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The notion of the icchantika (loosely rendered into English as "hedonist" or "dissipated") is the closest Buddhism comes to a notion of damnation or perdition. Icchantika refers to a class, or "lineage" (Sanskrit, gotra), of beings who are beyond all redemption and lose forever the capacity to achieve nirvĀṆa (Sanskrit, aparinirvāṇagotraka). The NirvĀṆa SŪtra defines the icchantika as one who "does not believe in the law of causality, has no feeling of shame, has no faith in the workings of karma, is unconcerned with the present or the future, never befriends good people, and does not follow the teachings of the Buddha." The term is often employed polemically in MahĀyĀna texts, as for example the LaṄkĀvatĀra-sŪtra (Discourse of the Descent into Lan˙ka), to refer to beings who are antagonistic toward the Mahāyāna canon. Their destiny is typically an eternity in the hells. Some bodhisattvaicchantikas intentionally choose this spiritual lineage because they "cherish certain vows for all beings since beginningless time" (sattvānādikalapraṇidhānata), and they wish to help all beings gain nirvāṇa.

The icchantika doctrine has long been controversial in Mahāyāna because it seems to contradict an axiom of many strands of Buddhism: the innate presence of the buddha-nature, or tathĀgatagarbha, in all sentient beings. The Chinese commentator Daosheng (ca. 360–434), for example, debunked the theory and even had the audacity to question the accuracy of passages in sūtra translations that mentioned the lamentable destiny of icchantikas. With the prominent exception of the Faxiang school, the Chinese branch of Yogācāra, East Asian Buddhists resoundingly rejected the icchantika doctrine in favor of the notion that all beings, even the denizens of hell, retained the capacity to attain enlightenment.

See also:Cosmology; Path


Buswell, Robert E., Jr. "The Path to Perdition: The Wholesome Roots and Their Eradication." In Paths to Liberation: The Mārga and Its Transformations in Buddhist Thought, ed. Robert E. Buswell, Jr. and Robert M. Gimello. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1992.

Suzuki Daisetz Teitaro. Studies in the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra (1930). London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972.

Robert E. Buswell, Jr.