Nirmal DASS

Kumarajiva translated Budhist texts at the White Horse Temple in Luoyang, China. PHOTO BY FANGHONG.

Kumarajiva translated into Chinese about one hundred Mahayana Buddhist texts written in Prakit and Sanskrit.

Kumarajiva may be credited with bringing to China the critical texts of Mahayana Buddhism by way of his translation into Chinese of previously unavailable Prakit and Sanskrit works. Kumarajiva, given his Indian background, bears only one name; it is Sanskirt and means, “a youthful soul,” or “eternally youthful.”

Kumarajiva (344–413 CE) was born in Kucha, in China’s present-day Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. His mother, Jiva, is thought to have been the daughter of the king of Kucha. Kumarajiva’s father is thought to have been from India and to have converted to Buddhism and come to Kucha to participate in its thriving Buddhist community. Scholars do not know what connection Kumarajiva continued to have with his father, although Kumarajiva’s mother had him educated at the local monastery, where he excelled in learning. His mother later took him to Kashmir, where he continued his studies. By the time he was twelve, mother and son relocated to the oasis city of Turfan. There Kumarajiva dedicated himself to the Mahayana doctrine of Buddhism.

Kumarajiva’s learning brought him renown at a young age. The king of Kucha requested that he return to the city of his birth and instruct the royal children. Kumarajiva consented and returned to Kucha, where a newly built monastery awaited him. At this stage of his life he began a rigorous study of the Perfection of Wisdom texts. Many sages and monks came to him to be instructed in the doctrines of the Middle Way. Perhaps at this time his mother, who was now a Buddhist nun, traveled to Kashmir, never to return.

Kucha was attacked by the Chinese in 384, and many of its residents were captured and taken east. Among the captured was Kumarajiva, now forty years old. He probably learned Chinese during his captivity of nearly seventeen years. Thus, when he arrived in the city of Changan in 401, he found company among the Buddhists there. They were eager to learn more about their faith. In this way Kumarajiva came to serve Emperor Yao Xing, whom Kumarajiva began to instruct in Buddhist precepts. Kumarajiva, realizing that Buddhist scriptures in Chinese were scarce, began translating texts that he considered essential to a proper understanding of Mahayana. The task of translation was critical because Prakit and Sanskrit terms were often difficult to render into Chinese. The normal practice was to use approximations, often drawn from Daoism, which yielded inaccurate and clumsy results. Therefore, Kumarajiva crafted a Chinese vocabulary that allowed readers immediate access to concepts central to Buddhism, such as the notion of the void and the essential emptiness of the self.

The emperor, to facilitate these translations, founded a school devoted to this undertaking. Many monks from India, Kucha, and central Asia came to learn and to expound. During the next twelve years Kumarajiva rendered into Chinese about one hundred Buddhist texts. He died in Changan.

Further Reading

Ikeda, D. (1986). The flower of Chinese Buddhism. New York: Weatherhill.

Kieschnick, J. (1997). The eminent monk: Buddhist ideals in medieval Chinese hagiography. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Liu, Ming-Wood. (1994). Madhyamaka thought in China. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill.

Robinson, R. H. (1967). Early Madhyamika in India and China. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Wright, A. F. (1959). Buddhism in Chinese history. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Source: Dass, Nirmal. (2009). Kumarajiva. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1255–1256. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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