Chinese monks embarked on a long and arduous journey when they sought instruction at the wellsprings of Buddhism
When Chinese Buddhist pilgrims set out for India on the "Western journey" - the title many of them gave to the record they kept of their travels - they could choose between three overland routes and a sea-route. Two of the overland routes passed through central Asia and corresponded to what since the nineteenth century has been widely known as the Silk Road, a portmanteau term used to describe the east-west trade routes that traversed the region. After crossing part of the arid Gobi Desert, the pilgrims had to choose between a northern and a southern route in order to avoid crossing the vast basin formed by the swampy regions of Lobnor, the Tarim Basin and the Taklamakan desert, which was notorious for its shifting sands.
The northern route skirted the Celestial Mountains (Tianshan) whose highest peaks were some 7,000 metres above sea level. This route took the pilgrims through staging-points and oases as far as Kashgar, which controlled access to the routes leading westwards to Ferghana and thence to Samarkand or the southwest. After leaving Kashgar, the pilgrims had to cross the Pamir mountains, the steep passes of the Karakoram range, Gilgit and the high valley of the Indus, before crossing the Burzil pass (over 4,000 metres high) on the road to what is now Srinagar, or skirting the Indus gorges and the Kagan valley to the city now known as Islamabad. Next they travelled through Kashmir into northern India and the central basin of the Ganges where most of the great Buddhist sites associated with the life of the Buddha and the first Buddhist communities are situated.
For the sake of simplicity, let us follow each of the major routes through central Asia by retracing the steps of a famous Chinese pilgrim: Huanzang for the northern route, Faxian for the southern route, and Yijing for the sea route. Judging by their respective travel diaries, the principal mission of the three monks was to collect all the written and oral traditions, canonical or legendary, which could add to their knowledge of the Buddha's teachings and Buddhist religious practices, with a view to their use in China. This primary concern did not prevent them from observing the geography, the customs and behaviour of the many kingdoms through which they passed. Wishing to serve Buddha with the greatest possible detachment, they also became historians, geographers and sociologists.
Faxian's fifteen-year journey
Faxian (334-420) made a journey that marked the high point of the first wave of Chinese pilgrims in India. He left China in 399 and returned in 414. At this time Chinese Buddhists were searching for their identity. No longer satisfied with the incomplete and ambiguous texts which often came into their hands during the first centuries of the spreading of the "new religion", they felt a growing need to set out in search of texts that formed part of the Buddhist canon recognized by monks living in the land of the Buddha's birthplace.
Familiar with all the mysteries of the Buddhist doctrine, Faxian discovered that the texts belonging to the monks and faithful scholars had been scattered and mutilated as a result of quarrels between the small kingdoms of central Asia, the inevitable route which ideas circulating between the West and China had to take. Most of Faxian's journal, entitled Foguo ji ("An account of Buddhist Kingdoms"), described Buddhist rituals and ethics as he saw them. He also interpreted the basic notions of Buddhist teaching. Most of all Faxian wished to obtain a complete set of the Buddhist rules of discipline, or vinayas, which were sorely missing in China when he began his journey.
Thanks to the efforts of Faxian and other foreign pilgrims and monks who arrived in China around the same time as he returned there, at the beginning of the fifth century Chinese monks had access to vinayas of all the main schools of Indian Buddhism, to the founding sutras - the Lotus, Vimalakirti and Nirvana sutras - and also to the Amitabha Sutra, the fundamental scripture of the Pure Land Buddhist faith, and the Perfection of Wisdom sutra, from which the whole of Chinese Buddhism would draw inspiration. …