Different Kinds of Sotāpanna

The following has been touched a few times (e.g. here and here) but to my knowledge not fully yet…

In our common understanding the sotāpanna or stream-enterer is the first category of nobles ones or aryas. (See for two occasionally mentioned two stages before sotāpatti here: https://discourse.suttacentral.net/t/faith-follower-dhamma-follower). Usually we say that a sotāpanna has at most seven more lives to live, yes in a few suttas we have a further discrimination of the sotāpanna into three distinct levels – unfortunately without much explanation. Hence I won’t go into the small differences between the suttas.

The material we find in the following suttas is very similar in a longer list of stages along with different nibbāna attainments. The sources are SN 48.24, AN 3.87, AN 3.88, AN 9.12, AN 10.63, AN 10.64. Mostly they are just mentioned by name, only AN 3.87/88 and AN 9.12 add a short description.

The three levels are in ascending order:

  • The seven-times-at-most attainer (sattakkhattuparamo): “who, after roaming and wandering on among devas and humans seven times at most, makes an end of suffering” (additionally mentioned in SN 56.49 - SN 56.60 in the same repetitive way)

  • The family-to-family attainer (kolaṃkolo, kula = family, house): “who, after roaming and wandering on among good families two or three times, makes an end of suffering”

  • The one-seed attainer (ekabījī): “who, after being reborn once more in human existence, makes an end of suffering”

Maybe these few appearances in the AN and SN were too vague for the editors to include them into the MN or DN. At least they got picked up again in the KN a few times…

[Edit: Does anyone know if our idea of a sotapanna getting reborn max. seven times - and thus singling out one type - is basically commentarial? I know it’s mentioned a few times more in the suttas, but the certainty with which the concept is communicated, is it EBT or later?]


Great topic.

You know, I really struggle to see the relevance of all those sottapana categories.

Something tells me this has to do with people quite early in the first days of the Sangha trying to make some sort of mythical sense of how some characters found in the sutta stories (and maybe Jataka stories) found awakening. It is just something I have at the back of my mind when I come across it in the suttas but I can’t just formulate well…

Particularly, the one about being reborn in good families sounds very misplaced.

Was the advent of this category maybe something people had to come up with to justify people accepting and placing noble-born bhikkhus as the head of monasteries or something like that?

I know for example that some monastic sects (nikayas) of contemporary Singhalese Sangha are very peculiar about the caste of those who can ordain into them (Siam Nikaya?).

Maybe something similar happened in the early days of Buddhism and people came up with this concept of spiritually advanced ones being more prone to be born to rich and influential families…

Sorry if this is off topic and please kindly do educate me if the above is just nonsensical!



I agree. However you would need to factor in the karma vipaka. Stream entrant have completed their mortality training. There fore they are said to generate a lot of good karma vipaka all the time. This is said to lead them to be successful in this lifetime, materially.

Yes, true. However the kolankola stream entrant is born into wealthy or higher class family in the next life. This cannot be used to restrict ordination or even associate with families of only a certain class. The Buddha famously allowed ordination to persons of all classes.

with metta

1 Like

It’s also found in the ninth verse of the Ratanasutta, kp6, snp2.1.


I would also like to see that clearer, there are many possibilities for speculation

  • maybe there really was a refined taxonomy of people in the old layers or even from the buddha. Certainly many suttas deal with ‘x kind of people’.

  • maybe this is a (later) aspect of ‘othering’ (i.e. differentiating buddhism from other sects). Those sects might have had just their version of vimutti but no stages in between. Then Buddhism would have impressed with its ‘science’ of categories. Kind of ‘If they know so much about different stages they must be righter than those other sects’

  • the function of the dhamma- and faith-follower are simpler. If they were later inventions by some teacher they were very likely meant to comfort basically all lay-followers to pass away as sotapannas

  • I can imagine how some people speculated about their level of achievement. E.g. there must have been different levels of faith, a ‘normal’ complete faith, and an ‘obsessive’ complete faith. And then people talking, gossiping and asking their gurus ‘What about this guy? S/he’s so impressive!’ ‘Oh yes, s/he’s a special kind of sotapanna’…

All speculations of course, but the fact remains that the EBT are very interested in categorizing people in many ways, and apply this to noble ones too.

