Kumārajīva’s statue in Kizil Grottoes
Kumārajīva’s Legacy in Transmitting Mahayana Buddhist Teachings to East Asia
The Kizil caves are located in the present districts of Kuche (庫車) and Baicheng (拝城), located in what was once the ancient kingdom of Kucha (Qiuci 亀慈). The Kingdom of Kucha was one of the great Buddhist kingdoms located along the Silk Road’s Northern Route and was known for its many temples and monks.
The fourth century manuscript, Chu Sanzang Jiji (Collected Records from the Tripitaka 出三蔵記集), records that there were “over ten thousand monks in Kucha,” “countless extravagantly decorated temples,” and “palaces adorned with images of the standing Buddha, just like those seen in temples.” Furthermore, the manuscript records that there were three nunneries in Kucha in which were present the daughters of kings and nobles. The document describes the city as one of the great Buddhist centers of Central Asia.
It is not clear when Buddhism arrived in Kucha, but from what one can tell from the Chinese records, it
seems that already by the end of third century to the beginning of fourth century, many monks hailing
from the Kucha area were in China engaged in the translation of the Buddhist scriptures. The most famous translator of them all, the monk Kumārajīva (鳩摩羅什) made his entrance into history around this time. It is not known exactly when he was born or when he died, but his major accomplishments are concentrated in the period between the first half of the fourth century and the first half of the fifth century.
Kumārajīva, was the son of a Kuchean princess and an Indian father from a noble family. At a young age, he and his mother together became Buddhist adherents (his mother joining a nummery and Kumārajīva entering the priesthood). Still at a very young age, he moved to Kashmir (then part of the Gandhāran Kingdom 罽賓) to study Theravad Buddhism. In Kashmir, however, he came into contact with Mahayana teaching, and upon returning to Kucha, he dedicated himself to the Mahayana school of Buddhism.
Growing in fame as a teacher, his fame reached beyond borders of Kucha borders, and it was said that his name was known throughout all of Central Asia. In Volume Two of the Kao-seng Chuan (Biography of
Eminent Monks 高僧伝) it is recorded that, “the western nations all knelt at Kumārajīva’s sacred wisdom.
During the annual lecture, the kings all lowered themselves before his seat, and let him step on their backs as he ascended the steps. Thus was the extent to which he was admired.” Later, due to strong requests from the Chinese who heard of his fame, he would participate in the translation of sūtras in the Chinese capital of Chang’an (長安).
Chinese translations of sūtras did exist in China before Kumārajīva. However, these translations were
achieved by simply utilizing the already-existing native Daoist Lao-Zhuang philosophy.
Soon the Chinese began to realize the shortcomings of studying Buddhist scriptures in this manner, and therefore began a demand for translations done by foreign monks with a deeper understanding of Buddhist vocabulary and the teachings as contained in the original-language texts.
Thus, Kumārajīva was the perfect candidate; for not only had he acquired Sanskrit during his studies in India, but was also thoroughly familiar with Mahayana Buddhism.
Whilst instructing his students, who are said to have exceeded three thousand, Kumārajīva continued to translate important Mahayana scriptures into Chinese, including the Smaller Sukhavatîvyûha sūtra (阿弥陀経), the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā sūtra (大品般若経), the Vimalakirti sūtra (維摩経), and theMahāprajñāpāramitaśastra (大智度論).
His translation of the Lotus sūtra in particular was thought to surpass other past translations. Due in part to Kumārajīva’s superb translations, Mahayana Buddhism was to spread throughout Eastern Asia, and soon was propagated as far east as Japan.
The fact that Kumārajīva’s translations continue to be used in present day Japan shows the enormity of his achievement in the full-scale transmission of Mahayana Buddhism to the East. Not only Chinese Buddhism,
but other Buddhist nations which were part of this great spread of Mahayana teachings along the Silk Road (including the great Buddhist Kingdom of Kucha), from West to East as far as Japan came to benefit from t
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