Thursday, March 19, 2009

Hiuen Tsiang On Sri Lanka I

Between the years 629 and 645 AD the famous Chinese monk Hiuen Tsiang traveled through Central Asia and India to visit Buddhist sacred places, learn from Indian teachers and to collect copies of Buddhist scriptures. On his return to China, his extraordinary journey made him famous and the Emperor himself asked him to write an account of his adventures. The result was a book called ‘A Record of the West Compiled During the Tang Dynasty’ (Ta Tang Si Yu Ki).The ancient Chinese called India ‘the West’ because they thought it lay in that direction from their country. Later, Hiuen Tsiang’s disciple Hwui Li, wrote a biography of his beloved teacher in which was included some supplementary information that Hiuen Tsiang had given him. Together, these two books tell us a lot about the most famous Chinese monk of ancient times. To undertake such a long journey, alone, with neither money, knowledge of the language or even a clear idea of where India was, must have required immense courage and commitment. At the same time, Hiuen Tsiang’s own words give the impression that he was something of a prig, certain of his own importance and very sectarian in outlook.
More than once we see him oblivious to the fact that his pride and argumentativeness are irritating others. However, it is not biographical data that makes A Record of the West and the biography so interesting and important but the detailed information they gives about that lands that Hiuen Tsiang traveled through, in particular India. Hiuen Tsiang was not just a brave traveler and fine scholar, he was also a careful observer, curious about and interested in all he saw. His book tells the historian more about lndia - its legends and customs, art and architecture, the literature of Buddhism, the location of famous monasteries, how many monks resided in each and what school they adhered to, the politics, religion and every day life of the people - than any single document until modern times. And this information is not just extensive, it is also quite accurate. For the most part, despite all his sectarian biases, Hiuen Tsiang simply recorded what he was told and what he himself saw. This of course is well-known and few are books on ancient India that do not have at least one or two quotes from Hiuen Tsiang. It is less well-known that the books contain a great deal of information about Sri Lanka as well. As a source of facts about ancient Sri Lanka Hiuen Tsiang’s travelogue and biography have probably been neglected because he did not actually visit the island. But making up for this, the Chinese pilgrim spoke to people who had been there and met many Sri Lankan monks staying in India.
Even while still in north India Huien Tsiang heard a lot about Sri Lanka. When he was in Bodh Gaya he saw the famous Mahabodhi Vihara which had been built by King Megavana. His impressions of the Sri Lankan monks at Bodh Gaya was thus. "The monks of this monastery number more than a thousand...They carefully observe the Dhamma Vinaya and their conduct is pure and correct". The details he gives about the founding of this monastery are too well known to be repeated here. However, another Buddhist establishment that he visited and which had also been built by a Sri Lankan king is less well known. Concerning this place he wrote, "To the south (of the Kapotika Vihara near Rajagaha, i.e. modern Rajgir) is a solitary hill which is of great height and which is covered with forest and jungle. Beautiful flowers and springs of pure water cover its sides and flow through its hollows. On the hill are many viharas and shrines, sculptured with the highest art. In the exact middle of the main vihara is a statue of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. Although it is of small size yet its spiritual appearance is of an affecting character. In its hand it holds a lotus flower and on its head is a figure is of the Buddha. There is always a number of persons here who abstain from food desiring to obtain a vision of the Bodhisattva. For seven days or fourteen days or even for a whole month they fast. Those who are properly affected see the Bodhisattva with its beautiful marks and adorned in majesty and glory."
This is the story Huien Tsiang heard about this temple’s founding. "In olden days the king of the Simhala country, early in the morning, while looking in the mirror, saw not his own face but the image of a mountain in Jambudipa in the middle of a Tala wood and on its top a figure of Avalokitesvara. Deeply affected by the benevolent appearance of the figure he decided to search for it. Having come to this mountain and finding the figure he had seen in the mirror he built the vihara and endowed it with religious gifts. Then he built the other vihara and shrines also". While parts of this story are obviously legendary it seems likely that the building of this temple would not have been attributed to a foreign monarch had it not been so. Several other sources mention Sri Lankan kings constructing buildings in India (e.g. Nissankamalla) and we know that the Mahayana Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara was widely worshipped in the island at one time. Huien Tisang’s travelogue gives further confirmation to both these facts.
