The Problem of the Icchantika in the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvaṇa Sūtra

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The Problem of the Icchantika in the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvaṇa Sūtra
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Citation: Liu, Ming-Wood. "The Problem of the Icchantika in the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra." Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 7, no. 1 (1984): 57–81. https://journals.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/index.php/jiabs/article/view/8619/2526.

Article Summary

In the Chinese Buddhist Canon, there are two corpuses of texts which go by the name of the Mahāparinirvāṇa-sūtra (henceforth, MNS). The first corresponds in main to the Mahāparinibbāna-suttanta in the Dīgha-nikāya of the Pāli Canon. Being essentially Hīnayāna in outlook, it has received little attention in China. The second, which exhibits all the features of a Mahāyāna text, generated immediate enthusiasm on its first introduction into China in the early fifth century, and has exerted enormous influence on the development of Chinese Buddhist thought. Especially worth mentioning in this connection is its teaching of Buddha-nature. It is well-known that the idea of Buddha-nature, one of the central concepts in Chinese Buddhism, was first made popular in the country by the Mahāyāna version of the MNS, which remains the principal source of reference as well as the final authority in all subsequent discussions on the subject. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to assert that without a proper understanding of the Buddha-nature doctrine as appears in this Mahāyāna version of the MNS, it would be impossible to grasp the significance of the subsequent evolution of the concept in the Chinese Buddhist tradition.
      It is the orthodox belief that the MNS teaches that all sentient beings possess the Buddha-nature. Since in the MNS "Buddha-nature" refers to "the nature of the Buddha" and "to possess" the Buddha-nature in the case of sentient beings usually indicates "to have in the future,"[1] this belief amounts to the conviction that the MNS maintains that all sentient beings will achieve Buddhahood someday. This conviction is well attested by the text of the MNS. Thus, we find it clearly expressed in the MNS that "all three vehicles will eventually share the same Buddha-nature":


Good sons! The same is true of the śrāvakas, pratyekabuddhas and bodhisattvas, [all of whom will attain] the same Buddha-nature, in the like manner as [cows of different colours produce] milk [looking the same]. Why is it so? For all of them will [sooner or later] put an end to defilements. However, there are various sentient beings who maintain that Buddhas, bodhisattvas, śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas are different [with respect to their final destiny. [Thus,] there are various śrāvakas and common people who doubt [the teaching] that the three vehicles are not different. These sentient beings will finally come to understand that all three vehicles [will eventually share] the same Buddha-nature. . . .[2]

Those who refuse to accept the tenet that all sentient beings without exception will possess the Buddha-nature are criticized by the MNS as wanting in faith.[3] In the sūtra, this idea of the universal presence of the Buddha-nature is presented as one of the distinctive themes of Mahāyāna writings[4] as well as among the principal claims to excellence of the MNS itself.[5] It is so highly esteemed that it is described as representing the "essential meaning" (tzu-i) of the Buddha's teaching;[6] and, together with the doctrine of the eternal nature of the Tathāgata, it is said to be definitive (chüeh-ting) and not open to future amendments.[7]
      If this thesis of the eventual enlightenment of all sentient beings does indeed constitute the central theme of the MNS, it is strongly qualified by the presence in the sutra of the concept of the icchantika. The term "icchantika" is derived from the Sanskrit root is meaning "to desire," "to wish" and "to long for." This explains the variant Chinese renderings of the term "icchantika" as "a being of many desires" (to-yü), "a being cherishing desires" (lo-yü) and "a being full of greed" (ta-t'an).[8] But in the MNS, the failings attributed to the icchantikas far exceed those which are usually associated with people of such descriptions. In the sūtra, the icchantika is described as "devoid of good roots"[9] and as "the most wicked being."[10] He is depicted as "having no capacity for the [true] Dharma"[11] such that he can never be rehabilitated by the instruction of the Buddha and so will never attain supreme enlightenment. Taken at its face value, this picture of a being condemned forever to spiritual darkness appears to contradict the proposition of the MNS that all sentient beings possess the Buddha-nature and so are destined for Buddhahood, and commentators of the MNS have been hard pressed to find a viable way out of this apparent dilemma.
      The present article, which is the second of a two-part study on the problem of Buddha-nature in the MNS,[12] is an attempt to unravel the various strands of thought present in the MNS regarding the character and fate of the icchantikas. It is hoped that our discussion, brief and sketchy as it is, will be of help in throwing light on this highly intricate question. (Liu, "The Problem of the Icchantika," 57–59)
  1. Refer to the analyses of the concepts "Buddha-nature" and "having Buddha-nature" in my article "The Doctrine of the Buddha-nature in the Mahāyāna Mahaparinirvāṇa-sūtra," The Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 5.2 (1982), pp. 63–94.
  2. Takakusu Junjirō & Watanabe Kaikyoku, eds., Taishō shinshū daizōkyō(henceforth abbreviated to T), vol. 12, p. 422c,1.28–p. 423a, 1.3.
  3. Ibid., p. 575b, 11.25–26.
  4. Ibid., p. 405a-b.
  5. Ibid., p. 487b-c.
  6. Ibid., p. 573c, 11.19-20 & p. 574b, 11.28-29.
  7. Ibid., p. 522c, 11.23-24.
  8. See Mizutani Kōshō, op.cit., pp. 66–69 and Ogawa lchizō Busshō shisō (Kyoto: 1982), pp. 123–131.
  9. T, vol.12, p. 554b, 1.18.
  10. Ibid., p. 454a, 11.5-6.
  11. Ibid., p. 419b,1.16.
  12. See n.l above.