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Kumarajiva - Indian Buddhist Monk in China


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#1 General_Zhaoyun

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Posted 08 August 2006 - 04:55 AM

I read that during the age of fragmentation that there was an Indian monk called Kumarajiva who translated a large bulk of buddhist scriptures from Sanskrit to Chinese. Does anyone has more info about him? Which part of India did he come from? What scripture did he translate and any school of buddhism he was associated?
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#2 Yun

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Posted 08 August 2006 - 09:17 AM

Kumarajiva (Jiumoloshi in Chinese) was of Indian descent, but he was born in the Tarim statelet of Kucha (Qiuci). His father Kumarayana (Jiumoloyan) was born in a family that had served as prime ministers of an Indian kingdom for generations. But Kumarayana entered the monkhood and crossed the Pamirs to Kucha. The Kuchan king made him the spiritual advisor of the kingdom. The king's 19-year-old sister was highly intelligent but rejected all proposals for marriage from neighbouring kings. When she saw Kumarayana, she asked to marry him, and the king forced Kumarayana to comply.

The king's sister late gave birth to Kumarajiva, and then became a nun when Kumarajiva was 6 years old. Kumarajiva grew up to become a very gifted scholar of the Mahayana sutras. Fu Jian, the ruler of the Former Qin state, heard of him and wanted to bring him to Chang'an (the Qin capital). In 383, Fu sent General Lu Guang on an expedition to conquer the Tarim Basin, partly to get hold of Kumarajiva. Lu Guang conquered Kucha and captured Kumarajiva, and then tried to force him to marry the daughter of the king of Kucha. Kumarajiva refused, but Lu got him drunk and put him in the same room as the king's daughter. Since Kumarajiva slept with the king's daughter when drunk, he had no choice but to marry her after that.

Lu Guang brought Kumarajiva back to Liangzhou (the Gansu Corridor), but then heard that Fu Jian had been killed by Yao Chang (who founded the Later Qin state). He founded his own kingdom in Liangzhou, known historically as Later Liang. Kumarajiva served as a spiritual advisor to Lu Guang and the later kings of Later Liang, until the Later Qin ruler Yao Xing conquered the Later Liang and brought Kumarajiva to Chang'an in 401. Yao Xing also made Kumarajiva his spiritual advisor, and ordered him to translate sutras into Chinese. Yao Xing also assigned 800 monks to record his teachings, producing over 300 scrolls.

Kumarajiva's translations include, in chronological order:

402 - Amitabha sutra, the basic text of the Pure Land school

403-404 - Perfection of Wisdom in 25,000 lines

404 - Treatise in One Hundred Verses

405 - Treatise on the Great Perfection of Wisdom

406 - Lotus of the Good Law; Sutra spoken by Vimalakirti

409 - Treatise in the Middle; Treatise on the Twelve Gates (these two, with the Treatise in One Hundred Verses, formed the basis of the important school of the Three Treatises (sanlun) which centered on the Madhyamika teachings of Nagarjuna

410 - Sutras on the Ten Stages

412 - Treatise on the Completion of Truth

Kumarajiva, besides marrying under duress, is also said to have broken his vow of celibacy when in Chang'an. He told Yao Xing that he had seen in a vision that he would have two sons, and needed a woman to make the vision come true. Yao gave him a palace woman who indeed bore him twins. Yao Xing then decided that Kumarajiva should have more descendants so that his intelligence could be passed on. He gave Kumarajiva ten concubines and forced him to live with them. The monks around Kumarajiva followed his example and took concubines, but Kumarajiva called them to him, showed them an alms bowl full of needles, and said, "If you can eat these like I do, only then are you allowed to have families." He then ate the needles as if they were any normal food. The other monks were ashamed of themselves and stopped their concubine-taking.

Kumarajiva is believed to have died in Chang'an around 413, and was cremated.
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#3 General_Zhaoyun

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Posted 08 August 2006 - 10:35 PM

Thanks Yun..

