major contribution to Chinese Buddhism and the understanding of monastic rules. It was the most extensive and complete text of the Vinaya (Li, 202). First arriving in Central India he took the time to describe the environment. The customs of the region were that people were rich and contented and unaffected by any poll-tax or official restrictions. Only those who farmed on the land owned by the king would pay a land tax and they were completely free to go and come as they pleased. The king governed without resorting to capital punishment, but criminals were punished via fines according to their crimes. Those who committed high treason (a crime of the highest degree) would have their right hand cut off. The residents of this country did not kill living creatures, drink wine or eat onion or garlic. Although those with the title of, “chandalas” or “evil men” did. Chandalas would enter the town by announcing their presence by hitting a piece of wood. These people held the occupation of fishermen or hunters. The monks were lavishly treated by the king and devoted themselves to reciting scriptures or sitting in meditation. When a travelling monk arrived, they carried their robe and alms-bowl (Fa-hsien, 36).

Faxian’s records of his travels have undoubtedly played a key part in introducing a further understanding of Buddhism and Hinduism to the Chinese culture. From a country rich in Buddhists and poor in monastic understanding, it would be Faxian who would venture out further than North India into Central India where he would obtain and translate the Maha-samghika-Vinaya and bring back the Sanskirt text of Mahisasaka-Vinaya as well as numerous other Vinaya texts unknown to China. His journey was, therefore, a huge success. The list of counties that he travelled to were extensive and each country had its own story to tell. In the Northern parts of India, the countries all practiced religion but in different languages. Central India came with stories and claims of the Buddha’s travels through Central India. All of these can be considered to get a glimpse of what life was like in the fifth century.


Waugh, Daniel (1999) “The Journey of Faxian to India.” The University of Washington. Accessed January 29, 2020.

Li, J., and Dalia A. A. (2002) Lives of great monks and nuns. Berkeley: Calif. Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research.

Fa-hsien., and Li Yung-hsi (1957) A Record of the Buddhist Countries. Peking: Chinese Buddhist Association.

Related Topics for Further Investigation.


Monastic rule







Central India

Middle Kingdom

Buddhism in China



Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic.

Article written by: Bennett Kubitz (February 2020), who is solely responsible for its content.

Emperor Asoka

Emperor Asoka is regarded as one of the greatest rulers in India’s history. His grandfather, Chandragupta Maurya, ruled India for twenty-four years. It is reported that Chandragupta ascended the throne in 322 B.C. at the capital of Pataliputra by murdering the Nanda king and proclaiming the beginning of the Maurya dynasty (Smith 13). The entirety of his reign was defined by opulence and totalitarianism. Bindusara Amitraghata, Chandragupta’s son, took over the empire after Chandragupta died or abdicated and presumably began his reign in either 301 or 298 B.C, and ruled for twenty-five or twenty-eight years according to different authorities (Smith 18). He conquered much of southern India during his reign and then passed on the empire to his son Asoka-vardhana, also called Asoka, who became the third ruler of the Maurya dynasty.

Legends claim that Bindusara initially disliked Asoka as a young man due to his unattractive physical appearance. Soon after though, Asoka’s other qualities impressed Bindusara, who then appointed Asoka as a prince (Thapar 21). Asoka ascended the throne at Pataliputra in 273 B.C. It is acknowledged that his coronation was delayed for four years until 269 B.C.; the cause of the delay is still debated between scholars as some believe it to be due to an unclear succession that involved much violence, while others believe that such a struggle was not likely required to solidify the succession to such a well established throne in such a resolutely united empire (Smith 20). The events surrounding Asoka’s death are still unknown as there are no monuments to mark the location of his remains. Both the Hindu Puranas and the chronicles of Ceylon assign Asoka’s reign to be forty to forty-one years long beginning with his accession in 273 B.C. to his death at around 232 B.C (Smith 68).

