Kumarajiva (344-409) was an Indian Buddhist monk and one of the world's greatest translators. He provided the Chinese with competent translations of important Buddhist texts previously rendered into Chinese only in crude or even incoherent versions.

Kumarajiva was born in the central Asiatic city of Kucha, son of an Indian Brahmin and a Kuchean princess. When he was 7 years old, his mother became a Buddhist nun, and he spent the next years following her and studying Buddhist doctrine in Kucha, Kashmir, and Kashgar. He was ordained in the royal palace in Kucha at the age of 20. In Kashgar he was converted from Hinayana (mainly Sarvastivadin) Buddhism to Mahayana. He came to be known as a brilliant monk and seems to have been thoroughly versed in the Buddhist learning of the schools then current in northern India.

In 379 Kumarajiva's fame spread to China, and efforts were made to bring him there. Fu Chien, the former Ch'in emperor, was so eager to have him at his court that, certain sources suggest, he sent his general Lü Kuang to conquer Kucha in 384 in order to bring Kumarajiva back. Lü Kuang did capture Kumarajiva but kept him captive in his western kingdom of the Latter Liang for 17 years, first humiliating him and forcing him to break his vows of celibacy and then using him as an official in his court. His long captivity gave Kumarajiva the opportunity to learn Chinese.

Kumarajiva was again the prize of a military expedition when Yao Hsing, the ruler of the Latter Ch'in, sent a force to attack Ku-tsang, the Latter Liang capital (in Kansu), in the summer of 401, and Kumarajiva was able to enter Ch'angan early in 402. After a regal reception by the Emperor himself, Kumarajiva soon set to work, in the imperial apartments provided him, on the translation into Chinese of dozens of Buddhist texts, including some of the most important in the canon.

Translator and Teacher

Kumarajiva's translations in Ch'ang-an were done as a communal effort. He presided over a team of Chinese specialists before an audience of hundreds of monks. While the text was being translated, he answered questions about it, and some of his answers have been included, probably by accident, in the Chinese translations. There are, of course, errors and omissions, but on the whole Kumarajiva and his helpers provided trustworthy translations of difficult texts from one language into another that differed from it in every imaginable way languages can.

One reason for this success was perhaps Kumarajiva's broad-mindedness: his philosophical view included all of Mahayana doctrine, and he had no interest in twisting the text to fit some sectarian school. His own works are rare, the most important for the understanding of his thought being his commentary to the Vimalakirtinirdesasutra; his letters to Hui-yüan, written sometime after 405, are also interesting.

Emperor Yao Hsing also obliged Kumarajiva to break his vows of celibacy, insisting that he live with a harem of 10 "singing girls" so that such a brilliant man would not be without descendants. He was set up in luxurious quarters outside the monastery and seemed to suffer from this forced breach of Buddhist law, saying, when he preached, that his hearers should learn to gather the lotus of his sermon and not the stinking mud it grew in. According to the Kao-seng chuan, he died on Sept. 15, 409; according to Seng-chao's obituary (Kuang hungming chi 23), May 28, 413.

Further Reading on Kumarajiva

The best discussion of Kumarajiva's thought is in Richard H. Robinson, Early Madhyamika in India and China (1967). There is some supplementary biographical information in Kenneth K. S. Ch'en, Buddhism in China: A Historical Survey (1964).