Records of the Lives 
of the High Masters



By Tripitaka Master Hua

Translated by Disciple Bhiksuni Heng Ch’ih

Continued from issue 53

      Many Chinese people who went to India to seek the Buddhadharma exchanged their lives for it. It was not to invade India, or to steal her treasures that they renounced their very lives, but to seek the Buddhadharma.  Americans have many blessings, for they have at their disposal, without any particular effort on their parts, complete and accurate texts of the Sutras which have been passed down from the virtuous high monks of China, Sutras which have been studied and certified by Bodhisattvas and Arhats. Now they should be translated into English, which is also not a particularly difficult task.

Hui Jing froze to death and Fa Hsien caressed his corpse crying, "Our original vow has not been fulfilled. Now you are dead, but I am not discouraged. With even firmer resolve I will go on and get the Buddhadharma." So saying, he continued on through more than thirty countries until he arrived at a temple about thirty miles from Rajagrha.

Upon his arrival he told the several hundred monks residing at the temple that he was from China, and that he had come to seek the Buddhadharma.  What he wished to do first, he said, was visit Vulture Peak.

"You can't go there!" was the monks' reaction. "It's too dangerous. Nobody dares go to Vulture Peak these days. It was all right when the Buddha was in the world, but it won't work now. You can't go."

"Why not?" Fa Hsien asked, "why could the Buddha go there but we can't?"

They replied, "When the Buddha was in the world he had spiritual powers to defeat evil animals, beasts, and demons. Now on Vulture Peak the panthers alone are ferocious, not to mention the other wild animals. The black cats devour men on sight, and nobody could even begin to estimate the number of panthers roaming up there."

"I've been through all sorts of difficulties on my journey from China,” Fa Hsien replied emphatically. "There were poisonous snakes and evil beasts every day, and I wasn't afraid to die then. Now I am at the foot of Vulture Peak. How could fear of death possibly stop me from paying my respects at a place where the Buddha taught?"

Two monks from the temple were sent to accompany him. It took an entire day to get to the top where Sakyamuni Buddha had dwelled. By the time they arrived night had begun to fall. "We'll stay here," said Fa Hsien.

"You want to stay here?" repeated the two monks incredulously. "We'll be eaten alive by the panthers! There are no two ways about it. We should start back immediately."

"I'm not going back tonight," said Fa Hsien. "If you don't want to remain, you can return."

As soon as he said that, the two monks dropped all pretence of courtesy and left saying, "If you want to stay here and be eaten by panthers, it's your business. We still want to spread the Buddhadharma, and can't give up our lives." Fa Hsien was left alone on the mountaintop.

He began bowing just as if Sakyamuni Buddha were still there speaking the Dharma. With the traces of the Sages right before his eyes, he bowed and bowed with great sincerity. But eventually the prediction made by the monks at the temple came true. Three panthers moved in on him. The cats were fiercer than tigers and totally merciless. Their sleek bodies crept closer and closer while they licked their chops and flipped their tails as prelude to the pounce. 
      Fa Hsien, who was reciting mantras at the time, said to them, "If you wish to eat me you'll have to wait until I finish reciting the Sutras and mantras. Once I've finished, I'll give you my body so that you can tie up conditions with the Dharma. However, if you don't wish to tie up conditions, but have just come to test me, then get out of here immediately! Don't hang around."

When he finished addressing them, the three panthers knelt at his feet and Fa Hsien reached down and rubbed the tops of their heads just as if they were house cats. After a while the cats left, probably deciding among themselves that since one person wasn't enough for the three of them, it would be better if none of them feasted. Fa Hsien, virtually in the panthers' mouths, got off with his life.

At dawn he began to walk back. After about a mile he met an extremely large person who wore rugged clothes and appeared to be over ninety years old. It was only after they passed one another that Fa Hsien realized the man was no ordinary person. Not really stopping to think who he might be, he turned around to take another look, only to find that the huge man had disappeared. A little farther along the road he met a monk and Fa Hsien said, "Who was that tall person?"

