Portrait of Kumarajiva in deep contemplation.
Born in 344 CE in the kingdom of Kucha, known today as Kuqa, Xinjiang China and died in 413 CE in Chang'an, known today as Xian, China.
Kumārajīva was a Buddhist monk, scholar, missionary and translator. He first studied teachings of the Sarvastivadin schools which was one of the early Buddhist schools established around the reign of King Asoka, later studied under Buddhasvāmin, and finally became an adherent of Mahayana Buddhism, studying the Mādhyamaka doctrine of Nāgārjuna. Kumarajiva was able to translate scriptures and teach Mahayana Buddhism to the people of China. Emperor Yao Hsing gave him the title “National Teacher.”’ The emperor gathered the best scholar-monk translators from India and China to form a translation academy that was even more ambitious than the one that Emperor Fu Chien had formed some 20 years earlier. He also constructed a special building for Kumarajiva and his team in the city center. Each time the translation of a new text commenced, it was a widely celebrated public event attended by up to 3,000 monastics and lay people. During these gatherings, Kumarajiva lectured on the subject matter of the texts; these commentaries were recorded and distributed throughout the empire and beyond. As evidenced by fragments that still exist of letters between him and Kumarajiva, Emperor Yao Hsing was personally invested in elucidating some of the obscure doctrinal philosophies contained in the treatises. Under this patronage, although it was relatively short-lived, Kumarajiva’s translation efforts were a huge success.
Around 412, Kumarajiva felt unwell and knew that his death was near. Deeply distraught during his final years because he had not managed, for personal and cultural reasons, to fully inculcate China with Buddha’s Mahayana teachings, he said, “It is unspeakably sad that I am now leaving the world behind. May what I have made known and translated spread further among future generations and be fathomed fully!”
Kumarajiva assured those who had any doubt in the Mahayana teachings that his commitment to translation was unsullied. “Now I truly swear before you that if I did not make any mistake in my translations, then after my body is cremated my tongue will not have been burnt.” Upon his cremation, his tongue is said to have remained whole and unscathed.
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