An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Foguoji 佛國記

Jul 17, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald

Foguoji 佛國記 "[Travel to] the Buddhist countries" is a report about the countries along the Silk Road on the way to India written during the Eastern Jin period 東晉 (317-420) by the Buddhist monk Faxian 法顯 (d. 422 CE). The book is also called Tianzhu guoji 天竺國記 "About India", Liyou Tianzhu jizhuan 歷游天竺記傳 "Report about the travel to India", Foyou Tianzhu ji 佛游天竺記 "A Buddhist pilgrimage to India", Faxianzhuan 法顯傳 "A biography of Faxian", Faxian xingzhuan 法顯行傳 "Faxian's travels" or Gaoseng Faxian zhuan 高僧法顯傳 "Biography of Monk Faxian".

Faxian, lay family name Gong 龔, hailed from Pingyang 平陽 (modern Linfen 臨汾, Shanxi) and was given to a monastery when he was still a young child. In the age of 20 sui he was ordained as regular monk. During his studies of the Buddhist writings available in Chang'an 長安 (modern Xi'an 西安, Shaanxi, capital of the Later Qin empire 後秦, 384-417) was surprised by the crude state of the translations and the missing of clear rules for monastic life (vinaya).

He, at that time being sixty-years old, therefore decided to travel to India in search for original texts. In 399 he left Chang'an, together with the monks Huijing 慧景, Daozheng 道整, Huiying 慧應, Zhiyan 智嚴 and Huiwei 慧嵬. He crossed the Taklamakan Desert along the Silk Road, the Pamir Range and the states in the region of modern Afghanistan and finally arrived in northern India (Chinese name Tianzhu 天竺).

Yet arrived in the motherland of Buddhism Faxian was not able to obtain any writings because the Buddhist teachings had only been transmitted orally during the first centuries after the Buddha's passing away. Faxian therefore traveled on to Central India to the kingdom of Madagha (Chinese transcription Mojieti 摩竭提) and went to the capital Rāja-gṛha (Wangshe 王舍城) and Buddha-gayā (Bodhgaya, Putijiaya 菩提伽耶), where he learned Sanskrit and copied countess vinaya texts (monastic rules) like the Mohesengzhi lü 摩訶僧只律 (Mahāsāṃghikavinaya), Sapodo lüchao 薩婆多律抄 (Sarvāstivādavinaya), Za apitan xin lun 雜阿毗曇心論 (Saṃyuktābhidharmahṛdaya), Tingjing 綖經, or Fangdeng pannixuan jing 方等泥般洹經 (Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra).

After five years in India, he decided to return via Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka he stayed two more years and copied the Mishasai lü 彌沙塞律 (Mahīśāsakavinaya), Chang ahan 長阿含 (Dīrghaāgama), Za ahan 雜阿含 (Saṃyuktaāgama) and Za zang 雜藏. He then made his way back to China by ship and arrived in 414 in Changguang 長廣 (modern Laoshan 嶗山, Shandong), going ashore after being driven away by a large typhoon. The governor (taishou 太守) of the prefecture of Qingzhou 青州, Li Yi 李嶷, asked him to stay, but Faxian refused because his first task would be to translate the writings he had brought with him.

In the next year he arrived in Daocheng Monastery 道場寺 in Jiankang 建康 (modern Nanjing 南京, capital of the Jin empire). With the help of the Indian monk Buddhabadra (Fotuobatuoluo 佛陀跋陀羅, Chinese name Juexian 覺賢) he translated six books. He later travelled on to Xinsi Monastery 辛寺 in Jingzhou 荆州, where he died at the age of 82 (or 86).

Information about Faxian's life can be found in the Foguoji, as well as in Sengyou's 僧佑 book Chu sanzang jiji 出三藏記集 and Huijiao's 慧皎 Gaosengzhuan 高僧傳.

The book Foguoji was compiled as a kind of report of the travel to India and back. It has been compiled by Faxian and his collegues. It includes the decription of the situation of more than 30 countries the travellers had passed, providing details to the landscape, rivers and mountains, the customs and habits of the population, the economical situation, and , of course, their religion. The rather small book can be divided into seven parts, beginning with the desire to search for original Buddhist writings, the travel across the Western Territories and the Pamir Range, Northern and Western India, Central and Eastern India, Sri Lanka, the travel back across the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, as well as a kind of postface.

The Foguoji is the earliest report of a travel from China to India, and it is a detailed report of the political situation of Central and Southern Asia during that period of time. The book was very important for contemporarians, and it it often quoted in the geographical treatise Shuijingzhu 水經注 by Li Daoyuan 酈道元 (466 or 472-527). There are also a lot of modern studies on the Foguoji and the countries it describes. It has been translated into French, English and Japanese.

The Foguoji is included in all versions of the Tripitaka, but also in non-Buddhist collections like the series Jiguge congshu 汲古閣叢書, Wuchao xiaoshuo daguan 五朝小說大觀, Siku quanshu 四庫全書, Zengding Han-Wei congshu 增訂漢魏叢書, Xuejin taoyuan 學津討源, or Longxijingshe quanshu 龍溪精舍全書. A modern edition was published in 1986 by the Shanghai guji press 上海古籍出版社 as Faxianzhuan jiaozhu 法顯傳校注.

There is a complete English translation by James Legge (1886), A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms, Being an Account by the Chinese Monk Fa-hien of his Travels in India and Ceylon, A.D. 399-414, in Search of the Buddhist Books of Discipline.

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