Tradition states that in Asoka’s early years he followed the Brahman religion, with special adherence to Siva, and it is assumed that he led the life of a Hindu raja (king) (Smith 23). The Buddhist monks who attempted to chronicle Asoka’s reign tried to assert the emperor as a cruel monster before he converted to Buddhism. These claims, however, have no historical value and are treated as stories designed to lead the reader to think Asoka’s transformation was much greater than it actually was (Smith 23). There are no records of Asoka waging war on anyone during his early years as ruler. The first major documented event in Asoka’s reign was his bloody victory over the Kingdom of the Three Kalingas in 261 B.C. (Smith 24). Due to the horrific nature of the battle with the Kalingas, Asoka was given the name Asoka the Wicked or Asoka the Fierce. Later on he is called Asoka the Pious or Asoka the Righteous after he renounces his violent war-like conduct for a more dharmic approach to kingship. Despite his victory in the war with the Kalingas, Asoka felt great remorse for the death and suffering his actions had caused (Smith 24). As a result, there has been no reason to believe that Asoka instigated an aggressive war ever again. Asoka began to devote his life to dharma and never permitted himself to be tempted to wage unprovoked war again (Smith 26). To live a life devoted to dharma is to live righteously and moral­ly, with particular regard to religious teachings and law.

It has been determined that Asoka’s conversion to Buddhism occurred around 261-260 B.C., and that he did not always rule exactly the way a theoretical Buddhist king should. According to the Sanskrit text Asokavadana, Asoka was still very interested in maintaining his rule in the empire and had no scruples about punishing or disposing of those who opposed him in any way (Strong 43). Consequently, he is rarely referred to as a cakravartin, an ideal Buddhist king, but rather is called a balacakravartin, an armed Buddhist king who must “use or threaten physical force to become ruler of his cosmos” (Strong 50). It is widely accepted that Asoka protected, propagated and loved the teaching of dharma, which he often called the Law of Piety. The Hindu interpretation of dharma differs from Asoka’s Buddhist interpretation in the way that Hindus upheld the caste system and believed that each caste had its own dharma, whereas Asoka dropped the caste system and also placed respect for the sanctity of animal life and reverence towards elders in much higher regard than Hindu tradition (Smith 29-30). About four years after Asoka became an upasaka (a lay Buddhist), he progressed so much in his spiritual journey that he became a bhiksu (a Buddhist monk). Scholars believe “that Asoka was both monk and monarch at the same time” based on the clear testimony of the rock edicts he issued in 257 B.C. (Smith 35). It is possible, according to scripture on Buddhist ordination (upasampada), that he lived as a monk temporarily because ordination does not require lifelong vows, and therefore Asoka could have resumed a civil life after any period of time (Smith 38). Asoka’s devotion to the teachings of dharma prompted him to use his enormous imperial power to organize “the most comprehensive scheme of religious missionary enterprise recorded in the history of the world” (Smith 46). Asoka’s efforts resulted in spreading Buddhism as a dominant religion throughout India and other countries in Asia. It is important to realize that when one applies Asoka’s policy of religious tolerance and acceptance to the modern connotation of the word tolerance that in his time there were no truly diverse religions in India. In other words, the only organized religions were Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism while Jesus and Zarathustra were figures still unknown to the emperor (Smith 61).

Asoka Pillar
Asoka Pillar (Lumbini, Buddha’s Birthplace)

Asoka is most well-known for is the creation of his vast number of stupas, monuments, pillars and rock edicts. The numerous inscriptions found on these various objects were mostly recorded by Asoka and provide the leading authentic history of events during his reign (Smith 20). There exists an exaggerated legend that Asoka erected eighty-four thousand stupas, a memorial mound containing relics of important persons, within the span of three years (Smith 107). The actual number of stupas is much smaller. The most important inscriptions made during Asoka’s reign were those found on the Major and Minor Rock Edicts and the Pillar Edicts; these inscriptions defined Asoka’s policy of Dharma (Thapar 2). The dharma ethics in these edicts are Buddhist rather than Brahmanical (Smith 30). There are fourteen major rock edicts located at Kalsi, Mansehra, Shahbazgarhi, Girnar, Sopara, Yerragudi, Dhauli and Jaugada; and various other minor rock edicts located throughout the country (Thapar 5). Asoka particularly enjoyed erecting large numbers of monolithic pillars, both inscribed and uninscribed, throughout his empire (Smith 116-117). Seven major pillars exist at Allahabad, Delhi-Topra, Delhi-Meerut, Lauriya-Araraja, Lauriya-Nandangarh and Rampurva (Thapar 5). It is because of the tales inscribed on the rock edicts that scholars have been able to authentically document the earliest events in Asoka’s reign, the conquest of the Kalingas, for example, and many more of the major events that occurred during his rule (Smith 24). The third and fourth major rock edicts describe the years 257 and 256 B.C.E. as the period of Asoka’s great advance in his spiritual development and religious policy (Smith 52). The final depictions that scholars have of the historical Asoka are found on the Minor Pillar Edicts, which describe “him as the watchful guardian of the unity and discipline of the Church which he loved” (Smith 67).

