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

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on

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)


#Buddhism #Kucha#Kumarajiva #Buddhist# Kashgar#GreatTranslator #BuddhistSutra #Prajnaparamita #Mahayanasutra#WuWeiChina #KumarajivaTemple #KumarajivaPagoda


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

Journey on Learning Buddhism

When his mother joined the monastery, it was said that Kumarajiva had already memorised many texts and sutras. Kumarajiva proceeded to learn the Dharma further and followed his mother into monastic life at the age of seven. When he was nine years old, mother and son undertook the arduous journey to India, eventually reaching the Kashmiri kingdom known to the Chinese as Chi-pin, which was probably his father’s native home. Bandhudatta, a renowned Buddhist teacher and cousin of the king, instructed Kumarajiva in the agamas (the nikayas of the Theravadin tradition). During the next two years Kumarajiva mastered these texts and was honoured by the king. Once he defeated several non-Buddhist teachers in a debate held before the ruler, and from this moment his reputation preceded him wherever he travelled. In addition to learning the scriptures and treatises of the Sarvastivadin school, Kumarajiva seized the opportunity afforded by his presence in India to study medicine, astronomy and astrology, exegetical and hermeneutical methods of exposition, logic and the applied sciences.

By the time Kumarajiva was twelve, he and his mother set out on the journey back to Kucha. The pace was leisurely, for every kingdom and principality along the way fêted and honoured him, and several urged him to take up residence as a teacher and adviser. As he was making his way through the mountains of the Yueh-chih region, he met an arhat who volunteered a prediction to his mother:

You must watch over and protect this novice. If by the time he reaches the age of thirty-five he has not abandoned the rules of religious discipline, he will become a great propagator of buddhadharma, enlightening countless people, and he will be the equal of Upagupta.

Upagupta was the fourth Indian patriarch after Buddha, famous for having converted the emperor Ashoka to the Buddhist way. Though Kumarajiva was forced by circumstances to break one vow late in life, he met the conditions of the prophecy and fulfilled the prediction.

By PHGCOM – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Passing through Yueh-chih, Kumarajiva and his mother came to Kashgar, a Buddhist kingdom known for its excellent teachers and libraries. He settled there for a year and completed his studies of the Abhidharma and the texts revered by the Sarvastivadins. During this time he concentrated intently on Vedic literature and studied the most important systems of chanting the Vedas. Whilst he learnt a great deal about Hindu philosophical schools, he focussed upon the power of sound to affect the receptivity of consciousness to transcendental truths. The knowledge he gained later influenced his stirring translations of sutras and texts into Chinese. He also expanded his considerable grounding in Sanskrit and Pali and learnt more of the languages of Central Asia. On the advice of a monk, the king of Kashgar invited Kumarajiva to take the seat of honour and expound a sutra to a prestigious assembly which included the king himself. Kumarajiva did so, and as a result the monks of Kashgar were indirectly impelled to reform their previously lax monastic disciplines. At the same time, the king of Kucha heard of the high esteem in which Kumarajiva was held in Kashgar and sent a delegation to cement friendly relations between the two kingdoms.

While living in Kashgar, Kumarajiva met Sutyasoma, a prince of Yarkend (So-ch’e), perhaps as a result of his public discourse. Sutyasoma had renounced his royal inheritance and gone to Kashgar for spiritual instruction, and he was a revered teacher when he took Kumarajiva under his guidance. As a follower of Sarvastivadin doctrines, Kumarajiva held that the dharmas or ultimate constituents of existence are eternally real, whereas empirical phenomena which arise out of the momentary confluence of dharmas under karma are unreal. Sutyasoma adhered to the Mahayana view that all dharmas are themselves unreal; ontologically, dharmas are like empty space and assume distinct existence only in their momentary, ever-changing combinations. Although Kumarajiva initially found such teachings difficult to comprehend, Sutyasoma’s more universal application of Buddha’s doctrine of impermanence soon won him over to the Mahayana standpoint. Kumarajiva felt a tremendous sense of release and emancipation, declaring that he had been like a person who did not know what gold is and had previously taken brass for something wonderful.

