Translating the Pali term icchā

Venerables Thannissaro and Sujato translate Iccha as desire.

The word Tanha, is also often translated as desire.

Thus some readers of English sutta translations might think Iccha and Tanha are the same. Are they synonymous?


What is your opinion on this ?

For the sake of informing the discussion, see below a direct copy and paste from PTS Pali English Dictionary as hosted in SuttaCentral:


wish, longing, desire
DN.ii.243; DN.iii.75; SN.i.40 (˚dhūpāyito loko), SN.i.44 (naraṃ parikassati) AN.ii.143; AN.iv.293 sq.; AN.iv.325 sq.; v.40, v.42 sq.; Snp.773 Snp.872; Dhp.74, Dhp.264 (˚lobha-samāpanna); Mnd.29, Mnd.30; Pp.19; Dhs.1059, Dhs.1136; Vb.101, Vb.357, Vb.361, Vb.370; Ne.18 Ne.23, Ne.24; Asl.363; Dhs-a.250 (read icchā for issā? See Dhs trsl.100); Snp-a.108; Pv-a.65, Pv-a.155; Sdhp.242, Sdhp.320.

-āvacara moving in desires MN.i.27 (pāpaka); Ne.27
-āvatiṇṇa affected with desire, overcome by covetousness Snp.306.
-pakata same Vin.i.97; AN.iii.119, AN.iii.191, AN.iii.219 sq. Pp.69; Mil.357; Vism.24 (where Bdhgh however takes it as “icchāya apakata” and puts apakata = upadduta)
-vinaya discipline of one’s wishes DN.iii.252, AN.iv.15 AN.v.165 sq.
fr. icchati, iṣ2

As a matter of curiosity, in Thai language this Pali term is used nowadays to denote jealousy.



“Idha, bhikkhave, bhikkhuno pavivittassa viharato nirāyattavuttino icchā uppajjati lābhāya.”

“First, when a mendicant stays secluded, living independently, a desire arises for material possessions.”

Ven. Sujato has used used the phrase ‘material possessions’ to translate’lābhāya’.

The Sutta mentions 8 types of Bhikkhus all having entered secluded spaces and dwell free from others, and within all a longing arises (icchā uppajjati) for a gain (lābhāya). The initial 4 types fall away from the teaching (cuto ca saddhammā) as they either get crest fallen and lament by not getting their wish or by being intoxicated after getting it. The latter 4 type are identical to the above with the exception that they do not get dejected or intoxicated and thus have not fallen away (accuto).

So does this mean that a monk can have desires for material possessions, work to achieving such desires, and stay within the saddhamma as long as s/he does not get dejected or elated by the end result?

Or can lābhāya also mean non-material gains? Like the gain for a jhana or phala?

This is how I understand the Pali
“Here, Bhikkhus, a Bhikkhu having entered seclusion dwelling free from others, a longing/a wish arises for a gain.”


Thank you. In Pali, issa means jealousy.

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Iccha , sineho , lobho , Anunaya , Kama-tanha , Bhava-tanha , Vibhava-tanha , ……………

They are neither the same nor are they different.
They are all manifestations of Tanha ( Tanha in the second NT).

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Pali is extremely rich in terms for “desire, wanting” and so on. Sometimes we can discern slight differences in their usage, but mostly they overlap. Icchā can often be translated as “wish”, but “desire” or “wanting” also work in many cases.


Yes agree, iccha is a manifestation of tanha .

Also, tanha by itself is not the 2nd NT, but rather, the origin of dukkha (dukkha samudaya) being tanha is the 2nd NT.

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Is there some common etymology between the words icchā and English itch? An itch provokes a strong desire to make it go away by scratching…


:slight_smile: The thought occurred here as well.
Iccha equivalent to an itch
Tanha equivalent to a thirst

And what are the fermentations to be abandoned by using? There is the case where a monk, reflecting appropriately, uses the robe simply to counteract cold, to counteract heat, to counteract the touch of flies, mosquitoes, wind, sun, & reptiles; simply for the purpose of covering the parts of the body that cause shame.

"Reflecting appropriately, he uses almsfood, not playfully, nor for intoxication, nor for putting on bulk, nor for beautification; but simply for the survival & continuance of this body, for ending its afflictions, for the support of the holy life, thinking, ‘Thus will I destroy old feelings [of hunger] and not create new feelings [from overeating]. I will maintain myself, be blameless, & live in comfort.’

"Reflecting appropriately, he uses lodging simply to counteract cold, to counteract heat, to counteract the touch of flies, mosquitoes, wind, sun, & reptiles; simply for protection from the inclemencies of weather and for the enjoyment of seclusion.

