Monday, May 27, 2013

Train Reading - the journeys of I-Ching

This post continues the story that began in Train Reading - Introducing May's Culture of South East Asia. One of the strengths of Reginald Le May's The culture of South-East Asia (Yi_Jing artist's impressionGeorge Allen and Unwin, second impression 1956) is the way it brings alive elements in a world of which I knew little. I have been to some of the places he talks about, I have walked through some of the ruins, but I didn't know the history.

Le May records that in 671 AD the Buddhist monk and traveller Yi-Tsing (or I-Ching, modern Yijing) departed Canton for Shihlifoshih or, more shortly, Foche. According to Wikipedia, I-Ching was born in 635 in Fanyang, China, as  Zhang Wen Ming, becoming a monk at age 14. A benefactor known only as Fong provided funding to allow him to study at the great Buddhist university of Nālandā in what is now India.

Travelling by Persian ship, it took I-Ching 22 days to reach Foche, a place known as a centre of Buddhist studies with links to China and India. Le May quotes I-Ching's impressions of Foche.

In the fortified town of Foche there are more than a thousand Buddhist monks, whose minds are set on study and good works. They examine and discuss all possible subjects exactly as in India itself: the rules are identical.

If a Chinese monk wished to go to the west in order to read and study (the original Buddhist texts) he cannot do better than stay at Foche for a year or two and practise the necessary rules. He will then be in a fit condition to go on to India for further study. 

When I read this, I was struck by its modern feel.

Foche, modern Palembang on the Indonesian Island of Sumatra, was the capital of the Kingdom of Srivijaya, then a considerable regional power. Srivijaya_Empire.svg       

The map from Wikipedia (link above) will give you a feel for Srivijaya's position and influence. Part of its power came from its location, its control of key shipping lanes, of the trade between China, India, Ceylon and beyond to Africa.

Srivijaya's full history is another story, but it remained a maritime power until the 13th century. That's quite a long time in human terms.

I-Ching stayed in Foche for six months learning Sanskrit grammar and the  Malay language.

Now for the next part I have taken from Wikipedia.

He went on to record visits to the nations of Malayu and Kiteh (Kedah), and in 673 after ten days additional travel reached the "naked kingdom" (south west of Shu). Yijing (I-Ching) recorded his impression of the "Kunlun peoples", using an ancient Chinese word for Malay peoples. "Kunlun people have curly hair, dark bodies, bare feet and wear sarongs." He then arrived at the East coast of India, where he met a senior monk and stayed a year to study Sanskrit. Both later followed a group of merchants and visited 30 other principalities. Halfway to Nālandā, Yijing fell sick and was unable to walk; gradually he was left behind by the group. He was looted by bandits and stripped naked. He heard the natives would catch white skins to offer sacrifice to the gods, so he jumped into mud and used leaves to cover his lower body; he walked slowly to Nālandā where he stayed for 11 years.Nalanda_University_India_ruins

I hadn't heard of the University of Nālandā, but it was obviously quite a place. At it's peak, it is reported to have had over 10,000 students in residence with over 2,000 teachers. This picture of the ruins will give you a feel.

I-Ching was quite some traveller. After leaving Nalanda, he returned to Foche in 687 where he stayed translating Buddhist texts into Chinese. Having completed all his translations, he finally returned to China in 695, where he received a grand welcome back  from Empress Wu Zetian. His total journey had taken took 25 years.

In addition to some 400 Buddhist translated texts, I-Ching was an inveterate travel diarist whose diaries described his adventures and provided a picture of society and lifestyles in the places he visited.


Our blogging friend Ramana pointed me to this piece on the re-establishment of the University at Nalanda.It's a nice story.


Anonymous said...

My expectations when I started to read the blog were to find out something about I Ching the Classic Book of Changes, the oldest book of divination. I am not disappointed to find information completely different to my expectations though.Chinese culture and history are fascinating in all its aspects.

Rummuser said...

I leave you undisturbed with my own observations.