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Pet Sins January 2009

5th century Buddhist translator Kumarajiva - a symbol of the ancient cultural connections between Central Asia, India, and China

Kumarajiva (344-413) was born in Kucha, Central Asia to an Indian father Kumarayana and a Kuchean mother Jiva. Kumarayana, descendant of a line of Prime Ministers, had travelled from India to Kucha where he entered the king's service as the royal priest. Princess Jiva, sister of the king of Kucha, married him. Their son Kumarajiva shared his parents' interest in religion and became a monk at age 7. Prior to entering the monastery, the child prodigy had already memorized many Buddhist scriptures. By the time he was 20, Kumarajiva's name was well-known in Central Asia and China. Before Jiva left Kucha for India, she encouraged the 20 year old Kumarajiva to go to China to further Mahayana Buddhism. But it was not until many years later that Kumarajiva was able to fulfil his mother's wish through a tumultous and circuitous route.

In 379, Chinese Buddhist monks returning from a study tour of Kucha praised the wisdom and learning of Kumarajiva before the Former Qin king Fu Jian of the Di ethnic group. The renowned Chinese translator-monk Dao An also urged Fu Jian to invite Kumarajiva to China. In 382, Fu Jian's forces launched their Central Asian campaign. They had orders to capture Kumarajiva, whose influence in Central Asia made him a valuable political pawn.

In 384, Lu Guang, a general of Fu Jian, entered Kucha and took captive Kumarajiva. Lu sought to make fun of the monk by forcing him to ride on unruly beasts, amongst other acts of humiliation. But Kumarajiva showed no anger. On the way back to China, Lu Guang set camp in the foothills, but Kumarajiva, who had the reputation of being a seer, warned him that this course of action would not bode well for the soldiers; they should move camp to higher ground. Lu disregarded the warning. During the night, torrential rains caused a flash flood that drowned thousands of troops. From then on, Lu took Kumarajiva's words more seriously.

When Lu's army reached Gansu, China, they received the news that their king Fu Jian had been killed by rival king Yao Chang of the Qiang ethnic group. Lu Guang decided to set up his own dynasty, the Later Liang. Kumarajiva remained in Lu's custody. Yao Chang, who had established the Later Qin Dynasty, admired the reputation of Kumarajiva and repeatedly invited him to his court, but the Lu house of the Later Liang Dynasty were not about to let the Kuchean sage go to their enemy.

It was not until after the death of Lu Guang and Yao Chang that Yao Chang's son Yao Xing was able to defeat the Liang king Lu Long and bring Kumarajiva into China proper. By this time, the Kuchean monk was already 58 years old. But he had made use of his time in captivity to become fluent in Chinese.

King Yao Xing treated Kumarajiva with great honor, appointing him Teacher of the Nation. At the king's behest, Kumarajiva (known in Chinese as Jiumoluoshi) began his work on the translation of Buddhist scriptures from Sanskrit to Chinese. Many accomplished Chinese Buddhist scholar monks came to work under his direction. Jiumoluoshi had 3000 disciples in China. There had been a few hundred translations of Buddhist scriptures done before his time, but none reached Kumarajiva's quality and clarity. Of the many works he translated, the most important ones are the Wisdom Shastra, the Lotus Sutra and the Diamond Sutra. Kumarajiva's easy-to-understand translations survive to this day in Chinese society, taking the form of famous quotes that even non-Buddhists have heard through exposure to pop culture.

Kumarajiva died in Chang'an, China at age 70. He has been described as "the first teacher of the Madhyamika doctrine in China" and the "symbol of cultural cooperation between India, China and Central Asia to this day." (On the Nalanda Trail: Buddhism in India, China and Southeast Asia, p28)

Sources: (in Chinese)
Buddhist Personalities - Jiumoloshi
Shanghai Jingan Temple - Jiumoloshi
Baidu Encyclopedia - Jiumoloshi
The Amazing Life of the Great Monk Jiumoloshi

English articles on Kumarajiva and his work:
MSN Encarta -Kumarajiva
Wikipedia -Kumarajiva
Buddhism in a Nutshell- The Great Translator, Kumarajiva
Kumarajiva on Newsfinder.org
Straw Hut Temple in Xi'an, China (location of Kumarajiva's workplace)