The monk laughed and said, "HIM? He is the Great Disciple Mahaksayapa."  Hearing this Fa Hsien turned to address the monk only to find that he too had disappeared into thin air. Fa Hsien realized that he was having an inconceivable experience.

He returned to the temple and took up the study of Sanskrit. One day he noticed a food offering on the altar and recognized it as Chinese Realizing that a Chinese merchant must have docked recently, he went out to find him, and was able to secure passage on the return trip to China. He packed up the numerous Sangha precepts, Bodhisattva precepts, Sutras, and other sections of Vinaya as well as Agama texts, and the boat set sail for China.

During the passage a violent windstorm blew the boat off course and it ended up on the shores of some unknown land. It is due to this incident that there are in the language of Mexico to this day features, which bear a similarity to ancient Chinese. This also accounts for the occurrence of some Chinese-style architecture evident in Mexico and also for similarities in the iconography. When Fa Hsien and the hundred or so people on that merchant ship were blown across the Pacific to Mexico they lived among the people there for five months and during that time taught the natives their language and showed them various building techniques.

When the boat left Mexico it carried over two hundred people, as some Mexicans wished to travel to China. Not long after it set sail the winds rose again, threatening the safety of the ship. Everyone on board banded together to lay the blame on Fa Hsien, saying that his presence on board was the reason for the repeated storms. The mob was preparing to throw Fa Hsien overboard as a sacrifice to the god of the sea in order to calm the winds and waves.

But as they moved toward Fa Hsien, a devoted Dharma protector of his stepped in and said loudly, "If you intend to throw this Sramana into the sea, you will have to toss me in first. If you don't get rid of me, when we get to China I will report you to the Emperor and you will all surely lose your lives. The Emperor believes in the Buddha and venerates the Triple Jewel; therefore, if you throw this monk into the sea, none of you will have long to live. The Dharma protector, in addition to being persuasive, was very powerful as well. Sizing him up, the merchants realized that they would have difficulty overcoming him, and several at least would lose their lives. All cowards, they didn't dare throw Fa Hsien into the sea. After more than twenty days, nei huo, a plant native only to China, was sighted growing along a shore, and word spread that the boat had reached Shantung.

The natives of Shantung informed the Governor that Fa Hsien had arrived, and the Governor, who believed in the Buddha, came personally to welcome him. He invited Fa Hsien to reside at the Governor's mansion for a year, but the Dharma Master declined saying that after his long stay in India he wanted to return to the capital, Ch'ang An. Realizing that he couldn't detain Fa Hsien, the Governor permitted him to go on his way. He went on to Tao Ch'ang Monastery where Chiao Hsien (see VBS #59) resided, and began to translate the Sutras he had brought, back from India. His translations include the Sangha Vinaya, the Nirvana Sutra, and over a hundred other texts.  At age 86 he completed the stillness.

Of the Sutras he translated, the Nirvana Sutra was the One, which many people particularly liked to study and recite. Once a layman, whose name has been forgotten, had a handwritten copy of the Nirvana Sutra, which somehow got mixed in with the secular books in his collection. One day his house caught fire and all the books burned with the exception of the copy of the Nirvana Sutra, which remained totally untouched by the flames. Everyone found the incident incredible, and it caused many to take up the study of that Sutra.

One other point of interest is that when Fa Hsien was in India he witnessed the annual appearance of a white-eared dragon. This local dragon spirit protected the area and caused there to be an abundant harvest every year provided that the people in that locale made an annual offering to him.  The dragon, which looked like a snake except for its white ears, made its appearance while Fa Hsien was in the area.

Dharma Master Fa Hsien's merit and virtue with regard to the Buddhadharma is very great, and he is an outstanding figure in the history of Chinese Buddhism.

The end

    The major Mahayana scriptures are explained every day at Gold Mountain Monastery. At the present time an Avatamsaka assembly, rare because of the vast scope of this Sutra, is in progress. The king of Sutras containing the complete expression of the ultimate enlightenment of Buddhahood is being explained at seven weekly lectures. Nights at 7:00 and weekends at 12:30 and 7:00 PM. There is no charge for lectures on the Dharma; the public is welcome to attend.