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Can a Stream-Winner break the precepts, and is the unshakeable faith based on the ariya-sangha?

The four characteristics of a Stream-Winner (sotāpannassa angāni) are the following (SN 55.1):

  • Unshakable faith in the Enlightened One
  • Unshakable faith in the Doctrine
  • Unshakable faith in the Order
  • Perfect morality

The first and second are self-explanatory, however, I want to confirm the third and clarify the fourth.

For the third characteristic, I want to make sure that the unshakeable faith is based on the ariya-sangha, rather than the wordly sangha—therefore meaning that the faith is based on Noble Ones, rather than being dependent on the state of the general sangha.

He possesses confirmed confidence in the Saṅgha thus: ‘The Saṅgha of the Blessed One’s disciples is practising the good way, practising the straight way, practising the true way, practising the proper way; that is, the four pairs of persons, the eight types of individuals—this Saṅgha of the Blessed One’s disciples is worthy of gifts, worthy of hospitality, worthy of offerings, worthy of reverential salutation, the unsurpassed field of merit for the world.

He possesses the virtues dear to the noble ones—unbroken, untorn, unblemished, unmottled, freeing, praised by the wise, ungrasped, leading to concentration.

— SN 55.1, Cakka­vatti­rāja ­Sutta – Wheel-Turning Monarch (transl. Bhikkhu Bodhi)

Saṅghe aveccap­pasā­dena samannāgato hoti: ‘suppaṭipanno bhagavato sāvakasaṅgho, ujuppaṭipanno bhagavato sāvakasaṅgho, ñāyappaṭipanno bhagavato sāvakasaṅgho, sāmīcip­paṭi­panno bhagavato sāvakasaṅgho, yadidaṃ—cattāri purisayugāni aṭṭha purisapuggalā, esa bhagavato sāvakasaṅgho āhuneyyo pāhuneyyo dakkhiṇeyyo añjalikaraṇīyo anuttaraṃ puññakkhettaṃ lokassā’ti.

Ariyakantehi sīlehi samannāgato hoti akhaṇḍehi acchiddehi asabalehi akammāsehi bhujissehi viññup­pasat­thehi aparāmaṭṭhehi samā­dhi­saṃ­vatta­ni­kehi.

SN 55.1, Cakka­vatti­rāja ­Sutta

So, from this passage, the third characteristic of a Stream-Winner (sotāpannassa angāni) is without a doubt solely based on the ariya-sangha? Would anyone have another passage about the characteristics of a Stream-Winner (sotāpannassa angāni) to cross-reference?

For the fourth characteristic, it’s more ambiguous and the Pāli a lot more complex. The passage “ariyakantehi sīlehi samannāgato hoti akhaṇḍehi acchiddehi asabalehi akammāsehi bhujissehi viññup­pasat­thehi aparāmaṭṭhehi samā­dhi­saṃ­vatta­ni­kehi” is described in Vissudhimagga XII 101-106, but I can’t find a more thorough description based on the Suttas? Is the translation ‘perfect morality’ correct? Would anyone have another Sutta passage describing the fourth sotāpannassa angāni in more detail?

Basically, what I’m trying to confirm/clarify is: Is a Stream-Winner absolutely incapable of breaking the precepts? And if so, is it all the precepts (and if not, which ones)? Is the ‘perfect morality’ only based on the precepts, or other aspects of sīla as well?

Note: The purpose of the discussion it to confirm points based on the Suttas, rather than being an opinion-based discussion—therefore, please base your responses on the Suttas. Thank you.

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Sometimes, instead of unbroken sila, the fourth characteristic is defined as generosity, as in SN 55.6 and SN 55.39:

She dwells at home with a mind devoid of the stain of stinginess, freely generous, open-handed, delighting in relinquishment, one devoted to charity, delighting in giving and sharing.

Both of these suttas are addressed to laypeople. I don’t think it’s ever taught to monastics with this substitution.

Also, the Ratana Sutta (Snp 2.1) indicates that a stream-enterer may do a bad deed, but is incapable of concealing it. Perhaps this is due to a temporary lapse in yoniso manasikara.

