There are three extant versions of the Mah‚y‚na-mah‚parinirv‚na-sŻtra, each translated from various Sanskrit editions: the shortest and earliest is the translation into Chinese by Faxian and Buddhabhadra in six juan (418CE), the next in terms of development is the Tibetan version (c790CE) by Jinamitra, Jnanagarbha, and Devacandra, and the extended version in 40 juan by Dharmakshema (422) which was also translated into Tibetan from the Chinese. There also exists a secondary Chinese version in 36 juan of Dharmakshema's translation, produced by polishing the style and adding new section headings and completed in 453CE. It is also known from Chinese catalogues of translations that at least two other Chinese translations were done, slightly earlier than Faxian, but these are no longer extant. Though a complete version of the entire text in Sanskrit has not yet been discovered, some fragments of original Sanskrit versions have been discovered in Central Asia, Afghanistan and Japan.
The text contained in the Faxian and Tibetan translations is roughly equivalent to just the first quarter of the greatly expanded Dharmakshema version. Given that all known Sanskrit fragments correspond solely to material found in the Faxian and Tibetan versions, and the corresponding part of Dharmakshema, it is generally accepted that this portion of the text was compiled in India, possibly as the text itself hints, somewhere in southern India, before it was transferred to Kashmir. The additional material in the long Dharmakshema version would seem to be of Central Asian origin.
Like the majority of Mah‚y‚na sŻtras, the Mah‚y‚na-mah‚parinirv‚na-sŻtra evidently underwent a number of stages in its composition, which is of some importance for any discussion of the Tath‚gata-garbha and Buddha-nature (buddha-dh‚tu) doctrines. The leading scholar in this field is the Japanese scholar Masahiro Shimoda, who posits a short proto-Mah‚y‚na-mah‚parinirv‚na-sŻtra, which was probably not distinctively Mah‚y‚na, but quasi-Mah‚s‚nghika in orgin and would date to 100 CE if not even earlier. A developed version of this core text was then developed and would have comprised chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, 6 and 7 of the Faxian and Tibetan versions, though in their present state there is a degree of editorial contamination from the later developments.
The main theme of this core text is the permanence and transcendence of the Buddha and the treatment is strongly Mah‚s‚ṅghika in its "theology". At this stage of the textual history, the living eternal presence of the Buddha in the great caityas was the main concept. The prevalence of this kind of thinking is corroborated by several of Gregory Schopen's illuminating essays dealing with the belief that the Buddha was still present as a living force in the caityas containing his relics. The key technical term in this portion of the text is buddha-dh‚tu. This term is difficult to translate because it has several ranges of connotation, all implied by the use of the term in the text. Apart from the spiritual dh‚tu or nature of an embodied Buddha, dh‚tu also refers to the relics enshrined in the caityas. Because these dh‚tus are enclosed in the caityas, this makes them alive with the Buddha: he is considered to be still present in a real sense. This is what made pilgrimages to caityas so important, to the extent that many people, including the Mah‚y‚na-mah‚parinirv‚na-sŻtra followers at this stage of the text, wanted to pass into nirv‚ṇa in the presence of the Buddha dwelling there. Contrary to the conventional scholarly understanding of Buddhism hitherto, this seems to have been a very wide-spread idea and wish. The presence of the Buddha is also dealt with in other ways in early Mah‚y‚na texts, but the overall concern is the same: how to enter into the presence of the Buddha for the salvific benefits this would offer. Hence the Sukh‚vatÓ-vyŻha-sŻtra and other Pure Land texts, the Pratyutpanna-sŻtra also deal with the means to achieve this.
A close reading of the text reveals that the people who promulgated the Mah‚y‚na-mah‚parinirv‚na-sŻtra, at least at this early stage of its composition, were neither monks nor laymen but a hitherto unremarked group of Buddhist practitioners, who called themselves ‚c‚ryas (teaching masters). Their role is clearer in the early Faxian version, though they had already begun to be written out of the frame by the time of the second layer that comprises the remaining chapters of the Faxian and Tibetan versions. From the account given in the text, it seems that these people did not live sedentary monastic lives, but travelled as preachers (dharma-k‚thika) and pilgrims. They followed a kind of Vinaya, but one based on the sŻtras rather than one of the conventional Vanayas used in the monasteries, and thus they could perhaps be linked with the forest-dweller tradition, given that they held themselves aloof from the monasteries and did not engage in the type of criticism of the lax monastic life-style that is characteristic of the later layers of the text. Importantly, it seems from the Mah‚y‚na-mah‚parinirv‚na-sŻtra that these ‚c‚ryas also came to see themselves as bodhisattvas as time went by, which challenges the popular idea that Mah‚y‚na had its origins as a lay movement.
The second textual layer, which can actually be further sub-divided, bears witness to important changes in the Mah‚y‚na-mah‚parinirv‚na-sŻtra movement. The proponents increasing became sedentary, though some degree of wanderering still seems to have ocurred. However, this shift to a sedentary life-style had immediate repercussions which can be seen in this part of the text. Sociologically, there are vehement criticisms of lax, corrupt and venal monks who alter the Vinaya to suit their life-style. The kind of things being criticized seem to correspond in large measure with exactly those changes that the MŻla-sarv‚stiv‚dins made to their Vinaya. In contrast, the Mah‚y‚na-mah‚parinirv‚na-sŻtra shows some connections with the Mah‚saṅghika Vinaya, though interestingly in a convergent manner. That is to say, the originators of the Mah‚y‚na-mah‚parinirv‚na-sŻtra were not necessarily Mah‚s‚ṅghikas themselves, but became affiliated with them.
It is at this phase of textual development that the icchantikas make their appearance, a term first used to denote the many this-worldly monks leading settled lives. It was then extended and worsened in its connotations to include all those who have destroyed any chance of liberation in themselves. The later idea that they somehow become freed by divine intervention or otherwise is not found in the Indic portion of the Mah‚y‚na-mah‚parinirv‚na-sŻtra, which on the contrary suggests that eventually all beings who can be saved in any way will be saved by the Buddhas, who will then cease to appear in the universe for all eternity, leaving it to the icchantikas who will then have it to themselves for ever. This view was eventually modified in slightly different ways both in China and Tibet, but in ways that give icchantikas some hope of eventual liberation.
It is also at this stage the tath‚gata-garbha concept makes its appearance in the Mah‚y‚na-mah‚parinirv‚na-sŻtra. As in the case of buddha-dh‚tu, this term also has strong links to the caitya veneration, for as a technical term, a garbha can either be the enshrined contents of the caitya or the caitya itself. Glossing tath‚gata-garbha as a bahuvṛhi compound, the caitya is a tath‚gata-container. This interpretation underlies the position of the Tath‚gata-garbha-sŻtra with respect to living beings: they all contain the, or perhaps a, Tath‚gata. The other interpretation of the term, as a tat-purusha compond, is that the tath‚gata-garbha is the enshrined content of the caitya . The Mah‚y‚na-mah‚parinirv‚na-sŻtra adopts this interpretation as its viewpoint, that beings are embryonic Tath‚gatas by virtue of the pervasiveness of the buddha-dh‚tu. This therefore became the central message of the Mah‚y‚na-parinirv‚na-sŻtra, that all beings are potential Tath‚gatas by virtue of buddha-dh‚tu or tath‚gata-garbha.