There is a great deal of evidence of various types available on the history of the Mauryan dynasty, particularly on Asoka’s life and reign during that period (Thapar 11). To consider all of the legends of Asoka would be an overwhelming task for this article, as there are stories about him in many different languages from many different sources (Strong 16). Some of these sources include texts such as the Asokavadana, the Divyavadana, the Mahavamsa and the Dipavamsa, the Asokasutra, the Kunalasutra, and the Puranas. The Asokavadana is a Sanskrit text which starts with details of the life of the elder Upagupta, a Buddhist monk who later plays a major role in Asoka’s career as ruler (Strong 16). The text then goes on to tell the entire Buddhist legend of Asoka’s life and his path to becoming a dharmic king. The legend includes several variations of how Asoka was introduced to Buddhism and how he spent his last years (Thapar 35 & 192). The efforts of many scholars to establish an accurate chronology of Asoka’s reign has resulted in the conclusion that the Asokavadana itself does not explicitly date events during Asoka’s life (Strong 12). The Asokavadana is said to be part of the Divyavadana, a voluminous Sanskrit anthology of Buddhist legends: some Chinese translations of the Asokavadana claim it is a separate, independent work of the Divyavadana (Strong 16). The Kunalasutra is another text that contains the same legends found in the Asokavadana but sheds a different light on these legends (Thapar 192). Kunalasutra’s authors did not compose the text to shape Asoka’s character in a particular way, but to document the legends as they were in local tradition (Thapar 193). The Dipavamsa and the Mahavamsa are Ceylon chronicles that describe in great detail the part Asoka played in expanding Buddhism in India, particularly to Ceylon (Thapar 8). It is important to note that many of the legends of Asoka written in Buddhist texts were written by Buddhist monks and therefore depict Asoka from an orthodox Buddhist standpoint.


Barua, B.M. (1968) Asoka and His Inscriptions. 2 vols. Calcutta: New Age Publishers.

Dasgupta, Surendranath (1975) A History of Indian Philosophy. 5 vols. Delhi: The University Press.

Davids, T.W. Rhys (1907) “Asoka and the Buddha Relics.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society,pp. 397-410.

Drekmeier, Charles (1962) Kingship and Community in Early India. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Eggermont, P.H.L. (1956) The Chronology of the Reign of Asoka Moriya. Leiden: E. J. Brill.

Gokhale, B. G. (1966) Asoka Maurya. New York: Twayne Publishers.

­________ (1949) Buddhism and Asoka. Baroda: Padmaja Publications.

MacPhail, James M. (n.d.) Asoka. London: Oxford University Press.

Monier-Williams, Monier (1964) Buddhism in its Connexion with Brahmanism and Hinduism. Delhi: The Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series Office.

Mookerji, Radhakumud (1972) Asoka. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Nikam, N. A., McKeon, Richard, ed and tr (1959) The Edicts of Asoka. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Smith, Vincent A. (1997) Asoka: the Buddhist Emperor of India. New Delhi: Asian Educational Services.

Strong, John S. (1983) The Legend of King Asoka. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Thapar, Romila (1997) Asoka and the decline of the Mauryas. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigation



Chandragupta Maurya

Bindusara Amitraghata

Maurya Dynasty

The Buddha

Guatama (Historical) Buddha

The Rock Edicts

The Puranas






Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by: Megan Hilton (March 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.