Together with one’s achievement of vision
three things are discarded:
the view of the personal entity and doubt,
and whatever good behavior and observances there are.
One is also freed from the four planes of misery
and is incapable of doing six deeds.
This too is the sublime gem in the Sangha:
by this truth, may there be safety!

Although one does a bad deed
by body, speech, or mind,
one is incapable of concealing it;
such inability is stated for one who has seen the state.
This too is the sublime gem in the Sangha:
by this truth, may there be safety!

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The above is the stock description of the morality of the stream entrant. Contrast this with the description for the arahanth who’s fermentations have ended:

‘Sutavan, an arahant monk whose mental fermentations are ended, who has reached fulfillment, done the task, laid down the burden, attained the true goal, totally destroyed the fetter of becoming, and who is released through right gnosis, cannot possibly transgress these five principles. It is impossible for a monk whose mental fermentations are ended to intentionally deprive a living being of life. It is impossible for a monk whose mental fermentations are ended to take, in the manner of stealing, what is not given. It is impossible for a monk whose mental fermentations are ended to engage in sexual intercourse. It is impossible for a monk whose mental fermentations are ended to tell a conscious lie. It is impossible for a monk whose mental fermentations are ended to consume stored-up sensual things as he did before, when he was a householder. AN9.7

There is difference in the two, possibly as a result of the removal of defilements which would have lead to breaking of the five precepts.

A stream entrant has completed the training in heightened virtue (adhi_sila). Despite them lapsing at times with the minor rules, their morality is considered as intact:

"Monks, this recitation of more than 150 training rules comes every fortnight, in reference to which sons of good families desiring the goal train themselves. There are these three trainings under which all that is gathered. Which three? The training in heightened virtue, the training in heightened mind, the training in heightened discernment. These are the three trainings under which all that is gathered.

“There is the case where a monk is wholly accomplished in virtue, moderately accomplished in concentration, and moderately accomplished in discernment. With reference to the lesser and minor training rules, he falls into offenses and rehabilitates himself. Why is that? Because I have not declared that to be a disqualification in these circumstances. But as for the training rules that are basic to the holy life and proper to the holy life, he is one of permanent virtue, one of steadfast virtue. Having undertaken them, he trains in reference to the training rules. With the wasting away of [the first] three fetters, he is a stream-winner, never again destined for states of woe, certain, headed for self-awakening.” AN 3.87

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Interesting.

Would you know what the six deeds refer to?

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AN 6.94:

Bhikkhus, there are these six cases of incapability. What six? One accomplished in view is (1) incapable of depriving his mother of life; (2) incapable of depriving his father of life; (3) incapable of depriving an arahant of life; (4) incapable of shedding the Tathagata’s blood with a mind of hatred; (5) incapable of creating a schism in the Sangha; (6) incapable of acknowledging another teacher. These are the six cases of incapability.

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This is one of the reasons why I am slightly doubtful of the perfect morailty of a Stream-Winner. For an Arahant, for whom all the fetters have been uprooted, it is no surprise that the precepts of killing, stealing, sexual intercourse and consuming intoxicants (at least, I’m guessing that’s what ‘consuming stored-up sensual things’ is) can’t be transgressed. However, a Stream-Winner has only uprooted the fetters of personality-belief (sakkāya-diṭṭhi), sceptical doubt (vicikicchā) and clinging to mere rules and ritual (sīlabbata-parāmāsa).

It would already be enough to have perfect morality? The fetters associated with greed, hate and delusion are all still there; why could it not be possible to do actions based on those? Why would a Stream-Winner be incapable of doing such actions if the fetters haven’t been uprooted?

Is there no mention of lay Stream-Winners who continue to enjoy the five strands of sense-pleasures in the Suttas (or would the precept of sexuality be different for a monastic Stream-Winner, compared to a lay Stream-Winner)? Or maybe some Stream-Winners who have consumed or continue to consume intoxicants?

There is even a stream enterer who wanted to quit monkhood for woman.

As can be seen by the 6 actions he can not do, it’s only killing of one mother and father that are listed. He can kill other people in certain circumstances. For example there was a stream enterer that was a military commander, and in those days they used to fight body-on-body with swords.

