Kumārajīva and the Middle Way in China

Subhash Kak
Aug 25, 2018 · 6 min read
Kumārajīva in front of Kizil Caves, Xinjiang (Wikipedia)

Most people are surprised when told that Indian Gāndhārī and Khotan Saka were the main languages of Tarim Basin, Xinjiang, from the earliest recorded times to about 1000 CE, where I take India to imply the larger geographical region that includes Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The role of the Vedic tradition in the culture of Central Asia becomes clear from the many representations of Śiva, Maheśvara, Umā, Kṛṣṇa, Gaṇeśa, and other deities that have been found in the ruins of temples and monasteries. Vedic hermeneutics also played a fundamental role in the development of the Madhyamaka sect in Central Asia and China.

In India of two thousand years ago, there were powerful intellectual currents not unlike what is happening in the world now. The Buddha’s doctrine of anatta (anātmā), “no-self,” or the teaching that the sense of a permanent, autonomous self is an illusion, led to questions such as: What is it that gives an individual a sense of continuity? Is there free will? In a similar vein, modern science, which is based on reductionism and materialism, cannot explain free will, which is driving increasing scientific interest in the phenomenon of consciousness.

The theory of anatta arose within the context of the Vedic tradition, which does not suffer from the problem of free will for it postulates ātman, or self or consciousness, as the ground-stuff of reality, further speaking of two kinds of knowledge, higher relating to the experiencing self, and lower relating to objects of observation. The Vedic tradition enjoins the use of different lenses (darśanas) that provide complementary cognitions to further understanding of reality. Of course, it leads to different kinds of questions and paradoxes, such as how does the individual forget his or her true nature. But the Vedic tradition requires postulation of a category that goes beyond ordinary rationality, which is what the Buddha was trying to avoid.

A school called Sarvāstivāda arose to provide a logical basis to Buddha’s idea of anatta. The name of the school is from Sanskrit sarvam asti, that is “everything exists/all is.” It assumed that dharmas, universal entities that combine momentarily to form a person’s life flux, were eternal. In spite of its limitations, this view became the most favored in the famous council in Kashmir during the reign of the Kushan Emperor Kaniṣka (2nd century CE) and remained highly influential for centuries not only in India but also in Central Asia.

The doctrine of Sarvāstivāda had to compete with Nāgārjuna’s Madhyamaka, the Middle Way, according to which reality at the deepest level is śūnyatā, or emptiness. Since the self is predicated on emptiness, phenomena take existence only as they relate to other phenomena and it is incorrect to say if something exists or does not exist. The middle way stands between affirmation and negation.

Mahāyāna also came up with the idea of Buddha Nature, which is taken to be the fundamental nature of all beings. To its critics, Mahāyāna brought in “ātman” through the back door, but it did so only in a half-hearted way for it does not admit the possibility of self by itself.

We know that Mahāyāna eventually triumphed in China. Perhaps, the individual most behind this triumph was Kumārajīva, who is known primarily as a translator of fundamental religious texts from Sanskrit to Chinese. Much of the material on his life comes from the Lives of Eminent Monks, Gaoseng Zhuan, which was compiled in 530.


Kumārajīva’s father, Kumārāyana, who was from a prominent Kashmiri family, renounced his home to become a monk to seek fortune in far lands. His path took him to Kucha, on the northern rim of the Tarim Basin of Xinjiang, where the king, knowing of his name, persuaded him to stop his journey and appointed him the state preceptor.

While in Kucha, Kumārāyana fell in love with the King’s sister, princess Jīva, who was a scholar in her own right. They married and in due course (344) they had a son, whom they named Kumārajīva. The boy showed signs of exceptional promise, and he had much interest in subtle argumentation.

But Jīva’s marriage didn’t go as well as she had hoped and she became a nun and joined a monastery together with her seven-year-old son. Two years later they traveled to Kashmir to study under the famed Buddhist teacher, Bandhudatta. In addition to the texts of the Sarvāstivāda School, the boy also learnt the Vedas, the darśanas, Ayurveda, astronomy and other sciences.

