Deviation from EBTs and the expiry of the first generation of stream winners ( sotāpanna /རྒྱུན་ཞུགས / 须陀洹 )

In EBTs, such as AN3.88, AN10.46, AN10.63, SA 1121, EA 43.10, AN8.59 for example, we find the model of four stages towards awakening.

At the moment in which one enters or wins the stream - the first of the four progressive stages culminating in full awakening - the impersonal process in which ignorance is weakened towards full dissipation reaches a tipping point. The eightfold path gains momentum and takes the dooming of oneself to the cessation of nibbana within seven rebirths (see Snp 2.1).

EBTs are very clear on seven being the limit of further rebirths that can take place after that (e.g. SN48.24, AN3.88 and MA 4/T 26.4).

This means that it is possible to assert that, in a worst case scenario, within seven human generations after the passing away of the Buddha the first of the stream enterers / stream winners must have fully expired, attaining to perfection as arahants.

Most sources on the topic assert that up until very recently the average human life span was well short if 50 years, and possibly as low as 35 years in most cases.

The events found in the accounts of the last days of the Buddha before his complete extinction are usually place at around 480-400 years before the beginning of the Cristian era, or 2,400-2,500 years ago.

This means that within 250-350 years from the Buddha’s passing away none of those who entered the stream under the effect and presence of the Buddha were all gone.

In terms of Cristian Era this landmark can be placed at anywhere between 250 and 50 BCE.

Moreover, if we assume the “spell of stream entry” is still active and around this means that we are probably into the 10th generation of those individuals affected by the Dhamma, and hence “doomed” by it to reach full expiration.

Given the above, I create this topic to explore whether we have evidence that material deviations from early Buddhism as found EBTs can be placed in the timeline at the same point in which that first generation of stream winners certainly attained perfection (i.e. 250 and 50 BCE).

What I mean by deviation from EBTs is for example the advent of the sravaka / bodhisattva dicotomy.

Also, I would like to find out if there has ever been any traditional attempt to estimate how many iterations we are into in terms of generations of stream entry?

The basis and motivation of starting this discussion is to see if I can find others who like me find themselves perplexed with how wildly different, more complex and to a great extent incompatible to what is found in EBTs, is the model of awakening found in the corpus of texts associated with Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhist traditions.


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Actually, I’m not sure that human rebirths are specifically part of the seven. One might spend an eon in the Brahma realm, for example, before returning as a human. Have you found any EBT reference that specifies that stream-enterers are always reborn as human?


You are right. That’s a possibility. But those who enter the stream and go that high should not fall back to a human birth, right?

In AN48.24, for example, we see those who go from family to family categorised at a level higher than stream winner.

I assume the idea of family here is rebirth within a Buddhist clan or family …

And AN10.63 to me supports the hypothesis of seven human rebirths:

The one who has seven rebirths at most, the one who goes from family to family, the one-seeder, the once returner, and the one who is perfected in the present life.
These five conclude their path in this realm.

At the same time, AN3.88 does support the possibility of rebirths among devas and humans, as you hint .

If they don’t penetrate so far, with the ending of three fetters, they have at most seven rebirths.
They will transmigrate at most seven times among gods and humans and then make an end of suffering.

I have adjusted the topic’s OP to reflect that under a worst case scenario in which all of the first stream winners have gone through the seven rebirths only and necessarily within the human realm.


Those who enter the stream might have heavenly cravings. One might need a “been there done that” experience to put the deva realms in perspective and to understand the limitations of heavenly “perfection”. Human rebirth from a Dhamma perspective would be higher than deva rebirth. The perfection of the gods is limited. Earth must necessarily not be Water, AIr or Fire. Only humans can balance all four elements.

A notable case is that of Mara Dusi who was cast down to hell. Perhaps Mara Dusi became, after eons, a stream enterer while in hell to be reborn eventually as Moggallana. Moggallana seems to have had the most extensive transmigration.

