Dharmakṣema (曇無讖, 385–433) means Dharma prosperity. He was born into a Brahmin family in central India. At an early age he started the five studies and learned the Hīnayāna Doctrine. He became very eloquent and answered questions most convincingly.
Later he encountered a Meditation master called White Head, who gave him the Sanskrit text of the MahāParinirvāṇa Sūtra written on tree barks, and he turned to studying the Mahāyāna Doctrine.
At age twenty, he was able to recite over two million words from Mahāyāna and Hīnayāna texts. Versed in Mantra practice, he was well regarded by the king.
People called him Great Mantra Master.
Dharmakṣema, passing Kophen (罽賓, an ancient kingdom, also called Gandhāra, in present-day Kashmir, northern Pakistan, and eastern Afghanistan area) and Kucha (龜茲, or 庫車, in present-day Aksu Prefecture, Xinjiang, China), went to Dunhuang (敦煌), a major stop on the ancient Silk road, in present-day Gansu Province, China.
He took with him the Sanskrit texts of Bodhisattva Precepts and the first five chapters of the MahāParinirvāṇa Sūtra.
In 412, the first year of the Xuanshi (玄始) years of the Northern Liang Dynasty (397–439), he was invited by its king, Mengxun (蒙遜), to stay in his capital, (姑臧), present-day Wuwei (武威), in Gansu Province, China.
After studying Chinese for three years, Dharmakṣema began to translate into Chinese the first part of the MahāParinirvāṇa Sūtra. His translation was recorded by Huisong (慧嵩) and Daolang (道朗).
Then he went to the kingdom of Yutian (于闐), or Khotan, present-day Hetian (和田), in Xinjiang, China, and acquired the rest of the chapters.
His translation of this Sūtra in 36 fascicles is included in the Chinese Canon as text 374 (T12n0374) in 40 fascicles. It is referred to as the northern version of the MahāParinirvāṇa Sūtra, and is the popular version.
In addition, he translated, from Sanskrit into Chinese, the Book of Bodhisattva Precepts (T24n1500), the Sūtra of the Bodhisattva Ground (T30n1581) in 10 fascicles, the Sūtra of the Upāsaka Precepts (T24n1488) in 7 fascicles, the Sūtra of the Golden Radiance (T16n0663) in 4 fascicles, most chapters in the Mahāvaipulya Sūtra of the Great Collection (T13n0397) in 60 fascicles, and more.
Dharmakṣema traveled west, aiming to find the last two fascicles of the MahāParinirvāṇa Sūtra. Meanwhile, King Taiwu (太武帝) of the Northern Wei Dynasty sent an emissary to invite Dharmakṣema to visit him. Unwilling to let King Taiwu have Dharmakṣema, King [Mengxun]] had Dharmakṣema, who was but forty-nine, assassinated on his journey.
The last two fascicles of the Sūtra he sought were translated into Chinese in the Tang Dynasty (618–907) by Jñānabhadra (若那跋陀羅, dates unknown) and included as text 377 (T12n0377) in the Chinese Canon.
Text 376 (T12n0376) is a 6-fascicle version of the Mahā Parinirvāṇa Sūtra, which was translated from Sanskrit into Chinese by Faxian (法顯, circa 337–422) and Buddhabhadra (佛陀跋陀羅, 359–429).
Then Huiyan (慧嚴, 363–443) edited text 376 and Dharmakṣema’s translation into text 375 (T12n0375) in 36 fascicles. This text is referred to as the southern version of the Mahā Parinirvāṇa Sūtra. The Mahā Parinirvāṇa Sūtra sparked the Nirvāṇa School in China.