Could there be an immoral buddha?

I have noticed that morality and Metta are very important for meditation and progress, to the point of necessity. However, within the suttas morality seems to be treated like a ladder; useful or necessary for attaining nibbana, but ultimately not directly related to it. This leads me to wonder, what would happen if a being were to find itself at certain points along the path and then committed an act of immorality (say, knowingly killing another being)?

What would happen to a Buddha or Pratyekabuddha upon committing such an action? Could there exist an immoral buddha, committing wrong actions but nonetheless totally without attachment? Why or why not?

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Could you define “immoral” ?


Could you define “immoral” ?

In short, anything with negative karmic consequences.

For example, could a being such as Mara or Angulimala attain liberation for himself only and then use his newfound freedom from karma to cause harm to others without fear of karmic consequences?

I would expect that you need to have some level of greed, hatred or delusion to act immorally.

Even just for ordinary people, if you have a very peaceful mind full of good will, the thought to harm someone does not appear, much less harmful speech or actions.


I think this question goes to the core of what it means to be a Buddha, i.e. what it means to be Awakened, i.e. what Awakening (also known as Enlightenment) means.

Different spiritual traditions have different takes on the concept of Awakening and I am not an expert on exactly where the word “bodhi” or the concept of Awakening comes from, wether it’s an originally Buddhist word and concept or wether it’s borrowed and reinterpreted from earlier traditions.

However, it seems quite clear to me that in Early Buddhism as taught in the Suttas, Awakening is synonymous with the “Knowledge and vision of freedom” AN 10.1, AKA “Knowledge and vision of ending” SN12.23, AKA “Knowledge of the destruction of the defilements” MN 51.

The destruction of the defilements comes through disillusionment and dispassion, which comes through true knowledge and vision, which comes through right samadhi, which comes through… ethics! (AN 5.24)

How are ethics fulfilled?
Through giving up greed, hate and delusion.
How are greed, hate and delusion given up?
Through the cultivation of the higher ethics, higher mind and higher wisdom (the Noble Eightfold Path):

“So, monk, you should train in these three trainings: the higher ethics, the higher mind, and the higher wisdom.
As you train in these, you will give up greed, hate, and delusion. Then you won’t do anything unskillful, or practice anything bad.” (AN 3.84)

How does one train in the higher ethics?
By keeping the precepts:

And what is the training in the higher ethics? It’s when a mendicant is ethical, restrained in the code of conduct, with good behavior and supporters. Seeing danger in the slightest fault, they keep the rules they’ve undertaken. This is called the training in the higher ethics. (AN 3.90)

Why should one keep the precepts?
Because acts born of greed, hate and delusion only give rise to more greed, hate and delusion (AN 6.39)

It is not possible to do an immoral act “without attachment”. I think in this case people confuse “without attachment” with “without remorse”, or “without guilt” or “without caring about the consequences”. That’s a different thing.
Immoral acts can only be done if there is greed, hate or delusion (AN 10.174), wether one is aware or not, destroying vital conditions for advancing on the path to Awakening.

For a Buddha (or an Arahant)

…bad unskillful qualities born of greed, hate, and delusion are cut off at the root, made like a palm stump, obliterated, and unable to arise in the future. (AN 3.69)

So, according to Early Buddhism, no, there cannot be an immoral Buddha (or Arahant).


…bad unskillful qualities born of greed, hate, and delusion are cut off at the root, made like a palm stump, obliterated, and unable to arise in the future. (AN 3.69)

I see. So the chain of causation leading to immoral actions ceases to exist in a Buddha.

Why, then, do Buddhas and Pratyekabuddhas behave so differently? Wouldn’t you expect all perfectly moral beings to behave the same way?


What do you mean?
Their ethical conduct is the same, it’s just that Paccekabuddhas are not able to teach others.

Their ethical conduct is the same, it’s just that Paccekabuddhas are not able to teach others.

