Looking for a reference (Jataka tale? Mahayana?) re: Buddha and sex

Hello friends,
I recall hearing a story of the Buddha (or more likely the Buddha-to-be in a prior life), having sex with a woman to save her life because she was threatening suicide. I cannot figure out if this is a Jataka tale (and which one?) or if it something from a Mahayana canon, in which case I need to go digging elsewhere.
Thank you in advance for any tips!

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Along similar lines, there is a story in a boat with a dangerous pirate, where the Bodhisattva “takes the karmic hit” and kills him, as he is about to kill some 500 people. Sound familiar?

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Sounds familar. I want to say it’s from a Tibetan tradition or text… But not sure.

Good luck!

EDIT: Found link here. Bottom comment explains source.


Definitely not in the Pali Jatakas, and (unlike the pirate one) I haven’t heard of this before. In the 2500 years of Buddhism, tho, pretty much anything’s possible!

Do let us know if you find it.


Yes, it is a Jataka. A devout layman learned of a woman who was pining for him and threatening that she may die if he doesn’t have sex with her. He went to her out of compassion. But then the woman felt ashamed and insulted him harshly, lest he think badly of her; so he left. Then he received word that she still longed for him.

He told the Buddha. The Buddha comforted the disciple by saying that the same thing had happened to him - in a lifetime when he was a thoroughbred horse. The Bodhisatta went to the mare (or donkey?) who had sent word that she was pining for him and may die if he doesn’t come to her, but at the last moment she felt ashamed and kicked him. He left, and refused to return though she again pined for him.

(Edited formatting)


(Note that it wasn’t about a threat of suicide but pining away due to longing, and the moral of the story seems to be that misplaced compassion to such a request doesn’t end well; @sujato didn’t think of it b/c he was assuming a human Bodhisatta not a horse)


Dear Ven Sudhamma, @Charlotteannun,
Thank you so much! This is fascinating. And I appreciate the correction to what was indeed a vague memory on my part. Do you happen to know the Jataka reference? I am not even sure where to look up Jatakas on-line, or if there is such a collection, let alone translated. My Pali still quite rudimentary.
In gratitude,


Thank you @JimInBC this did help me track it down!

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Dear Ven Sujato, @sujato,

I did in fact end up finding reference to the pirate story in the Upāyakauśalyasūtra (Mahayana) and then @Charlotteannun kindly found the other one from the Jatakas.

from Robert E. Jr. Buswell, and Donald S. Jr. Lopez, ed., The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism (Princeton University Press, 2013).

“In Sanskrit, “Skillful Means Sūtra,” an early Mahāyāna sūtra included in the Ratnakūṭasūtra collection, where it is also known as the Jñānottarabodhisattvaparipṛcchā. (In addition to the recension embedded in the 410 ce Chinese translation of the Ratnakūṭa, as transcribed above, there are also two other Chinese translations, one made in 285 ce, the other c. 980.) The first part of the sūtra extols the virtues of the practice of “skillful means” (upāyakauśalya), generally understood in this context to refer to the dedication of the merit from a virtuous deed, such as offerings made for the welfare and ultimate enlightenment of all beings. The sūtra goes on to explain how apparently nonvirtuous acts, such as sexual misconduct, become virtues when performed by a bodhisattva with skillful means, noting, “Something that sends other sentient beings to hell sends the bodhisattva who is skilled in means to rebirth in the world of Brahmā.” Also recounted is the famous story of the Buddha’s previous life as a ship captain, when he kills a potential murderer in order to save others’ lives. In the second part of the sūtra, the Buddha recounts the events of his life (see baxiang), from his entry into his mother’s womb to his decision to teach the dharma as instances of his skillful means; none of these events are presented as the consequences of his own past nonvirtuous actions or indeed of any fault whatsoever on his part. For example, after his enlightenment, the Buddha has no hesitation to teach the dharma; nonetheless, he compels the god Brahmā to descend from his heaven to implore the Buddha to teach. He forces this act so that beings who worship Brahmā will have faith in the Buddha and so that the myriad forms of the god Brahmā will generate bodhicitta. The sūtra concludes with a discussion of ten cases in the life of the Buddha in which he apparently undergoes suffering (such as a headache, backache, and being pierced by a thorn) that had previously been ascribed to his nonvirtuous deeds in a past life; in each case, these are instead explained as being examples of the Buddha’s skillful means.”

Found it; searched in the Jatakas on SuttaCentral.

Ja 266


Oh well, I stand corrected, thanks so much!

There’s a lot to parse out in this story! The message is, well, kind of a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation. It’s doubtless true, if the donkey had yielded to the thoroughbred too eagerly, she would have seemed too easy. But then, there’s a difference between being playing hard-to-get and, well, half-killing your suitor!

The translation omits the donkey’s name in the first instance, and in the final verse has Kundali; but the text at has Bhaddalī, as does our Mahasangiti edition.

I wonder, there seems to be a connection between this tale and the asvamedha. The bodhisattva is identified as a royal horse, and rather unusually is said to be the “auspicious stallion” (maṅgalaasso). He is being led down to the Ganges for bathing, a standard spot for ceremonies; the horse in the asvamedha is ritually bathed. Then he is released by the grooms, just as the horse in the horse sacrifice is released to wander the lands. This is no coincidence, for his name means “swift as the wind”. He engages in a bawdy encounter, just as happens at the end of the horse-sacrifice.

He barely escapes with his life; the horse in the horse sacrifice is not so lucky, obviously. This may be an instance of the substitute sacrifice, where a previously deadly ceremony is eased for more compassionate times. Abraham’s sacrifice of his son is an example familiar from the Bible, but there are many examples in the Jatakas.

The violence is found only in the commentarial prose; the verse merely says she ran away. Perhaps the sacrificial aspect was grafted on later, which would explain why she acts so strangely violent. Or of course it could just be dramatic license.

If this reading is correct—and a closer comparison with the horse sacrifice would be needed to establish this—then it reads as a Buddhist parable against the brahmins, showing how foolish, sexualized, and violent their ceremonies are. This would then make sense of the bodhisattvas’s behavior. To participate in the “ceremony” is for him natural and expected. But with the arising of a moral sense (he feels shame afterwards) he rejects the cruel and erotic act of the sacrifice.


There is a book, translated from Pali and Singhalese by Stephan Levitt, called The Buddha’s Misdeeds in his Former Human Lives, very interesting book, hope it will help you in your reference, I’ll leave the link below.

Stephan Hillyer Levitt - Explanations of Misfortune in the Buddha’s Life_ The Buddha’s Misdeeds in his Former Human Lives and Their Remnants-Buddhist Literature Society, Inc. (2009).pdf (3.7 MB)


Wow! Fascinating interpretation @sujato, and I appreciate how you drew that out more specifically from the text. I am really grateful for your reflexions, all the more that I am studying the broader cultural context of the Pali Canon for the first time in a real way.

And thank you @Charlotteannun for finding the text!! Bingo! And @UttamaSanti - fascinating book, I am having a look now. So grateful to you for sharing.

I often wonder where / how I might do more serious study of the Jataka tales.

Anyway, I am very touched by the generosity and resourcefulness of this community. What a special place.

In deep gratitude,


Recently this link was mentioned in another topic, a (research) database specifically for the Jatakas: