Kumarajiva (AD 344-413), spent much of his life in the Buddhist kingdom of Kucha on the Northern Silk Road (Xiyu ‘West Region’ today’s Xinjiang). An expert in languages and Buddhist texts, he was invited to China in AD 385. As a result of internal Chinese politics Kumarajiva was held prisoner at an outpost for about sixteen years. Later around (AD 401) when he arrived at his destination, Chang-an, he was put in charge of a large project to translate Buddhist Scriptures into Chinese.
His time in captivity associating with ordinary Chinese people held him in good stead, as he learnt the everyday language which helped him translate the substance of the Buddhist texts. In eleven years of translation work he and his students translated 384 volumes of Buddhist texts including: Prajnaparamita Texts, the Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra, Surangama Sutra, and The Lotus Sutra plus many commentaries and other Buddhist texts, particularly Madhyamika teachings.
Kumarajiva’s translation sessions, it is said, would sometimes involve up to a thousand monks and scholars. In his introduction to the Lotus Sutra, one of his disciples, Hui-kuan, describes his methods of translating:
Kumarajiva spoke in clear words that contained deep principles within them; he sited examples close at hand, but his meaning was far reaching. He explained what was hidden beneath the surface of the text, and endeavoured to bring out the basic ideas underlying it.
Another disciple, Seng-jui, put it this way:
The members of the group, on receiving the new translation [of the Lotus Sutra], were filled with delight, feeling as though they were standing on the summits of the Kunlun Mountains on a clear day and gazing down on the world below.
Kumarajiva not only produced a Chinese translation of the text in the assembly, but explained his reasons for translating as he did and went on to lecture on the profound doctrines expounded in the text.
Quotes from The Flower of Chinese Buddhism by Daisaku Ikeda, translated by Burton Watson, Weatherhill, 1986.
His translations are still held in high regard by modern scholars and without him some of the great Mahayana texts may not have been preserved.
Photo by John Aske