Faxian and Us
Faxian was one righteous dude. As a Buddhist monk in China during the fourth century, he was concerned that the monastic community did not have a complete set of Vinaya texts (the texts that explain the code of conduct for Buddhist monks). Determined to correct this situation, Faxian decided to travel to India himself and bring back these precious texts. So in the year 399 CE, when he was 65 years old, Faxian set out for India with a small group of companions. He would not return to China until fifteen years later.
According to the famous account of his journey, he traveled overland, following the silk road routes through Western China, across desert of Dunhang, through Central Asia, and finally over the snow and ice-covered mountains of the Himalayas, before finally reaching the holy land of India. One of his companions died on the passage to India, and another would die during their travels within the sub-continent.
The Journey of the Eminent Monk Faxian is one of the texts we are assigned to read for my class in Buddhist Studies at the Rangjung Yeshe Institute (RYI), in Kathmandu, Nepal. In reading about Faxian, I couldn’t help but to compare his journey to my own situation, and that of my fellow students at RYI. Like Faxian, many of us have traveled great distances to a foreign land to learn something about Buddhism, and possibly with the hope of bringing some small bit of knowledge back to our home countries.
The students that I have met at RYI come from all over the world. I was surprised to find many students from the United States here. The largest group of students here is from Nepal (34 students), and then there are almost as many Americans (30 students). The next highest groups of students come from China (11), Germany (9), UK (8), Bhutan (7), and then Canada (5) and Russia (5). There are also smaller numbers from many other countries, including Brazil, India, Ireland and Vietnam.
The Nepali students themselves represent a mix of cultures. Some of the Nepali students come from Hindu families, some from the Newari Buddhist community, and others from the families of Tibetan Buddhists who have settled in Nepal over the past generation.
The variety of students here makes for interesting class discussions. When we are discussing the early transmission of Buddhism to China, for example, it helps to hear the opinion of students from China who can provide context about Buddhism in China today. And when discussing the intertwined relationship between Buddhism and Hinduism, it’s always nice to hear from the student from India with a Hindu background.
Of course, unlike Faxian, the present-day students at RYI did not need to spend a year or more traveling by foot over vast distances just to reach here. I was able to fly from New York to Kathmandu in under 24 hours, for example. But many of us have had to overcome different types of obstacles to arrive here.
One major obstacle for many students is simply raising the funds for school fees, travel, and living expenses. Younger students may have needed to convince their parents and ask for their support. Older students with established careers had to make the difficult decision to interrupt a career or leave it altogether, and to arrange to sub-let or sell apartments or homes. In the end, many students will have spent a year or more in preparation to make this particular journey.
And while the ability to fly over vast distances in a short time is a great advantage, suddenly dropping into a different culture can provide its own challenges. In my own case, I experienced a lot of confusion and disorientation during my first days and weeks in Kathmandu. I think the common expression for this experience is “culture shock”.
In those early days I frequently found myself wandering around Boudha (the section of Kathmandu where the RYI campus is located) or sitting in my room at my guest house thinking: “What the hell am I doing here?” And also, “Why did I leave New York? What was I thinking? Was this really the right decision?” Many other students that I talked with during the early days were experiencing similar types of confusion.
Like others, I spent a lot of time early on just figuring out where to find suitable food to eat. As a Westerner, the risk is eating improperly cooked food is a case of diarrhea. I experienced my first case of diarrhea within my first few days of arriving, followed by various colds, flues and other ailments. I also experienced frequent visits from my old friends: Anxiety, Depression, and Self-Doubt.
Figuring out where to live was also an issue. Should I try to find a room in an apartment? Should I try to share a place? Who with? Or should I just stay in my guest house for a while longer, even though it is more expensive?
Communication with the local people of Kathmandu can also be confusing for a beginner. The local people are generally kind and gentle, and they are reasonably patient with Westerners. But many local people do not speak English. And while many people do speak English, the differences in culture and speaking patterns can easily lead to misunderstandings.
And then there is the actual school program itself. The academic program at RYI is designed for serious-minded students. The Tibetan language classes in particular are designed to train translators; they are not suitable for someone who wants to learn a bit of Tibetan while they are on holiday in Nepal.
Students are expected to come prepared to the first day of Tibetan language class—to know the alphabet and to have basic reading skills. My first day of my colloquial Tibetan class was another shock for me, as I realized that I was not fully prepared. Even though I had studied the Tibetan language previously, I had not kept up with it or done a proper review. I was already behind on the first day of class, and I spent the next several months simply trying to keep my head above water. Eventually, I realized that in order to study this exotic language, I had to learn how to study.
Studying a language involves two key aspects: grammar and vocabulary. I am comfortable with learning grammar, but learning vocabulary was another unexpected challenge. I continually underestimated the time needed to learn the new vocabulary words each week. I struggled to stay focused and to find the right study method that would work for me. Once again, I found myself wondering why I was doing this.
Sitting in my room one day, reviewing my flash cards with Tibetan words, I had a flashback to my childhood—I vividly recalled a memory of my mother showing me flashcards of English words, to help me prepare for primary school. I really hadn’t expected this process to stir up such deep memories and emotions.
In Faxian’s case, the long, slow journey through deserts and over mountains would certainly have given Faxian time to think about what he was doing, and decide whether or not he was on the right course. I suspect that Faxian grew more resolved with every step.
In my own case, it is only after many months of studying here, with many ups and downs, that I am certain that I made the right decision for myself. For whatever reason, this is a journey that I instinctively felt I needed to take. Now, just over half-way through my second semester, I feel a great sense of accomplishment for just having stayed the course.
Faxian spent about ten years traveling through-out northern India, including visiting many important historical sites, such as Bodhgaya and Lumbini. He eventually obtained the precious Vinaya texts that he was seeking, and traveled back to China via the sea route to the south. He was 79 years old when he finally returned to China. He lived for another seven years, and he spent his remaining years translating one of the precious Vinaya texts into the Chinese language. The record of his journey is important reference for modern-day historians.
For the RYI students who have come from far away, it is often difficult to explain to family and friends back home why we have come here. I personally often have difficulty explaining this decision to myself. But I am sure that Faxian would understand.