What does Buddhism say about polyamory? By polyamory I mean a consensual romantic relationship that involves more than two adult people, which may or may not involve sexual contact.

Is it wholesome, unwholesome or neutral? Is it any different than a romantic relationship between two people? Do different branches or traditions have different views on this subject?

  • 7
    Re: do different traditions have different views. I think you'd need to be careful there not to conflate Buddhism with the culture where it's practiced.
    – user698
    Nov 1, 2015 at 12:49
  • Here's a video related to the topic (haven't watched it yet): youtube.com/watch?v=U5KR9elWFqM
    – michau
    Dec 9, 2015 at 12:12

8 Answers 8


What does Buddhism say about polyamory?

Buddhism is not conserned with the title of the romantic relationship or the sexual orientation of the partners in it.

Buddhism goes much deeper than that, it looks instead at the defilements that are connected with romantic relationships, e.g. "lust, craving, desire, jealousy, hatred etc."

Is it any different than a romantic relationship between two people?

It is not. The above mentioned defilements, are the same no matter what kind of romantic relationship we are talking about.

Is it wholesome, unwholesome or neutral?

According to the Abhidhamma, there are 52 mental factors (cetasikas). 14 of these are unwholesome mental factors, among those are "hatred, jealousy, avarice, craving". They are of course also part of the 3 root defilements, i.e. greed, hatred and delusion.

If one or more of these mental factors are present, it becomes unwholesome.

Do different branches or traditions have different views on this subject?

Good question. I do not have an answer to that. I would think that it's the same opinion, since we are dealing with the root defilements. I might be wrong about this though.

  • 3
    +1 As for the last question, I'm pretty sure it's considered normal in Tibetan Buddhism (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polyandry_in_Tibet), but I wouldn't be surprised if it was problematic e.g. to some Theravada teachers. But I don't know.
    – michau
    Nov 1, 2015 at 12:53
  • I really like your answer (+1), but I'm curious about your tradition, especially while your addressed the question about traditions.
    – Oliver
    Nov 2, 2015 at 7:05
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    @Oliver. Thank you. I follow the theravada-tradition and within that, the burmese method by Ven. Mahasi Sayadaw.
    – user2424
    Nov 2, 2015 at 14:54

As far as the core of Buddhism is concerned, anything that causes craving is to be abandoned, if your ultimate goal is Enlightment or becoming an Arhat.

There maybe some lenient rule regarding this in different forms of Buddhism, but those are just for the lay followers, someone who just follows Buddhism without any stringent aim..

So it depends upon what you want to become and to what extent you want to follow Buddhism.

You can always find excuses like this in atleast any one form of Buddhism. Making excuses just makes you a lay follower. It doesn't lead to cessation of suffering or give knowledge.

If you think my answer is irrelevant, you are free to downvote :)

  • 1
    Does polyamory "cause craving"?
    – ChrisW
    Nov 1, 2015 at 15:38
  • I don't like the notion in this answer to separate "lay"-people from sincere Buddhist (monks). It would be easy to argue (at least in some traditions), that the craving to become an Arhat is a craving, too. To say, the desire is wholesome, because the goal is Arhatship is an excuse, as well. And unintended compassionate love for one or more women could be easily considered wholesome.
    – Oliver
    Nov 2, 2015 at 7:03
  • @ChrisW Yes, that's a form of attachment, and you don't attach to anything in this material world unless you crave for it, or want it. 'Wanting' is more or less 'Craving'.
    – Gokul NC
    Nov 2, 2015 at 10:15
  • @Oliver Yes I accept, but an Arhat is far more better and has greater insight than lay followers. There's a separate book in Buddhism which is for lay followers (I don't remember its name because I've never read it). By lay followers, I just mean the commoners. As far as I know, we too are just lay-followers, even if you don't accept. The only excuse that an Arhat makes is clinging to this world and is unable to drop his five-aggregates eventhough he knows it's not the Truth. That's how I've read & understood it :)
    – Gokul NC
    Nov 2, 2015 at 10:25
  • 1
    I think I've read a proponent of polyamory claim that there's less attachment (and less jealousy) than in a one-on-one relationship.
    – ChrisW
    Nov 4, 2015 at 12:36

Ignoring cultural beliefs and traditions and thinking in terms of pure Buddhism, it can be a sin and at the same time can not be a sin.