1 Like

You mean morality training right?

I always made sense of stages of awakening from the perspective of fetters.

The stream entry is all about the full abandoning of first three fetters:

“In this community of monks there are monks who, with the wasting away of [the first] three fetters, are stream-winners, steadfast, never again destined for states of woe, headed for self-awakening: such are the monks in this community of monks.”

  • self-identity / views or assumptions about a self in any of the five aggregates (sakkaya ditthi)
  • speculative doubt about Buddha, the truth of his Dhamma, and the practice of his noble disciples (vicikiccha)
  • views or assumptions that one becomes pure simply through performing rituals or patterns of behavior (silabbataparamasa)

By this way, I would like to flag that reducing stream entry to complete the morality training may not only be an inaccurate version of the story but could even lead others to stick to the third of the three fetters stream-entry is all about. Think about …

[quote=“Mat, post:3, topic:5790”] There fore they are said to generate a lot of good karma vipaka all the time. This is said to lead them to be successful in this lifetime, materially.

Also, where do you find in EBTs this link between material success and stream entry?

I thought the only obvious link is between stream entry and future births above the human realm. I have never seen anything indicating this link between material success (prosperity?) and stream entry. :thinking:

Indeed, all these are relevant open questions.

One way to address some of those is investigating whether any specific tradition has ever placed strong institutional emphasis in this spiritual graduation system.

Of the traditionally Theravada countries cultures I only know Thailand. And the only thing that has strong impact in the level of reverence and respect the laity and monastic groups will have towards a master there is the speculation of whether or not he has attained arahantship.

Is it differentin Sri Lanka and Myanmar nowadays? Do people go about assuming views on whether meditation master X or influential lay supporter Y is a dhamma-follower?

Do we know of attained bhikkhus in those countries who claim or hint to be going through a rebirth preceded by stream entry?

Another possible source of hints may be investigating whether the early Chinese Buddhists had any sort of institutional reverence or seniority system based on assumptions of how one is or not achieved in terms of stream entry and further stages of awakening.

All in all, I think that the fact the Buddha established the parajika #4 should tell us of his concerns in regard to the complications this categorization of awakening could bring about.

And we can say it had worked very well until now, as traditional Theravada communities seem to usually place very little relevance to anything “below” speculative assumptions of arahantship when it comes to establishing confidence on senior bhikkhus.

Prosperity is a weird part of EBT, something that sounds weird for our ears, but must have been an essential question for the lay community. Keep in mind that brahmins used to take care of that: the proper ritual brings wealth, misfortune for enemies, and many sons. If they gave up brahmanism, then what? It’s natural that popular Buddhism had to come up with alternative reassurance of future wealth.

Take for example AN 4.31

When these four wheels turn, those devas and humans who possess them soon attain greatness and abundance of wealth.

Why the heck would devas need wealth?!

Or SN 3.19

For one who desires lofty riches / Following in succession, / In doing deeds of merit.
The wise person who is diligent / Secures both kinds of good:
The good visible in this very life / And the good of the future life.

Also from a very primitive motivation rich lay sotapannas would have more to give. The whole topic of giving is quite complex actually

… whatever families there are that are rich, with much wealth and property, with abundant gold and silver, with abundant possessions and means of subsistence, with abundant wealth and grain, they have all become so from giving (SN 42.9)

Finally some sotapanna-wealth suttas:

“Bhikkhus, a noble disciple who possesses four things is said to be rich, with much wealth and property. What four? Here, bhikkhus, a noble disciple possesses confirmed confidence in the Buddha … in the Dhamma … in the Sangha.… He possesses the virtues dear to the noble ones, unbroken … leading to concentration. (SN 55.44/45 - this is the sotapatti-samyutta, but also the formula is typically sotapanna [Edit: wealth could be meant metaphorically of course])

Those here who, on gaining the human state /Are amiable and generous,
Confident in the Buddha and the Dhamma / And deeply respectful towards the Sangha…
If they come back to the human state / They are reborn in a rich family
Where clothes, food, pleasures, and sport / Are obtained without difficulty. (SN 1.49)

And I’m sure more of those can be found, I just picked unsystematically…

1 Like

Especially when one considers that possibly a key group of the early Buddhist laity very much likely consisted of traders and entrepreneurs.