AN6.34:1.1: At one time the Buddha was staying near Sāvatthī in Jeta’s Grove, Anāthapiṇḍika’s monastery. Then as Venerable Mahāmoggallāna was in private retreat this thought came to his mind, “Which gods know that they are stream-enterers, not liable to be reborn in the underworld, bound for awakening?” Now, at that time a monk called Tissa had recently passed away and been reborn in a Brahmā realm. There they knew that Tissa the Brahmā was very mighty and powerful.

Also, would not the remaining stream enterers, during their reborn lives (after the time of the Buddha) cause the occurrence of yet more stream enterers…who would cause more etc. etc…?

"Mendicants, when four things are developed and cultivated they lead to the realization of the fruit of stream-entry. What four? Associating with good people, listening to the true teaching, proper attention, and practicing in line with the teaching. When these four things are developed and cultivated they lead to the realization of the fruit of stream-entry.”

A live Buddha is not necessary for stream entry… even if we assume a diminishing number of stream enterers as time passes, many can still certainly be around.

But yes, those who directly heard the Dhamma from the Buddha could have all attained Nibbana, provided they had no life other than as humans.

Didn’t the Buddha himself say that the true Dhamma would last only 500 years?

So then are we doomed? Has the true Dhamma passed us by? That question, asked by King Milinda was answered by Ven Nagasena…

Mil 5.1.7
You have confounded the limitation of a thing with the statement of what it is.

Are you sure these later Buddhist traditions are more complex that the EBTs? They are more numerous, of course, because you are comparing the scriptures composed in a given time and place to everything that has evolved since. It’s like studying ants and wondering why the rest of the natural world can’t be so simple as an anthill. Ants are marvelous things, but there’s lots of other things that exist.

Human culture and ideas are like living organisms to me. I mean, even a given text is like a lineage of evolution: You can see it recorded in Chinese in some cases like fossils left in bedrock. They evolve over time, split into multiple versions, or consolidate several versions into a simpler one. It’s very organic, and we’re talking about Buddhism’s interaction with dozens of languages and probably hundreds of local cultures over a span of time like 2500 years. I’d be surprised if we didn’t have all of these different things that have arisen.

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That’s why I called a worst case scenario.

That’s not my argument and I am not bringing to this conversation the concept of the the true Dhamma disappearing after 500 years or not. Let’s not fight a straw man!

Please re-read the OP to understand the theme and direction I am trying to start the discussion.



Thanks for that.

Note however that the issue I am seeking to explore is not the plurality of different angles and takes but the actual introduction of so many layers of concepts which create such a massive gap to the much simpler and direct model for awakening EBTs contain.

I appreciate your analogy to the case of ants evolution of species. But as far as we see in EBTs the Buddha seemed to be very clear on how much what he was teaching those around him represent exactly what is necessary and sufficient for the path to be fulfilled towards the same goal he attained to: the perfect extinction of Nibbana.


I’d say there were several different threads that began and ended at different times in the history of Buddhism:

  1. When the sectarian canons formed, new texts were created to fill them. Eventually they were closed and this stopped
  2. The Abhidharma tradition created philosophical manuals, which culminated in the Mahavibasa and Vasubandhu’s Kosa
  3. Nagarajuna’s critique of Abhidharma and the creation of mystical Mahayana sutras that attacked ideas like real dharmas and so forth
  4. Asanga’s extension of Sarvastivada Abhidharma with his Yogacarabhumi and other Mahayana philosophical texts (<- this could be considered the real “end” of the Abhidharma tradition)
  5. The Jataka literature developed into mythical biographies of the Buddha, culminating in texts like the Mahavastu, Mahavagga, and Abhiniskramana. This literature leads to ideas about lineages of Buddhas in past, present, and future, and develops the idea of bodhisattva practice.
  6. In China, the attempt to create syncretic philosophies that made sense of all of the above resulted in a “big shrug” that became Ch’an and Pure Land Buddhism

There’s more than that, but those are a major trends I can think of that produces what we have today. I didn’t put anything down for Tibet or Vajrayana because I know next to nothing about it.

Does he say that in an EBT? I’m not totally clear on what exactly an EBT is, precisely. I mean, how to tell if it is or isn’t an EBT. It’s seems a bit of wishful thinking sometimes. I can tell the later texts, though, because I’ve read so much later literature I can catch when a text in a sectarian canon is later.


