Kumarajiva Buddhism


Kumārajīva or Kumarajiva (Sanskrit: कुमारजीव; traditional Chinese: 鳩摩羅什; pinyin : Jiūmóluóshí) 344-413 or 350-4091, was a Kutchean Buddhist monk translator2 and scholar, versed in Vedic literature, the Pali canon (tripitaka), and Mahayana texts.

During the last fifteen years of his life, he directed the translation into Chinese of at least twenty-four works which had a considerable influence on Chinese Buddhism.

His translations, written in a fluid and clear language, steeped in Prajnaparamita and Madhyamika thought, are still authoritative. He is considered the patriarch of the Three Treatises school (Sānlùnzōng 三論宗).


Information about Kumārajīva is based primarily on Chinese biographies of prominent monks, not without legendary details. He is said to have been born in Kutcha, then the capital of a small Tokharian kingdom, to a local princess and a Brahmin father from Kashmir.

His paternal grandfather, Jiūmódáduō (鳩摩達多), is said to have been a respected figure in his country (according to some, a minister of state). His father, Jiūmóyán (鳩摩炎) or Kumārayāna, having given up inheriting the position to become a wandering ascetic, is said to have become an important religious figure in Koutcha.

He is said to have eventually married Jīvaka or Jīva, sister of the king. Some biographies lend Kumārajīva a brother named Fúshātípó (弗沙提婆).

Beginning of Buddhist studies

When Kumārajīva was seven years old, Jīva reportedly decided to become a nun. He followed her and began under Buddhasvāmin's guidance the study of the texts of the Sarvastivada school.

By the time he was nine years old, when his mother decided to take him to Kashmir to continue his training, he would have learned the Abhidharma by heart. There he would have studied the Dīrghāgama and the Madhyāgama and first manifested his ability to debate.

His teacher was Bandhudatta, cousin of the king. Two years later he set out again with his mother on the road to Kutcha. On the way, he is said to have met an arhat who predicted a brilliant future as a missionary. The mother and son passed through Kashgar where they stayed for a year.

There Kumārajīva is said to have turned to the Mahayana under the influence of Sutyasoma, son of the king of Yarkand. He undertook the study of the Śataśāstra (Hundred Treatises) and the Madhyāmakaśāstra (Middle Treatise), while continuing the study of the Abhidharma with the Kashmiri Buddhayaśa.

His curriculum also included the four Vedas, the five sciences, Brahminical texts, and astronomy. At the age of twelve he left, still with his mother, for the important Buddhist center of Tourfan, and again shone in debates.

Return to Kutcha

Impressed by Kumārajīva's prestige, the king of Kutcha came and asked him to teach the Mahāsannipata and Mahāvaipulya sutras to one of his daughters who had become a nun.

Thus mother and son would have returned to their native land. Jīva soon left to pursue her career as a nun to India or Kashmir. At the age of twenty, Kumārajīva was ordained a monk.

He was then living in the Queli monastery (雀梨) built by the king and devoted himself to the study of the Pañcavimati-sāhasrikā sūtra, the prajñāpāramitā text from which the Heart Sutra is taken. He was also interested in discussions and exchanges with foreign monks.

Thus he studied the vinaya of the Sarvāstivādin with the Kashmiri Vimalākşa. According to some biographies, he invited his former master Bandhudatta and convinced him of the superiority of Madhyāmika philosophy; the master declared himself his disciple in the matter.

Chinese destiny

The occupation

The rulers of the northern Chinese kingdoms appreciated Buddhist or Taoist religious figures from whom they expected political and military advice, miracles and supernatural protection as much as spiritual guidance. In the process, they sponsored the writing and translation of texts.

Fu Jian (苻堅), ruler of the earlier Qin, had thus brought back from captured Xianyang in 379 the master Dao'an (道安) (314-385), who counted Huiyuan (慧遠) (334-416), the first patriarch of the Pure Land, among his disciples. Knowing himself to be old, Dao'an, who was directing the translation of sutras in Chang'an, is said to have recommended Kumārajīva to Fu Jian.

Thus, when the ruler sent the general Lü guang (呂光) to attack the Tokharian kingdom in 384, he included in his mission the "capture" of Kumārajīva. Nevertheless, the following year, power was usurped by the Yao clan, which founded the later Qin dynasty.

The Lü took advantage of this to act as independent rulers of Kutcha, which they occupied for over seventeen years.

Sources claim that Lü Guang, unimpressed by the scholar-monk, treated him without regard, even mocking him. Kumārajīva's prescience having enabled his successor Lü Zuan (呂纂) to avoid a military defeat, he was finally recognized for his true worth, which resulted, according to some, in the ruler's idea of marrying him off, perhaps to secure his loyalty through an alliance.