Kumarajiva took up an intensive study of the sutras with the same enthusiasm he had brought to all his earlier training. He learnt the doctrines of the Madhyamika schools, memorized treatises by Nagarjuna and Aryadeva and rapidly assimilated Mahayana teachings. Just how fundamental a turning point Kumarajiva’s encounter with Sutyasoma was for his life is illustrated by his insistence that Bandhudatta, his first teacher in India, come to Kashgar. There Kumarajiva and Bandhudatta engaged in friendly but intensive debate, and eventually Bandhudatta was won over. During this time Sutyasoma foresaw something of the magnificent work Kumarajiva would undertake in China. Years after he left Kashgar, Kumarajiva recounted to his disciples in China what Sutyasoma once told him:

The sun of Buddha has gone into hiding behind the western mountains, but its lingering rays shine over the Northeast. These texts are destined for the lands of the Northeast. You must make sure that they are transmitted to them.

After spending a memorable year in Kashgar, Kumarajiva and his mother set out for Kucha. They stopped for a time in the kingdom of Wen-su and then moved on to their home. By the time Kumarajiva reached Kucha, his reputation had gone ahead of him as far as northern China. Monks from all over Central and East Asia gathered in Kucha to learn from him, even though he was only twenty years old and still officially a novice or shramanera. Within the year he was made a full monk in the Sangha and spent much of his time teaching others. For almost a decade he prepared himself for the mission to China which had been prophesied and which he felt was the central focus of his life work.’ This period lacked the peacefulness and prosperity that had marked his earlier years, for he witnessed the steady decline of the Kuchan state and heard reports of the incessant internal struggles which plagued northern China. Nonetheless, he worked quietly in the conviction that he was destined to go to the East one way or another.

Around this time, Jiva said to her son, “You should propagate the profound teachings of the Vaipulyasutras (the most important of the Mahayana sutras) in China. Its dissemination in the eastern countries will depend only on you. Does it matter that there will be no personal advantage for you (in this)?” To which he famously replied, “The teachings of the great master are there to serve (others) and to forget oneself (in the process). If one is able to spread the great conversion and awaken the blind masses, then, even if one’s body were burning in a red hot oven, one may suffer but feel no regret.” His mother, seeing the decline in Kucha’s fortunes and believing that she had done all she could for her son, exhorted him to follow unwaveringly the Bodhisattva Path and left to return to India. They never met again.

Kumarajiva stayed in Kucha and studied extensively the Pancavimsatika-Prajnaparamita and other Mahayana sutras and shastras. When he was first exposed to the Prajnaparamita texts, legend has it that Mara came to distract him by covering the pages so that they appeared blank. Ever more resolute when he discovered it was the devil’s work, Kumarajiva recited the sutras with vigour. Mara then spoke to him, declaring him already wise and questioned his need to read the sutras. Kumarajiva responded by telling him he was “a small devil” and to leave immediately. Reflecting the celebrated words of Buddha Shakyamuni, he declared, “My heart is (firm) like the earth; it is immutable.”

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


#Buddhism #Kucha#Kumarajiva #Buddhist# Kashgar#GreatTranslator #BuddhistSutra #Prajnaparamita #Mahayanasutra


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


Mount Putuo: Wonders and Thoughts


Mount Putuo: Wonders and Thoughts

By Xuming Bao August 9, 2021

It was late January, just a few weeks before Chinese New Year, when we headed to Zhoushan in Zhejiang Province. It was bitterly cold and traveling to Mount Putuo (普陀) for a two-day visit was not good timing. COVID-19 was—and still is—running rampant around the world. Any kind of travel required constant and painstaking vigilance, including full compliance with stringent prevention measures in China. Nevertheless, our destination  looked as beautiful as ever, a glimmering island in the great ocean, celebrated as the “Buddha-land in the sea.” (Haitian fogou 海天佛國)

Mount Putuo is very environmentally friendly. Except for public buses, no vehicles are allowed, so we had to leave our car at the wharf. Most residents simply cycle around for their daily errands, and even said bicycles are under a quota control. For visitors to move about, you can take a bus, cycle, or simply walk. Roads and pathways are well maintained, and there is a long road that connects all the temples on the island, big or small, affording a pleasant journey at one’s own pace.

