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Mark 2:17 of the Bible says:

And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Did the Buddha appear for the sake of "sinners" (the immoral)? Or did the Buddha appear to show the "righteous" (the moral) the way to Nibbana?

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5 Answers 5

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Ariyapariyesana Sutta: The Noble Search (MN 26):

'Lord, let the Blessed One teach the Dhamma! Let the One-Well-Gone teach the Dhamma! There are beings with little dust in their eyes who are falling away because they do not hear the Dhamma. There will be those who will understand the Dhamma.'

"That is what Brahma Sahampati said. Having said that, he further said this:

'In the past
there appeared among the Magadhans
an impure Dhamma
devised by the stained.
Throw open the door to the Deathless!
Let them hear the Dhamma
realized by the Stainless One!

Just as one standing on a rocky crag
might see people
all around below,
So, O wise
one, with all-around vision,
ascend the palace
fashioned of Dhamma.
Free from sorrow, behold the people
submerged in sorrow,
oppressed by birth & aging.

Rise up, hero, victor in battle!
O Teacher, wander without debt in the world.
Teach the Dhamma, O Blessed One:
There will be those who will understand.'

You ask why he "appeared", I assume that means "became a teacher instead of remaining a recluse", and I suppose this sutta explains that.

It's "for the sake of":

  • "beings with little dust in their eyes who are falling away because they do not hear the Dhamma"
  • "those who will understand the Dhamma"

So the first criterion seems to be "understanding".

Some (perhaps many) of his followers were initially immoral, famously Angulimala; and of course many had lay lives, were married and so on (not that that's immoral in the same way, but).

Of course the Dhamma teaches morality, and after ordaining they 'must' behave well, but that's afterwards.

In summary I think it was not "to show the 'righteous' (the moral) the way to Nibbana" -- it was "to show the the way to Nibbana, including morality, to those able to benefit/follow".

Also I'm not sure that it was only "to show the the way to Nibbana". You may get that impression for the suttas but he also talked to whole villages when having even only one in the audience become a stream-enterer might be rare. I read a modern commentator say for example that if you can't keep 5 precepts then keeping 4 is better than none. It may be a gradual training -- even a little is good.

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The sutta below implies that the Buddhas arise to reveal teachings which are primarily useful for the wise (sappaññā).

Perceiving impermanence as permanence,
suffering as happiness,
not-self as self,
and ugliness as beauty—
sentient beings are ruined by wrong view,
deranged, out of their minds.

Yoked by Māra’s yoke, these people
find no sanctuary from the yoke.
Sentient beings continue to transmigrate,
with ongoing birth and death.

But when the Buddhas arise
in the world, those beacons
reveal this teaching,
that leads to the stilling of suffering.

When a wise person hears them,
they get their mind back.
Seeing impermanence as impermanence,
suffering as suffering,

not-self as not-self,
and ugliness as ugliness—
taking up right view,
they’ve risen above all suffering.”
AN 4.49

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Neither. Beings are born in line with the results of their kamma. His kamma caused him to take birth in the human realm.

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Appearance of Buddha is subject to conditions. Conditions like too much ignorance or too much suffering in the world. When too much suffering is acknowledged then Buddha arises to uproot the suffering. Lack of morality may add to the suffering but morality differs from country to country and religion to religion therefore morality itself can not be the criteria.

Buddha appears to uproot suffering as the purpose of Buddha’s teaching is cessation of suffering.

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MN 4 says about the Buddha:

'A being not subject to delusion has appeared in the world for the benefit & happiness of many, out of sympathy for the world, for the welfare, benefit, & happiness of human & divine beings,' he would rightly be speaking of me.

It appears the Buddha did not appear primarily for the sake of asura (demonic rulers), animals, hungry ghosts & hell-beings.

The fire of lust burns mortals

Infatuated by sensual pleasures;

The fire of hate burns malevolent people

Who kill other living beings;

The fire of delusion burns the bewildered,

Ignorant of the Noble One’s Dhamma.

Being unaware of these three fires,

This generation delights in personal existence.

Unfree from the bonds of Māra

They swell the ranks of hell,

Existence in the animal realm,

Asura-demons and the sphere of ghosts.

Iti 93

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