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Dharmakṣema (C. Tanwuchen 竺法豐) (385-433) was an Indian Buddhist monk who was an early translator of Buddhist materials into Chinese. His most significant translations include versions of the Mahāparinirvãṇasūtra and the Bodhisattvabhūmisūtra.

From the age of six, Dharmakṣema became a disciple of Dharmayaśas (C. Damoyeshe; J. Donmayasha) (d.u.), an Abhidharma specialist who later traveled to China c. 397-401 and translated the Śãriputrãbhidharmaśãstra.[1] He became learned in both monastic and secular affairs and was well versed in mainstream Buddhist texts.[1]

Dharmakṣema then studied with a meditation monk named "White Head", who transmitted to him a text of the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra, which prompted Dharmakṣema to embrace the Mahāyāna.[1] He also reportedly became skilled in the magical arts of casting spells and making prophecies.[1][2]

At the age of twenty, Dharmakṣema left India, and after a brief stay in the Kucha kingdom in Central Asia, he traveled to China and lived in the western outpost of Dunhuang for several years.[1] After some time, the ruler of the Northern Liang dynasty, Juqu Mengxun (397-439 CE), brought Dharmakṣema to his capital. Once there, Dharmakṣema engaged in a series of translation projects under Juqu Mengxun's patronage.[1] With the assistance of Chinese monks, such as Daolang and Huigao, Dharmakṣema produced a number of influential Chinese translations, including:[1]

  • the Dabanniepan jing (S. Mahāparinirvãṇasūtra; in forty rolls), the longest recension of the sūtra extant in any language;
  • the Jinguangmingjing ("Sūtra of Golden Light"; S. Suvarṇaprabhāsottamasūtra; in four rolls); and
  • the Pusa dichi jing (S. Bodhisattvabhūmisūtra; in ten rolls).

The Princeton Dictionary states:

The Northern Wei ruler Tuoba Tao, a rival of Juqu Mengxun's, admired Dharmakṣema's esoteric expertise and requested that the Northern Liang ruler send the Indian monk to his country. Fearing that his rival might seek to employ Dharmakṣema's esoteric expertise against him, Juqu Mengxun had the monk assassinated at the age of forty- nine.
Dharmakṣema's translation of Indian Buddhist texts into Chinese had a significant impact on Chinese Buddhism; in particular, the doctrine that all beings have the buddha-nature (foxing), a teaching appearing in Dharmakṣema's translation of the Mahāparinirvãṇasūtra, exerted tremendous influence on the development of Chinese Buddhist thought.[1]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. Dharmakṣema.
  2. Chen (2004), pp. 218, 222


Further reading