It was warm and sunny with a gentle breeze by the time we reached the island in the early afternoon. As there were very few visitors, we could stroll around at our leisure, enjoying the sunlight’s embrace. “You are so lucky,” commented our trip’s docent. “It was so windy in the morning that the ferry service was about to be suspended. In a week, the entire mountain might be closed to prevent the chance of further infections, no matter how sporadic.” We were blessed with the good fortune of a joyful excursion.

Mount Putuo is classified by the Chinese government as an “AAAAA Grade Scenic Resort and Historic Site,” attracting about 10 million visitors each year under normal circumstances. Visitation, though down 40 per cent during the pandemic in 2020, has rebounded sharply; as of April, 2.8 million people had visited Mount Putuo, a fivefold increase. The effort to attract visitors is ongoing: the Putuo Mountain College of the Buddhist Academy of China was recently completed, and Guanyin Dharma Park opened last November.

Putuo is a Chinese transliteration of the Sanskrit Potalaka, which is mentioned in several Buddhist scriptures, including the Gandavyuha Sutra (added as the final sutra in the Avatamsaka Sutra). Potalaka is described as the holy residence of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. According to Guang Xing, Mount Putuo was identified as the mythical Potalaka mountain by Buddhist monks and Chinese literati (Guang 2011: 1-22). It has been the pilgrimage site of Avalokiteshvara for about a millennium, honored as one of the four sacred Buddhist mountains in Chinese Buddhism. We speak here of Guanyin, the feminine form of Avalokiteshvara popularized in Chinese Buddhism. We will return to Guanyin below. For now, we simply need to know that Mount Putuo’s status matches that of Mount Wutai (五台) for Manjushri, Mount Jiuhua (九華) for Kshitigarbha, and Mount Emei (峨眉) for Samantabhadra.

There seem to be three main demographics for visitors to Mount Putuo: sightseers, pilgrims, and students of Buddhism. The majority of sightseers are visitors who do not have much knowledge of Buddhism, nor much interest in its history, sutras, or temples. Nevertheless, everyone, regardless of background, recognizes this place as one expecting reverence and respect for the buddhas and bodhisattvas. When we worship and make our wishes before the famous 33-meter statue of Nanhai Guanyin, we are also introspecting, contemplating, and reflecting on the vicissitudes and travails of our lives.

The town nearby is neat and chic, full of activity and interesting souvenirs for tourists to commemorate their visit. Even in the winter, Mount Putuo is generously covered with greenery and vegetation, with a multitude of species including ancient camphor trees and the rare wild plants of Carpinus putoensis (普陀鵝耳櫟). They are one of the major treasures on Mount Putuo and monoecious. There are red and yellow variations coexisting, but they do not mature at the same time, so the pollination rate is extremely low. When the Sun is shining, the leaves of many trees turn golden in the backdrop of the Prussian blue sky, surrounded by the various temples. It is truly a picturesque sight.

Carpinus Putoensis Cheng. From baidu

The beautiful scenery, unique to Mount Putuo, is reminiscent of places I have visited in Japan. The connection between Mount Putuo and Japan can be traced back to the Tang dynasty (618–907), when a Japanese Zen and Tendai monk-pilgrim named Egaku (Chinese: 慧鍔; Hui’E) wanted to bring a statue of Guanyin from Mount Wutai to Japan. However, his voyage back via Mount Putuo was hampered by storms and waves despite several attempts. One day, Egaku had a dream in which he realized that the statue of Guanyin did not want to leave. He decided to enshrine it and built a simple hut near the Tidal Sound Cave. Immediately, his ship sailed through and he was able to return to Japan. This is the story of Guanyin “bu ken qu” or “unwilling to go,” and is the source of many folktales surrounding the establishment of temples and monasteries on Mount Putuo. Exchanges between Mount Putuo and Japan continued over many centuries.

