By the turn of the millennium into the common era, Buddhism had already arrived in China, mainly imported from travelers along the Silk Road who brought with them stories and texts relating to the Buddha.xv Buddhist tradition began to flourish in China; however, the texts were few. The oral accounts of the Buddhist religion, given by spice traders and merchants traveling along the silk road began to be translated and transcribed by the imperial court; which usually had a motive to promote. xvi As Buddhism’s popularity grew in China, some scholars wondered how accurately parts of the Buddhist canon had been translated. By the early third and fourth centuries CE, this had become an essential issue, especially with regard to the veracity of the vinaya, or the set of rules followed by Buddhist monastics. Without one original, accurate vinaya that practitioners could follow, much of China’s educated Buddhist community doubted that Buddhist monastic institutions would continue to thrive.xvii
Born in the fourth century CE Faxian (337-422 CE) was but one of the Buddhist scholars of this time who felt this way. Little is known of Faxian’s early life; however, his own documentation of his life began in the year 399 CE.xviii Already a respected Buddhist monk, at the age of sixty Faxian set off from China to make the trip to India, his main purpose being to gather complete copies of the vinaya and to make a record of the Buddhist texts and traditions in South Asia.xix His travels in India alone would be of great importance to China’s interpretation of Buddhism, as he visited most of the major sites and monasteries associated with the Buddha’s life. As the reason for his journey was to bring back knowledge of Buddhist practices from the homeland of Buddhism, most of Faxian’s writings detail the religious practices at the monastic centers he encountered. The ideas, teachings, and even practices (such as relic ceremonies) which Faxian recovered subsequently shaped the understanding of Buddhism in China for future generations.xx
Faxian’s journey through the Buddhist Holy Land took him at first through the areas of India, north of Sārnāth. He spent a considerable amount of time in other significant Buddhist places, such as Nālandā Monastery and Vulture’s Peak, before he made his way back west to Sārnāth through Vāraņasī.xxi Faxian’s own accounts on the region of Sārnāth and Vāraņasī seem to suggest that while he was aware of the importance of Sārnāth and the role it played in the life of the Buddha, he was unaware of the exact location of the Deer Park.xxii He briefly mentioned in his account that while traveling from Bōdhgayā and Mount Gurupada towards Vāraņasī, he came across a vihāra with monks living in it called “The Wilderness” (Sanskrit?). These monks told him that the Buddha had once resided at the very same vihāra, and then directed him on towards Vāraņasī and Sārnāth.xxiii Faxian’s report on Sārnāth discuss the etymology of the ancient name of this site, Riṣipatana, saying that there had been lone Buddhas and riṣis who had obtained nirvāna here in the past, both before and after the Buddha “The son of King Śuddhodana, who quit his family and studied the path (of wisdom)”.xxiv He went on to mention areas in the Deer Park where events occurred after the Buddha became enlightened, such as where his five ascetic companions took notice of his enlightenment and acknowledged the Buddha despite their vow made seven years prior not to associate with him after he gave up his austerities.xxv Faxian then acknowledges the spot:
Where, sixty paces north from this, [the Buddha] sat with his face to the east, and first turned the wheel of the Law, converting Koṇḍañña and the four others; where twenty paces further to the north, he delivered his prophecy concerning Maitreya; and where, at a distance of fifty paces to the south, the dragon Elāpattra asked him, “When shall I get free from this nāga body?” at all these places topes were reared, and are still existing.xxvi
Faxian’s detailed accounts of the placement of these stūpas at the specific sites in which these events occurred no doubt helped to influence the interpretation of what these stūpas signified for future pilgrims. Faxian eventually made his way back to China from India by way of Sri Lanka, bringing with him important texts, teachings, and narratives that shaped various forms of Buddhism in China.xxvii
