By Sarah K. C. Wilkinson
In July 2019, Khyentse Foundation launched the Kumarajiva Project, an unprecedented translation effort dedicated to translating into Chinese all Buddhist canonical texts that are not currently available in Chinese. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche named this project after Kumarajiva, a scholar revered in Asia as one of the greatest translators and propagators of Buddhist scriptures in China. Accounts of the life and works of Kumarajiva range from medieval biographies to modern scholarship. What follows is a summary of the life and legacy of the man whose life’s ambition was to share and advance the knowledge and understanding of Buddha’s teaching throughout East Asia.
Kumarajiva lived a mythic life full of intrigue, triumph, and seemingly superhuman talents. His odyssey inspires the Kumarajiva Project in numerous ways. For one, Kumarajiva represents the strengths of Buddhism’s diversity of schools and regional traditions, his own training having been enriched by studying different vehicles of Buddhism. Kumarajiva is said to have revitalized Chinese Buddhism precisely because he applied his incredible linguistic abilities to multiple sutra traditions.
Second, Kumarajiva had an uncanny ability to inspire a broad readership by translating Buddhist texts into simple layman’s language, thereby transforming East Asian culture. He can be considered the most influential of all classical Chinese translators largely because people from all walks of life found that his distinctive easy style—more than the style of other translators—helped them understand and contemplate the dharma. Similarly, the Kumarajiva Project aspires to produce translations in a contemporary style that resonates with readers today.
Finally, the Kumarajiva story speaks to the need for generous patronage to accomplish great aims that have an impact for centuries.
Although the exact dates of his birth and death have been much debated, Kumarajiva was probably born in 343/344 CE in the Buddhist Kingdom of Kucha (now Kuqa, Aksu Prefecture, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China), in the heart of the Silk Road region connecting China with India. His Indian father, Kumarayana, was descended from a long line of ministers, but declined his ministry position in order to become a monk, earning him great respect. Kumarayana then crossed the Kamir mountains between Kashmir and the Tarim Basin into Kucha, where he became the royal “teacher of the nation” and met his Kuchan wife.
Much attention is given to Kumarajiva’s mother in the medieval biographies, although wives and mothers were rarely discussed in other Buddhist biographies of the time. This attention speaks to her formative role in the intellectual and spiritual development of her son. The great translator’s mother, Jiva (Jivaka), was the younger sister of the king of Kuchi. She was well known for her intelligence, wit, memory, and devotion to the dharma. These qualities attracted numerous suitors. She refused everyone until she met Kumarayana, whom she deeply wished to marry. Some accounts suggest that the townspeople encouraged Kumarayana to marry Jiva, others suggest that she “forced him to take her as his wife.” Jiva had a red mole (or spots) on her body, an indication that she would give birth to a wise son. When Kumarajiva was in utero, Jiva became considerably sharper and more perceptive than before. For example, although her language was what is now known as Tokharian B, while pregnant with Kumarajiva she was able to understand Sanskrit without ever having studied it; after Kumarajiva was born, this ability disappeared. Such an “omen” suggests that the child Kumarajiva was predisposed to master Sanskrit and thus the original Buddhist scriptures.
With two devout parents, Kumarajiva was exposed to Buddhist texts and practice from the day he was born. At the age of seven, he trained with a learned master and memorized a thousand verses every day until he could recite all the teachings of the scholastic treatises of the Abhidharma. He received much attention for his brilliance and his connection to royalty, and thus garnered an endless supply of gifts and offerings. Perhaps to avoid the entrapment of such material offerings, Jiva took him westward across the mountains to Kashmir, part of present-day India. There he met the dharma teacher Bandhudatta and studied the Khuddaka-nikay Dirgha and Madhyama Agama for three years. He continued to study numerous Indian texts, including the Vedas, Brahmanical literature, the Sarvastivada Abidharma, and other Hinayana texts. A year later, Jiva and Kumarajiva travelled back to the outskirts of Kucha, home to thousands of monks, where he encountered the teacher Suryasoma. This master introduced him to Mahayana texts.
Kumarajiva’s reputation was sealed when he successfully debated a renowned teacher who had sworn to cut off his own head if someone could defeat him. He taught the Mahayana Buddhist doctrine to those who came from far and wide, particularly the concept of shunyata [link?]. At the age of twenty, he was fully ordained at the palace of King Po Shun.
Around this time, Jiva said to her son, “You should propagate the profound teachings of the Vaipulyasutras (the most important of the Mahayana sutras) in China. Its dissemination in the eastern countries will depend only on you. Does it matter that there will be no personal advantage for you (in this)?” To which he famously replied, “The teachings of the great master are there to serve (others) and to forget oneself (in the process). If one is able to spread the great conversion and awaken the blind masses, then, even if one’s body were burning in a red hot oven, one may suffer but feel no regret.”
Kumarajiva stayed in Kucha and studied extensively the Pancavimsatika-Prajnaparamita and other Mahayana sutras and shastras. When he was first exposed to the Prajnaparamita texts, legend has it that Mara came to distract him by covering the pages so that they appeared blank. Ever more resolute when he discovered it was the devil’s work, Kumarajiva recited the sutras with vigour. Mara then spoke to him, declaring him already wise and questioned his need to read the sutras. Kumarajiva responded by telling him he was “a small devil” and to leave immediately. Reflecting the celebrated words of Buddha Shakyamuni, he declared, “My heart is (firm) like the earth; it is immutable.”
