You may be already familiar with 7th century’s Chinese monk Xuanzang (玄奘) for his 16 year pilgrimage to India, based on which is the world famous literary work Journey to the West. He is also a well-known Buddhist scholar who completed many translations of Sanskrit Buddhist works into Chinese.
But not so many people know of another Buddhist translator who was just as essential—or even more—for his works and its contribution to disseminating Buddhism to not just China, but all of Asia.
His name is Kumarajiva (鸠摩罗什), born in 343 between an Indian Brahmin and a Kuchean princess in Kucha (which is now Xinjiang, China). Since his mother became a Buddhist nun when he was 7, he also started devoting his life to studying Buddhism. While studying in Kashgar, he converted from Hinayana Buddhism to Mahayana Buddhism. And, when he was 20, the royal palace in Kucha ordained him for his brilliance. However, because of Kumarajiva’s fame, the former Qin Dynasty’s Emperor Fu Jian (苻坚) sent his general Lü Kuang to conquer Kucha and capture Kumarajiva. For the next 18 years, he had to live as a captive in Fu Jian’s territory.
Kumarajiva’s remarkable achievements as a translator began after he finally arrived in Chang’an in 401, where he was approved by the Emperor to start his translating career. One of his most important translation works, for example, is the Lotus Sutra, of which Zhiyi (智顗) promoted as the supreme sutra in 6th century China. Achievements of Nichiren, the 13th century’s Japanese monk, exemplify how the Lotus Sutra spread not only to China, but also to the East Asia as a whole as the essential teaching of Buddha.
While Xuanzang’s translations are done precisely and literally, Kumarajiva’s is said to be more elegant and fluid with his emphasis on meaning itself rather than the sheer rhetoric. Because of his works’ comprehensibility, Kumarajiva’s translations became more accepted and popular all over the Asia.
Lastly, this famous episode suggests the righteousness of his translating works. Right before his death, he proclaimed that his tongue would remain undamaged if his translation was perfectly in accord with the genuine principles of Buddhism; otherwise, it should be burned. As you could already guess, his tongue was not ruined in cremation.
If I’m telling you lies about his life, my tongue should burn too. But I’m sure it won’t, just like his didn’t. Well, we’ll see.
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