Kumarajiva's Tongue

(This article was published in the Shenzhen Daily on August 8, 2016.)

Reliquary containing the tongue of Kumarajiva, Caotang Temple, Xi'an

There's a beautiful little pavilion on the grounds of Caotang Temple, south of Xi'an, which was once Chang'an, the capital of Tang Dynasty China. It holds one of the oddest relics I've encountered.

For this was the temple where Kumarajiva (344-413, called in Chinese Jiumoluoshi) did his work, and where he passed away. Born of an Indian father in the kingdom of Kuqa (now in west-central Xinjiang Province), Kumarajiva was the first of the "Four Great Translators," along with Paramartha (499-569), Xuanzang (602-64), and Yijing (635-713).

Raised by parents who had become monastics by the time he was seven, Kumarajiva grew up in an environment imbued with Buddhism as he moved around to various cities in "the West," settling for a time at Turpan. His fame was such that Emperor Fu Jian of the Former Qin Dynasty told his general Lu Guang, "Send me Kumarajiva as soon as you conquer Kucha." Instead, Lu Guang imprisoned Kumarajiva for around 15 years, during which time he was married to a Kuchan princes, negating his monastic vows.

At last he arrived in Chang'an in 401, around age 40, where he was given the title of National Teacher. Kumarajiva declared his desire that, if his work was faulty, "May my tongue burn."

At his death at age 70, he was cremated. Everything burned to ash--except his tongue. It was buried under a pavilion, and, at that moment, a sign tells us, a lotus bloomed in a nearby well. When the lotus was dug to its root, it was found to be attached to the buried tongue, which is now preserved in a beautiful stone reliquary inside the pavilion.

Pavilion holding the tongue reliquary of Kumarajiva, Caotang Temple, Xi'an

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