Unique is the adjective which most accurately characterizes almost every aspect of Kumarajiva's life his parentage, birth, journeys, education, imprisonment, work and old age. He combined a universal appreciation of truth wherever he found it, a generous tolerance for diverse points of view and a one-pointed dedication to his self-chosen task. Whilst buddhavachana, the word of Buddha, was transmitted to China by a constellation of brilliant monks and teachers, every generation since Kumarajiva has acknowledged him to be without equal. His influence was felt in almost every Buddhist school of thought in China and leaped across the Yellow Sea to work its magic in Japan. Yet he strove to keep his work free from all personal bias and polemical judgements. He neither offered doctrines of his own nor made claims about his special insight, but sought only to be a true disciple of Buddha, a pure mirror of transmission to those who spoke the Chinese tongue.
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. Although Kumarayana had renounced the world and taken up the life of a monk, his destiny was not to be displaced. Jivaka, the king's younger sister, had a grace, wit and will fully matched by an exceptional intelligence. 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. 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 their son was born around C.E. 344, Kumarayana and Jivaka each gave a part of their names to him and called him Kumarajiva. 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. 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 fîted 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:
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.
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:
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. 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.
In 379 Fu Chien conquered the city of Hsiang-yang and brought Tao-an to his capital at Ch'ang-an. There Tao-an established his famous centre for the translation of Buddhist scriptures and texts, with the full support of Fu Chien. When Tao-an learnt of Kumarajiva's spiritual, philosophical and linguistic abilities, he urged Fu Chien to invite him to Ch'ang-an. The warlord-emperor did so in a manner consonant with his aggressive rule: he dispatched Lu Kuang with an army to march on Kucha and seize Kumarajiva. Kucha fell to Lu Kuang and Kumarajiva willingly set out with the conquering general for Ch'ang-an in 383. Then events took a series of strange turns. Tao-an died in 385 and six months later the Yao family had attacked and conquered Ch'ang-an and killed Fu Chien. The new dynasty continued many of the policies of the previous rulers – preserving Tao-an's translation centre, encouraging Buddhist studies – and looked forward to welcoming Kumarajiva to the capital. When Lu Kuang heard of the conquest of Ch'ang-an, he halted his return, declared himself independent, and set up a state known as Later Liang, with its centre at Ku-tsang. Although Lu Kuang was not a Buddhist and cared nothing for spiritual sensibilities, he recognized the political value of Kumarajiva.
Lu Kuang held Kumarajiva under virtual house arrest for sixteen years, subjecting him to numerous indignities while also retaining him as a military adviser. During this time the rulers of Ch'ang-an alternately fumed and pleaded for his release, but without success. Kumarajiva found this phase of his life both hard and frustrating, because he was taunted for his convictions and practices and was unable to undertake the work he believed he was destined to perform. Rather than become passive or disconsolate, however, he used this time to learn about China from the rugged soldiers who had marched across much of the country. While quietly gathering texts to take with him to Ch'ang-an, he also thoroughly mastered the Chinese language. Eventually Yao Hsing, second ruler of the new dynasty at Ch'ang-an, grew weary of fruitless negotiations with Lu Kuang and took a daring risk. In 401 his armies attacked and conquered Ku-tsang. Kumarajiva was rescued unharmed, and in 402 he was welcomed into Ch'ang-an, realizing in his fifties a dream he conceived in his twenties.
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.
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.
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.
Yao Hsing was so impressed with Kumarajiva's political acumen, intellectual talent and spiritual depth that he was impelled to try a eugenic experiment. He insisted that Kumarajiva move out of the monastic community into a private house staffed by female attendants. Yao Hsing believed that the offspring of Kumarajiva and carefully selected maidens would be as brilliant and talented as their father. Although Kumarajiva was repelled by the experiment, he refused to jeopardize the welfare of the translation centre by refusing to obey his emperor. He complied with Yao Hsing's orders but was concerned about the effect his actions might have on the monastic community. He likened himself to a lotus growing out of the mud and enjoined the monks to attend to the lotus and ignore the mud. It seems that the community understood his predicament as an example of self-sacrifice in pursuit of the Bodhisattva Ideal, even though the children of Yao Hsing's experiment disappointed his grandiose expectations.
When Kumarajiva lay on his deathbed, he prophesied to his closest disciples that his cremation would provide a criterion of success as a translator. If he had made errors – a possibility he was always willing to acknowledge his whole body would be consumed by the funeral flames. If, however, 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. The judgement of history concurs with Kumarajiva's disciples: his work became the spinal column of the grand organic edifice of Buddhist thought and teaching that arose in China even as buddhavachana began to wane in India. He gave his life to a sacred mission, the full significance of which his contemporaries could not guess. Yet they correctly sensed from the magnetic force of his presence that subsequent generations would benefit immensely from his selfless service.