Guanyin is the real protagonist linking Japan and China, with Guanyin known as Kannon or Kanzeon in Japan. Belief in this personification of compassion and benevolence has a long history in China. First introduced from India in the Western Han dynasty (202 BCE–9 CE), Avalokiteshvara was adapted and amalgamated into Chinese culture, most famously through the female figuration and her unique 32 transformations (Guang 2011: 1-22). Beginning in the Song dynasty (960–1279), the Chinese transformed the bodhisattva into the Goddess of Mercy, depicted in the feminine. (Minneapolis Institute of Art)

Belief in Guanyin has flourished in China ever since, going beyond even religious boundaries in everyday life (Guang 2011: 1-22). She is not confined to monastic life, as it is said in the Universal Gate chapter of the Lotus Sutra that any worldly being in danger will be delivered instantly on calling her name. Therefore, Guanyin has been worshipped and revered by all classes of people. As she is a compassionate divinity with countless virtues and merits, she is endowed with transcendental power. She excels in skilful means, allowing her to appear in whatever form needed by sentient beings. And that, in my opinion, is probably the reason behind the 32 forms in the Chinese tradition, including Guanyin Yangzhi (楊枝), or Willow Branch Guanyin. The Guanyin Yangzhi is only one example among many of her history-rich gender transitions.

Willow Branch Guanyin. From online source

We were able to visit a 2.5-meter-high, 2.2-meter-wide monument of Guanyin Yangzhi at a nunnery of the same name. The nunnery, situated at the foot of Putuo’s Western Xiangwang Peak, was built in 1608. The artistic style was pioneered by Yan Liben (閻立本), a famous figure painter in the Tang dynasty, while the stele’s engravings appeared during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). Holding a tender willow branch in her right hand and a clear water vase in the left, Guanyin is luxuriously crowned with pearls and precious stones, dressed in sumptuously embroidered garments, and adorned with agate, amber, and pearls. She spreads dewdrops to all the world’s quarters to dispel suffering and pain.

Guanyin is replete with the marks of beauty, dignity, and calm. Except for her face, there are not many traditionally female features shown. Indeed, she appears tall and somehow mighty and masculine, standing on her bare feet. Her belly bulges out slightly, and she has large hands and feet. While beholding her, I could not help but think of the mural of Padmapani, another manifestation of Avalokiteshvara, at Ajanta Cave No.1, in India. Painted during the sixth century BCE, the bearer of the blue lotus is a male figure with a slender body. Both forms of Avalokiteshvara are crowned and bejewelled, have physically beautiful features, and appear composed and graceful.

Padmapani, Ajanta Cave 1. From

There are many temples on Mount Putuo, but the two most well known are Puji Temple (普濟寺) or the “front temple” (又稱前寺), and Huiji Temple (慧濟寺) on the peak of the mountain. They receive the most pilgrims, but Fayu Temple (法雨寺) is my personal favorite; when there is no pedestrian crowding, it has a gentle and soothing atmosphere. It is surrounded by towering ancient trees, suspending the visitor in time between past and present. From a distance, one can see that the gate to the monastery is unique, unlike those of other temples on Mount Putuo, which are painted in yellow ochre. Here it is light red in color: a soft, ambient hue that emphasizes an atmosphere of paradisical peace and bliss.

Upon entering and reaching the main hall of Nine Dragons, where a statue of Guanyin is enshrined, one feels a strong sense of sublime and resplendent majesty. Yuantong Hall of the Fayu Temple is renowned for its resplendent appearance and ingenious interior structure, with a large ball hanging from the ceiling of its dome surrounded by nine vertical rafters. Each rafter is carved with a dragon that rears its head in a scramble for the ball. This intricate layout is called the Bracket with Nine Coiling Dragons and is ascribed to Emperor Kangxi (康熙) (1654–1722), who used the materials of the former palace of the Ming dynasty in Nanjing to reconstruct an earlier monastery, Zhenhai Monastery, on Mount Putuo. 

Fayu Temple. From the author

What strikes me most, however, is not Fayu Temple’s imperial heritage, but rather two great minds that made their mark here. Venerable Yinguang (印光) (1861–1940) was the 13th patriarch of the Pure Land tradition and the abbot of Fayu Temple for decades. Meanwhile, Ven. Hongyi (弘一) (1880–1942) wrote in traditional calligraphy Fayu Temple’s nameplate of “heavenly flowers and Dharma rain”—first devised by Emperor Kangxi. Li Shu Tong (李叔同) was Hongyi’s secular name. A wealthy and rakish young man, he was also an eclectic and learned scholar of high culture. He relinquished what he possessed and committed to living a monastic life. Fully devoted to promulgating Buddhism, he rose to become an eminent monk.

