Hye Ch'o

A Buddhist's Pilgrimage

Korea -> China -> India

Buddhist Pilgrims

As far back as 2000 years ago, people moved across the great land mass of Asia, Europe and Africa. Some of the movements followed trade patterns, but others allowed people to honor their religion. The world was connected through trade and shared religions, and pilgrimages were an accepted part of religious practices. India and Tibet - the places of the Buddha's birth and death - drew Buddhists like the Chinese pilgrim, Tsuan-tsang, pictured below. We also have copies of poems written by Chinese Buddhists to honor their religion. Buddhism was a vibrant part of Chinese culture.


History of Hye Ch'o

If pilgrimages were not particularly special and others had celebrated Buddhism in writing before, what is so special about Hye Ch'o?

He did historians the very great courtesy of leaving us a journal of his travels. Primary documents are like gold and when an old, edited version of his journal was dug out a wall in a monastery in Northern China around the turn of the twentieth century, historians got a new vision of the world in the 8th century and the connections that made that world "global." His is a document not only about the early practices of Buddhism but also about the world at that time.

The monastery is located in Dunhuan, near the oasis Crescent Moon Lake on the silk road. This oasis was an ancient stopping ground for people, trade and religion. The monastery grew naturally around the trade center providing shelter for pilgrims and solitude for monks.

Hye Ch'o's journal:

The version we have of Hye Ch'o's journal is not the full journal. There are references in other documents to parts of his travels the version we have leaves out. What do we know about the original journal? It was written on paper. Korea had been making paper for a long time by the 8th century and Hye Ch'o had access to paper. He spoke Chinese and Korean, but no Hindu. He wrote his journal in "classical Chinese" which suggests Hye Ch'o expected his audience to be Chinese Buddhist pilgrims. Hye Ch'o, while born in Korea, and obviously a great traveler, never made it back to Korea after his pilgrimage and he died in China.

The Journey

Hye Ch'o studied Buddhism with a Chinese Buddhist master of Tantric Buddhism. As a Buddhist it made sense for Hye Ch'o to leave Korea and seek out the masters in China. China was the foremost center of culture in the world at this time. Hye Ch'o was able to study with the master who tutored the Emperor himself. Meanwhile, the Indian empire was crumbling and Arabs were on the move. As you know from your Islam projects, Muhammad had died in 632 leaving behind a religious legacy that prompted expansion and military conquest.

So why did Hye Ch'o leave China and travel to India and then as far west as Syria in the Middle East? He sought the pilgrimage to see the places of import in Buddhism: the site of the Buddha's enlightenment, sites of Buddhist councils, as well as the path of Buddhism in India and beyond.

He traveled mostly in Northern India (see map above), going through Punjab, Kasmir, the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan, Mashad in Persia, and then Damascus in Syria. He took three years and did the majority of this traveling on foot with only a backpack to hold his possessions (see characterization).

Images from his journey:

Here are pictures from areas Hye Ch'o visited on foot


Hye Ch'o's Poetry

Hye Ch'o's journal contained several poems describing his feelings about the journey. How would you view his emotions on this spiritual trek?

Geese are symbols of messengers. This poem demonstrates Hye Ch'o lament over how far he has traveled from his home and his fears that he will not make it home to share his discoveries.

What other images do you see in this writing?

Indian Trade and Markets

Commerce around this time centered on trade, the water routes and specialty items like perfume:


India's Hindu's Today

Today, India is home to Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus. For a brief look at Hindus today. Check out this National Public Radio slide show. You will need to be in a quiet place or have headphones so you can listen to the show without disturbing your neighbor. Once you click on the link look for the link to the multimedia slide show.


Stops on Hye Ch'o's Journey

In addition to the general traveling and sites that he saw, Hye Ch'o made special journeys to specific sites important to Buddhism.

As we discussed in the Islam unit, religious leaders often experience some extreme physical state at the time of their enlightenment. The Buddha was no different. He is said to have meditated and fasted for so long that you could feel your hands through his abdomen when they were placed one on his back and one on his stomach. In this extreme state, he received his gaya, or enlightenment, leading to his sermon on the middle way and the Eightfold Path to the Four Noble Truths (see Buddhism). A temple was erected at the site to celebrate the Buddha Gaya - or enlightened buddha. Hye Ch'o visited the Mahabodi temple and stayed a the monastery. He was deeply moved and wrote the following poem celebrating his own experience and the trails he had suffered to reach this place.

Hye Ch'o also visited the site of the Buddha's first sermon articulating the middle way and the Four Noble Truths.

Parinirvana or Buddha's death . Here is a shrine at Kusinagara the site of the Buddha's death.

Buddhist Councils

First council Site:

Second Council met in 383 BC and addressed a possible split in Buddhist disciples between conservative (more monastic tradition) to a more popular approach addressed to lay people.

Second Council Site

Journey Home

At some point, Hye Ch'o determinesd to head home. He wrote a poem describing his longing to be home as well as the bleakness he found in himself before home: (look back at those snowy mountain passes in Tibet, Pakistan, Afghanistan above!)

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All images and poems come from presentation by Wayne De Fremery, Harvard University, at ORIAS conference June 27, 2005.

Han-Sung Yang and Yun-Hua Jan, eds. Hye Ch'o Diary: Memoir of the Pilgrimage to the Five Regions of India. NY: Jain publishing 2004.