The Life and Legacy of the Great Translator — Kumarajiva (I)

Kumarajiva’s statue in front of the Kizil Caves in Baicheng County, Xinjiang, China

The Buddhist scriptures from China are an invaluable repository of knowledge that was made possible by the benevolence of Buddhist masters who risked their lives to travel to China and spread the Dharma. Despite facing significant hardships along their journeys, they remained steadfast in their mission to share the Buddha’s precious teachings with a foreign culture. Thanks to their efforts in translating the teachings into Chinese and conveying their true meanings, people have been able to benefit from these teachings for over 25 centuries and continue to do so by achieving higher spiritual attainments.

The translation of the Buddha’s teachings took place between the 2nd and 13th centuries, with a significant number of translations carried out during the Tang Dynasty (7th – 10th centuries). In total, approximately 6,000-7,000 versions of various sutras were transmitted to China, and almost 200 renowned translators, including Kumarajiva, one of the most distinguished translators of the 4th and 5th centuries, were involved in the process.

A genius boy born in a buddhist kingdom Kucha

By User:Schreiber – Created with Inkscape (using Image:Bm taklamakan.jpg). Data based on: Marylin M. Rhie, Early Buddhist Art of China and Central Asia (Handbook of Oriental Studies / Handbuch der Orientalistik – Part 4: China, 12, Vol. 1) (Handbook of Oriental Studies/Handbuch Der Orientalistik). Brill Academic Publishers, ISBN 90-04-11201-4, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Kucha played a crucial role in the spread of Buddhism during ancient times. In the last quarter of the 4th century CE, Kucha became a dominant force, overshadowing the Southern Silk Road, which ran along the southern edge of the Tarim Basin. According to the Jinshu(晋书), Kucha was a heavily fortified city with a magnificent royal palace, numerous Buddhist stupas, and temples. Book 97 of Jinshu states, “There are fortified cities everywhere, their ramparts are three-fold, inside there are thousands of Buddhist stupas and temples (…) The royal palace is magnificent, glowing like a heavenly abode.”

The culture and civilization of Kucha during this period can be glimpsed from the discoveries in the famous Kizil caves. In 1906, the German expedition team of Albert Von Le Coq and Albert Grunwedel explored the Kizil Caves, with different objectives. Grunwedel copied the murals, while Von Le Coq took them with him and placed most of the fragments in the Museum of Asian Art in Dahlem, Berlin. Other explorers also took the murals and placed them in various museums in Russia, Japan, Korea, and the United States.

The murals in the Kizil Thousand-Buddhist Caves are considered “The most beautiful murals in Central Asia,” and can be found in 81 caves with a total area of over 10,000 square meters (11,960 yards). The diamond grid pattern is the most impressive feature of the caves, with each grid depicting a story about Buddha’s reincarnation through a single picture. Besides themes related to Buddha, Bodhisattva, Arhat, Flying Apsaras, and Buddhist fables, the murals also showcase various depictions of daily life, farming, hunting, pastures, riding, mountains and rivers in the West Region, animals, birds, and ancient architectures. The styles are not limited to local arts, indicating influences from diverse cultures.

Cave 4 Vajrapani, removed original and in-situ drawing by Grunwedel
Cave of the Hippocampi (Cave 118, mural)
Right portion of the cave, as photographed by Charles Nouette  (1869-1910) Photographed in 1907. Public Domain – [1], Public Domain,

Attendant, Cave 84 Painting: 6th century painter, Kizil Photography: Undetermined 
Blue pigment used on mural. Greco-Buddhist Wind God Boreas or Vayu, central part of the ceiling of Cave 38
Ancient Uyghur Civilization (1)-Cave art by ancient Uyghurs

Kumarajiva was born around C.E. 344 in kingdom Kucha. Kumarajiva’s father, Kumarayana, was descended from an honourable line of prime ministers of a kingdom in Kashmir. Though Kumarayana was expected to become prime minister after his father, he renounced his hereditary claim and became a Buddhist monk. Eventually, he set out along the silk route which threaded its way across the mighty Pamirs and into the Takla Makan Desert and Central Asia. Following the northern route, he came in time to the devoutly Buddhist kingdom of Kucha on the northern rim of the great Tarim River basin. The Kuchan king either knew of Kumarayana by reputation or showed a shrewd perception of human nature, for he welcomed the traveller warmly and at once made him a trusted adviser. Soon he was elevated to kuo-shih, Teacher of the Nation, a privileged position which entailed political and cultural duties as well as religious functions. …

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. It was said that she had only to glance at a written passage to comprehend it, and only to hear something once to repeat it from memory. These qualities attracted numerous suitors. Jiva had a red mole (or spots) on her body, an indication that she would give birth to a wise son.

She had politely rejected a number of eligible suitors from neighbouring kingdoms, but when she saw Kumarayana she expressed the desire to become his wife. The king was delighted and insisted that Kumarayana accept the proposal. Even though he was a monk, he bowed to the wishes of this generous and devout monarch.

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.

When their son was born, Kumarayana and Jivaka each gave a part of their names to him and called him Kumarajiva. 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.

As if an occult design of invisible Nature had become manifest, hardly had the remarkable child turned six before Jivaka received permission from her husband to become a Buddhist nun. By that time Kumarajiva had already learnt the vast literature of the Abhidharma by heart, understood it and entered the Sangha. Kumarajiva’s mother clearly recognized the penetrating intelligence of her son and was determined to give him the best available philosophical and spiritual training. 

The Life and Legacy of the Great Translator — Kumarajiva


#Buddhism #Kucha#Kumarajiva #Buddhist#KizilCaves#GreatTranslator #BuddhistSutra


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