Meanwhile, to the east of Kucha, Emperor Fu-Chien (Fu-Jian, 337-385) of Ch’ang-an (then the capital of China, present-day Xi’an) had a deepening interest in Buddhism and had assembled a team of Indian and Chinese scholars to translate Buddhist texts. Alhough it was not the first translation team in China, Fu-Chien’s academy was the first to receive direct royal patronage. In addition to the kingdom of Kucha’s renown as the home of the now-famous Kumarajiva, Kucha and surrounding territories of the “western region” were also known for their rare and precious minerals.
Emperor Fu-Chien was convinced by regional kings and princes to subjugate the western lands by force. In 382, somewhat reluctantly, he asked General Lu Kuang (Lu Guang, 337-400) to lead 70,000 men to take Kucha and nearby lands. But the emperor’s main goal, it seems, was to adopt Kumarajiva as a National Treasure: “I have heard that Kumarajiva in the western country has a deep understanding of the characteristics of the Dharma, is knowledgeable in all temporal and divine matters, and a role model and teacher for younger disciples. I yearn for him. A virtuous and wise man is the great treasure of a country. When you have defeated Kuchi, then send Kumarajiva post haste.”
Although the battle was successful in conquering Kucha and capturing Kumarajiva, a rapid turn of events led to the assassination of Emperor Fu-Chien by his former subject Yao Chang (331-394). General Lu Kuang, who had captured Kumarajiva, had no interest in Buddhism and thus kept Kumarajiva captive in his own court, possibly as an advisor and/or a “supernatural protector of the city.” For more than 16 years, Kumarajiva remained in Lu Kuang’s territory and had to keep his knowledge of the Buddha’s teachings to himself. Not much is known about this period, but some historians conjecture that during this time he deepened his scriptural knowledge and perfected his Chinese language skills.
Kumarajiva’s fame as a holder of the dharma did not fade, and the Ch’ang-an rulers repeatedly invited him to share his wisdom in the capital; however, the Lus of the west refused to let him go. In 401, Emperor Yao Hsing (Xing, 394-416) of Ch’ang-an sent in troops and crushed the Lu army, freeing Kumarajiva. At last, he arrived in Ch’ang-an, where he was invited to reside in the Great Monastery and was treated with immense respect and honour.
Finally, Kumarajiva was able to translate scriptures and teach Mahayana Buddhism to the people of China. Emperor Yao Hsing gave him the title “National Teacher.”’ The emperor gathered the best scholar-monk translators from India and China to form a translation academy that was even more ambitious than the one that Emperor Fu Chien had formed some 20 years earlier. He also constructed a special building for Kumarajiva and his team in the city center. Each time the translation of a new text commenced, it was a widely celebrated public event attended by up to 3,000 monastics and lay people. During these gatherings, Kumarajiva lectured on the subject matter of the texts; these commentaries were recorded and distributed throughout the empire and beyond. As evidenced by fragments that still exist of letters between him and Kumarajiva, Emperor Yao Hsing was personally invested in elucidating some of the obscure doctrinal philosophies contained in the treatises. Under this patronage, although it was relatively short-lived, Kumarajiva’s translation efforts were a huge success.
Nearly 100 texts, many with multiple volumes, are attributed to Kumarajiva and his team, although only a quarter of those can be authenticated. The Taisho Tripitaka constains 74 texts in 384 volumes, including the following for which he is best known: the Vajracchedika Sutra (401); the Amitabha Sutra (402); the Prajnaparamita Sutra in 25,000 Lines (404); the Treatise on the Great Prajnaparamita (405); the Lotus Sutra (406); the Vimalakirti Sutra; Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way; and the Prajnaparamita in 8,000 lines (409). Unfortunately, an additional 47 translations were lost.
Around 412, Kumarajiva felt unwell and knew that his death was near. Deeply distraught during his final years because he had not managed, for personal and cultural reasons, to fully inculcate China with Buddha’s Mahayana teachings, he said, “It is unspeakably sad that I am now leaving the world behind. May what I have made known and translated spread further among future generations and be fathomed fully!”
Kumarajiva assured those who had any doubt in the Mahayana teachings that his commitment to translation was unsullied. “Now I truly swear before you that if I did not make any mistake in my translations, then after my body is cremated my tongue will not have been burnt.” Upon his cremation, his tongue is said to have remained whole and unscathed.
Despite his concern, the world recognizes Kumarajiva as one of the greatest Sanskrit-Chinese translators of all time, largely responsible for the dissemination of Buddhist religious and philosophical ideas in China. Not only did he make an extensive number of Mahayana texts available in Chinese, he transformed the way in which the extant Chinese renditions of Buddhist texts were presented. These earlier translations were too literal and therefore difficult to understand; Kumarajiva was able to translate in a manner that clarified the misconceptions of Buddhist doctrines, particularly those on emptiness. Yet it took centuries before China’s Buddhists were willing to accept the Mahayana doctrine, and his translations were not widely studied until the seventh century.
Kumarajiva’s deep passion for the Madhyamaka, his extraordinary ability to create polished and concise Chinese translations of the sutras and Indian commentaries, and the depth of his understanding had a profound effect on the direction of Chinese Buddhism and culture. His name is an inspiration to all who support the endeavour to make the Buddha’s teachings ever more widely available to the modern world. The Kumarajiva Project is named in honour of this exceedingly talented, tenacious, and devout religious figure. We hope that in translating into Chinese the Buddhist texts that are not yet available, the project will create a fuller, more comprehensive collection of the Buddha’s teachings in the language of the region that is largely responsible for the survival of Buddhism.