Is it possible for i.e. an Arhat to become unenlightened after he reached the state of Nirvana?

What if an enlightened being gets a severe brain injury by some cause leaving him with amnesia. Could it affect one's enlightenment in any way?

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    The thought must have occurred to early thinkers because they have a special category for people who have achieved "non-retrogression," i.e. people who are so accomplished on the path that they will not backslide and are permanently enlightened. Commented Aug 30, 2014 at 14:43
  • getting amnesia while enlightened would be an interesting occurance. if i were to speculate, that person not being an Arahant but enlightened, they may begin through curiosity to head towards indulgence. Though at first, from what ive heard would be exactly the same, so perhaps all previous notions of how they became that way would create the conditions to become a pacceka buddha. It is however highly speculative. But now i wonder, an Arahant would be most likely to become a pacceka buddha if it worked like that. But again its all speculation.
    – A Nonimous
    Commented Aug 30, 2014 at 18:50
  • @ANonimous: A Pacceka Buddha attains enlightenment by himself. So an Arahanth who can't remember the past cannot become a Pacceka Buddha. Besides, amnesia has no connection with Pacceka Buddhahood. Commented Aug 30, 2014 at 21:47
  • so if he doesnt remember being helped, which in his personal experience would make it like he didnt get help... that wouldnt be the same underlying condition for a Pecceka Buddha as one who has reached that level remembering no help? what if he continued on in practice perfectly with no more help remembering no help... i think he could be one in the sense of his own experience. to us he would not be one, but to himself he would, creating a conundrum and endless sources of debate among humans. But im just speculating, haha.
    – A Nonimous
    Commented Aug 31, 2014 at 13:56
  • That would be similar to saying that you are a spontaneous being, if you forgot who your parents are. :) Commented Sep 1, 2014 at 8:56

4 Answers 4


No! Once you attain Nibbana, the defilements are annihilated without the possibility of return. Just like uprooting a tree instead of chopping it down or trimming it. So it can never grow back from roots. Nibbana does not depend on the condition of the body or any other thing. It is uncaused, unborn and permanent. Venerable Moggalana was beaten up by thugs until his bones were pulverized. Still his mind was at perfect peace. One Arahath thero in Sri Lanka was thrown into a cauldron of boiling oil by the order of a King. That even caused a Tsunami in sri Lanka. But he was still at perfect peace when his life ended.

Take a Sothapanna person as an example. He can die 6 times before attaining Arhathship. If death itself is not going to affect his attainment, how can brain damage affect it?

  • The amnesia was more of an example for that matter. Maybe one could develop posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after an accident or the brain takes damage directly and one ends up with a mental illness. I found this link and the study mentioned in the article states that people involved in a traumatic accident (causing one to have a trauma) have a 65% increased chance to end up with schizophrenia and even a 439% increased chance to suffer from organic mental disorders. Commented Aug 30, 2014 at 23:11
  • No method of physical damage can cause mental trauma to an Arahant. Because there's no attachment, aversion and ignorance in the mind. You cannot recreate them even if you mince the brain matter. Commented Aug 31, 2014 at 5:53
  • This type of thinking can occur when you believe that the mind and Nibbana are byproducts of the brain. Commented Aug 31, 2014 at 6:00
  • That is true, but if these disorders can affect one's mind state while not being enlightened, why would it not effect one's mind state when one is enlightened? I don't believe the mind is a byproduct of the brain though, but if the mind wasn't affected, than how could these people end up with these mental illnesses? Commented Aug 31, 2014 at 9:35
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    It is the same case with other physical objects which can affect your thoughts. Take anger for example. Lets say you are relaxing on the beach having a nice time. You are thinking of happy thoughts. At that time there's no anger in your mind. But does it mean you have eradicated anger? No! It is only dormant in your mind. If someone suddenly slaps you, you can get upset and angry. But if there's no dormant aversion to spark up in the 1st place, nothing can make you angry. Brain damage is a physical factor that can stimulate the dormant defilements. It can't create something out of nothing. Commented Aug 31, 2014 at 9:51

No, an Arahant cannot become unenlightened. Does that mean that an Arahant will automatically be free from illnesses that affect the mind? I don't think so. They will always be free from the three unwholesome roots of greed, hatred, and delusion, but I think it is a serious mistake to translate that into physical claims about Arahants.

Interestingly enough questions similar to this were a point of controversy between the Theravada school and other early schools. Some of the other schools claimed for example that an Arahant was physically incapable of having sexual arousal, and so could not have a nocturnal emission. The Theravada school rejected this, saying that such a thing is purely physical.

Arahants can still experience the purely physical aspects of things without having unwholesome mind states. If you inject an Arahant with adrenaline, their heart rate would increase and they would undergo all of the reactions of a person with fear, but the difference would be that there would be no aversion in the experience, even if they might physically present the signs of it.

Similarly, I think that an Arahant could have what are usually refereed to as mental illnesses, although I think that term is somewhat misleading in the case of an Arahant. Perhaps the term neurological illness would be more appropriate. If they get Alzheimer's disease, then they would undergo all the memory problems and such, but throughout all of this there would be no greed, hatred, or delusion in the mind.

Someone mentioned PTSD. I think an Arahant could have PTSD as well, having the flashback experiences and the physical arousal that goes along with it, but again, without greed, hatred, or delusion.

That's just my take on it.

  • Late but nevertheless very good answer. Commented Sep 21, 2014 at 17:17
  • Perhaps PTSD is some kind of unhealthy attachment to the traumatic experience. Some psychological counselling that's intended to 'cure' PTSD includes teaching people to 'live in the moment' instead.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Sep 21, 2014 at 17:36

It's possibly worth adding to this that although the Theravadan school states that once a being is an Arhat they can't regress this wasn't a universal view within the early Buddhist schools. Both the Pudgalavada and the Sarvastivada schools did maintain that an Arhat could indeed regress from that state. So for those schools it would have been possible to become unenlightened. This was the fifth point in some versions of the five points of Mahadeva which are a number of debating points about the qualities and attributes of an Arahat. However since these schools have since died out this concept of unenlightenment would be of historical interest only.

Just as a reference note this is from An Introduction to Buddism by Peter Harvey (page 97 in the second edition).


If I am to add to the existing answers, it is like a singularity where all conventional laws break down. So what happens beyond on in this state cannot be communicated through conventional wisdom or language.

Nirvana is the experience beyond the singularity. Once you experience it you have experienced it. You cannot unexperience it. Say you have gone and see Rome. This is a fact. Is it possible to turn back time so you have not seen Rome. Not possible. Likewise once you have seen what is beyond the singularity you cannot be made to be brought to the state where you have not seen it.

Also you experience Nirvana when you are in Pala Samapathi. When you come out of it you don't experience it but the fact you have seen it will not change. Since you know how you got there you can get to it when you want. This experience has a lasting impression / imprint on you. So your ways will change once you come out of the Samapathi.

To further elaborate. The lasting impression is like once your where in Rome had a life changing experience. This sticks.

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