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An important early western student of Chinese religious thought and practice was Léon Wieger, S.J. (1856-1933). In 1917 he published a series of "lessons" on the subject in French, which was released in an English translation by E.T.C. Werner ten years later under the title A History of the Religious Beliefs & Philosophical Opinions in China From the Beginning to the Present Time (Xiànxiàn 献县: Hsien-hsien Press, 1927).
The following extract is Father Wieger's useful discussion of Fǎxiǎn (lesson 53, part IV), very slightly modified to update his spellings and introduce more paragraph breaks. The romanticized —even slightly silly— drawing of a Buddhist monk travelling over rough mountain trails in full liturgical garb is in the original source.
This is the most celebrated of the Chinese pilgrim monks. He was born in the valley of the Fén 汾, in modern Shānxī 山西. Three younger brothers having died, one after the other, from convulsions during dentition, the father of the child fearing he would have a similar fate, consecrated him to Buddha and sent him to a convent en pension. When he had got his teeth, he brought him back home.
The child immediately became seriously ill. His father took him back to the convent, where he recovered immediately. When he was adolescent, the child took such a liking to the monks' method of living, that no seduction could make him return to the world.
He was ten years of age, when his father died. His mother took up her abode in a cell, near the convent, to be able at least to see her son passing and re-passing. When she also was dead, Fǎxiǎn buried his parents, and then was admitted to take the vows of the monks.
He distinguished himself amongst all by his spirit of faith and his zeal for discipline. Observance was very imperfect in the Chinese convents. It was not that treatises on the monastic life were wanting; but the experience was wanting, the Chinese monks having very few of them seen, up till then, the machinery of a great community working. His ardent soul enamoured of the ideal, Fǎxiǎn keenly felt this deficiency, and resolved to go to learn in India, perfectly, the practice of observance.
Having left Cháng’ān 长安 in 399, he crossed the Gobi desert, waited at Turfan the opportunity of joining a caravan, crossed in thirty-five days' marching, with inexpressible sufferings, the sand plains of Tarim, and arrived at Kotan.
That town was then a Buddhist Eden. A single convent contained more than three thousand monks. All took their meals in a common dining-hall. They entered it with a grave and thoughtful mien, sat down in a fixed order, received and ate their portion in silence. There was no noise of plates and dishes, no word was uttered. The necessary directions were given by a gesture of the fingers. These things were a revelation to Fǎxiǎn, who up till then had only seen the monks loafing about, with the object or pretence of begging their daily pittance.
From Kotan, Fǎxiǎn passed in fifty-four stages, to Ladak; and then, following the course of the Indus, to the Pundjab.
We will not follow Fǎxiǎn in his peregrination across thirty small kingdoms of India, from convent to convent, from sacred place to sacred place. He noticed, in their places, one by one, all the Buddhist souvenirs. He studied the observance of diverse communities, copied their rules and glanced through the books in their libraries.
Finally he descended the Ganges to its mouth, and crossed by sea to Ceylon, where he again made a long and fruitful sojourn in a convent which maintained more than five thousand monks. Finally, after fifteen years of travels and observations, judging that he had gleaned enough, in 414 he took passage from Ceylon on a trading junk which set sail toward the East.
There were on board more than two hundred men. During a storm, the junk took on water. The master had the merchandise jettisoned.
Fearing to see his case of books, the fruit of his long voyages, also thrown overboard, Fǎxiǎn earnestly prayed to Guānshìyīn 观世音 to come to his aid, for love of the monks of China, on whose behalf he had worked and suffered so much. The books were not thrown into the sea. The junk stranded, at high tide, on a sandbank. At low tide, the navigators were able to stop the leak.
The following tide floated the junk again. Caught by a violent tempest, tossed for ninety days by the waves of a phosphorescent sea, it finished by being thrown on the coast of Java.
After five months of waiting, Fǎxiǎn embarked for China on another trading junk, on which there were also two hundred persons. They had food and water for fifty days. Now the junk was the sport of the winds and waves for eighty-two days. Fǎxiǎn continued to pray to Guānshìyīn , on behalf of the monks of China. The captain having lost all notion of the geographical situation, "we are approaching Guǎngzhōu 广州," said he. At the moment when they were all dying of thirst, they sighted land. When they had gone on shore, they learned that they were in China, [but] in Shāndōng 山东 [a thousand miles to the north].
The prefect of the place, having learnt that there was on board a monk who was bringing back books from India, had him brought to Jiànkāng 建康 (Nánjīng 南京) with his treasures. Fǎxiǎn consecrated the rest of his life to promoting observance in the convents of China. He died at the age of eighty-six years.
From that time, a great many Chinese monks imitated him. More than four-fifths paid for their enterprise with their lives. May God have found well-intentioned souls, among these men who gave themselves so much trouble and suffered so many evils, for that which they believed to be the true and the good.
All these texts [are] in the Chinese Tripitaka.
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