Polyamory is not a sin if both your partners knows what is exactly happening and both of them know that you are in a polyamory. Hence if either of the partners do not like it, they have a choice to leave. You have been honest.

If you mention to both of your partners that you are monogamous yet you continue the polygamous relationship, then you are deceiving both of your partners ( because each of them thinks they are the only one you have). This is a sin. Assuming one day both of them find out that you did, then you have caused pain and anger to both of your partners, that is also a sin.

Take a look at the 5 precepts:

  • harming living things.
  • taking what is not given.
  • sexual misconduct.
  • lying or gossip.
  • taking intoxicating substances eg drugs or drink.

The third precept says to refrain from sexual misconduct. So assuming your partners are aware of the polygamous nature in your relationship but if one or all of them happened to be spouses of another individual (or happened to be in a relationship), then you are violating the 3rd of the 5 precepts as you have caused adultery.

You would immediately ask me why? Well it is because, although you wont hurt your partners, the other partners of your partners does not know it. They are deceived. Therefore that is a sin. It is true that your partners made that choice of getting into the polygamous relationship with you ignoring their spouses or boyfriend/girlfriend. In this scenario, your partners will commit a sin for deceiving their spouse or the person with the relationship, and you will face the karma of committing adultery because you knew they were married/engaged/in a relationship.

  • 1
    Are you sure "sin" is a proper word to use in the context of Buddhism?
    – michau
    Jul 2, 2016 at 9:50
  • Michau, it is not. But i used it as a term to symbolize the karma which a happy seeking being would not like to experience.
    – JGCW
    Jul 3, 2016 at 7:31
  • why not include infidelity under lying, if that's all that it amounts to?
    – user2512
    Mar 23, 2019 at 22:00

So far as I know, "Buddhism" has no views on sexual norms. The Pali Canon mentions different types of gender, but seems to be non-judgemental about different kinds of marriage. In traditional Tibet, for example, a woman might marry two brothers. Logically, all varieties of sexuality must ultimately be abandoned, but the Buddha had important married householder followers, some of whom even attained arhantship.

One might assume that the Buddha would counsel married householders to respect each other and practice restraint, but this does not imply a preference for one sort of "arrangement" over another. The Pali Canon seems to suggest that wrongful sexuality or sexual misconduct (the third precept) implies adultery. "Sexual misconduct" and "wrong behaviours" are referred to, but not defined.

  • Household followers never attained arahatship...please correct. Jul 1, 2016 at 15:10
  • You are mistaken.
    – user4970
    Jul 1, 2016 at 22:29
  • please give example Jul 3, 2016 at 17:05
  • "The Anguttara Nikaya (AN 6.119 and AN 6.120)[22] identifies 19 householders (gahapati)[23] who have "attained perfection" or, according to an alternate translation, "attained to certainty" (niṭṭhamgata) and "seen deathlessness, seen deathlessness with their own eyes" (amataddaso, amataṃ sacchikata).[24]." (Wikipedia, Householder [Buddhism]). I will see what else I can find. Apparently this point is disputed but is widely cited.
    – user4970
    Jul 3, 2016 at 21:06
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    Another thing to consider is that not all of the early schools (Im not talking about the Mahayana here) think of arhantship as the highest attainment. Quite a few of the early schools held this view (I summarize them in my book, Conversations with the Buddha). Its really just an accident of history that we think of arhantship as the highest state, because this was the view of the Theravadins, who are the only early school to have survived, and they held this view. So we think that Theravada = original Buddhism. But this is not accurate.
    – user4970
    Jul 14, 2016 at 13:47

The five precepts, which include sexual misconduct, are often said to be open to interpretation. If an open relationship works for everyone concerned, then I'd say it's likely no different from a homosexual one.

But, I don't think that as long as one does not deceive anyone then you're fine. Take e.g. this in Sexuality in Classical South Asian Buddhism, p521

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I've not read the book, but would guess that simply being up-front would not be enough: that if one of the parties would prefer a monogamous relationship then it's a form of misconduct.

You are violating the wishes and so commitment of your partner if they don't have a reasonable say in who else you are sexually involved with. It's not really a complex issue, ethically, only inter-subjectively.

