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KUMĀRAJĪVA (343413; alternative dates: 350409) was renowned as the founder of the Sanlun ("three treatise," i. e., Mādhyamika) school in China and as an adept translator into Chinese of many important and influential Mahāyāna Buddhist texts.

Kumārajīva was born of noble lineage in the Central Asian city of Kuchā. His father was an emigrant Indian brahman and his mother a Kuchean princess. During the fourth century Kuchā was a major city along the northern trade route of the Silk Road connecting China with India and the West. There is ample testimony from the travelogues of Faxian and Xuanzang that cities along this route were strongholds of Hīnayāna Buddhism, especially the Sarvāstivāda sect, which had been introduced from its center in Kashmir. The works of this sect were thus the first he was to study.

Kumārajīva became a novice monk at the early age of seven. His mother, who wanted to become a nun, also abandoned lay life at this time. He spent the next two years studying the Āgamas and Abhidharma texts. When he was nine he went with his mother to North India (to Chipin, in Kashmir), where for three years he studied the Dirghāgama, the Madhyamāgama and the Kudraka under the master Bandhudatta. At twelve he again set out with his mother for Kuchā. On the way they stopped for more than a year in Kashgar, where he studied the Jñānaprasthāna Śāstra, a Sarvāstivādin Abhidharma treatise, as well as the Vedas and the five sciences (grammar, logic, metaphysics, medicine, and the arts and crafts). While in Kashgar he met the Mahāyānist Sūryasoma, who converted him to the Mahāyāna. In Kashgar, Kumārajīva also met the Dharmagupta master Buddhayaśas. After returning to Kuchā, Kumārajīva received full ordination in the royal palace at age twenty. He studied the Vinaya of the Sarvāstivāda school with the North Indian master Vimalāka. More significantly, however, he spent the next twenty years concentrating on Mahāyāna sūtra s and Śāstra s. His biography reports that he studied the three Śāstra s of Nāgārjuna and Āryadeva that were later to become the central texts of the Sanlun tradition, all of which he may have obtained in Kashgar. A Chinese account of 379 mentions Kumārajīva as an accomplished monk, and it is from this period that his fame reaches China.

KumĀrajĪva's Translations

The Chu sanzang ji ji (early sixth century) attributes thirty-five works in 294 fascicles to Kumārajīva. The central corpus of these works is well attested by contemporary prefaces, and dates of translation are known for twenty-three titles. The core of works translated by Kumārajīva shows that his main interest was in the Śūnyavādin sūtra s, particularly those of the Prajñāpāramitā class, and the Mādhyamika treatises. His interests were catholic, however, and he also translated pietist, Vinaya, and dhyāna sūtra s, as well as the Satyasiddhi Śāstra, a Bahuśrutīya treatise by Harivarman.

Chief among the translated Śūnyavādin works were the Pañcaviśati (T.D. no. 223), the Aasāhasrikā (T.D. no. 227), the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa (T.D. no. 475), the Vajracchedikā (T.D. no. 235), and the Prajñāpāramitāhdaya (T.D. no. 250). He also translated the three Mādhyamika treatises that form the basis for the Sanlun school in China and Japan: the Mūlamadhyamaka Śāstra, a treatise consisting of verses by Nāgārjuna and commentary by Pigala (T.D. no. 1564; Chin., Zhong lun ); the Śata Śāstra of Āryadeva (T.D. no. 1569; Chin., Bo lun ); and the Dvādaśanikāya Śāstra of Nāgārjuna (T.D. no. 1568; Chin., Shier men lun ). Three other important Mādhyamika treatises that he translated are the Daśabhūmivibhāā Śāstra attributed to Nāgārjuna (T.D. no. 1521), the Faputixisnjing lun attributed to Vasubandhu (T.D. no. 1659), and the Mahāprajñāpāramitā Śāstra attributed to Nāgārjuna (T.D. no. 1509; Chin., Da zhidu lun ). Four treatises on meditation are attributed to Kumārajīva; chief among them is the Zuochan sanmei jing (T.D. no. 614), also called the Bodhisattvadhyāna. The major Vinaya works that he translated are the Sarvāstivāda Prātimoka Sūtra and, according to tradition, the Pusajieben (Bodhisattva-pratimoka). His pietist translations include the Saddharmapuarīka (T.D. no. 262), the Smaller Sukhāvativyūha (T.D. no. 366), and two Maitreya texts (T.D. nos. 454 and 456). He also translated the Daśabhūmika (T.D. no. 286) in collaboration with his friend from Kashgar Buddhayaśas. All of these texts became central to the Chinese Buddhist community.