That’s what I gather from the handful of leaves argument, found in SN56.31 and SA 404.

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So, having reread the above, I understand that what you seek is to pin down a specific timeline during which the Teaching as represented in the EBT changed into ‘something else’. Am I correct?

My short answer to this question is that the Teaching changed into the ‘something else’ of the Mahayana/ Vajrayana at this very specific moment:-

"Sir, let the Blessed One teach the Dhamma! Let the Holy One teach the Dhamma! There are beings with little dust in their eyes. They’re in decline because they haven’t heard the teaching. There will be those who understand the teaching!”

Now, please indulge me for a few minutes as I explain my reasoning! :anjal:

@cdpatton pointed out that

If we were to pick up any particular thread of what we consider a different Teaching and start tracing it back, asking “What was the cause of that?” we eventually always arrive back at the point in time represented in SN6.1 - Brahma Sahampati’s request.

This request converted the Buddha’s perfect understanding of the Dhamma into a conditioned thing - The Teaching. The seeds of its change and eventual destruction were laid simultaneously as all conditioned things obey Anicca.

At the time of the 1st discourse, there was just one EBT. And that was sufficient for Ven Kondanna to awaken. But then came another discourse tailored to the Fire worshippers… then another… that is how this mass of EBT arose.

Even during the time of the Buddha, there were those who understood the Dhamma differently (Ven Sati) and taught it differently (Ven Udayin). But the Buddha was always around to put the Teaching back on track.

The only people who perfectly understand the Dhamma and are capable of correcting the flaws that arise from time to time in the Teaching are Buddhas and Arahants. Even the understanding of the Stream Enterer is flawed, and they may during that period teach Dhamma that is not perfect… such threads, down the line become the ‘something else’ which perplexes us all!

Remember Devadatta? His misrepresentation of the Teaching existed side by side with the Buddha’s teaching during the Buddha’s lifetime all the way down to 500 AD. Yet, if we follow Devadatta’s teaching back to the source, cause by cause… it existed the moment Brahma Sahampati made his appeal… it just wasn’t apparent, like the crack in the cup I am drinking my morning coffee from.

Faxian and other Chinese pilgrims who travelled to India in the early centuries of the current era recorded the continued existence of “Gotamaka” buddhists, followers of Devadatta.[7] Gotamaka are also referred to in Pali texts of the second and fifth centuries of the current era. The followers of Devadatta are recorded to have honored all the Buddhas previous to Śākyamuni (Gautama Buddha), but not Śākyamuni himself.


(PS- I completely agree with you regarding the wildly different, more complex and EBT incompatible nature of some Mahayana and Vajrayana texts)

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Thanks for your contribution. Yes, you got the question right! :anjal:

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This kind of parallel is the one that’s a headscratcher for me. They clearly say basically the same thing, yet the wording is all different. Even the location is different between them, but the parable is the same one. It’s like someone forgot how a sutra goes but could remember the gist of it, and then they recreated it the best they could. Is this really something that goes back before the sectarian canons? The existence of sutras and passages that are nearly word-for-word make it uncertain for me. But clearly, at least two canons had this sutra in them.


Wanted to repost the sutta links here

I mean already at the time of the Buddha, there was the Devadatta splinter group (and that’s the one we hear about, maybe there were others). We also have Sati’s heresy for example. After his death we also have the thera who said the recital of the teaching by the elders was fine, but he preferred to remember it his way. And there are other indications in the EBTs of people with weird or wrong views during the Buddhas time within the sangha. So I think the deviation from the Buddhadhamma started very early on, and only got more and more pronounced with time and growing geographical distance between the sangha.

By the time of Buddhaghosa, even the most conservative elders in the Mahavihara would accept the “three vehicles” doctrine, khanavada and other theories not found in the EBTs. And those were the most conservative of the bunch who spent a lot of time arguing against even weirder ideas like docetism and the idea that there are two nirvanas (a lesser, fixed nirvana and a “non-abiding” nirvana).