A Discourse on The Lotus Sutra, Vol. 1, pp. 84-87

Excerpts from A Discourse on The Lotus Sutra

 Venerable Xiao Pingshi


(A brief account on the translator of the Lotus Sutra,

Tripiṭaka master Kumarajiva; 三藏法師鳩摩羅什 )


Introducing the translator of the the Lotus Sūtra begins with the following: “Translation under an imperial order by Tripiṭaka master Kumarajiva of the Kingdom of Kucha [located in Central Asia], in the Later Qin, [during the Sixteen Kingdoms era]." ( 後秦龜茲國三藏法師鳩摩羅什奉詔譯) This indicates that the translator was a Tripiṭaka master of the Kucha Kingdom in Later Qin. “Later Qin” was not the Qin dynasty in China before the Han dynasty but an ancient Buddhist kingdom located near the western region of China. Tripiṭaka master Kumarajiva translated the Lotus Sūtra, and he was one of the greatest translators of the Buddhist scriptures in ancient China. We pay tribute and express our profound gratitude to him and acknowledge his contribution to the historic event of the Lotus Sūtra translation.


To be endowed with the title “Tripiṭaka master,” one must be fully proficient in Buddhist scriptures, precepts, and treatises. Tripiṭaka master Kumarajiva had mastered the three divisions of the Buddhist canons: the sūtras (discourses), vinayas (disciplinary texts), and abhidharmas (higher treatises). Note that there are other Tripiṭaka masters of the sound-hearer teachings. These masters are also proficient in the sūtras, vinayas, and miscellaneous piṭaka of the sound-hearer doctrines and can also be referred to as Tripiṭaka masters. However, there is a major difference between Tripiṭaka master Kumarajiva and them. Master Kumarajiva, the translator of the Lotus Sūtra, is recognized as a bodhisattva in the Great Vehicle. He is fully proficient in the sūtras, vinayas, and treatises of both the Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna teachings.


Master Kumarajiva was originally a monk. He was forced by a foolish king to marry a woman, and he had no choice but to comply. As he was not oriented toward married life, he continued to do what he was supposed to do. What was most important for him was to complete his mission of translating the Buddhist scriptures to spread the Buddha Dharma. He continued living like a married man dressed in common clothes to keep himself alive so that he could accomplish his translation duty. He had to exercise forbearance to protect himself from being killed by the king when he could have just given up his life by defying the foolish king and not getting married, and then returning to the human realm through rebirth to resume his accomplishment of his mission. Bodhisattvas must face dilemmas like this to complete their mission in the face of the threat of death. Nonetheless, bodhisattvas have the spirit of putting the extensive spreading of the Buddha Dharma before their own lives to benefit all sentient beings. This is a commitment that every bodhisattva always upholds.


Master Kumarajiva continued his work under the aforementioned conditions and was able to translate many scriptures. His unique translation style was characterized by elegant and beautiful words and expressions, making his translation more exquisite than Master Xuanzang’s. Master Xuanzang prioritized the preciseness and integrity of his translations of the original scripture texts, their full conformity to the original meanings of the scriptures, including the subtlest doctrinal meanings, rather than the elegance of the wording. 


Furthermore, the phrase “translation under an imperial order” clearly indicates that the country’s resources were used for the actual translation event. Due to the monumental cost of printing[1] in the ancient times, translation projects could not be privately funded, and scriptures could not be printed individually; thus, the projects had to rely on state sponsorship. For example, the Dragon Tripiṭaka, Jiaxing Tripiṭaka, and Moraine Sand Tripiṭaka were all completed with the support of the state. The same is true for South Korea’s Korea Tripiṭaka and Japan’s Taisho Tripiṭaka; they were both sponsored by the government to accomplish the translation schemes.


Therefore, the translation of scriptures in the ancient times was done at the country level and was part of the country’s political achievements. For this reason, the phrase “translation under an imperial order” can be seen in the explanatory note at the beginning of the Lotus Sūtra, where the name of the translator, Tripiṭaka master Kumarajiva, is also indicated.

A Discourse on The Lotus Sūtra, Vol.1, pp. 84–87


[1] In ancient times, the printing process involved engraving each character in reverse on a wooden block, inking the block, and placing a piece of paper or cloth on top of the block to transfer the image engraved on it to the paper or cloth. As this process was laborious and time-consuming, the printing costs then were very high.