Stream entry only means right view, understanding the non-existence of a self. The only practical advantage, sila-wise that such a thing will do is a big reduction of delusion. Because of this reduction of delusion, it is impossible to get deluded into some stuff that normal people can. We should think of it as a person who really know that all is impermanent and will vanish in the end, never forgeting this thing due to temporary bursts of delusion.

Such a thing has a relatively small effect on sila, making just a small difference between him and any other decent person in terms of sila. Such a thing doesn’t have that much of an impact as some believe, as shown by the 6 things a stream enterer can not do.

Imagine an alcoholic who is in a denial state vs one that is 100% convinced alcohol is bad and intends to quit it. The second might not have too much success if he lives headlessly (there is a quote about stream enterers being concent with just that and living headlessly, making little progress) but he can never have wrong ideas like “alcohol isn’t even bad at all” pop into his mind that would make the process of quiting it that much harder. That’s the only thing right view can do to one. Right view does not have some supernormal powers that will make him quit alcohol like infinitelly more easy. The process is pretty much the same, only that he can’t move backwards too much and is destined to quit it one day, but having relatively small practical advantages in terms of the process itself.

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I think the idea that their precepts are quite good rather than perfect, seems to be what is suggested. Also another idea is that they do not habitually break precepts, but may do so only rarely.

The vast majority of the stream entrants were lay people, and by definition, enjoyed sensual pleasures. This would include sexual pleasures. The 3rd of the 5 precepts is about sexual misconduct, and not just sexual behaviour. So it is possible for a stream entrant to have sex (and children). I saw a sutta where a woman is upset because one of her uncles were said to be a once-returner (and engaged in sex) and so was another, but didn’t engage in sex (she was upset thinking how this could be). It is when one becomes a non-returner that craving is removed and all sexual behaviour stops. I haven’t heard of a stream entrant/winner who consumes alcohol, but there was Sarakani who was a faith or dhamma follower who was into alcohol, but became a stream entrant on his death bed, when he gave up on alcohol consumption…

with metta

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Could you please provide a reference for this? It seems possible, but I’d like to read the sutta.

Is this General Siha you’re referring to? If so, is there a sutta that tells of him engaging in battle after attaining stream entry? Or is there a sutta that tells of him engaging in battle at all?

Although one does a bad deed
by body, speech, or mind,
one is incapable of concealing it;

He possesses the virtues dear to the noble ones—unbroken, untorn, unblemished, unmottled, freeing, praised by the wise, ungrasped, leading to concentration.

There is the case where a monk is wholly accomplished in virtue, moderately accomplished in concentration, and moderately accomplished in discernment. With reference to the lesser and minor training rules, he falls into offenses and rehabilitates himself. Why is that? Because I have not declared that to be a disqualification in these circumstances. But as for the training rules that are basic to the holy life and proper to the holy life, he is one of permanent virtue, one of steadfast virtue. Having undertaken them, he trains in reference to the training rules.

To me, these excerpts seem to indicate that the effect of stream entry on virtue is more than a small difference.

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Not to doubt this, but stream entrants also have to put in effort to develop their sila, and it doesn’t arrive ‘fully formed’ at stream entry, though the effect of seeing the insubstantial nature of the five aggregates (ie the reason they are disrupting their morality for) will have an effect on the ‘cost-benefit’ analysis that takes place when someone begins to think about doing something wrong:

"There is the case where a disciple of the noble ones reflects thus: ‘I love life and don’t love death. I love happiness and abhor pain. Now if I — loving life and not loving death, loving happiness and abhorring pain — were to be killed, that would be displeasing & disagreeable to me. And if I were to kill another who loves life and doesn’t love death, who loves happiness and abhors pain, that would be displeasing & disagreeable to the other. What is displeasing & disagreeable to me is displeasing & disagreeable to others. How can I inflict on others what is displeasing & disagreeable to me?’ Reflecting in this way, he refrains from taking life, gets others to refrain from taking life, and speaks in praise of refraining from taking life. In this way his bodily behavior is pure in three ways.

