Celibacy and enlightenment: what does the EBT say?

I have often read that an Arahant could not be married according to the Theravādins, and that therefore if one reached this level of enlightenment by being married he would very quickly leave his wife to become a monk, having no sexual desires at all and having abandoned the attachments of romantic love. Even the non-returners can stay in their homes but no longer romantically love their wives, no longer have sexual relations.

Among the Mahāyānins, it would seem that a householder could achieve complete enlightenment while remaining married to his wife and continuing to love her romantically.

Does the EBT speak of this subject somewhere, or are these later traditional interpretations? What does the Pali Canon say? What does the Chinese Canon say?

I am very interested to know if the āgamas talk about this subject and if so, do they say the same thing as the nikāyas?

The Dhammapada also seems to consider romantic love as a hindrance that will have to be abandoned in fine:

Therefore do not hold anything as loved, for losing those who are loved is loathsome.
There are no knots for those who hold nothing as loved or as unloved.

From love there arises grief, from love there arises fear,
for one who is free from love there is no grief, how is there fear?


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A couple of suttas that immediately come to mind:

Mahānāma, there is a quality that remains in you that makes you have such thoughts. For if you had given up that quality you would not still be living at home and enjoying sensual pleasures. But because you haven’t given up that quality you are still living at home and enjoying sensual pleasures. -MN 14

A mendicant who is perfected—with defilements ended, who has completed the spiritual journey, done what had to be done, laid down the burden, achieved their own true goal, utterly ended the fetters of rebirth, and is rightly freed through enlightenment—can’t transgress in nine respects. A mendicant with defilements ended can’t deliberately take the life of a living creature, take something with the intention to steal, have sex, tell a deliberate lie, or store up goods for their own enjoyment like they did as a lay person. And they can’t make decisions prejudiced by favoritism, hostility, stupidity, or cowardice. A mendicant who is perfected can’t transgress in these nine respects. -DN 29

I’ve said that sensual pleasures give little gratification and much suffering and distress, and they are all the more full of drawbacks. But still this Ariṭṭha misrepresents me by his wrong grasp, harms himself, and makes much bad karma. This will be for his lasting harm and suffering. Truly, mendicants, it’s not possible to perform sensual acts without sensual pleasures, sensual perceptions, and sensual thoughts. -MN 22


I suggest you tag @cdpatton to help with this.


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I’ve never set out to investigate the issue closely, but I wouldn’t expect the positions to be much different in Chinese sources. The Agamas and EBTs will say you need to practice the religious life, which involves celibacy, to become an arhat. You can be a bodhisattva living at home and be married because a bodhisattva remains defiled in order to avoid attaining Nirvana and continue being reborn. But when it’s time to achieve full awakening, you’ll recreate the template drama of the Buddha, leaving home to be a recluse. Later Mahayana and Vajrayana teachings may vary from that, I personally don’t have the expertise to say.

In East Asia, especially Japan I think, it became a common practice for Buddhist priests in some traditions to live as laypeople with wives. This was a cultural issue more than a doctrinal one, I believe. Whether or not they claim to fully enlightened, I don’t know.


To understand the Theravada approach to morality it is necessary to accept its broad functional interrelation with concentration and insight where it forms the foundation for successful meditation as the threefold sila, samadhi and panna. Therefore a practitioner having experienced the positive results of sense restraint would go on to celibacy as a matter of choice, not as directed by any rule. The progression of practice however is formally codified for didactic purposes under the Gradual Training in several suttas including DN 2.

Comparison of Gradual Training with other sources, see The Path p 65:


There are several prior topics on this subject that would be worth a look, and that contain many EBT links

And here is a personal response I wrote in one of them :slight_smile: