Kumarajiva, the Translator


Kumarajiva, 鳩摩羅什 (くまらじゅ)
クマーラジーバ, くまらじゅう

Postscript about the difficulties of translating haiku.

On a TV program of NHK the other day, I learned that Kumarajiva, the Great Translator, one of my favorite senpai, an elder collegue so to speak,was the one who "invented" the combination of the Chinese characters to express paradise, gokuraku 極楽, which is part of the name of my home, the Paradise Hermitage, GokuRakuAn.

Look at his writing :

「極」というのは〝一番〟, いちばん安らげる世界、端的に言えば、
GOKU means "number one", a place where it is best to relax and feel safe.

But let me introduce this famous translator first.

344-413, Buddhist scholar and missionary, born in Kucha (龜茲) , in what is now Xinjiang, China.
When his mother, a Kuchean princess, became a nun, he followed her into monastic life at the age of seven. He grew up in centers of Hinayana Buddhism, but he was converted to Mahayana Buddhism in his teens and became a specialist in Madhyamika philosophy.

In 383, Chinese forces seized Kucha and carried Kumarajiva off to China. From 401 he was at the Ch'in court in the capital Chang'an (the modern Xi'an), where he taught and translated Buddhist scriptures into Chinese. More than 100 translations are attributed to him. Of these only about 24 can be authenticated, but they include some of the most important titles in the Chinese Buddhist canon.

Kumarajiva's career had an epoch-making influence on Chinese Buddhist thought, not only because he made available important texts that were previously unknown, but also because he did much to clarify Buddhist terminology and philosophical concepts. He and his disciples established the Chinese branch of the Madhyamika, known as the San-lun, or "Three Treatises school."


He was very much responsible for transmitting Buddhist thought and philosophy along the ancient Silk Road. If he did not find suitable terms, he began to make up words using combinations of Chinese characters to fit his image. He discussed with more than hundred Chinese students until they found a suitable solution to a concept.
He said something to the effect to his students:

"Translating a Buddhist text is like chewing a meal first and then spitting it out. The reader will only have your chow and if you are not careful, the best meal will turn into poison in his culture."

How very right he is!



Here is a bit more from another article:

Though the Buddhist scriptures are great treasures, it cannot be benefited to the people in China if they are not translated in Chinese. Moreover, if they were translated in deviation to the Buddha’s true teaching, the adverse effect to the learners and practictioners was detrimental. Thus, the translators must be talented scholars with excellent knowledge in Buddhism, fluency in writing and proficiency in Sanskrit and Chinese, etc.
The status of translators in Buddhism is comparable to many great Dharma masters, which is remarkable in history.

In summary, around 6000-7000 fascicles of the sutras were transmitted to China and translated in Chinese during 2nd century and 13th century. There were almost 200 prominent translators during those years. Amongst them, Kumarajiva was the most prominent one in the early years (i.e. at 5th century), while Hsuan-tsang was another one in later years (i.e. at mid 7th century).

Read more details at the link provided below. Here is just an interesting part on the Translation issue.

Eventually, 16 years after the death of Tao-an, Kumarajiva arrived at Chang-an (長安) and was welcomed by the King Yao Hsing (姚興) in 401 A.D. Kumarajiva was already over fifty at that time.

Yao Hsing honored Kumarajiva with the title of National Preceptor, and asked him to be in charge of translating sutras in Chinese. Many followers of Tao-an gathered around Kumarajiva to learn the profound teachings of Buddhism. In return, they helped Kumarajiva with his translations.

Kumarajiva was highly respected. The King Yao Hsing had provided him and his colleagues with large buildings where they could work together in translating sutras. The King himself sometimes participated the works as well.

Before Kumarajiva died, he proclaimed that if his translation was in accord with the genuine principles of Buddhism, his tongue would be intact and not turn to ash.. After incineration of his body, the tongue was not damaged.



Kumarajivas translations eventually reached Japan with the distribution of Buddhism in this country. The famous quote of the Heart Sutra, (般若心経) chanted in all Buddhist Sects, was also first introduced by Kumarajiva.

shiki soku ze ku, ku soku ze shiki
.. .. .. .. .. 色即是空 .. 空即是色

During his work, he came to realize another truth, which he put into these words:

bonno kore doojoo


The Every-Day Distractions itself are the true Place of Religious Practise.

My Archery teacher once put it this way:

Your real practise starts when you leave the doojoo (place for training 道場).
You daily life must be your place of practise with the invisible bow and arrow.

More about BONNO, worldly desires and Haiku.
By Gabi Greve

Further Reading:

About his life

Buddhism in East Asia, China Korea Japan
The earliest translators had some difficulty in finding the exact words to explain Buddhist concepts in Chinese, so they made use of Taoist terms in their translations. As a result, people began to relate Buddhism with the existing Taoist tradition. It was only later on that the Chinese came to understand fully the teachings of the Buddha.


