The Criminal Yoga of Gotama

The Buddha Gotama was often accused of criminality, of Adharma. He was a self-described outcaste, devoid of Dharma - and at the same time, the self-described embodiment of Dharma.  What was the Criminal Yoga of Gotama?

Gotama said, a person should not engage in five types of business.

  • Business in weapons, or any business of fear
  • Business in human beings, such as slavery, prostitution, or any business that prevents beings from right action, from seeking freedom from suffering
  • Business in slaughter, killing, in meat, or any business that causes harm to beings, or their suffering
  • Business in intoxicants and intoxication - physical, mental, emotional or spiritual - which would result in ignorance of right action, ignorance of loving friendship
  • Business in poisons and poisoning of body, mind and heart, or any business that results in or relies upon such hatred

- Anguttara Nikaya 5.177

Right livelihood is not just what type of work we do, but also how we do our work. Though an intoxicant used to alleviate suffering from surgery or disease and promote healing is a medicine, the pharmacist is as much a “criminal” as the drug dealer. And both require the same Yoga. In the same way, any profession or work that relies on weapons is criminal: whether the profession is that of a soldier, or a robber. Whether those weapons are used for aggression or defense. As is any occupation which provides pleasure, or binds someone – even to the terms of a loan. The comedian is a criminal, as much as the prostitute. The medic, the rescuer, the law enforcer, the lawyer, the banker, and, of course, also the felon – all are criminals.


“Adharma,” “Wrong” implies “Dharma,” “not right” in the same way that “Left” implies “not Right.” Left is merely a different direction, and is not necessarily better or worse. Traditional Yoga will not work for either the Pharmacist or the Drug Dealer. They both share too much in common: they require Criminal Yoga.

Some work may not seem conducive toward our goals of Kama, Artha and Dharma, toward loving friendship which is “the whole of holy life,” but by a system of Criminal Yoga may become so. A criminal is an outcaste, an outcast, for they have neglected their duties, their nature, their Dharma. Yet a person may be restored their caste.

Gotama said (Sutta Nipata 1.7, etc.) that it was not by birth that one is a Brahman, by self-control alone one becomes a Brahman. By lack of self-control one becomes a criminal. Caste, society, is not given by birth. Nor are the duties of that society. A true outcast, a true outcaste, a true criminal has no good society, no good friends - for they are not a good friend, nor good to associate with. They have both rejected their duty, and been turned away by those who would perform their duty.

The monk Sunita said (Theragatha 12.2) "My teacher taught me it is not by birth that one is a high caste, a supreme man, a Brahman, praised by Indra and Brahma. Through self-control and righteousness one becomes a better man." The monk Sunita said, "I was born in a low caste, an outcaste. I was born poor, with next to no food. My work was degrading, I gathered whatever was spoiled. I gathered the withered flowers from the shrines and threw them away. People found me disgusting, despised me, disparaged me. I prostrated myself to show reverence to everyone, and even came to lower my heart. But then one day, I saw the Buddha Gotama, arrayed with a squadron of monks, the great victorious hero, entering the city of the Magadhans. I threw down my carrying pole and hurried to show him my reverence. I prostrated myself to him. And he – the good man that he was – stood still out of sympathy – just for me! Since he stood still for me, I rose, and stood before him. He then said, “come, monk!” And I then walked with my teacher. Later, alone, I meditated in the wilds, untiring, following his instructions just as he taught me. And then I conquered, just as he, the Conqueror, had once conquered! Like him, it was in the first watch of the night that I remembered all my previous existences, in the middle watch, I was purified. And as the last watch ended, I burst through the mass of darkness like the sun! And as I rose with the sun and went to visit my teacher, Indra and Brahma – whose wilted flowers I had once thrown away – came and knelt before me, praising me for my victory. And since I stood still for them, they stood before me, and then walked with me! Arrayed with a squadron of devas, I returned to my teacher, who, seeing me victorious, smiled when he saw me."

By self-control and righteousness one becomes a Brahman. Yet there are other castes than this. Is this all which is required – for all castes?

The Vedas describe there was a time when people once worshiped the sun, understanding it was the sustenance of their existence. But in the darkness of the world, deprived of their sustenance, those beings who were inclined toward rightness embraced the ritual sacrifices, those inclined toward wrongness rejected the ritual sacrifices, those inclined both to right and wrong undertook the sacrifices with doubt, and those inclined neither to right nor wrong gave cause, action to the sacrifices.

As a new day arose, a new age arose, the nature of humanity evolved. Those inclined toward rightness developed goodness; those inclined toward wrongness developed wickedness; those inclined both to right and wrong developed courage; those inclined neither toward right nor wrong developed a true humanity, and a nature independent of Brahma, maturing into a new being. As the day rose, Brahma observed, and then described the Dharma of people, understanding that duty had evolved.

But as the ages past, these beings strove with each other, and in fighting, caused each other harm, conquering and occupying other worlds which neither belonged to them, nor where they belonged. Everyone wanted to be a Brahman, everyone wanted to be in heaven.

There was great distress; the worlds themselves grew blurred in difference and distinction. At the time when Vishnu was called upon to restore society, to restore the worlds, there was but one Caste, one Dharma, one Duty. Manifesting as the Buddha Gotama, he taught the means to ending the distress of this singularity of Dharma was to either find our own world, or come to belong in the world we now occupy.

Gotama taught the means by which to end our distress lies in working with others, as it encourages specialization, and the identification of duty. Friendship inspires duty, Dharma. It lies in truth, and patience. The lawbreaker is as important as the lawmaker, every caste, every occupation (even the criminal) has a role to play – they are all essential, otherwise they would not so naturally appear.

The gods neither require nor deserve our fealty nor our worship. Neither does any other being. There is nothing enviable in heaven, nor in hell. For one who truly understands, there is nothing enviable in any world.

As a person might change their clothes in the morning, or in the afternoon, or the evening to suit the needs of the place or occasion - so may anyone attain the comfort they require by strength of mind, heart and body in their present loka – relieved of distress, they may do what is necessary to do. As a person might navigate at night with firelight and starlight, they may find their way to where they need to be. Self-controlled, they no longer respond to instinct, but reason and come to understand that the means to ending their distress, of ending the blurring of the Castes, requires both Dharma and Adharma, the willingness to accept we have all become casteless. There is no difference between the one who lays flowers upon the shrine, and the one who removes the flowers after they have wilted into trash.

Throw down your burdens, and meditate upon the cause, the nature, the ending and the way to the ending of distress. Follow the instructions of the Buddha Gotama: then conquer, just as he, the Conqueror, had once conquered! Like him, remember all your previous existences, and then purify yourself. Liberate the Castes, that they may be free to perform their duty, that the world may at last know peace.