Buddhist philosophy, Chinese

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G002-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 12, 2024, from

3. Indian transplants: Madhyamaka and icchantikas

In the critical environment that followed Dao’an, two sets of events moved Chinese Buddhism in new directions. First, Kumārajīva, a Mahāyāna Buddhist from Kucha in Central Asia, was brought to Changan, the Chinese capital, in 401. Under the auspices of the ruler, he began translating numerous important works with the help of hundreds of assistants, including some of the brightest minds of his day. Some works, such as the Lotus Sutra, Vimalakīrti Sutra and Diamond Sutra, quickly became popular classics. He also introduced the emptiness philosophy of Nāgārjuna’s Madhyamaka thought (see Buddhism, Mādhyamika: India and Tibet; Nāgārjuna), which in China came to be called the Three Treatise School (Sanlun) after the three Madhyamaka texts he translated: the Madhyamaka-kārikās, the Twelve Gate Treatise and Āryadeva’s One Hundred Verse Treatise. In a series of famous letters exchanged with a disciple of Dao’an, Huiyuan (344–416), who had mastered most of the Buddhist theory and practice known in China up to that time, Kumārajīva attacked the shortcomings of the current Chinese Buddhist theories and argued persuasively for the preeminence of Madhyamaka in matters of both theory and practice. His leading disciple, Seng Zhao (384–414), further popularized Madhyamaka thought by packaging it in an exquisite adoption of the literary style of Laozi (see Daodejing) and Zhuangzi, both of whom were extremely popular amongst literati at that time. Sanlun thought continued to spread through the fifth through seventh centuries, greatly influencing other Buddhist schools. After Jizang (549–623), who attempted to synthesize Madhyamakan emptiness with the Buddha-nature and tathāgatagarbha thought gaining prominence at his time, the Sanlun school declined, its most important ideas absorbed by other schools.

Second, in 418 Faxian (the first Chinese monk successfully to return to China with scriptures from pilgrimage to India) and Buddhabhadra produced a partial translation of the Mahāyāna Nirvāṇa Sutra. One of the topics it discusses is the icchantika, incorrigible beings lacking the requisites for achieving enlightenment. Daosheng (c.360–434), a disciple of Huiyuan, convinced that all beings, including icchantikas, must possess Buddha-nature and hence are capable of enlightenment, insisted that the Nirvāṇa Sutra be understood in that light. Since that violated the obvious meaning of the text, Daosheng was unanimously rebuked, whereupon he left the capital in disgrace. In ad 421, a new translation by Dharmakṣema of the Nirvāṇa Sutra based on a Central Asian original appeared containing sections absent from the previous version. The twenty-third chapter of Dharmakṣema’s version contained passages declaring that Buddha-nature was indeed universal, and that even icchantikas possessed it and could thus reach the goal. Daosheng’s detractors in the capital were humbled, suddenly impressed at his prescience. The lesson was never forgotten, so that two centuries later, when Xuan Zang (600–64) translated Indian texts that once again declared that icchantikas lacked the requisite qualities to attain enlightenment, his school was attacked from all quarters as promoting a less than ‘Mahāyānic’ doctrine. However, it should be noted that there is no clear precedent or term in Indian Buddhism for ‘Buddha-nature’; the notion probably either arose in China through a certain degree of license taken by translators when rendering terms like buddhatva (‘Buddhahood’, an accomplishment, not a primordial ontological ground), or it developed from nascent forms of the theory possibly constructed in Central Asia. However, from this moment on, Buddha-nature become one of the foundational tenets of virtually all forms of East Asian Buddhism.

Citing this article:
Lusthaus, Dan. Indian transplants: Madhyamaka and icchantikas. Buddhist philosophy, Chinese, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G002-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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