I remember I once read that the samanna traditions flourished in a time in which technological advances in agriculture and stability-facilitated trade resulted in a relative material prosperity which allowed some individuals to simply decide to drop all their productive functions and live out of others’ generosity.

1 Like

Have you seen this: Study guide on stream entry in Accesstoinsight? http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/study/into_the_stream.html

“Just as it’s not easy to take the measure of the water in the great ocean as ‘just this many pails of water or hundreds of pails of water or thousands of pails of water or hundreds of thousands of pails of water.’ It’s reckoned simply as a great mass of water that is unreckonable, immeasurable. In the same way, when a disciple of the noble ones is endowed with these four bonanzas of merit, bonanzas of skillfulness [the factors of stream entry], it’s not easy to take the measure of the merit as ‘just this much bonanza of merit, bonanza of skillfulness, nourishment of bliss, heavenly, ripening in bliss leading to heaven, leading to what is agreeable, pleasing, charming, happy, & beneficial.’ It’s reckoned simply as a great mass of merit that is unreckonable, immeasurable.”

— SN 55.41

"Furthermore, a disciple of the noble ones endowed with these four qualities is linked with long life, human or divine; is linked with beauty, human or divine; is linked with happiness, human or divine; is linked with status, human or divine; is linked with influence, human or divine.


Killing, stealing etc are unwholesome and demeritorious while restraining from these acts are meritorious.

1 Like

I know about Sri Lanka. Apart from a couple of Bhikkhus hinting at arahathship, a few more hinting at supernatural ability and a few stating their bodhisattva intentions 98% of the Bhikkhu’s (and Bhikkhunis) are silent on this matter. [quote=“gnlaera, post:7, topic:5790”]
Do people go about assuming views on whether meditation master X or influential lay supporter Y is a dhamma-follower?

Yes they do. The faith follower and dhamma follower category is rare though. They are not well known. Small (culla) sotapanna is actually more popular. [quote=“gnlaera, post:7, topic:5790”]
Do we know of attained bhikkhus in those countries who claim or hint to be going through a rebirth preceded by stream entry?

I haven’t come across any but have heard of rebirth being a monk or a Buddhist king in a previous life. The layity in Sri Lanka (and I suspect elsewhere) respect monks who are supposedly attained but also meditative, living in monasteries (as opposed to urban temples), who are good dhamma orators and teachers, do a service to the public and who are moral/strict in their vinaya.

As the study guide shows (and I think you know as well) there are many other qualities of a stream entrant including morality, generosity, seeing the DO, having faith in the Buddha as a person etc. These will have to be met to proclaim someone is a stream entrant. It’s not possible to just have one set of descriptions and not have the others.

[quote=“Gabriel, post:8, topic:5790”]
When these four wheels turn, those devas and humans who possess them soon attain greatness and abundance of wealth.

Why the heck would devas need wealth?![/quote]

It may be that devamanussā is referring to “princes and people” rather than “deities and humans”.

Or, it may be that “wealth” (bhoga) here is referring to dhammabhoga rather than āmisabhoga:

“Bhikkhus, there are these two kinds of wealth. What two? Material wealth and the wealth of the Dhamma. These are the two kinds of wealth. Of these two kinds of wealth, the wealth of the Dhamma is foremost.” AN2.145

Or, it may be that devas really do live in the kind of opulence described in the Vimānavatthu stories.

Take your pick. :slightly_smiling_face:


This could be indication of some kind of carry-over from Vedic version of “rebirth”? According to Joanna Jurewicz’s analysis (“Fire and Cognition”), the Vedic notion was essentially rebirth in the same family, while the evolution of Vedic thought during the later, Upanishadic era (the Buddha’s time), generalized rebirth to beyond just the family/clan.


