“I shall travel to the land of Buddha”
Hyecho, a Buddhist monk from the Silla Period, is commonly perceived as Korea’s first cosmopolitan who opened the way to the world we know today. Hyecho was born a monk in 704 during the unified Silla period. At an early age, he moved to Guangzhou, China, where he studied Esoteric Buddhism under Vajrabodhi (금강지 金剛智), an Indian Buddhist monk and Esoteric Buddhist teacher in Tang China. Under the guidance of Vajrabodhi, the forefather of Esoteric Buddhism, Hyecho carried out extensive scholarly research concerning Buddhist scriptures. In 774, Hyecho was appointed to hold a ritual for rain during severe droughts at the order of the Emperor of Tang China, which gives rise to the assumption that Hyecho was highly praised by the Chinese for his intellectual capacity and achievements.
It is presumed that Venerable Hyecho set out for India in 723 in an attempt to follow the footsteps of his master and to better learn the Buddhist doctrine in the land of the Buddha. Leaving Guangzhou, Hyecho first arrived in East India by ship, and throughout his four years of stay abroad, Hyecho not only travelled through India but also the countries bordering on Western China. During his journey, Hyecho wrote a travelogue called “Wang ocheonchukguk jeon” (왕오천축국전 往五天竺國傳) or "Memoir of the pilgrimage to the five kingdoms of India." Hyecho’s account of his travel to ancient India is regarded as one of the best travel journals in the world, along with Marco Polo’s “The Travels of Marco Polo” (also known as “Il Milione”), Odoric of Pordenone’s “The Travels of Friar Odoric,” and Ibn Battuta’s “The Travels of Ibn Battuta” (also known as “Rihla “ or “The Journey”).
“Wang Ocheonchukguk Jeon” ("Memoir of the Pilgrimage to the Five Kingdoms of India”)
The manuscript of Hyecho’s “Wang ocheonchukguk jeon,” the oldest of the world’s best four travel journals, contains roughly 6,000 classical Chinese characters in 227 lines, with more than 160 characters damaged and worn away. The journal, long thought to be lost for many years, was rediscovered by Paul Pelliot, a French explorer and archaeologist, who bought it from the Dunhuang grotto on the Silk Road in China in 1908.
The surviving record of Hyecho’s account of his journey is not the original version, but is a copy of an abridged version consisting of three volumes. While the copy is missing the entire content of Volume I as well as the latter part of Volume III, the surviving record nevertheless vividly reveals important details of Hyecho’s journey. Hyecho’s “Wang ocheonchukguk jeon” is perceived as the only existing historical travel journal that provides extensive information about cultural, political, and economic customs of ancient India during the 8th Century. In addition, Hyecho depicts information on the extent to which Hinayana Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism were being adopted in the Indian kingdoms at the time, along with technical information including starting place, destination, time required to travel to certain cities, exact location and the size of the places he visited. According to the travelogue, Hyecho visited the Indian Kingdom of Magadha after arriving in Eastern India by ship. He then travelled to Kusinagar and Varanasi, cities located in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, and continued his journey northward, where he visited Lumbini and Kashmir. Hyecho left India by travelling west via Karasahr, which was ancient town on the Silk Road. It is assumed that Hyecho faced his death in 787 at the age of 83 in Tang China.
The work of Hyecho, the first overseas travelogue written by a Korean, offers a full account of a long journey that lasted four years spanning 9,000 kilometers in distance by ship, and 11,000 kilometers by land. To this day, Hyecho’s work is praised as a valuable archeological and anthropological reference for its unprecedentedly comprehensive scope and depth that reveals boundless ambition of Korea’s first true cosmopolitan.