At some point, the two monastics met each other. It is said that Master Hongyi admired Master Yinguang and asked him to be his teacher. Humble and modest, Master Yinguang refused, but invited him to stay as long as he wanted. The two spent seven days together, studying, practicing, and meditating without a single word exchanged. They simply were, as minds think alike, without verbal obstructions, thoughts traveling and flowing effortlessly. How wonderful it is to exist together beyond words. But in the era of the Internet, we are bombarded with so many words and so much information that we lose our sense of their meaning, let alone their authenticity.

If we wish to be heard, we need to be sincere, candid, and heartfelt. “Guanyin” in Chinese means the Perceiver of Sounds, or “Guanshiyin,” the Perceiver of World’s Sounds. As chanted in the Universal Gate chapter of the Lotus Sutra: “Perceiver of the World’s Sounds, heavenly voice, the voice of the sea’s tide—magnificent, rich and harmonious surpassing all worldly sounds.” If we keep Guanyin in our hearts and call on her sincerely, she will always respond.

Mount Putuo: Wonders and Thoughts



#Avalokiteshvara#Buddhism#BuddhistPilgrimage#ChineseBuddhism#compassion#Fayu temple#Guanyin#GuanShiYin

Early Buddhist Sects

Early Buddhist Sects

Sautrantika: One of the early Indian schools of this tradition. Also known as the Sutra-Only School because it focused on just the discourses of the Buddha.

Vaibhasika: An influential early Indian school in north-west India also of this tradition. Its version of the Abhidharma, the Mahavibhasa (The Great Book of Alternatives), was the basis for Vasubandhu’s Abhidharma-kosa that is still studied in Tibetan monasteries and considered to be one of the five classic commentaries or treatises that should be mastered.

Theravada (Lineage of the Elders): This is the form of Buddhism that was transmitted very early to the South-east Asian counties of Sri Lanka (247 BCE) and Burma (272-236 BCE) and later to Thailand (1260), Laos (14th century), Cambodia, and southern Viet Nam. It was between 25 and 17 BCE that the Pali canon or scriptures were first recorded in Sri Lanka. In America it is also popularly known as vipassana or Insight Meditation. The most conservative branch of Buddhism, the Theravadans based their practice exclusively on the Tripitaka of the Pali Scriptures and are the only remaining school evolving out of this tradition. Their focus is the practice of mindfulness, which involves cultivating an awareness of one’s thoughts, actions, and body to become aware of what one does and one’s motivation. This is a prelude to a direct understanding of the transitory, conditioned nature of existence. Theravadans take refuge in the three jewels and follow the five precepts of no killing, no stealing, no inappropriate sex, no inappropriate speech, and no ingesting substances that befuddle consciousness. Monastics must be celibate and cannot claim to have supernormal powers. The goal of one following this path is to become an arhat. It has become a popular form of Buddhism in the United States. Some modern western leaders in this school have questioned if enlightenment is possible or even a useful goal, stressing more the integration of Buddhist concepts and theories with Western psychology and therapy.

When Shakyamuni Buddha lived on this planet over 2500 years ago, he transmitted dharma to the many disciples who followed him. After the Buddha’s Parinivana, one of the Buddha’s foremost disciples, Venerable Mahakasyapa, became the head of the sangha and presided over the First Great Council at Rajagrha that was held to codify the Buddha’s teachings. He was known for his accomplishments in the dharma.

Ananda, the Buddha’s younger cousin and known as “the assistant who heard much,” became the second patriarch in this lineage after Mahakasyapa passed away. As a condition for becoming the Buddha’s attendant, a position he held for 24 years, Ananda requested no preferential treatment and that the Buddha repeat for him any teachings he might miss. He was gifted with total recall and at the First Great Council repeated all of the Buddha’s teachings from memory. His recitation became the basis for the Sutras in the Tripitaka. When Guru Padmasambhava reincarnated eight years after Shakyamuni Buddha left this world, it was Venerable Ananda who transmitted the special dharma that Shakyamuni instructed him to transmit.