Kumārajīva, his chief assistants, and the translation bureau devised new transcriptions of names and Buddhist technical terms and utilized interpolated glosses when specific words could not be translated adequately. Although his translations betray careless editing, they are famous for their florid and elegant style. They may not preserve the original words of a Sanskrit sūtra, but they clearly express the intended meaning.

The most important evidence for Kumārajīva's religious thought is contained in the commentary on the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa (T.D. no. 1775) and the collection of correspondence (T.D. no. 1856) between Huiyuan and Kumārajīva. From these works it is clear that Kumārajīva was an unqualified adherent of the Mādhyamika tradition. His critique of causation is the same as that of Nāgārjuna.

There is no evidence that Kumārajīva intended to found a lineage. Nevertheless, his influence in China, Korea, and Japan was pervasive. Although the Saddharmapuarīka Sūtra, the Smaller Sukhāvativyūha Sūtra, and the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa a Sūtra had been translated earlier by Dharmaraka, Kumārajīva's more accurate translations further stimulated the growth and popularity of Mahāyāna Buddhism in the Far East: The Saddharmapuarīka Sūtra became the basic text of the Tiantai school and, later, of the Nichiren sect in Japan; the Smaller Sukhāvativyūha became one of the three major texts of the Pure Land Tradition; the Vajracchedikā continues to be esteemed as a basic text of the Chan school; the Da chidu lun was very influential in the Zhenyan or Shingon (i. e., Vajrayāna) school in China and Japan; while the Vimalakirtinirdesa popularized the ideal of the bodhisattva. Other of his translations also helped shape the history of medieval Chinese Buddhism. The Satyasiddhi Śāstra, which had many commentaries written on it, became the most widely studied and influential work in the South during the Southern Qi (479502) and Ling dynasties (502557), and the Sarvāstivāda Vinaya became one of the two Vinaya systems prevalent in China and Japan. The old line transmission of the Sanlun school persisted until the time of Jizang (549623) of the Sui dynasty (581618). In summary, Kumārajīva's activities ushered in the second period of Chinese translations (fifth and sixth centuries), characterized by greater accuracy and widespread influence in the Chinese Buddhist community.

See Also

Buddhism, Schools of, article on Chinese Buddhism; Buddhist Books and Texts; Huiyuan; Mādhyamika; Nāgārjuna; Sengzhao.


The standard traditional account of the life of Kumārajīva can be found in Huijiao's Gaoseng zhuan (T.D. nos. 50. 330333). For a German translation of the biography, see Johannes Nobel's "Kumārajīva," Sitzungsberichte der preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften 26 (1927): 206233. Erik Zürcher's The Buddhist Conquest of China, 2 vols. (1959; reprint, Leiden, Netherlands, 1979), treats the development of Buddhism in China through the end of the fourth century and thus provides an invaluable introduction to the religious and intellectual climate Kumārajīva encountered upon reaching Chang'an. For a general survey of Kumārajīva's career see Kenneth Chen's Buddhism in China: A Historical Survey (Princeton, N.J., 1964). Other critical discussions include the following:

Kimura Eiichi, ed. Eon kenkyu. 2 vols. Kyoto, 19601962. Contains a translation of Kumārajīva's correspondence with Huiyuan.

Koseki, Aaron K. "'Later Mādhyamika' in China: Some Current Perspectives on the History of Chinese Prajñāpāramitā Thought." Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 5 (1982): 5362.

Liebenthal, Walter. "Chinese Buddhism during the Fourth and Fifth Centuries." Monumenta Nipponica 11 (April 1955): 4483.

Liebenthal, Walter, ed. and trans. The Book of Zhao. Beijng, 1948.

Robinson, Richard H. Early Mādhyamika in India and China. New Delhi, 1976.