Another important Chinese pilgrim to visit Sārnāth was Xuanzang (600-664 CE). Xuanzang was born into a prominent Confucian family, and he became interested in theology and politics at an early age.xxviii Leaving home as a boy to become a Buddhist monk, he became fully ordained in the year 622 CE, whereupon he began a deep study of both the multiple schools of Buddhism and the languages used along the Silk Road.xxix By the seventh century CE, many significant Buddhist texts had been translated into Chinese, and Buddhism’s presence was even more prominent in China than it had been centuries earlier during Faxian’s time, despite the resurgence of Daoism under the new leadership of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE). xxx Like Faxian, Xuanzang felt the need to provide a deeper Indian foundation to Chinese Buddhism, and he thought that some doctrines were being misinterpreted. xxxi After seven years of language study, Xuanzang left China in the year 629 of the common era on a quest to visit the Buddhist Holy Land to obtain original texts and acquire any firsthand knowledge of Buddhism.xxxii
After first visiting Śrāvastī, where Xuanzang reported his dreams had led him to travel, he continued onward to the major pilgrimage sites of Lumbinī and Kuśinagar, and then on to Vāraņasī.xxxiii After a short stay in Vāraņasī , he headed to the Deer Park Monastery in Sārnāth.xxxiv Xuanzang begins his detailed account of Sārnāth by describing the area as being heavily forested and marked by stūpas. The text describing his travels gives an account of the significance of the region based on the Nigrodhamiga-Jātaka. That tale describes a previous lifetime of the Buddha in which he had been a great deer who had won favor with the king of Benares; the king provided a grant of land that is now Sārnāth as a protected area for all deer.xxxv Thus, the alternate name for Sārnāth, Mrȋgdāva, means a “game reserve”. xxxvi
Xuanzang notes that one of the stūpas was 91.4 meters and marked the spot in which Koṇḍañña and the Buddha’s other four companions had initially refused to acknowledge him upon his return to Sārnāth after becoming enlightened.xxxvii His reports about this particular stūpa (which seems identifiable as the Chuakhandi Stūpa due to reports of height and location, as well as details about its build) mirror Faxian’s reports from two centuries prior, only he included more details about the layout of buildings around the deer park complex, and also describes the monks who dwelt here. Xuanzang also included much more detail regarding the past history of Sārnāth and the events that happened there, relating details about things such as the lives of the five ascetics and their relationship to the Buddha and his father, King Śuddhodana, as well as the discussion these ascetics had regarding the newly enlightened Buddha.xxxviii Xuanzang also records his observation of the Dharmarājikā Stūpa, reported to be about 100 feet tall at the time of his visit, with a beautiful mural beside of it of the Buddha teaching.xxxix Xuanzang had a sandalwood copy of this mural made to take back to China.
Xuanzang’s writings also include details about the monastery at Deer Park during his visit; he reported that 1,500 monks were in residence at the time, and he was especially impressed with the monastery’s main shrine.xl He gave details of this shrine, which he reported to be over 200 feet tall, pyramidal in shape, with foundations of stone and towers of brick, topped(Si-Yu-Ki- Xuanzang 45 by a golden mango fruit.xli The shrine contained a large copper figure of the Buddha turning the wheel of dharma to his first five disciples, with niches up and down all four walls holding golden statues of the Buddha.xlii Xuanzang also chronicled the Aśokan pillar, which he measured at over twenty meters tall, and he asserted that it was made of a stone that was as bright as jade and glistened and sparkled in the sunlistening polished jade.xliii The Aśokan pillar (Made not of jade as reported by Xuanzang but of a highly polished sandstone) and the architectural remains of the main shrine can still be seen at Sārnāth today.
Xuanzang returned to China in 645 CE to great praise, and he spent his final years compiling his records and translating the Buddhist texts he had brought back with him. The ties and associations he made with foreign dignitaries and courts during his travels helped to lay the diplomatic framework for the Tang Dynasty’s future interactions with its neighbors to the west.xliv
Faxian and Xuanzang were both critical figures for the history of Buddhism in China. Their detailed accounts would help to shape the way in which Chinese Buddhism operated for centuries to come, and also provided information to China and its people on the workings and conditions of the other kingdoms of South Asia and India.xlv Even now, their stories of this mystical land, the home of the Buddha and the miracles associated with him, continue to encourage pilgrims from Buddhist societies worldwide to journey to the Buddhist Holy Land.