Biography of Buddhist Masters: Master Kumarajiva (2)

Speaker: Ven. Zhi Tong

Fo Guang Shan Institute of Humanistic Buddhism

I. Introduction

Auspicious blessings! Welcome to a new episode of Fo Guang Shan English Dharma Services. It is me again, Zhi Tong, and today I would like to resume the biography of Master Kumarajiva.

Last week, we learned about the birth and renunciation of Master Kumarajiva. He was born in Kucha, a country in the ancient Western Regions. At age 7, he renounced as a Buddhist monastic along with his mother, and began his studies of the many texts and theories of Buddhism. Not only did Master Kumarajiva thoroughly master the teachings of the Lesser Vehicle, he had the chance to learn about Mahayana teachings as well. As he grew older, his fame as a great Buddhist master spread far and wide, across the desert, over the mountains, and into the land of China

II. Part 4: The Conquest for a Buddhist Master

China lies a few thousand miles away from Kucha. It was a time of political unrest, wars, and violence. Kingdoms rise and fall in a short span of time, tribes from the edges of China divided the lands and established their own kingdoms, overpowering the native people. When kingdoms were established, they fought with one another to gain supremacy over the vast and fertile land, each one aiming to be the one and only emperor.

In the kingdom of Fu Qin, the king Fu Jian wished to see his country greater and better. He knew of a great Buddhist master, Dao’an, who had been teaching and establishing the sangha community for 15 years in the city of Xiangyang. 

King Fu Jian knew in turbulent times like these, it was better to have wise people around him. Furthermore, King Fu Jian was also interested in the teachings of Buddhism. He was determined to get Master Dao’an into his imperial court.

However, as the lands were all divided up into small kingdoms, the city of Xiangyang was not under his rule. The only way King Fu Jian could get Master Dao’an was by force. Therefore, in the year of 378, he sent an army of one hundred thousand to Xiangyang with the sole purpose of capturing the city and bringing the master back to his court. King Fu Jian’s conquest was successful, and Master Dao’an was brought to King Fu Jian in the city of Chang’an.

King Fu Jian was extremely respectful towards Master Dao’an, and he even established a Buddhist translation court and invited Master Dao’an to preside over the court. Soon enough, under Master Dao’an leadership and wisdom, Buddhism flourished in the city of Chang’an. Thousands of monastics gathered in the temples to learn from Master Dao’an and participated in the translation court. These were not just native Chinese monastics, but monastics from Western regions and even India. The foreign monastics were well-versed in the languages of India and Western regions, hence they could explain the Buddhist texts and clarify doctrines to the Chinese monastics, who would then translate the text into Chinese. Everyone was there with the single-minded goal of spreading the teachings of the Buddha.

Master Dao’an knew there was a great Buddhist master by the name of Kumarajiva in the Western regions, and he longed to invite Master Kumarajiva to China. He knew that with Master Kumarajiva’s thorough mastery of the Buddhist teachings, Buddhism could flourish better in China, with more system and clarity. King Fu Jian knew of Master Dao’an’s wish, and he, too, wished that such an eminent Buddhist master could join his imperial court. In the year 383, King Fu Jian sent an army of seventy thousand to the Western Regions, aiming to both conquer the country and get Master Kumarajiva.

III. Part 5: The Capture of Kucha

Now, let us travel along western China, past rivers and mountains, and through the desert, to the country of Kucha, where we last saw Master Kumarajiva.

At this time, Master Kumarajiva was forty-years-old. It has been nearly two decades since he promised his mother to propagate Buddhism to the lands of the East. He had been waiting for the right causes and conditions that would bring him over. 

When the messenger came running into the throne room bearing the shocking news, nobody quite knew what to do. Kucha was not as strong or as well-equipped. Very quickly, the entire country was captured by King Fu Jian’s army, and Master Kumarajiva was taken.

The leader of King Fu Jian’s army was General Lu Guang. Unlike his king, Lu Guang was not a Buddhist. He was a loyal subject and exceptional military general, but he had no sentiments for Master Kumarajiva.

IV. Part 6: Trials and Tribulations

One day, Kumarajiva’s mother said to him,

When General Lu Guang met Master Kumarajiva, he was unimpressed. [Slide 14] He had traveled thousand of miles , engaged in a number of battles and skirmishes, lost some of his men, just to bring this Buddhist monastic back. He treated Master Kumarajiva rudely and roughly, and even found entertainment in humiliating Master Kumarajiva.

As General Lu Guang gained controlled over Kucha and became its lord, he forced Master Kumarajiva to marry the princess of Kucha on the threat of death. Of course, Buddhist monastics are not allowed to marry, but Master Kumarajiva knew that if he did not comply, the princess would be put to death. Furthermore, he knew this was his trial before he could propagate the Dharma in China. 

Lu Guang also forced Master Kumarajiva to drink wine, which was also against the monastic precepts. To further test him, he forced Master Kumarajiva to ride on skittish and jumpy horses, having little regard for his life.

Master Kumarajiva accepted the trials and forbore the humiliation which Lu Guang inflicted on him. The parting words of his mother came to mind: “Does it matter that there will be no personal advantage for you if you propagate the Dharma lands of the east?” He remembered his reply, “If one is able to spread the great conversion and awaken the blind masses, then, even if one’s body were burning in a red hot oven, one may suffer but feel no regret.” Master Kumarajiva faced these trials and challenges with a peaceful mind. He knew that one day, the storm will blow over, and dawn will come again.

Soon enough after the conquest of Kucha, General Lu Guang started the journey back to China. There were not a lot of records on what happened during the eastward journey, but one can imagine it was not pleasant to Master Kumarajiva given the way Lu Guang’s attitude. But on the other hand, Master Kumarajiva was a step closer to his vow of bringing the treasure of Buddha-Dharma to China.

In the winter of the year 386, Lu Guang received the news that his king Fu Jian had died and his country had fallen into the hands of a new king. King Fu Jian had lost an important battle, and was then betrayed and killed by his minister. This minister got rid of the old dynasty and proclaimed a new era.

There was no going back to Chang’an. Home was lost. Lu Guang, along with his army, were now on their own. What can they do? In such a chaotic era, kingdoms rose and fell in a few decades. Great kings and men were snuffed out like candles. To survive, Lu Guang can only claim a land to himself and become his own king.

That was what Lu Guang did. He settled in the city of Liang Zhou, which is in present-day Xinjiang, China, and established a new kingdom.

What about Master Kumarajiva? In time, Lu Guang was impressed with Master Kumarajiva’s patience and compassion, and changed his attitude towards the master. Though Lu Guang did not become a Buddhist, nor did Kumarajiva manage to do large-scale Dharma propagation, at the very least he was treated as a person.

But at the same time, Master Kumarajiva could not move forward, nor could he go back. His home country had now fallen into the hands of Lu Guang, and there was no way he could travel to Chang’an, where Buddhism still managed to flourish despite the turmoil. Lu Guang held him hostage in Liang Zhou. So again, Master Kumarajiva waited and waited. Sixteen years passed, and Kumarajiva was 56 years old.

V. Conclusion

It seems that Master Kumarajiva will never reach the center of China, to Chang’an, the great capital city of culture and religion. It seems that Master Kumarajiva has been waiting for a long time in his life to fulfill the vow he made to his mother. Will he persevere? Will he ever arrive to the city of Chang’an? Or will he fall victim to the turbulent times? Stay tuned to next week’s episode to find out!

Thank you for tuning in to this episode. May you find joy and peace in the Dharma. Omitofo.