He got some more information, not about Sri Lanka, but about the famous Sri Lankan - Aryadeva. After Nagarjuna himself, his disciple Aryadeva, was one of the greatest thinkers of the Madhyamika and perhaps one of the most brilliant and subtle thinkers ever. As with other personalities from ancient India, almost nothing is known about Aryadeva. For example, there is a wide variety of opinions between both ancient and modern scholars about where he was born. Some sources say he was of the royal house of Sri Lanka while others contradict this. But Huien Tsiang very clearly says he was a Sri Lankan. "At a certain time there was a bodhisattva from the island of Simhala called Deva (i.e., Aryadeva) who profoundly understood the relationship of truth and the nature of all composite things. Moved by compassion at the ignorance of men he came to this country to guide and direct the people in the right way." As this was the story circulating in the 7th century, only 500 years after Aryadeva’s death, it is most likely to be true. And if it is, it shows that while Indians like Mahinda, Buddhaghosa, Dhammapala and Ramachandra Bharati, were able to have a profound influence on Sri Lankan Buddhism, Sri Lankans were able to have equally profound effects on Indian Buddhism.
After a long stay at Nalanda, Huien Tsiang continued his journey east and then south with the intention of going to Sri Lanka. He had decided on the usual route from north India, to embark on a ship at Tamrilipti and sail down the east coast, a trip of about 14 days. However, a south India monk he met and who was presumably acquainted with the way, advised him otherwise. "Those who go to the Simhala country ought not go by sea route, during which they will have to encounter the danger of bad weather, yakkhas and huge rolling waves. You ought rather go from the south-east point of South India from which it is a three day voyage. For though going by foot you may have to scale mountains and pass through valleys yet you will be safe. Moreover, you will thus be able to visit Orissa and other countries on the way." From this we learn that while the sea route from northern India to Sri Lanka might have been quicker, some thought it so dangerous that they preferred to go overland. Certainly Hiuen Tsiang was convinced of this because he decided to take the monks advice. On his way south he passed through the coastal city of Charitra in Orissa, which he described as "a rendezvous of merchants." Apparently these merchants brought back with them tales and stories about Simhala, the legendary and wondrous island to the south and other exotic places. The red lights that could be seen in the evening sky of the coast of Charitra were explained in this way. "Every night when the sky is clear and without clouds can be seen at a great distance the glittering rays of the precious gem placed on the top of the Temple of the Tooth in Simhala. Its appearance is like that of a shining star in the midst of space." Obviously, the fame of the Temple of the Tooth and its fabulous gem had spread far and wide.
When Hiuen Tsiang got to Kanchipuram (south west of Madras) a party of 300 monks from Sri Lanka had just arrived in the city. He seems to have had plenty of time to get to know them because he had a long philosophical discussion with some and later traveled through the Tamil country with 70 others. Most of what Huien Tsiang recorded about Sri Lanka he would have learned from these monks, and while some of it must be factual some must likewise reflect the biases and preoccupations of his informants. The names of one of the leaders of these monks, Abhayadanshtra, suggest that he and his fellows were from the Abhayagiri. If they were, Hiuen Tsiang would have been able to speak to them without need of an interpreter because he was proficient in Sanskrit and this language a was also widely used in the Abhayagiri. The monks told Hiuen Tsiang that they had decided to come to India on pilgrimage at that particular time because of trouble at home following the death of the king. He was told that "...the present king, a Chola, is strongly attached to the religion of the heretics and does not honor the teachings of the Buddha; he is cruel and tyrannical and opposes all that is good." A little later he recorded, "During the last ten years or so the country has been in confusion and there has been no established ruler…" It was this information that made Hiuen Tsiang give up his idea of going to Sri Lanka. Although this trouble must have been happening between about 600 - 642 AD, the Mahavamsa and other Sri Lankan chronicles make no mention of a Chola king around this time, or even of a period of social or political turmoil. This suggests that for some periods, the Mahavamsa records only the barest details and neglects to mention others completely.

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