"Reflecting appropriately, he uses medicinal requisites that are used for curing the sick simply to counteract any pains of illness that have arisen and for maximum freedom from disease.

"The fermentations, vexation, or fever that would arise if he were not to use these things [in this way] do not arise for him when he uses them [in this way]. These are called the fermentations to be abandoned by using.


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I am afraid not. The English itch is cognate with the German jucken, which doesn’t look very similar to icchati, does it?

However, there is a cognate of icchati in English, and I am very glad you have asked about it, because it is the word ask. Both ask and icchati are ultimately derived from the Proto-Indo-European *h₂eysk- meaning something along the lines of ‘wish, request’ (cf. Russian iskat’ ‘seek, look for’).


Might one say that from nandī (delight) comes the impulse (icchā) to crave (tanha)?

In other words, is icchā more of a “pull of the moment” versus the constant pull of taṇhā?

Languages with multiple words for things typically express nuances that should be considered.
For example Eskimos have many words for snow and they each have specific meanings.
In the context of meditation and mindfulness, understanding these nuances will become important.

If you walk about in piqsirpoq (drifting snow), you will get lost and die.
If you walk about in qimuqsuqs (snowdrifts), you will find your way back home.

If icchā is the impulse, it is the new enemy, the dangerous unknown.
If taṇhā is the craving, it is the known enemy that we understand.

Hence the question.


Sure, and it doesn’t look very similar to “itch” either—that’s why I didn’t suspect the two words are closely related.

Interesting what you say about “ask”!


It is kind of interesting, but I would not make any philosophical or religious conclusions from this fact. Etymology can only help you out so much. E.g., the English word bad is likely to have been derived from bæddel ‘hermaphrodite’ (cf. with modern slang It is gay!), so what? Attaching any philosophical or religious significance to etymology given the vast historical and cultural distance between Pali and Modern English (or, for that matter, Pali and Modern Sinhala) would be a bit too much.

By the way, the German cognate of icchati would be heischen :grinning:


Are you a German speaker?

Heischen is not really much in use nowadays, only in some fixed expressions mostly. In Saarländisch, my own native dialect, we use it (or something similar) much more. It’s in the sense of asking someone to do something, or rather tell them to do something—a negative answer would rather not be expected. :grin:

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Well, not a native one, but I have been living in Berlin for five years now, and my German is on the C2 level, so I am a German speaker in some ways.


According to the sutta, Iccha is more than a momentary pull, but something longer lasting. Hence, there is logic to translate Iccha in the same terms of Tanha as desire.

Further according to the Iccha Sutta in SN 1.69 The Buddha says abandoning Iccha leads to freedom from bondage (of the 6 sense bases/5 aggregates).

icchāya bajjhati loko
icchāvinayāya muccati,
Icchāya vippahāṇena sabbaṃ chindati bandhanant

Thus Iccha is manifestation of Tanha, at a conscious level, with the object of Tanha also known.

Tanha on the other hand can be latent (anusaya).


Without too much reflection on the issue, I would have to say that my usage of the term tanha has been reserved for a more fundamental, almost constitutive, “craving,” as opposed to iccha, which I have usually taken to mean desires in the more or less casual sense, e.g., “I want some ice cream.” That’s a start for now.


Ah! Thank you for pointing out SN1.69–it was further on down my search list and I missed it.

I’ve poked around a bit more and found that “icchā” is used 25 times in one sutta, MN5 Unblemished. That is a lot of times. Moreover, the use is repetitive, almost definitional.

It’s possible that some mendicant might wish:
Ṭhānaṃ kho panetaṃ, āvuso, vijjati yaṃ idhekaccassa bhikkhuno evaṃ icchā uppajjeyya:

Icchā is Mara whispering new gentle, “innocent” thoughts into our ears. The seductive unattained. I wish for what I imagine but have not yet tasted. Craving is the desire to repeat an experienced delight. Icchā is so perilous because it is a new imagined, unexperienced, inferred delight. Nandi applies to both because, they are both delights, one is imagined, one has been experienced.

To test this hypothesis, let’s take a look at the opposite, anicchā. And here we have monks free from wishes, come what may, accepting all as is, seeking alms (–SN2.25):

Desireless they sought alms;
Anicchā piṇḍamesanā,

Icchā. Wish. Also for an imagined, unexperienced or novel delight.

The distinction is important because we live in the Age of Icchā. We live in the Age of Wishing Come True (i.e., “if a householder should wish…”). All that new technology arises out of Icchā, wishing. All these new wonders ease some suffering, but they also lead to more craving (just how many iPhones do we really need?). In fact, most of our modern jobs revolve around the pursuit of Icchā and monetization of the resulting craving for what is new. We are tired of our old cravings and abandon them gladly for new.