Following the Footsteps from Nalanda (India) dan Muarajambi (Indonesia)

Eight days (March 15th-22nd, 2015). The trip to explore Nalanda, Vikramashila, Sera and the surrounding areas. It was a trip to experience first-hand the monastic living tradition that exists to this very day. The descriptions of the activities of the Sangha in Nanhai Ji Gui Neifa Zhuan (南 海 寄 歸 內 法傳; A Record of the Buddhist Religion as Practised in India and the Malay Archipelago), translated by J. Takakusu, B. A., Ph. D, written by Yi Jing, a pilgrim monk from China, indeed raised a lot of question marks, especially in the seventh century CE, Yi Jing had lived for more than 10 years in Shili Foshi – or more precisely in the Muarajambi region, which has left him a deep impression, as he wrote in his notes: In the fortified city of Foshi, there reside thousands of monks who study all subjects as covered in Madhyadesa, India. He also advised that people intending to go to India should live and study in Foshi for one or two years.

At present, the remains of the Muarajambi Complex do not leave many stories behind that can be seen with the bare naked eye. However, the existing records and remains strongly suggest that the Muarajambi Complex was once the oldest and longest-standing center of learning in Indonesia, on par with and existed concurrently with the Nalanda University in India.

Sera Je and Sera Me

Departing from the Bangalore airport, India, we headed to the Buddhist learning complex (also known as a Monastic University), that is still active to this very day, namely Sera Je and Sera Me. Within this complex reside about 3,500 monks from Tibet, Sri Lanka and the surrounding areas of India. Their age range is astounding, ranging from small children under the age of 10, to adolescents and adults. To obtain a Geshe degree (equivalent to a PhD), the monks need to engage in rigorous studies for a period of 20-25 years – many of whom start from an early age. Their daily activities include prayers, attending lectures, reciting teachings, debate, performing karma-yoga (including various chores at the monastery such as cooking, sweeping, etc) and other activities. Since early dawn, the temple is already bustling with activities, where thousands of monks can be seen performing worship together. Some junior monks are running back and forth carrying jugs of butter-tea to be distributed to all participants of the service. Some lay people (who originate from other countries) are also present to participate in prostrations, or sitting outside the monastery to feel the energy of thousands of monks praying in unison.

The monks living in the monastery adhere to a fairly strict Vinaya discipline. Besides, they are not allowed to watch TV, play football or ride a motor-bike (except those in charge of administrative duties). The temple complex is dominated by the presence of large field situated in the four corners, which is strikingly identical to the design/structure of the Muarajambi Complex. Initially, this peculiar design seemed somewhat confusing, as to what the functionality of the large fields actually was. At dusk, it became apparent that the large fields function as the ‘debating arenas’ for reviewing the classes. The monks sat in groups: some in pairs and others in small groups, filling almost every corner of the field, where one party enthusiastically poses questions while the other party throws out the answers – pervading entire debate ground with the voices of intense debates. Debating here is used as an effective means to understand the deeper teachings, and not to compare the intelligence of one another.

Debate ground at Sera Me, India


After spending a few days in Sera to witness the study of Buddhadharma as a living tradition, we headed to Nalanda, which in the past constituted one of the largest centers of learning of Buddhism. Nalanda University is located in the province of Bihar, India, established in circa the 5th century CE. Equipped with dormitories, Nalanda is the first residential university in the world, where students from China, Korea, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and other regions came to study. In its heydays, there were more than 10,000 students and 2,000 lecturers/teachers at Nalanda. Remarkably, subjects taught at that time already included pancavidya: logic (hetuvidya), grammar/literature (sabdavidya), medicine (cikitsavidya), art (silpasthanavidya), and inner science (adhyatmavidya). It is said that the monks who intended to study at Nalanda would first complete ‘preparatory studies’ at Muarajambi, in order to learn the subjects in advance (similar to conducting preparations required to enter into Ivy League Universities), including Yi Jing.

To date, Nalanda still has the remains of podiums, yards, wells and irrigation canals, ponds, and arrangement of bricks that previously served as rooms. Included also is a three-layered ladder that symbolizes the three dynasties: Gupta, Harshavadan and Pala.

Nalanda Mahavihara, Bihar, India

Xuan Zang

Within the Nalanda Mahavihara complex stands the Xuan Zang Memorial Hall, which was the result of a joint cooperation between India and China. Determined to receive Buddhist teachings from authentic sources, Xuan Zang set out on a journey to India and spent several years in Nalanda, where he studied and taught. As a result, he took back with him numerous Sanskrit manuscripts, which he then translated into Chinese language. Thanks to his travels and notes, Buddhism flourished in China and also in other parts of the world, and hence the tachings was able to be preserved. It is said that it is primarily due to the detailed records of Xuan Zang that Nalanda could be successfully reconstructed from its ruins.