“Furthermore, he reflects thus: ‘If someone, by way of theft, were to take from me what I haven’t given, that would be displeasing & disagreeable to me… If someone were to commit adultery with my wives, that would be displeasing & disagreeable to me… If someone were to damage my well-being with a lie, that would be displeasing & disagreeable to me… If someone were to divide me from my friends with divisive speech, that would be displeasing & disagreeable to me… If someone were to address me with harsh speech, that would be displeasing & disagreeable to me… If someone were to address me with idle chatter, that would be displeasing & disagreeable to me. And if I were to address another with idle chatter, that would be displeasing & disagreeable to the other. What is displeasing & disagreeable to me is displeasing & disagreeable to others. How can I inflict on others what is displeasing & disagreeable to me?’ Reflecting in this way, he refrains from idle chatter, gets others to refrain from idle chatter, and speaks in praise of refraining from idle chatter. In this way his verbal behavior is pure in three ways.”
— SN 55.7

Alcohol abstinence has been replaced by the four fold verbal practice, in line with that of the Noble eightfold path factors.

with metta

While I think it is possible that a Stream-Winner’s sīla could be good and not ‘perfect,’ I don’t think the passages are describing the degree of skilfulness in regards to the precepts/sīla, but simply if the sīla is broken or not.

If you are rather saying that it is good in the sense that they break their sīla (or maybe precepts), but only rarely, it seems to be the case (as below), but a thorough description of what parts of sīla can’t be broken would be needed (such as the 5 precepts, 10 precepts or a portion of the Vinaya).

Snp 2.1 that Christopher found disproves that it would be all sīla,…

[…][describing a Stream-Winner]
Although one does a bad deed
by body, speech, or mind,
one is incapable of concealing it;
— Snp 2.1

…but we would need to dig deeper to find exactly what comprises ‘unbroken morality’ for the Stream-Winner.

I agree this wouldn’t make sense, however, even though it could be true that a Stream-Winner couldn’t kill a living being, thoughts of harmfulness or cruelty (vihiṃsā) could still arise in him (making his sīla only perfect to the degree of full-fledged action and in relation to the precepts).

Correct. Sila by definition, is only deeds and words, and not thoughts, according to the Dhamma (Right action, right speech, right Livelihood).

Working on unwholesome thoughts come under Right effort -6th step of N8FP.

This might sound artificial, but it is far easier to control ones actions before being able to get all the destructive impulses, sometimes subconscious under control. Mindfulness needs to become very attuned to root it out at that level and that happens later when the five spiritual faculties are much more advanced, possibly at non-returner level when angers and aversions are permanently removed.

With metta

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If you compare Snp 2.1…

[…][describing a Stream-Winner]
Although one does a bad deed
by body, speech, or mind,
one is incapable of concealing it;
— Snp 2.1

…with SN 55.1,…

He possesses the virtues dear to the noble ones—unbroken, untorn, unblemished, unmottled, freeing, praised by the wise, ungrasped, leading to concentration.
— SN 55.1

…it seems as though a Stream-Winner would without a doubt have continuously unbroken sīla, but it wouldn’t necessarily mean he would be incapable of breaking it.


Ariyakantehi sīlehi samannāgato hoti akhaṇḍehi acchiddehi asabalehi akammāsehi bhujissehi viññup­pasat­thehi aparāmaṭṭhehi samā­dhi­saṃ­vatta­ni­kehi.

I would like to get a better understanding of the Pāli, though.

In Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation, ‘dear to the wise’ might be misleading—in that it could instead describe qualities of which nobles ones hold dearly, or that Stream-Winners are the same as Ariyas in this way—since the PTS Pāli-English Dictionary translates ariyakantehi (ariyakanta) simply as ‘agreeable to the Ariyas’. Also, ‘the’ in ‘the virtues’ (‘the’ being “grouping”) also incorrectly misleads to possibly thinking that a Stream-Winner has all the qualities of Nobles Ones.

With all of the above, the translation has a largly different meaning than that of the Pāli.

There is also samā­dhi­saṃ­vatta­ni­kehi (‘conducive to concentration’), which might point out the usefulness of unbroken sīla, for a Steam-Winner, in regards to it being conducive to concentration.

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