The Life and Legacy of A Great Translator — Kumarajiva (III)

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Long and Tortuous Blooding Journey to China

Emperor Fu-Chien (337-385), also known as Fu-Jian, became increasingly interested in Buddhism. In 379, he conquered the city of Hsiang-yang and invited Tao-an to establish his renowned center for the translation of Buddhist scriptures and texts in the capital of Ch’ang-an, which Fu Chien fully supported. Tao-an, impressed by Kumarajiva’s spiritual, philosophical, and linguistic abilities, urged Fu Chien to invite him to Ch’ang-an. However, the warlord-emperor, in his aggressive manner, dispatched Lu Kuang with an army to conquer Kucha and capture Kumarajiva. Kucha fell to Lu Kuang, and Kumarajiva willingly accompanied the conquering general to Ch’ang-an in 383.

Then, a series of unexpected events occurred. Tao-an died in 385, and six months later, the Yao family attacked and conquered Ch’ang-an, killing Fu Chien. The new dynasty continued the policies of the previous rulers, such as preserving Tao-an’s translation center and promoting Buddhist studies, eagerly anticipating the arrival of Kumarajiva in the capital. Lu Kuang, upon hearing of the conquest of Ch’ang-an, halted his return and declared himself independent, establishing a state known as Later Liang with its center at Ku-tsang. Although Lu Kuang was not a Buddhist and did not care for spiritual matters, he recognized the political value of Kumarajiva.

Lu Kuang held Kumarajiva captive for sixteen years, subjecting him to numerous indignities while also using him as a military adviser. During this time, the rulers of Ch’ang-an pleaded for his release, but to no avail. Kumarajiva found this period of his life difficult and frustrating, as he was mocked for his beliefs and practices and could not pursue the work he felt destined to do. Despite this, he did not become passive or disheartened. Instead, he used this time to learn about China from the rugged soldiers who had traversed much of the country. He also quietly gathered texts to take with him to Ch’ang-an and thoroughly mastered the Chinese language.

Eventually, Yao Hsing, the second ruler of the new dynasty at Ch’ang-an, grew tired of fruitless negotiations with Lu Kuang and took a daring risk. In 401, his armies attacked and conquered Ku-tsang (in present-day Afghanistan). Kumarajiva was rescued unharmed, and in 402, he was welcomed into Ch’ang-an. He finally realized a dream he had conceived in his twenties, but it took until his fifties to come to fruition.

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An artist’s impression of a translation session

Kumarajiva was warmly received by Yao Hsing, who bestowed upon him the title Teacher of the Nation. The fruitful phase of his life, which has profoundly influenced Chinese Buddhist tradition from the moment he entered Ch’ang-an to the present day, began with his arrival and lasted barely a decade. Within six days of taking up residence in his new home, he accepted the suggestion of a monk named Seng-jui, later one of his chief disciples, and began to translate a text on meditation, the Tso-ch’an san-mei ching. He found that the translation centre founded by Tao-an had been preserved and supported by Yao Hsing, and he marvelled at the quality of the work his predecessor had undertaken. He found himself surrounded by an enormous group of knowledgeable monks who were ready to continue the work of translation under his guidance. He rapidly reorganized the centre so that new translations could be made even while the accomplishments of the previous generation could be reviewed and revised. Within the next few years he translated almost fifty works in about three hundred volumes.

Like Tao-an, Kumarajiva thought that the ko-i or ‘matching the meaning’ method of translation, in which unfamiliar Sanskrit Buddhist concepts were replaced by well-known Chinese Taoist words, compromised Buddha’s teachings. A review of Tao-an’s work convinced him, however, that too strict an insistence on literal translation, sometimes requiring the creation of awkward neologisms, rendered beautiful texts obscure. His belief that a translation should accurately convey the tone and texture of a teaching inseparably from its content compelled him to adopt a new methodology for translation. He chose to emphasize the central theme of a text or treatise and to edit passages which would seem unnecessarily repetitive to Chinese readers. Once he had arranged the working force at his disposal to his satisfaction, he would read a text aloud, sentence by sentence, before a large congregation. Yao Hsing would often attend these sessions, and sometimes he held the original palm-leaf manuscript in his own hands while Kumarajiva explained it. After each sentence, Kumarajiva explained its meaning and offered an oral translation in Chinese. The congregation would comment on the results and suggest improvements. Meanwhile, a recorder would write down the approved translation, and later an editor would review the whole text for style and internal consistency. Finally, a calligrapher would correct the Chinese ideographs to be sure there were no ambiguities in transmission of the texts.

Kumarajiva’s influence was not limited to the so-called barbarous kingdoms of northern China. In 378 Hui-yuan, one of Tao-an’s chief disciples, had gone south and made his abode in a monastic community at Lu-shan, a mountain famous amongst Taoists, Confucians and Buddhists for its majesty and mystery. Within a few years, he became the informal leader of the Southern Chinese Buddhist community. Shortly after Kumarajiva’s arrival in Ch’ang-an in 402, Hui-yuan wrote to him and encouraged him to continue the work of Tao-an. A year later, hearing that Kumarajiva might return to Kucha, he wrote again, strongly urging him to remain in China. During the next few years the two monks exchanged letters on philosophical and monastic subjects, and eighteen of these exchanges survive. Hui-yuan enquired about many issues, but he was most interested in gaining a clear understanding of the dharmakaya, the highest vehicle of a Buddha. Kumarajiva distinguished between dharmakaya, the ultimate body of Buddha, and dharmadhatujakaya, the invisible body consciously evolved by a Bodhisattva to serve humanity in the world even after physical death. Thereby he showed how that which is ultimately real is reflected in subtle material form through one-pointed and universal consciousness. In these letters answering questions posed by a serious disciple of buddhadharma, one can glimpse something of Kumarajiva’s own profound insight and understanding. In general, he preferred to remain hidden behind the lustre of his translations and refrained from writing treatises setting out his own views.

