2 ‘Icchantika’ – Incorrigible Disbelievers
The idea of Buddha-nature is indeed wonderful, but there is one problem with it: there are still people in this world who do not seem to be able to achieve spiritual awakening no matter how hard they try.
The reality is that we sometimes meet people who do not seem to have a Buddha-nature. For example, there are those who persecute authentic religions and interfere with their activities. Do these people have a Buddha-nature too? Can they be considered potential Tathagatas? There are also people who cannot understand the teachings at all, although they listen. Then, there are others who have absolutely no interest in religion. These people exist in every age, a fact that has long been a great problem for Buddhists.
Buddhist scholars feared that the idea of Buddha-nature could be interpreted to mean that even those who criticized the teachings of Buddhism, or persecuted believers, even criminals and villains, ought to be considered equal to everyone else. To solve this problem they stated that although everyone had a Buddha-nature within and possessed the potential for buddhahood, there were some whose original good nature was completely destroyed, and who had no belief at all in God or Buddha. They called these people ‘icchantika’ in Sanskrit, which literally means a person who can never become awakened.
We sometimes see people who cause us to feel it is almost impossible to do anything to awaken them to the Truth. So although the Nirvana Sutra claimed that everyone has a Buddha-nature, the Buddhist scholars said there are exceptions to the rule, the exception being icchantika.
Historically, the word icchantika was used to refer to those who criticized Mahayana Buddhism. To those who criticized them, Buddhists said, ‘Although we say that you too have Buddha-nature, you do not understand. Criticizing such a great teaching is out of the question. There is no hope for you.’ They regarded these people as having no chance of attaining enlightenment.