It is impossible to confirm this information, but this is not the last time Kumārajīva's chastity will be put to the test.


In 401, Yao Xing (姚興), emperor of the later Qin, was finally able to retrieve Kutcha and have Kumārajīva brought back from it, arriving in Chang'an the following year at the age of almost sixty. He is said to have begun his translation work at the invitation of the monk Sengrui (僧叡), who offered to translate the meditation sutra Zuochan sanmei jing (《坐禪三昧經》).

The undertaking took place in the places once occupied by Dao'an, the Ximingge (西明閣) and the Xiaoyaoyuan (逍遙園), located in the area of present-day Xi'an, north of Mount Guifeng (圭峰), Huxian County (戶縣). A room specifically for translation work, the Caotang Temple (草堂寺), was built next to the Xiaoyaoyuan.

Kumārajīva's main assistants were Sengrui, Shamen sengqi (沙門僧契), Sengqian (僧遷), Faqin (法欽), Daoliu (道流), Daoheng (道恆), and Daobiao (道標), led by Sengzhao (僧肇) ; Working under them were many other monks.

Chinese catalogs credit the team with translating seventy-four works or 384 fascicles.

About one hundred different texts have over the centuries been attributed to the translator; although only twenty-four could be authenticated, they are among the most important in Chinese Buddhism, such as the Lotus Sutra, the Diamond Sutra, the Vimalakirti Sutra, the Amitabha Sutra, the Mūlamadhyamakārikā, and the Mahāprajñāpāramitā śāstra.

Yao Xing is said to have often attended the translation sessions that were held in great assembly. Inspired by these sessions, the ruler is said to have actually written a treatise himself, the Tongsanshilun (《通三世論》).

Kumārajīva would read sentence by sentence, explain the words, and offer a translation into Chinese. The audience would comment and suggest improvements, and then the text would be written down. It was then proofread twice, the first time for semantic consistency and the second time for calligraphy.

The translations directed by Kumārajīva were immediately recognized as much more satisfactory than the previous ones, and took precedence over any earlier versions. Indeed, they are written in a fluid language avoiding word by word, where the meaning appears more clearly.

The first Chinese translations of treatises and sutras were very much imbued with Taoist vocabulary and concepts. The translators soon tried to free themselves from this in order to express more accurately the Buddhist concepts, but too often produced literal translations whose general meaning remains rather obscure.


Kumārajīva attracted many disciples, including Daosheng, Sengzhao, Daorong (道融), and Sengrui, known as "the four great disciples" (什門四聖). His reputation also spread to southern China, the domain of the Eastern Jin.

Huiyuan, the first patriarch of the Jingtu school, settled since 381 on Mount Lu Shan, is said to have asked him in writing for several clarifications on the Mahāyāna doctrine. Some of these exchanges have come down to us; they are collected in a three-volume collection entitled Dacheng dayi zhang (《大乘大義章》) or Jiumoluoshifashi dayi (《鳩摩羅什法師大義》).

Kumārajīva is considered the founder in China of the Sanlun (三論宗) or Three Treatise School, based on the Shatika śāstra (《百論》), the Madhyamika shastra (《中論》) and the Dvadashamukha shastra (《十二門論》).

It was really started by his disciple Senglang (僧朗), who was succeeded by Sengquan (僧詮), Falang (法朗) and Jizang (吉藏). Under the Sui (581-618) and early Tang (618-907), it was flourishing and split into two branches. In addition, a Silun (四論宗) school of the Four Treatises, adding the Mahāprajñāpāramitā upadesha (《大智度論》) to the original three texts, had appeared.

These schools disappeared around the middle of the dynasty with the birth of Faxiang (法相宗) founded by Kuiji, a disciple of Xuanzang, and then of the Chan current, which gained considerable importance. The Sanlun school continues to exist in Japan under the name Sanron.


Kumārajīva is said to have complained several times that he was not able to write treatises and commentaries as he would have preferred, due to lack of time and the fact that the Chinese Buddhist milieu did not yet seem mature enough.

Nevertheless, he is said to be the author of a Shixianglun (《實相論》) in two fascicles on the rejection of idealism (lost), a theme later taken up by the Tiantai school, a beginning of a commentary on the Vimalakirti which his disciples completed, the Shiyushi (《十喻詩》) and the Zengshamenfahe (《贈沙門法和》).

Also remaining are his correspondence with Huiyuan, as well as answers addressed to the emperor's questions, Daqinzhushu (《答秦主書》), and his appreciation of the Tongsanshilun written by the latter.