I thought they were unable or unwilling. Siddhartha was originally unwilling and would have become a pratyekabuddha out of unwillingness had he not been requested to teach. SN 6.1

Yes, but I don’t think that makes a difference in terms of ethical conduct.
I don’t think being unwilling to teach is an immoral act, it’s just that they decide not to, because they think people will not understand them, or they themselves don’t know how to explain the teachings properly.

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This is directly addressed in the Suttas. MN115 establishes that a Sotapanna or higher cannot commit six bad acts (murdering your mother, father, an Arhant, causing a schism, drawing a buddhas blood, or following another religion) and there’s additional “impossible” statements for the higher attainments (e.g. Arhants cannot have sex). It is impossible for a Buddha to do any of those things.

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Sila is the initiator (sila> samadhi> panna) of the causal sequence which leads to samadhi, and then to insight. It is therefore the dynamic foundation of the path. Experience (as opposed to verbal discussion) of the path begins with investigating the causal relation between sila, samadhi, panna as the Buddha-to-be did in MN 19.

AN 11.1:

"I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was staying near Savatthi in Jeta’s Grove, Anathapindika’s monastery. Then Ven. Ananda went to the Blessed One and on arrival, having bowed down to him, sat to one side. As he was sitting there he said to the Blessed One: “What is the purpose of skillful virtues? What is their reward?”

“Skillful virtues have freedom from remorse as their purpose, Ananda, and freedom from remorse as their reward.”

“And what is the purpose of freedom from remorse? What is its reward?”

“Freedom from remorse has joy as its purpose, joy as its reward.”

“And what is the purpose of joy? What is its reward?”

“Joy has rapture as its purpose, rapture as its reward.”

“And what is the purpose of rapture? What is its reward?”

“Rapture has serenity as its purpose, serenity as its reward.”

“And what is the purpose of serenity? What is its reward?”

“Serenity has pleasure as its purpose, pleasure as its reward.”

“And what is the purpose of pleasure? What is its reward?”

“Pleasure has concentration as its purpose, concentration as its reward.”

“And what is the purpose of concentration? What is its reward?” etc. — Also AN 11.2

The seven factors of awakening embody this causal sequence.

Contemplation exercise:

Where are sila, samadhi, and panna in this:

"I foresaw in unskillful qualities drawbacks, degradation, & defilement, and I foresaw in skillful qualities rewards related to renunciation & promoting cleansing.

“And as I remained thus heedful, ardent, & resolute, thinking imbued with renunciation arose in me. I discerned that 'Thinking imbued with renunciation has arisen in me; and that leads neither to my own affliction, nor to the affliction of others, nor to the affliction of both. It fosters discernment, promotes lack of vexation, & leads to Unbinding.”—MN 19

Ho on earth can a person even think of such a statement? It is Morality, Concentration and Wisdom. In the Anuggahitha Sutta or Enabler Sutta this is clearly given,


Not even stream enterer can be immoral that’s the reason they can’t go to hell

It’s pretty much all over the Suttas, and there is a whole Samyutta dedicated to this, the Sotapatti Samyutta (SN 55), but to quote one or two individual suttas:

A noble disciple who has these four things is a stream-enterer, not liable to be reborn in the underworld, bound for awakening.” (SN 55.2)

And the underworld means any lower realms (ghost, animal and hells):

‘I’ve finished with rebirth in hell, the animal realm, and the ghost realm. I’ve finished with all places of loss, bad places, the underworld. I am a stream-enterer! I’m not liable to be reborn in the underworld, and am bound for awakening.’ (SN 55.7)

Both. Grasping leads to future rebirth in general, but exactly which realm of rebirth is determined by the moral/immoral actions one does.

As I understand it, that’s not totally true. A sotapanna can do bad deeds along with good deeds. The only confirmed case of this is Saranani, who drank alcohol, but since it’s only explicitly impossible for a sotapanna to do six things, it is theoretically possible that a sotapanna could do any other bad act, and suffer the consequences in a mixed realm (e.g a long life as a Naga being frequently subjected to attack by Garudas as consequence for their bad actions).

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