  • I think that means that it's immoral to have an "open relationship" with someone whose husband or wife doesn't approve.
    – ChrisW
    Mar 23, 2019 at 22:17
  • yes, i agree it means that. but, even if we don't care about the other people in the relationship, their preferences etc., i would say that you are "violating" the relationship you have with them if they themselves don't approve @ChrisW
    – user2512
    Mar 23, 2019 at 22:34

When the Buddha was going to die and Ananda asked him 3 questions, one was "Who will be our teacher when you are gone?" The Buddha answered "The precepts will be yr guide" That is to say, the moral code. Avoiding killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and taking intoxicants. A "poly" lifestyle would be considered sexual misconduct and will ultimately lead to a lower rebirth. See the Shurangama Sutra for more details.

  • But why would it be considered sexual misconduct if the relationships are consensual and loving, e.g. just like a non-married partnership?
    – Tom Hale
    Nov 4, 2019 at 8:37

All "Poly" - ism's for example, polygamy and polyamory etc are attempts at dodging a major flaw with existence.

The attraction eventually fades away leaving you to deal with the consequences afterwards. i.e. You are unable to maintain the gratification the way you wish. The result is sadness. The Buddha called this the Anicca nature of things.

So in essence its a trap. It is a carrot that is dangled to keep you engaged in a revolving rat wheel called Sansara. This is an act of futility.

  • The same argument could be made for monogamy.
    – Tom Hale
    Nov 5, 2019 at 5:50

Access to Insight has an article titled A Happy Married Life: A Buddhist Perspective by Ven. K. Sri Dhammananda.

It's fairly detailed about many topics, but here's quoting one subsection from that:

Polygamy or Monogamy

To the question of whether Buddhists can keep more than one wife, the direct answer is not available in the Buddha's teaching, because as mentioned earlier, the Buddha did not lay down any religious laws with regard to married life although he has given valuable advice on how to lead a respectable married life.

Tradition, culture and the way of life as recognized by the majority of a particular country must also be considered when we practice certain things pertaining to our lives. Some religions say that a man can have only one wife whilst others say a man can have more than one wife.

Although the Buddha did not mention anything regarding the number of wives a man could have, he explicitly mentioned in His discourses that should a married man go to another woman out of wedlock, that could become the cause of his own downfall and he would have to face numerous other problems and disturbances.

The Buddha's way of teaching is just to explain the situation and the consequences. People can think for themselves as to why certain things are good and certain things are bad. The Buddha did not lay down rules about how many wives a man should or should not have which people are forced to follow. However, if the laws of a country stipulate that marriages must be monogamous, then such laws must be complied with, because the Buddha was explicit about His followers respecting the laws of a country, if those laws were beneficial to all.

I'm not sure what you mean by "romantic relationship". Maybe the Samajivina Sutta (AN 4.55) is an example:

As they were sitting there, Nakula's father said to the Blessed One: "Lord, ever since Nakula's mother as a young girl was brought to me [to be my wife] when I was just a young boy, I am not conscious of being unfaithful to her even in mind, much less in body. We want to see one another not only in the present life but also in the life to come."

And Nakula's mother said to the Blessed One: "Lord, ever since I as a young girl was brought to Nakula's father [to be his wife] when he was just a young boy, I am not conscious of being unfaithful to him even in mind, much less in body. We want to see one another not only in the present life but also in the life to come."

[The Blessed One said:] "If both husband & wife want to see one another not only in the present life but also in the life to come, they should be in tune [with each other] in conviction, in tune in virtue, in tune in generosity, and in tune in discernment.

I don't know but Polyandry in Tibet suggests that polyandrous marriage was practiced for socio-economic reasons (e.g. to avoid dividing inherited land among several separate families). I don't know whether that counts as "romantic".

I thought that maybe "romantic love" was a modern invention (and that traditional relationships had practical motives), but Wikipedia doesn't confirm or deny that theory. It does say,

... states that romantic love introduced the idea of a narrative to an individual's life, and telling a story is a root meaning of the term romance. According to Giddens, the rise of romantic love more or less coincided with the emergence of the novel. It was then that romantic love, associated with freedom and therefore the ideals of romantic love, created the ties between freedom and self-realization.

A "narrative" is, I'd guess, a "self-view" according to Buddhism.

I don't know much about polyamory. One little thing I read once, maybe not on-topic here, was that the Islamic Koran says something like, that polygamous marriage is OK as long as the husband treats all his wives equally -- and that some people interpret that as a prohibition because such equality is impossible in practice.

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