After three years of study, they began their return journey, but as they passed through Kashgar (Kāśagiri, the Mountain of Light, also known as Kashi), the local king, who had heard of the precocious boy, asked the mother and son to stay on for some time. While in Kashgar, Kumārajīva’s Sarvāstivāda position was challenged by a teacher named Sūryasoma, a prince of Yarkand, who was instructing him in Mahāyāna texts. Kumārajīva, having studied the Veda, and aware of the basic problem of the self in his earlier position, accepted the Mahāyāna position and was to become its most articulate votary. In the Mahāyāna view, all dharmas are themselves unreal; ontologically, dharmas are like empty space and assume distinct existence only in their ephemeral combinations.

Kumārajīva was so impressed by his new understanding that he invited Bandhudatta, his first teacher in India, to come to Kashgar and soon converted him to his new position. He became so adept in debates on Madhyamaka, that scholars and monks came from all over to learn from him.

Knowing that her son had established himself as a teacher and convinced that he was going to do great things, Jīva decided it was best for her to return to Kashmir to continue her own studies; mother and son never saw each other again.

General’s Prisoner

Buddhism had already made much headway in China, but given its many competing sects, its exact trajectory wasn’t clear. The sutra texts were not well understood because of literal translations, and so in 379, the Qin Emperor Fu Jiān brought the scholar Dao’an to his capital at Chang’an to establish a center for the translation of the texts. Dao’an, aware of Kumārajīva’s reputation as a scholar, urged Fu Jiān to invite him to join the effort.

The emperor, in 383, sent his general Lu Guang with an army of 100,000 infantry soldiers and 5,000 cavalry to march on the western states to extend his domain and also to get Kumārajīva. Kucha resisted, was put under siege and eventually submitted in 384. Meanwhile, in 385, Dao’an died and Fu Jiān was decisively defeated and killed by the numerically inferior army of Eastern Jin.

When Lu Guang heard of the defeat of his emperor, he halted his return, declared himself independent, and set up a state now known as Later Liang at Guzang. He held Kumārajīva under virtual house arrest for sixteen years until he died in 400. Eventually Yao Xing, second ruler of the new dynasty at Chang’an, sent in his army and conquered Guzang. Kumarajiva was rescued unharmed, and in 402 he was welcomed into Chang’an.

Translation Center in Chang’an

When Kumārajīva arrived in Chang’an, Emperor Yao Xing bestowed upon him the title Teacher of the Nation. Now began the most productive phase of his life, which resulted in works that have profoundly influenced Chinese Buddhist tradition to the present day. In a short period that was to last barely a decade, he translated almost fifty works including the Prajñāpāramitā प्रज्ञापारमिता literature such as the Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (Diamond Sutra) वज्रच्छेदिका प्रज्ञापारमितासूत्र, the Vimalakīrti Sūtra विमलकीर्ति सूत्र , the Lotus Sūtra, and the Śūraṅgama Sūtra शूरङ्गम सूत्र, that add up to nearly three hundred volumes. Chang’an had at this time many international scholars who enlivened its intellectual atmosphere, and these included people such as Buddhabhadra, Buddhayaśas, Dharmayaśas, and Dharmagupta.

Kumārajīva’s main contribution to the translation enterprise was to abandon the old style of literal translation that had proven ineffective in previous centuries. He chose to be guided by the intuition of an independent ontological position for consciousness, which made him give greater importance to the communication of deeper meaning.

He and his colleagues produced texts which were readable and inspiring, and after a millennium and a half his translations are still read and admired.

Kumārajīva’s most famous and enduring work is the rendition of the Lotus Sūtra, known in Sanskrit as सद्धर्मपुण्डरीक सूत्र, the Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra, “Sūtra on the White Lotus of the Sublime Dharma.” In part due to the excellent quality of the translation, devout Buddhists in East Asia believe that the Lotus Sūtra contains the final teaching of the Buddha, and that it is complete and sufficient for salvation. The world’s oldest datable printed book is his Diamond Sutra of 868 CE that was found in the Dunhuang Caves.

Many scholars believe that Kumārajīva’s extraordinary skills as a translator and his passion for the Middle Way helped define the direction that China’s culture took in the succeeding centuries. It is possible that if he had remained a believer in the Sarvāstivāda doctrine, the nature of Chinese religion would have turned out to be different even if he had translated the same texts.

Subhash Kak

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सुभाष काक. Author, scientist. Quantum information, AI, history of science. https://subhask.okstate.edu/sites/default/files/HistoryVedaArt_SubhashKak.pdf