Who Were the Icchantikas?
According to the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra, an icchantika (Tib. 'dod chen pa), therefore, is a monk who, claiming (or fancies; icchanti, Tib. 'dod pa) himself to be an Arhat, rejects the teaching of the Vaipulya — namely the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra itself— as told by Māra. Judging from the above-cited descriptions: "he ... also looks like a Mahāsattva," "'The Blessed One is impermanent. The Dharma and the Saṅgha will also become extinct. Such signs of the extinction of the Good Dharma are also evident.' — this is explained clearly in the (true) Mahāyāna (scriptures)," we may assume that icchantikas were monks who, following the traditional Mahāyāna teachings, did not approve (icchanti) of the then emerging theory of the eternity of the Tathāgata — which is the main theme of the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra.
The word icchantika is either formed from the present active participle icchant- with the suffix -ka, as Edgerton suggested, or derived from icchā + anta. As we have seen above, the word icchant-( 'dod pa) has the meanings "fancying; claiming, maintaining; admitting, approving of" in addition to its usual definition "desiring." Accordingly, the noun icchā has the meaning "assertion, claim" in addition to "desire." What is meant by icchantika is, then, probably "one who claims." When a monk—who claimed (icchati) to be an "Arhat" also was revered as an "Arhat" or a "Mahasattva" by his followers and thus, was an authority and spiritual leader of the Buddhist community—did not recognise (nêchanti) new ideas such as the eternity of the Tathāgata and the tathāgatagarbha theory as the Buddha's teachings, then the newly-risen, would-be "Vaipulya teachings" (probably the older stratum of the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra) may have been branded as unorthodox. That is what was meant by the word "rejection" (pratikṣepa; Tib. spong ba). If a simple, common monk rejects a new theory, his voice may not reach anybody. Being rejected and condemned by none other than the authorities of the Buddhist communities, those who advocated new ideas and their followers must have faced a crisis. Then, they may have condemned the authoritative monks repeatedly as being "arrogant," "evil" and "irredeemable," as well as calling them, in a derogatory term, icchantika ("one who claims [to be an authority]") in the newly-added chapters of the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra. However, if one looks at the descriptions cited above from a different point of view, those monks, who were condemned as icchantikas in the "Sutra," might have been respected conservative monks who stayed with the traditional (Mahāyāna) Buddhist teachings, while opposing new ideas concerning Buddhahood. They might have been so-called "fundamentalists" but never "evil monks."
Those, who composed the later stratum of the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra, were probably the first to label those monks, who did not approve of the eternity of the Tathāgata and the tathāgatagarbha theory, as icchantikas. Following in the wake of the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra, the composers of later Buddhist texts, putting forth the same tathāgatagarbha theory, continued to condemn those who did not approve of their theory, regarding them as icchantika. Claiming that their texts were part of the "true Mahāyāna" tradition, the former condemned the latter as rejecters of the "Mahāyāna" teachings.
However, much later, the word icchantika seems to have come to be interpreted, not as meaning "one who claims" but "one who desires (transmigration)." This is clearly seen in the Ratnagotravibhāga:
p. 28, l. 14f. ye nâpi saṃsāram icchanti yathêcchantikā ( "They are not seeking for the
Phenomenal Life as the Icchantikas do, ... ")
p. 29, l. 1f. tatra ye sattvā bhavâbhilāṣiṇa icchantikās tanniyatipatitā ihadhārmikā evôcyante
mithyātvaniyataḥ satttvarāśir iti ("And here, those people who cling to this worldly life,
i.e. the Icchantikas and those who, though belonging to this Our Religion, have
definitely fallen into the former's way are called the group of people who confirm in
the wrong way.")
p. 31, l. 8f. tatra mahāyānadharmapratihatānām icchantikānām aśucisamsārâbhirati-
viparyayeṇa bodhisattvānāṃ mahāyānadharmâdhimuktibhāvanāyāḥ śubhapāramitâdhigamaḥ
phalaṃ draṣṭavyam ("Here, being opposite to the taking of delight in the 'impure'
Phenomenal Life by the Icchantikas who have hatred against the Doctrine of Great
Vehicle, it should be understood that the acquisition of the Supreme Purity is the
result of 'Practice of the Faith in the Doctrine of Great Vehicle' by the Bodhisattvas.")
The shift in meanings of the word icchantika from "one who claims" to "one who desires (transmigration)," may indicate the actual disappearance of those, who had disapproved of the tathāgatagarbha theory, at least from the vicinity. It may further suggest that followers of the theory might have increased in number, making them much more self-confident of their theory; or that the theory itself might have come to be fully recognised as a genuine Mahāyāna teaching. (Karashima, "Who Were the Icchantikas?", 76–79)
- Author's notes have been omitted