Sakaino Koyo. Shina bukkyo seishi (1935). Tokyo, 1972. See pages 341417.

Tang Yongtong. Han Wei liangjin Nanbeichao fojiao shi. Shanghai, 1938.

Tsukamoto Zenryu. "The Dates of Kumārajīva and Sengzhao Re-examined." Jinbum kagaku kenkyusho (Silver Jubilee Volume, 1954): 568584.

Tsukamoto Zenryu, ed. Joron kenkyu. Kyoto, 1955.

Dale Todaro (1987)

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Kumārajīva (350–409 or 413), the most important translator in East Asian Buddhist history, was born to a noble family in Kucha, a center of largely main-stream Buddhist schools on the northern branch of the Silk Road. His native language, now known as Tokharian B, belonged to the Indo-European family. Under the guidance of his mother, Kumārajīva became a monk while still a boy, then traveled with her to Kashmir to study Buddhist philosophy of the Sarvāstivāda school. While continuing his studies in Kashgar (roughly between Kucha and Kashmir), Kumārajīva was converted to the MahĀyĀna by a monk who was a former prince of Yarkand, in the Khotan area, along the southern Silk Road. Eventually, Kumārajīva converted his earlier Indian teacher to the Mahāyāna.

In 383 a Chinese army occupied Kucha and took Kumārajīva away as a captive. He was held for some two decades in Liangzhou near Dunhuang in the Gansu corridor, where he presumably learned to speak and read Chinese. When the Later Qin regime conquered Liangzhou in 401, Kumārajīva was taken to the Chinese capital of Chang'an, where he was immediately put at the head of a large translation staff.

Although a brilliant scholar, Kumārajīva was painfully aware of his own failings as a monk. While in Chang'an he was forced by the ruler to sire numerous children, in the hopes of producing offspring as gifted as their father. Nothing is known of them.

There are four aspects to Kumārajīva's greatness. First and most important is the volume, variety, and richness of his translations. Kumārajīva and his staff translated seventy-four works in 384 fascicles, including the Amitābha-sūtra (402), about the Pure Land paradise in the west; a new and more readable Pañcaviṃśtisāhasrikāprajñāramitā-sūtra (Perfection of Wisdom in 25,000 Lines, 404), a basic prajñāpāramitā text; the Dazhidu lun (Great Perfection of Wisdom Treatise, 405), a massive commentary attributed to Madhyamaka philosopher NṄgṄrjuna (ca. second century c.e.), but edited and probably compiled by Kumārajīva; the Lotus SṢtra (SaddharmapundarĪka-sŪtra, 406), the single most important Mahāyāna scripture in all of East Asian Buddhism; the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa-sūtra (406), a very readable scripture about a wise lay bodhisattva; and the Zhonglun (Treatise on the Middle, 409?), Nāgārjuna's Mādhyamakakārikā (Verses on Madhyamaka) and commentary. The translations produced by Kumārajīva's team borrowed significantly from predecessors such as Zhi Qian (fl. mid-third century) and are known for their fluent and readable style. In cases where multiple Chinese translations exist, it is always Kumārajīva's version that is used.

The second aspect of Kumārajīva's greatness is that individual translations or groups of texts became the bases for distinctive exegetical traditions, especially the Tattvasiddhi-śāstra (Chinese, Chengshi lun; Completion of Truth) and the "Three Treatises" or Sanlun of the Madhyamaka school. Third, Kumārajīva's texts contained much more than doctrine; they also included various types of songs and poetry, legends and stories, literary styles and motifs, and a vast repertoire of religious images. Fourth, and certainly not least, is that Kumārajīva taught a group of gifted students who wrote texts that formed the foundation of East Asian Buddhism, including Sengzhao (374–414), Daosheng (ca. 355–434), Sengrui (also Huirui; 352–436), and others.

See also:Paramārtha; Śikṣānanda


Ch'en, Kenneth Kuan Sheng. Buddhism in China: A Historical Survey. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1964.

Liu Mau-Tsai. Kutscha und seine Beziehungen zu China vom 2. Jh. v. bis zum 6. Jh. n. Chr., 2 vols. Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz, 1969.