The sangha divided into many sects based on different interpretations and emphasis. The main split was between what became known as the Sravakayana (or Path of the Arhats) and Mahayana (or Path of the Bodhisattvas) Vehicles. Of the eighteen or so lessor vehicle sects, only the Theravada School has survived. This is the dominant form of Buddhism practiced in Myanmar (Burma), Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. Today there are over 100 million Theravada Buddhist worldwide with a growing number of temples and groups forming in the West as the people of Southeast Asia migrate to the West.

Many Westerners have also gone to Southeast Asia to study and have brought their own form of usually lay practice to the West, often referred to as Insight Meditation or vipassana. Theravada monasteries have developed in the U.S. that train western monastics, notably the Bhavana Society Forest Monastery and Meditation Center (Sri Lanka) in High View, West Virginia, and Abhayagiri (Fearless Mountain) Monastery (Thai) also in the forest monk tradition in Redwood Valley, California.


History of Buddhism

History of Buddhism

Over 2500 years ago  Shakyamuni Buddha taught for 45 years in the Ganges River basin of north-east India to many types of followers—from beggars to kings, to monastics and lay men and women. It is said that the Buddha taught 84,000 different Dharmas to help beings free themselves of the suffering of worldly existence caused by the 84,000 different afflictions. A council of 500 arhats was convened immediately after the parinivana of the Buddha by the Venerable Mahakasyapa. During this meeting Venerable Upali recited the monastic rules that became known as the Vinaya while Venerable Ananda recited the Sutras. For 400 years the teachings were only transmitted orally.

Photo by Roshan Dhimal on

The Jetavanaramaya Stupa built in the third century as part of the Jetavana Monastery in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. At 400 feet, it was one of the tallest structures in the ancient world, with only two (the Great Pyramids of Giza) being higher.

In 326 BCE, several hundred years after the Buddha’s death, the Sangha divided into two schools: the Mahasanghika or majority who wanted changes and the Sthaviravada who were opposed to any changes. A hundred years later the Sthaviravada further divided into the Sarvastivada and the Vibhajyavada. The Sarvastivada migrated into northern India in the Kashmir region while the Vibhajyavada flourished in the Ganges River valley under the great Buddhist King Ashoka. In 247 BCE King Ashoka (272-231 BCE) sent his son, the monk Mahinda, and his daughter Sanghamitta, a nun, to Sri Lanka to establish Buddhism there.

By the first century CE there were 18-20 different schools, each with its own version of the Buddha’s teachings. Two written versions remain, at least in part: that produced in Sri Lanka in the ancient language of Pali by the Tamrashatiyas and known as the Southern Transmission and a Sanskrit version from the Sarvastivadas known as the Northern Transmission. These became known as the Tripitaka or three Baskets of the Vinaya or code of rules for monks and nuns, the Sutras or collections of instructional discourses of the Buddha and his closest disciples, and the commentaries that included the Abhidharma, which consists of the extracted and systematized philosophy implicit in the teachings. The Southern Transmission remains as the Pali canon and is followed by the Theravada in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand,and other south-east Asian countries. Although only fragments remain of the Northern Transmission in its original Sanskrit, it was translated into Tibetan and Chinese and many of these translations remain. The Tibetan transmission was also translated into Mongolian while the Chinese transmission became the basis for the Korean and Japanese scriptures.

The Buddha started the Mahayana teachings and predicted that great adepts would emerge to revitalize the tradition and explain the teachings that were not yet understandable to the majority of followers. Mahayana Buddhism arose during the 1st or 2nd century BCE from the Mahasanghika. It replaced the concept of the arhat with that of the bodhisattva as the highest ideal of Buddhism. The main difference being that the bodhisattva seeks enlightenment in order to help others, while the arhat is primarily concerned with his own salvation. The mahayana also grew out of the growing lay movements since most of the focus on early Buddhism had been on the monastic communities, although the great mahayana teachers were  also monks.