Seng-jui is said to have rejoiced after attending a translation session with Kumarajiva, because for the first time he caught a glimmer of understanding of the enigmatic concept of shunyata. The collective work of Kumarajiva and his colleagues produced texts which were readable, comprehensible and inspiring. After a millennium and a half his translations are still read and studied, and they are often used as the basis for new translations into other languages, including English. Even though he translated a range of sutras and commentaries from a variety of Buddhist teachings, such as the Prajnaparamita literature, the Vimalakirti Sutra and the Surangama Sutra, his most famous and influential work was his powerful rendition of the Lotus Sutra, known in Sanskrit as the Saddharma Pundarika Sutra and in Chinese as Miao-fu lien-hua. In it one finds harmoniously combined Kumarajiva’s astounding linguistic facility and his profound grasp of the scope and depth of buddhadharma. Perhaps less obvious to the modern reader is the remarkable support Yao Hsing gave to this sort of project. Also, Kumarajiva never hesitated to point out the enormous support he received from knowledgeable and enthusiastic monks who worked together with an exemplary spirit of harmony and cooperation.

Golden copy of the “Universal Gateway”, Chapter 25 of the Lotus Sutra kept in Taiwan National Palace Museum. One of the many excellent works of Kumarajiva

Within just 11 years, Kumarajiva and his team translated 384 volumes, including sutras, commentaries, and other Buddhist texts. Since that time, his translations have been held in high regard by modern scholars due to the smooth flow of the work which conveys deeper meaning than just literal rendering. If it wasn’t for Kumarajiva, many of the great Mahayana texts may not have been preserved until today.

The major scriptures translated by Kumarajiva between 401-413 CE include:

  • Smaller Sukhavati-vguha (Amitabha Sutra) in 1 volume, 402 CE
  • Vajracchedika Prajnaparamita Sutra (Diamond Sutra) in 1 volume, 402-412 CE
  • Satyasiddhi Shastra, (Treatise on the Completion of Truth) in 20 volumes, 402-412 CE
  • Mahaprajnaparamita Upadesha (Treatise on the Great Perfection of Wisdom Sutra) in 100 volumes, 402-405 CE
  • Shatika-shastra (Treatise in One Hundred Verses) in 2 volumes, 404 CE
  • Sarvastivadin Vinaya (Ten-Category Vinaya) in 61 volumes, 404-409 CE
  • Panchavimshati Sahasrika Prajnaparamita Sutra (Perfection of Wisdom Sutra in Twenty-five Thousand Lines) in 27 volumes, 404 CE
  • Vimalakirti Nirdesha Sutra (Vimalakirti Sutra) in 3 volumes, 406 CE
  • Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita Sutra (Perfection of Wisdom Sutra) in 10 volumes, 408 CE
  • Madhyamaka-shastra (Treatise on the Middle Way) in 4 volumes, 409 CE
  • Dvadashamukha Shastra (Treatise on the Twelve Gates) in 1 volume, 409 CE
  • Maitreyavyakarana Sutra in 1 volume
  • Shurangama-samadhi Sutra in 2 volumes
  • Karunikaraja Prajnaparamita Sutra in 2 volumes
  • Brahmajala Sutra (Brahma Net Sutra) in 2 volumes
  • Saddharmapundarika Sutra (Lotus Sutra) in 8 volumes
  • Dasabhumikavibhasa in 17 volumes

Temple Dedicated for Kumarajiva in WuWei, China

Pagoda enshrining Kumarajiva‘s Tongue Relics

On his deathbed, Kumarajiva prophesied to his closest disciples that his cremation would serve as a criterion of his success as a translator. If he had made errors – a possibility he was always willing to acknowledge – his entire body would be consumed by the funeral flames. However, if he had not erred, then his tongue would remain untouched by the fire. His disciples testified that his tongue survived the cremation of his body unharmed. This precious tongue relic is now preserved at the Kumarajiva Temple, located in Wuwei, in northwest China’s Gansu Province. It is the only temple in the world named after Kumarajiva. Additionally, the Kumarajiva Pagoda, built in the 4th century, was an important structure on the Silk Road. The elegant 12-storey brick pagoda was destroyed during a great earthquake in 1927, but was later rebuilt.

The judgement of history concurs with Kumarajiva’s disciples: his work became the backbone of the grand organic edifice of Buddhist thought and teaching that arose in China, even as the buddhavachana began to wane in India. Kumarajiva gave his life to a sacred mission, the full significance of which his contemporaries could not fathom. However, they correctly sensed from the magnetic force of his presence that subsequent generations would benefit immensely from his selfless service.

Kumarajiva’s translations were instrumental in the development of Buddhism in China, as he was able to transmit the true meaning of Buddhism through his works, which contributed to the development of schools such as the Pure Land, Tian Tai, San Lun, and many others. His translated sutras were always considered central to their principal readings.

The Life and Legacy of A Great Translator — Kumarajiva (III)


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