Dharma and its Discontents

The Case of Kumarajiva


  • John Thompson Christopher Newport University




hagiography, monasticism, translation, violation


This article critically re-examines the “received wisdom” on Buddhism— its history, traditional lore, monastic institutions, and ritual practices— acknowledging the fact of violence within Buddhism while striving for a nuanced understanding by looking at the life of Kumarajiva (ca. 344–413). A legendary figure in Sino-Japanese Buddhism, Kumarajiva has long been lauded as a wondrous exemplar of the Dharma at work, making accounts of his life valuable resources for understanding Buddhism in medieval China, including the place of violence. My intention is not to condemn Buddhism as a “violent religion” but to encourage us to consider just how pervasive and complex the role of “violence” seems to be within Buddhism (both in the past and in the present), and critically trace out some of its implications.

Author Biography

John Thompson, Christopher Newport University

John M. Thompson is Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, VA where he teaches various courses in Religion and Asian Philosophy, and in the Honors Program. John has written and/or edited three books, and published numerous journal and encyclopedia articles, book chapters, and critical reviews. With broad interests in literature, art and diverse cultures, John sometimes styles himself a “man of letters;” fortunately, his beautiful wife, daughter, and son keep him moored to reality. In his spare time, he washes dishes, does yardwork, and cleans up after his dogs.


Carlson, John D. 2011. "Religion and violence: Coming to terms with terms." In The Blackwell Companion to Religion and Violence, edited by Andrew R. Murphy, 7-22. Oxford, Blackwell Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781444395747.ch1 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/9781444395747.ch1

Ch'en, Kenneth. 1964. Buddhism in China: A Historical Survey. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Derry, Ken. 2012. "Believing is Seeing: Teaching Religion And Violence In Film." In Teaching Religion and Violence, edited by Brian K. Pennington, 185-217. Oxford: Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195372427.003.0008 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195372427.003.0008

Eller, Jack David. 2010. Cruel Creeds, Virtuous Violence: Religious Violence across Culture and History. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Faure, Bernard. 1998. The Red Thread: Buddhist Approaches to Sexuality. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. https://doi.org/10.1515/9781400822607 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/9781400822607

Felbur, Rafal. 2019. "Kumarajiva: 'Great Man' and cultural event." In A Companion to World Literature, edited by Ken Seigneurie, 1-13. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118635193.ctwl0312 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118635193.ctwl0312

Hawkins, Bradley K. 1999. Buddhism. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Huijiao. 2011. "Kumarajiva's Biography in the Gaoseng Zhuan." Translated by Anya Malhotra. In Kumarajiva: The Transcreator of Buddhist Chinese Diction, edited by Nirmala Sharma, 117-132. New Delhi: Niyogi Books.

Ikeda, Daisaku. 2011. "Kumarajiva and his translation activities." In Kumarajiva: The Transcreator of Buddhist Chinese Diction, edited by Nirmala Sharma, 81-114. New Delhi: Niyogi Books.

Jenkins, Stephen. 2010-2011. "On the auspiciousness of compassionate violence." Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 33(1-2): 299-311.

Jenkins, Stephen. 2016. "Debate, magic, and massacre: The high stakes and ethical dynamics of battling slanderers of the dharma in indian narrative and ethical theory." Journal of Religion and Violence 4(2): 129-157. https://doi.org/10.5840/jrv201691326 DOI: https://doi.org/10.5840/jrv201691326

Jerryson, Michael. 2017. "Buddhist traditions and violence." In Violence and the World's Religious Traditions, edited by Mark Juergensmeyer, Margo Kitts, and Michael Jerryson, 37-69. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jerryson, Michael. 2018. If You Meet the Buddha on the Road: Buddhism, Politics, and Violence. Oxford: Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/oso/9780190683566.001.0001 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/oso/9780190683566.001.0001

Kieschnick, John. 1997. The Eminent Monk: Buddhist Ideals in Medieval Chinese Hagiography. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/9780824846015

Laderman, Gary. 2007. "Violence and religious life: Politics, culture, and the sacred in the United States." Nanzan Review of American Studies 29: 9-22.

Lai, Whalen, 1993. "The three jewels in China." In Buddhist Spirituality: Indian, Southeast Asian, Tibetan, Early Chinese, edited by Takeuchi Yoshinori et al., 275-342. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company. https://doi.org/10.1353/bcs.2010.0007

Lai, Whalen. 2010. "The two wheels of the Dharma." Buddhist-Christian Studies 30: 171-186. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1353/bcs.2010.0007

Ling, Trevor. 1993. Buddhist Trends in Southeast Asia. Singapore: Institute of Asian Studies.

McNeill, William H. 1986. "Mythistory, of truth, myth, history, and historians." In Mythistory and Other Essays, 1-10. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/1867232 DOI: https://doi.org/10.2307/1867232

Morimoto, Anri. 2007. "Violence as impetuosity: Taxonomy of religious violence." Nanzan Review of American Studies 29: 51-60.

O'Sullivan, Simon. 2000. "In violence: Three case studies against the stratum." Parallax 6(2): 104-109. https://doi.org/10.1080/13534640050083837 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/13534640050083837

Puri, B. N. 1987. Buddhism in Central Asia. First edition. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.

Thompson, John M. 2008. Understanding Prajna: Sengzhao's "Wild Words" and the Search for Wisdom. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc.

Tinker, Tink. 2015. "The Irrelevance of euro-christian Dichotomies for indigenous peoples: Beyond nonviolence to a vision of cosmic balance." In Peacemaking and the Challenge of Violence in World Religions, edited by Irfan A. Omar and Michael K. Duffey, 206-225. Malden: John Wiley & Sons.

Wright, Arthur F. 1990. "Biography and hagiography: Hui-chiao's Lives of Eminent Monks." In Studies in Chinese Buddhism, edited by Robert M. Somers, 73-111. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Yang, Lu. 2004. "Narrative and historicity in the Buddhist biographies of early Medieval China: The case of Kumarajiva." Asia Major, Third Series, 17(2): 1-43.

Zimmerman, Michael. 2006. "Only a fool becomes a king: Buddhist stances on punishment." In Buddhism and Violence, edited by Michael Zimmerman, 213-242. Lumbini: Lumbini International Research Institute.



How to Cite

Thompson, J. (2021). Dharma and its Discontents: The Case of Kumarajiva. Buddhist Studies Review, 38(1), 17–30. https://doi.org/10.1558/bsrv.43213