The Buddha himself was keenly aware of the limitations of words in respect to expressing spiritual reality. There is a famous story of how the Buddha held up a flower before the assembly of monks and smiled, saying nothing. The monks were confused by this. Only the Venerable Mahakasyapa responded, indicating that he understood that the truth is beyond words and doctrine.

The earliest and best-known mahayana scripture is the Prajnaparamita Sutra compiled by the master of the Madhyamaka or “Middle Way” school, the great Mahasiddha Nagarjuna, at the beginning of the Current Era from earlier works and various doctrines expressed by the Buddha while He taught in His nirmanakaya form. The well-known Heart Sutra and the Diamond Sutra represent the essence of these teachings.

Much of the Vajrayana or tantric Buddhism was transmitted by Vajrasattva and other Holy Beings in their sambhogakaya embodiments, although Shakyamuni Buddha started the teachings late in His life and predicted the later teachings. By the time of Nagarjuna there were adepts whose realization was high enough that they were able to communicate directly with these sambhogakaya beings. The basic esoteric teachings Shakyamuni Buddha transmitted directly to His son, Rahula. It is a very, very quick way to achieve realization. If, and only if, you have the opportunity to follow a true Vajra Master can you realize Buddhahood in a single lifetime using this method. It is a highly concentrated form of Buddhism. It gives you many supernormal powers. Only highly qualified people can receive this. Actually, for most beings, it is easier to realize Buddhahood in this life than in heaven. In the higher realms, you may not even have a body, but only consciousness. Life here is very difficult with much pain and suffering. This provides the motivation and the raw material for transmutation and realization. Many humans do have the good fortune to be able to pursue spiritual development, something that is not possible in the lower realms as hell beings, hungry ghosts, or animals–or in unfortunate human births.

Photo by Tenzing Kalsang on

Vajrayana Buddhism was well established by the seventh century of the Current Era (CE). Its methods evolved from the tradition of the spiritual sadhus, yogis who wandered around India who were adepts in tantric practices designed to provide realization, but, as previously noted, the teachings themselves originated with Shakyamuni Buddha. The source of all these teachings comes from Dorje Chang Buddha who manifested as Dipankara Buddha and taught them to Shakyamuni Buddha in another realm. It reached its peak in Tibet where it also assimilated the indigenous shamanic Bon religion, incorporating the local deities as protectors of the dharma. Vajrayana Buddhism is based on the secret teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha which were only transmitted to very high adepts and higher beings who, in turn, transmitted them to certain highly evolved humans when the conditions were right for them to be received. There were even certain humans like Tilopa, Sukasiddhi, and Niguma who reached a level of realization that they could learn the dharma directly from Dorje Chang Buddha. The aim of this form of Buddhism is to transform one’s body, speech and mind into those of a fully enlightened Buddha by special yogic means, including a variety of ritual and secret methods. In tantra, everything is vested with cosmic energy. For example, sounds or mantras can produce powerful spiritual effects and, as modern science is just beginning to discover, physical effects as well. Likewise, movements like prostrations have a ritual significance as well as a physical and spiritual impact.

Tantra requires the initiation or empowerment of a qualified teacher or master who provides specialized teachings, rituals, and practices to enable the disciple to root out or eliminate the dark side of his/her psyche and thus become like the Bodhisattvas and Buddhas. Supernormal powers that are viewed as the natural outcome of realization are used by qualified teachers. However, ordinary disciples are not allowed to discuss or display their supernormal powers. Only very highly evolved Bodhisattvas and Buddhas dare to display such powers and then only to help living beings. A person seeking initiation must demonstrate an understanding of emptiness, exhibit high moral conduct, and have developed an altruistic desire to help all beings. It is believed that any empowerment will have limited impact without a proper foundation of preliminary practices or Prayogas. These practices may have been performed in previous lives as well as the current one. It recognizes that supernormal powers cannot be given to one who has not eliminated the negative aspects of the self.

Even today, the Highest Tantric teachings and practices are only transmitted orally and are held in great secrecy between the teacher and the disciple. Because of the power of these teachings, it is recognized that the student must be thoroughly prepared to receive them. A true master will usually test a disciple for six to twelve years or longer before transmitting the higher teachings.