Xuan Zang Memorial Hall at Nalanda, India


Our next stop was Vikramashila University, which was one of the two most important centers of learning of Buddhadharma, besides Nalanda. Vikramashila fame spread, one of the reason was due to Acharya Dipamkara Srijnana stayed and taught here for a period of time and also served as its Academic Head (comparable to an education director or university rector).

Acharya Dipamkara Srijnana, who became known as Lama Atisha, was one of the alumni from Indonesia, i.e. Muarajambi. Studying under Acharya Dharmakirti, Dipamkara Srijnana lived and studied at Suwarnadwipa for 12 years. After studying in Indonesia, he returned to India and taught at Nalanda and Vikramashila, before he was invited to Tibet.

Vikramashila, Bihar, India

This trip left many deep impressions and insights; as if retracing in the footsteps of past great spiritual explorers who endeavored to master the Buddhadharma, as well as to preserve the teachings and culture that prevails to this very day. There was also a sense of happiness and gratitude for those who supported and facilitated this trip, especially to have been granted the opportunity to witness and get a direct, first-hand experience of these magnificent sites, which turned out to be so close to us, to Muarajambi and Indonesia.

The trip to India with lecturers of the University of Indonesia. Dr. R. Cecep Eka Permana (far left), Prof. Dr. A. Aris Munandar (2nd from left), (Candidate Prof.) Agus Widiatmoko (4th from left).

Foshi and Shili Foshi

As mentioned in the previous article, Yi Jing lived in Shili Foshi (Sumatra) for approximately 10 years and his stay has left a deep impression in his mind. As written in his notes, in the fortified city of Foshi, there were thousands of monks engaging in the study of all subjects that exist in Madhyadesa, India and advised that prior to taking up studies in India, one should first stay and study in Foshi for one or two years. In Mulasarvastivadaekasatakarman (根 本 说 一 切 有 部 百 一 羯 磨), Volume 5 T24/477C, he writes:

又 南 海 諸 洲,咸 多 敬 信。人 王 國 主,崇 福 為 懷。此 佛 逝 下,僧 眾 千餘。學 問 為 懷,並 多 行 缽。所 有 尋 讀,乃 與 中 國 不 殊。沙 門 軌 儀,悉 皆無 別。若 其 唐 僧 欲 向 西 方 為 聽 讀 者,停 斯 一 二 載,習 其 法 式,方 進 中天,亦 是 佳 也.

(you nanhai zhu zhou, xian duo jing xin. ren wang guo zhu, chong fu wei huai. ci foshi kuo xia, seng zhong qian yu. xue wen wei huai, bing duo xing bo. suo you xun du, nai yu zhongguo bu shu. sha men gui yi, xi jie wu bie. ruo qi tang seng yu xiang xifang wei ting du zhe, ting si yi er zai, xi qi fa shi, fang jin zhongtian, yi shi jia ye).

“Many kings and rulers in the islands of the Southern Sea admire and have faith (in Buddhism), and their hearts are set on performing good actions. In the fortified city of Foshi, Buddhist monks number into the thousands, whose minds are bent on learning and engaging in virtue. They analyze and study all the subjects that exist just as in the Middle Kingdom (Madhyadesa, India); the rules and ceremonies are not at all different. If a Chinese monk wishes to go to the West in order to listen to (lectures) and read (the original texts), he had better stay here for a period of one or two years and practise the proper rules and then proceed to Central India.”

Shili Foshi was apparently very glorious during the time of Yi Jing, where he resided there for approximately 10 years, studying and translating Sanskrit and Pali texts into Chinese language. It appears that the capital was initially called Foshi, and when the kingdom became great and extended so far as Melayu, the whole country as well as the capital received the name of Shili Foshi. Prof. J. Takakusu transliterated Shili Foshi and Foshi as Sribhoga and Bhoga, respectively. Prof. J. Takakusu noted that Foshi was most probably the capital, whereas Shili Foshi likely referred to the country, although Yi Jing used both terms alternately.