Kumarajiva seems to have a large influence on the development of buddhism in northern dynasty.
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"夫君子之行:靜以修身,儉以養德;非淡泊無以明志,非寧靜無以致遠。" - 諸葛亮

One should seek serenity to cultivate the body, thriftiness to cultivate the morals. If you are not simple and frugal, your ambition will not sparkle. If you are not calm and cool, you will not reach far. - Zhugeliang

#4 Publius

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Posted 04 October 2006 - 02:17 PM

Thanks Yun for the info, Kumarajiva is an extremely interesting character. I've heard that he pushed the noodles out of his body through the pores of his skin. Of course, this is poetic embellisment and much of it is streaming through the internet. His mystical persona is entertaining, but that should not diminish his genius and intellectual exploits.

Apparently, at age 11, Kumarajiva became famous after successfully debating against a religious sectarians challenging Buddhism (some sources mention a Daoist, but I think that is highly unlikely given the venue of the debate--India, I think). I've read (I forget from where) that when Kumarajiva's mother was pregnant with Kumarajiva, she was unbeatable in debate.

Besides being methodical and possessing a flowery grace in his prose, Kumarajiva was also extremely selective when choosing his translating disciples. He had Buddhist "applicants" debate against his top disciples, and of 3000 "applicants" he chose only 20.

Also, in 413 on his deathbed, Kumarajiva legitimized his translations with mystic acceptance by vowing that if any translations were erroneous, than his tongue would be burned during his cremation. It is said that his body burned to ashes but his tongue remained...though the source has other inaccuracies (such as the total amount texts translated--I've heard anywhere between 72 to 300).

Any other stories or info from forummers would be most welcomed.
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#5 Publius

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Posted 04 October 2006 - 05:03 PM

I cracked open some books at home and found some more information.

Toward the end of the 4th Century, the Chinese Cleric Tao-an (Dao An?) created translation bureaus, where the monks could translate the sutras. These bureaus attracted scholars like Kumarajiva from foreign nations and local Chinese speaking scholars together to form new translations. They were usually located in royal precinct buildings or in temples.

In his "Buddhism in China: a historical survey", Kenneth Chen notes:

"The activities of Tao-an and Kumarajiva ushered in the second period of translation (fifth and sixth centuries), characterized by greater accuracy and improved techniques. The foreign monks were now becoming acquainted with the Chinese language, while Chinese Buddhists were also acquiring a better knowledge of Buddhism and of the foreign language as well."

Chen goes on to note Kumarajiva's methods:

"The master [Kumarajiva] held the text in his hands and proclaimed its meaning in Chinese. He would explain the foreign text twice, taking great pains to select the exact phraseology to convey the meaning of the original. If some passages were missing from the text he was using, he tried to obtain another copy of the same text to supply the missing portions. In the meantime the audience of monks was discussing the meaning of the passages and passing judgement on the literary style. If there were any doubtful points in the Chinese reading, Kumarajiva checked them to the original. When no more changes were to be made, he then had the translation written in its final form." (367 - 368)

It seems like Kumarajiva wasn't just a translator, but a micromanager also. In his translations, Kumarajiva deviated from other translators of the time by capturing the meaning of the sutra, supplying his own literary magic to make it flow, and not translating word for word. This may be a reason his translations are so enduring.
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#6 Publius

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Posted 04 October 2006 - 05:25 PM

Which part of India did he come from?

As Yun mentioned, he came from Kucha, which is located along the northern edge of the Taklamakan desert in the Tarim Basin. It has a rich history of Buddhist translators and here it is on Wiki.

What scripture did he translate and any school of buddhism he was associated?

Though born of a Brahman father and a Kuchean princess, Kumarajiva grew up studying Hinayana sutras. But after studying Mahayana texts, he realized that when studying Hinayana texts "he was like one who did not recognize gold and considered stone to be a wonderful object" (Chen 82). So, when he went to Chang'an, he was definitely associated with the Greater Vehicle.

To convert others to the Greater Vehicle and to the idea of sunyata, Kumarajiva used an analogy:

"A madman asked a weaver to weave as fine a thread as possible. The weaver did so, but the madman complained it was still too coarse. The weaver tried again, and still could not please the madman. Now the weaver became angry, and when the madman came a third time, he pointed to the air and said, 'Here is your thread.' The madman protested he could not see the thread, whereupon the weaver said it was so fine no human eye could see it. The madman was now satisfied, paid the weaver, and presented the invisible thread to the king" (Chen 82).
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