Buddhism in China

Translating the Heart Sutra
As pointed out by Conze, Kumarajiva's translation of the sutra into Chinese, by far the earliest version (c. 400 CE) of the Heart Sutra that we possess, is extremely important in tracing out the argument of the sutra as it would have appeared to its original compilers.

Japanese Text in English of the Heart Sutra

原典は2種類あって、中国ではこれが10種類位に訳されました。最初は鳩摩羅什くまらじゅう という僧侶が訳しました。現在もっとも広く使われているのは、やはり西遊記の玄奘三蔵法師の訳したものです。その玄奘三蔵法師はインドに旅立つとき、先の鳩摩羅什訳の心経をお守りとして携えていったと伝えられています。

The Heart Sutra in a Picture version during the Edo Period:



.. .. .. .. .. From the NHK program


しかし鳩摩羅什の数奇な人生物語は、これまであまり知られていなかった。 シルクロードの大動脈・天山南路のオアシスに7世紀まで栄えた白人系国家・亀茲(きじ)国は、北に騎馬民族、東に漢民族王朝に挟まれ、常に両勢力の侵略にさらされていた。王国の王子として生まれた鳩摩羅什も中国の軍勢につかまり、17年におよぶ軟禁生活を余儀なくされる。

地獄のような苦しみを体験し、「極楽」という言葉を生み出した。「色即是空、空即是色」という名高い言葉も、彼の生み出したものだった。 東アジアの仏教の方向を決定づけたシルクロードに生まれた思想家、鳩摩羅什。シルクロードの富と戦乱、光と影の中で花開いた仏教思想の世界を、情感豊かに描く。 なお、今回は鳩摩羅什の声役を、俳優の石坂浩二さんが担う。


............................................... Postscript

Translating haiku or reading the translations of others is constantly reminding me of the great rersponsibility of a translator. One word with a wrong nuance and many people who live only on the chow of translators only will get the wrong impression.

Let me give you an example.

We have this famous haiku by Basho:

ara-umi ya Sado ni yokotau ama no kawa

wild sea
streching to Sado Isle
the River in the Sky


A better translation for the last line, ama no kawa (ama no gawa), should maybe just be

the Milky Way

Basho himself did not make up a poetical metaphor reading "the river in the sky, the heavenly river, Heaven's River" or something to that effect, he simply used the word common in everyday Japanese language to describe this heavenly phenomenon, with the simple English equivalent of "Milky Way".
This haiku is therefore not suited to support the theory that Basho used his own metaphor in his haiku.
In this one Basho did not, only his translator made it look like so, in my opinion.

For my Japanese readers, how would you like this metaphor translation:
gyuunyuu no michi 牛乳の道? Milky Way ?

Let me quote another example that was discussed in the WHCworkshop. It was given as an example to support the theory that Issa wrote one-sentence haiku.

my kiku
shows no interest
in her shape or form

kobayashi issa

Well, here we have to ask:

Did Issa write a one sentence poem or did the translator, Ueda Makoto ?

my kiku shows no interest in her shape or form

waga kiku ya nari ni mo furi ni mo kamawazu ni

Well, Issa was rehabilitated in my understanding, he wrote a haiku, with kireji, kigo, choice and play of words (ni..ni..ni, mo..mo.., nari..furi.. ) and all, about his young wife Kiku, Chrysanthemum. Among many possibilities, I suggest this translation:

Oh my Chrysanthemum !
for her form and features
she does not care

More of this discussion is here:

On the following link you find an essay about the translations of works of Basho, starting with an interesting presentation of the Oku no Hosomichi.
I offer this now with a smile:

Off the Beaten Track in Northern Japan

But read for yourself

My safekeep copy is here:


Anothere link to the discussion of Shiki's famous haiku about the persimmon

eating a persimmon-
the bell reveberates
at Hooryuu-ji temple

(Tr. Gabi Greve)



Reading a translation sometimes reminds me of reading a recipie for a meal. You get all the ingredients and cooking instructions and so on, maybe even your mouth will water at all these delicacies and exotica, but you will always be hungry, becuase you never get the real thing.

Especially if the real thing has only 17 beats, it is most difficult to transmit all the deep meaning hidden in kigo, kireji and other devices into a foreign language and a different culture with completely different concepts at times.

I keep trying with my translations,
thinking of Kumarajiva in times of language despair.


My Forum for you





Gabi Greve said...

Dear gabi san

You open many doors... a pleasant breeze.


ai... chibi
From the Daruma Forum.

Thank you Chibi san !

Gabi Greve said...

the water of sound - mizu no oto

Example for a WRONG translation.

Read about it here.


Gabi Greve said...

kareeda | ni | karasu | no | tomarikeri | aki | no | kure

Read a discussion about translating this haiku

a crow on a bare branch ... or else ...


Gabi Greve said...

tomoshibi o
mireba kaze ari
yoru no yuki

in the flame of my lamp
i see just a hint of wind
on a night of snow

Oshima Ryota

Read a discussion about the translation of this haiku.
. Translating Haiku, by Gabi Greve .