Main translations

Satyasiddhi Shastra, Treatise on Complete Truth, 20 fascicles (402-412)
Chengshi lun (《成實論》)

Mahaprajnaparamita upadesha, Treatise on prajnaparamita, 100 fascicles (402-405)
Dazhidu lun (《大智度論》)
Panchavimshati sahasrika prajnaparamita sutra, Prajnaparamita in twenty-five thousand verses, 27 fascicles (404), of which the Heart Sutra is a condensed version

Weimo jing (《維摩經》)
Karunikaraja prajnaparamita sutra, 2 papers
Renwang borepoluomido jing (《仁王般若波羅蜜經》)
Astasahasrika prajnaparamita sutra, Short Prajnaparamita, 10 papers (408)
Xiaopin borepoluomi jing (《小品般若波羅蜜經》)

Vajracchedika prajnaparamita sutra, Sūtra of the Diamond, 1 fascicle (402-412)
Jingang jing (《金剛經》)
Saddharmapundarika sutra, Sūtra of the Lotus (《妙法蓮華経》) (Myōhō Renge Kyō in Japanese), 8 fascicles (401-406)

Fahua jing (《法華經》)
Little Sukhavati vyuha, Sūtra of Amitābha, 1 fascicle (402)
Amituo jing (《阿彌陀經》)
Shatika shastra, Treatise in one hundred verses, 2 fascicles (404)
Bailun (《百論》)

Moheborepoluomiduo xin jing (《摩訶般若波羅蜜多心經》)
Vinaya Sarvastivadin, Vinaya in ten categories, 61 fascicles (404-409)
Shisonglü (《十誦律》)
Bailun (《百論》)

Vimalakirti nirdesha sutra, Sūtra of Vimalakirti (《维摩所诘说经》 / 《維摩詰所說經》), 3 fascicles (406)
Fahua jing (《法華經》)
Madhyamaka-shastra, Treatise on the Middle Way, 4 fascicles (409)
Zhonglun (《中論》)

Dvadashamukha shastra, Treatise of the Twelve Gates, 1 fascicle (409)
Shiermen lun (《十二門論》)
Maitreyavyakarana sutra, 1 fascicle
Mile chengfo jing (《彌勒成佛經》)

Brahmajala sutra, Brahma's net sutra, 2 fascicles
Fanwang jing (《梵網經》)
Dasabhumikavibhasa, 17 fascicles
Shizhu piposha lun (《十住毗婆沙論》)

Legends and anecdotes

His mother, already turned to Buddhism, is said to have first felt the call of the monastic vocation during pregnancy, during which she miraculously knew how to speak Sanskrit.

During a visit to a temple in Kashgar, Kumārajīva is said to have lifted a very heavy incense burner. As he held it at arm's length, he suddenly became aware that he was only a child and was amazed at its strength. Immediately, the perfume burner fell to the ground. He then realized the role of mental discrimination.

The emperor of the later Qin Yao Xing, no doubt believing that the job of translator-counselor could be hereditary, is said to have forced Kumārajīva to leave his monastery and move into a mansion inhabited by ten young women invested with the mission of seducing him, in the hope that offspring would ensue.

The monk was to have subsequently cleared his reputation during preaching, repeating that "If the lotus grows in the mud, one must still strive to pick it without defiling oneself.

Nevertheless, tongues wagging and some disciples having begun to imitate him, he summoned them to swallow a bowl of nails in front of them, saying, "Don't you dare live as I live until you are able to do what I just did."

When his end was near, he is said to have said to his disciples, "If my words have been right, my tongue will not burn on the funeral pyre." And they found it intact.

The Caotang Temple (草堂寺) is a building constructed under the later Qin next to the Xiaoyaoyuan to serve as a place for translation work; Kumārajīva's successors erected a pagoda there in his memory.

Located north of Mount Guifeng (圭峰), Huxian County (戶縣), Xi'an region, it was maintained and restored until the eighteenth century and was visited by other prominent monks. It was rebuilt in 1981 in the original location. A symposium of about 100 Chinese and Japanese monks was held here 1660 years after its birth.

When he arrived in Dunhuang in 384, his white horse fell ill. One night he dreamed that the horse told him that he was in fact the white dragon of the Western Sea and that he had made this journey with it because he (Kumārajīva) had given himself the task of propagating Buddhism.

Now that the road was safe, he would not accompany him any further. When he awoke, Kumārajīva learned that his horse had died. With a broken heart he buried it and built the White Horse Pagoda (Bai Ma Ta) over its grave. It is located southwest of Dunhuang, about a 40-minute walk from the city.

In the works of fiction

Patrick Carré's novel The Pearl of the Dragon (Albin Michel, 1999) features Kumārajīva and his run-ins with the emperor Yao Xing and the opponents of the Great Vehicle.

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