Robinson, Richard H. Early Mādhyamika in India and China. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1967.

Tsukamoto Zenryū. A History of Early Chinese Buddhism: From Its Introduction to the Death of Hui-yüan, tr. Leon Hurvitz. Tokyo and New York: Kodansha, 1985.

Zürcher, E. The Buddhist Conquest of China: The Spread and Adaptation of Buddhism in Early Medieval China. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1959 (1972).

John R. McRae

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Kumarajiva (344-409) was an Indian Buddhist monk and one of the world's greatest translators. He provided the Chinese with competent translations of important Buddhist texts previously rendered into Chinese only in crude or even incoherent versions.

Kumarajiva was born in the central Asiatic city of Kucha, son of an Indian Brahmin and a Kuchean princess. When he was 7 years old, his mother became a Buddhist nun, and he spent the next years following her and studying Buddhist doctrine in Kucha, Kashmir, and Kashgar. He was ordained in the royal palace in Kucha at the age of 20. In Kashgar he was converted from Hinayana (mainly Sarvastivadin) Buddhism to Mahayana. He came to be known as a brilliant monk and seems to have been thoroughly versed in the Buddhist learning of the schools then current in northern India.

In 379 Kumarajiva's fame spread to China, and efforts were made to bring him there. Fu Chien, the former Ch'in emperor, was so eager to have him at his court that, certain sources suggest, he sent his general Lü Kuang to conquer Kucha in 384 in order to bring Kumarajiva back. Lü Kuang did capture Kumarajiva but kept him captive in his western kingdom of the Latter Liang for 17 years, first humiliating him and forcing him to break his vows of celibacy and then using him as an official in his court. His long captivity gave Kumarajiva the opportunity to learn Chinese.

Kumarajiva was again the prize of a military expedition when Yao Hsing, the ruler of the Latter Ch'in, sent a force to attack Ku-tsang, the Latter Liang capital (in Kansu), in the summer of 401, and Kumarajiva was able to enter Ch'angan early in 402. After a regal reception by the Emperor himself, Kumarajiva soon set to work, in the imperial apartments provided him, on the translation into Chinese of dozens of Buddhist texts, including some of the most important in the canon.

Translator and Teacher

Kumarajiva's translations in Ch'ang-an were done as a communal effort. He presided over a team of Chinese specialists before an audience of hundreds of monks. While the text was being translated, he answered questions about it, and some of his answers have been included, probably by accident, in the Chinese translations. There are, of course, errors and omissions, but on the whole Kumarajiva and his helpers provided trustworthy translations of difficult texts from one language into another that differed from it in every imaginable way languages can.

One reason for this success was perhaps Kumarajiva's broad-mindedness: his philosophical view included all of Mahayana doctrine, and he had no interest in twisting the text to fit some sectarian school. His own works are rare, the most important for the understanding of his thought being his commentary to the Vimalakirtinirdesasutra; his letters to Hui-yüan, written sometime after 405, are also interesting.

Emperor Yao Hsing also obliged Kumarajiva to break his vows of celibacy, insisting that he live with a harem of 10 "singing girls" so that such a brilliant man would not be without descendants. He was set up in luxurious quarters outside the monastery and seemed to suffer from this forced breach of Buddhist law, saying, when he preached, that his hearers should learn to gather the lotus of his sermon and not the stinking mud it grew in. According to the Kao-seng chuan, he died on Sept. 15, 409; according to Seng-chao's obituary (Kuang hungming chi 23), May 28, 413.

Further Reading

The best discussion of Kumarajiva's thought is in Richard H. Robinson, Early Madhyamika in India and China (1967). There is some supplementary biographical information in Kenneth K. S. Ch'en, Buddhism in China: A Historical Survey (1964). □

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Kumārajīva (c.344–413 CE). One of the greatest of Buddhist translators. Kumārajīva, who had grown up under the influence of the Hīnayāna, became acquainted with the Mahāyāna teachings and was converted to them. Captured by Chinese in 383, he studied Chinese until he was liberated and welcomed to Changan in 401, where he spent the rest of his life teaching and translating. He rendered many of the most important Mahāyāna sūtras and treatises into elegant and accurate Chinese.

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