Given that Yi Jing was the earliest writer to mention these names, his notes deserve careful scrutiny. From his two works, Nanhai Ji Gui Neifa Zhuan’ (南 海 歸 內 法 傳) and ‘Datang Xiyu Qiufa Gaoseng Zhuan’ (大 唐 西 域 求 法 高 僧 傳), a number of facts are quoted hereunder:


  • Foshi, the capital, was on the Foshi River, and it was the major trading port with China, where ships were sailing regularly between Foshi and Guangdong. The king of Foshi as well as rulers of the neighbouring states, were supporters of Buddhism. The capital was a centre of Buddhist learning in the islands of the Southern Sea, and there resided thousands of monks. See The Life and Travels of Yi Jing.
  • The distance from Guangdong to Foshi was about 20 days under favorable wind conditions, up to one month. Melayu, which newly received the name of Shili Foshi, could be reached within 15 days by ship from the capital of Foshi. The sailing time from Melayu to Jiecha (Kedah) also took 15 days. See Notes on Some Geographical Names.
  • Gold seems to have been abundant. Yi Jing once referred to Shili Foshi by the term ‘Jinzhou’, which means ‘Gold Isle’. It was common for the people to present golden lotuses to the Buddha (Chapter IX). They used jars of gold and possessed statues of gold (Chapter IX).
  • The people wore ganman (sarong) [see General Introduction].
  • Other products were areca (Chinese: binglang, Skt. puga), nutmegs (gati), cloves (lavanga), and camphor (karpura) [Chapter IX]. They used fragrant oils (Chapter IX). People in these places made sugar-balls by boiling the juice of plants (or trees), and the monks ate them at various times of the day.
  • The language used was known as ‘Gunlun’ (Malay) [see Notes on Some Geographical Names].

Regarding the location of Shili Foshi, Yi Jing noted thus in Chapter XXX of Nanhai Ji Gui Neifa Zhuan’:

“In Shili Foshi, in the middle of the eighth month and in the middle of spring (second month), the dial casts no shadow, and a man standing has no shadow at noon. The sun passes just above the head twice a year” (Chapter XXX).

Note by Prof. Takakusu: According to the Chinese calendar, a year is divided into four seasons, each consisting of three months: the first, second and third months are the spring season; whereas the seventh, eighth and ninth falls in autumn. Therefore, ‘middle of the eighth month’ refers to ‘mid-autumn’ while ‘mid-spring’ is the middle of the second month. Yi Jing also pointed out that ‘the sun passes just above the head twice a year’, which relates to the autumnal equinox and vernal equinox. According to the Chinese calendar, the equinoxes fall on a day either before or after the 15th of the second month and the 15th of the eighth month. Therefore, if ‘middle of the eight month’ and ‘middle of spring (the second months)’, were exactly the autumnal and vernal equinoxes respectively, the location of Shili Foshi may be determined.

In various accounts, it is mentioned that the distance of Shili Foshi in the Southern Sea to Guangdong was approximately 20 days by ship, but would sometimes take up to one month. This capital of the country was an important trading port, and people seem to have already embraced Buddhism for some time. They wrote using Sanskrit letters and also understood Chinese letters. According to the records, this area was abundant in gold, where the lotuses of gold were a typical gift.



  • A Record of the Buddhist Religion as Practiced in India and the Malay Archipelago’ by Prof. Takakusu. Publisher: Oxford at the Clarendon Press (1896).
  • Datang Xiyu Qiufa Gaoseng Zhuan (大 唐 西 域 求 法 高 僧 傳; ‘Memoirs of Eminent Monks who Visited India and the Neighbourning Countries to Search for the Law under the Great Tang Dynasty’), by Yi Jing.

Biography of the Pilgrim Monk Yi Jing (635-713 CE)

Yi Jing was one of the three renowned pilgrims from ancient China, his two predecessors being Fa Xian and Xuan Zang. Fa Xian, was the first monk to embark on a pilgrimage to India, where he stayed for 15 years (399-414 CE). Xuan Zang on the other hand lived in India for 17 years (629-645 CE).

Yi Jing was born in 635 CE in Fanyang, in Chaozhou. When he was seven years old (641 CE), he studied under his tutors Shan Yu and Hui Xi. He received novice ordination at the age of 14 and subsequently took full ordination at the age of 20 as the minimum age required. Since he was 18 years old, Yi Jing has dreamt of undertaking a pilgrimage to India, but his dream was only realized when he reached the age of 37 (671 CE).

While residing in the capital (Chang’an), Yi Jing witnessed the colossal funeral ceremony of Xuan Zang who died in 664 CE, conducted under the direction of the emperor. Moved by the noble intentions of Xuan Zang, Yi Jing endeavored to realize his long-awaited dream to travel to India, which at the time was the center of learning of Buddhism. Before leaving for India, he returned to his hometown to request the blessing of one of his teachers, Hui Xi. He also visited the grave of his other teacher, Shan Yu, to pay homage.

In the eleventh month of the year 671 CE (at the age of 37) Yi Jing sailed from China (Guangdong) for 20 days and landed in Foshi. He resided in Foshi for six months to learn Sabdavidya (Sanskrit grammar) and then left for Moluoyou (Melayu), where he stayed for two months. On the twelfth month, in 671, he proceeded from Jiecha (Kedah) to India, visiting various places and finally arrived at Tamralipti (a port on the East coast of India) on the eighth day of the second month in the year 673 CE. On the fifth month he resumed to India and stayed at Nalanda for 10 years (675-685 CE).

