Book: Buddhist Violence and Religious Authority
Chapter: 3. Dharma and its Discontents: The Case of Kumārajīva
The Buddha Dharma has been just as marked by cruelty and violence as any institutionalized socio-cultural movement. In this paper I examine such Dharmic cruelties in the life and teachings of a particular figure, the Kuchean monk Kumārajīva (ca. 450-504 CE), probably the most important foreign monk in the history of Chinese Buddhism. An unparalleled translator and exegete, his work propagating the Mahayana in China ushered in a more mature understanding of the Dharma. More intriguingly, though, Kumārajīva’s colorful life made him an international Buddhist celebrity and no doubt contributed to his legacy. According to traditional accounts, Kumārajīva was orphaned at a young age, and held prisoner for many years during which he was mistreated (and forced to violate his monastic precepts several times). He also he served as a military dictator’s “war prophet,” and even inflicted physical harm on his own body. Moreover, he conducted all of his influential work under direct imperial supervision, essentially operating under constant threat of punishment and/or death.
Certainly, accounts of Kumārajīva’s life have all the trappings of a grand epic and betray the exaggeration typical of hagiography. Perhaps because of this fact, his life story provides ample of evidence of the sheer pervasiveness of violence in Buddhist history, rhetoric, and practice. In truth, careful study of the narratives portraying Kumārajīva’s life makes virtually impossible to take simplistic claims that Buddhism is “a religion of peace” at face value.