After collecting sacred books of Buddha’s teachings, he began his journey home. Yi Jing returned to Tamralipti and from there sailed for two months to the southeast, arriving in Jiecha, where concurrently a ship from Foshi has arrived, which typically occurs in the first or second month of the year. Yi Jing stayed in Jiecha until winter and then travelled by ship to the south. After one month of traveling, he arrived in Moluoyou (Melayu), which has then become Foshi (Shili Foshi) and there are many states (under it). The arrival time is usually also falls on the first or second month of the year.

Yi Jing stayed in Shili Foshi for four years, beginning in circa 685-689 CE. In 689 CE, Yi Jing boarded a ship with the intention to send a letter to Guangzhou (Guangdong) to request for paper and ink to be used for copying sutras and the costs of hiring scribes, but accidentally returned home to China for three months. Since some 500,000 slokas from the Tripitaka teachings he brought (from India) were left in Foshi, he intended to return. Yi Jing at the time was already 55 years old.

On the first day of the eleventh month of the year 689 CE, Yi Jing along with two other monks Zhen Gu (Salagupta) and Dao Hong departed from Guangdong to Foshi. Yi Jing again stayed in Foshi for approximately five years (late 689-695 CE). In Shili Foshi, Yi Jing met a monk named Da Jin who returned to Chang’an (Xi’an Fu) on the 15th day, fifth months of the year 692 CE and Yi Jing entrusted him with 10 volumes of Sutras and Sastras (Commentaries), ‘Nanhai Ji Gui Neifa Zhuan’ consisting of four volumes and ‘Datang Xiyu Qiufa Gaoseng Zhuan’ comprising two volumes.

Yi Jing returned to China in the mid-summer of 695 CE, and was well-received by Empress Wu Zetian (the empress in power at the time). He resided abroad for 25 years and visited more than 30 places. Yi Jing brought home some 400 Buddhist texts, 500,000 slokas as well as a real plan of Vajrasana (seat of Awakening) of the Buddha.

In total, Yi Jing stayed in Sumatra for about 10 years, from late 671 until 672 CE (at least 8 months); between 685-689 CE (four years); and late 689 until 695 CE (around five years).

The Works of Yi Jing

Yi Jing translated about 56 writings totaling 230 volumes. Among his famous writings comprise:

1. Nanhai Ji Gui Neifa Zhuan’ (南 海 歸 內 法 傳) written in 691-692 CE. This book was translated by Prof. Takakusu (1896) from Chinese into English under the title A Record of the Buddhist Religion as Practiced in India and the Malay Archipelago’, and has been translated into Indonesian under the title ‘Kiriman Catatan Praktik Buddhadharma dari Lautan Selatan,’ published by Ministry of Education and Culture of the Republic of Indonesia (2014).

2. ‘Datang Xiyu Qiufa Gaoseng Zhuan’ (大 唐 西 域 求 法 高 僧 傳; ‘Memoirs of Eminent Priests who visited India and Neighbouring Countries to search for the Law under the Great T’ang Dynasty’), also written in 691- 692 CE, was translated by Professor Chavannes from Chinese into French under the title “Memoire a l’epoque de la grande dynastie Tang sur les religieux eminents qui allerent chercher la Loi dans les pays d’Occident” (1894).

3. Mulasarvastivada-ekasatakarman’ (根 本 说 一 切 有 部 百 一 羯 磨), written upon his return to China, between 700-703 CE.

In addition, there are three more writings of Yi Jing which he mentioned in his other works but are not found in the India Office Collection:

1. 西 方 記 (Xifang Ji). The Record of the West. Yi Jing refers to this work in Chapter IX of ‘Nanhai Ji Gui Neifa Zhuan’.

2. 西 方 十 德 傳 (Xifang Shide Zhuan). The Lives of the Ten Virtuous Men of the West. Yi Jing refers to this work in Chapter XXXIV of ‘Nanhai Ji Gui Neifa Zhuan’.

3. 中 方 錄 (Zhongfang Lu). The Record of the Madhyadesa. Yi Jing mentions this work in ‘Datang Xiyu Qiufa Gaoseng Zhuan’.

Yi Jing passed away in 713 CE at the age of 79 years. His life and works were highly praised by Emperor Zhongzong, as stated in the preface of the Tripitaka catalogue.

Source: ‘A Record of the Buddhist Religion as Practiced in India and the Malay Archipelago’ by Prof. Takakusu. Publisher: Oxford at the Clarendon Press (1896).