Yes, predictive text got me again! Morality training is the only training which is complete when someone attains stream entry. [quote=“gnlaera, post:6, topic:5790”]
The stream entry is all about the full abandoning of first three fetters:

The fetters are a good framework to arrange the levels of attainment on. However there is a lot of extra detail, especially around stream entry (and probably around arahanthood) which is not covered by the teaching of the fetters (samyojana). Some of this detail is essential, without which someone could be seriously mislead. I think it was the Buddha who used to determine who had attained or not as he had special capabilities to do so. In their wanderings when the Buddha revisited the same towns Ven Ananda would ask about those people who had died in those villages and find out their levels of attainment. Or they would at the end of a rains retreat declare their attainment to the Buddha (Susima sutta). It is informative that attainments seems to have been determined right at the end of one’s training and not prematurely. However there were exception like in the case of Anathapindika and perhaps Mahanama as well. One of Buddha’s ‘last acts’ before his passing away was to give the ‘Mirror of the Dhamma’ where someone could (approximately, IMO) ascertain whether they were indeed stream entrants or not (DN16).

with metta


it’s interesting to play with ideas, but it’s good to keep in mind that most of that is speculation. The dominant model is that the dhamma has sotapannas, and why the concept of three types didn’t get more exposure is unknown to us. I don’t think it’s worth to create a dhamma-ditthi about it - or even start speculating about who-has-what.

What’s maybe more interesting is what doctrinal importance the different attainments have. What would be missing if sotapanna, once- and non-returner were missing and we had just arahants vs. practitioners. Would that change Early Buddhism and our personal practice significantly?


Indeed. All in all, this whole thing of path and awakening, i.e. the four noble truths, should be all about becoming less something or someone. All that can be said is left in an arahant are the side effects of the path. It is more about what is not to be found anymore than about what is found.

It is not without a reason that the the key and first Buddhist symbols of Early Buddhism were exactly related to that: footprints, empty seats, the lonely Bodhi tree, etc.

1 Like

When passing a stage of awakening a path moment is occuring often followed by a fruit moment (this one could possibly take time to appear, I’m not sure).
One who has been through a path moment will realise it straight away or some days later depending on causes and conditions. One does not need someone else to tell one the achievement.

I know Sariputta Arahatship was annouced to him by the Buddha; that’s goes with what I say above (causes and conditions for Sariputta preventing him to realise it on his own yet).

I pondered these issues for some time and came to the conclusion that I should not bog down in categories. This attempt is not more futile than to explain the different base camp to a person who has not seen even the Mount Everest.
It is just one mountain and how it can have only four, five or six base camps. Why not ten? It also depends on which side of the mountain you start your journey.
Only two things we know for sure. When you are preparing for the climbing at home you are in base camp one (Sotapanna) and when you are in the top of-of the mountain (Arahant), you know that.
Another thing I know for sure is that there are many Sotapanna in this Forum.
(Forgive me, I am not trying to be the Buddha here. This is just a broad brushed academic statement)


EBTs seems to suggest that too. [quote=“alaber, post:17, topic:5790”]
One who has been through a path moment will realise it straight away or some days later depending on causes and conditions. One does not need someone else to tell one the achievement.

The attainment will be experienced but it’s interpretation isn’t straightforward hence the need for a Mirror of the dhamma’ teaching. People with some mundane insight or jhana or some other rapturous meditative experience may consider that to be stream entry. However the Buddha points to changes to the personality such faith in the Triple gem, keeping precepts and generosity and elements of insight such as the DO and knowledge of arising and passing away (udayabbaya nana). It is noteworthy that the incident of attainment or the meditator’s ‘knowledge’ of this is never considered adequate, by the Buddha.

This change of personality is obviously noticed by the one who has it.

And that’s where we are potentially in trouble us lay persons in 2017. Where to find such Mirror of the dhamma? He/she must be a Noble One but if he/she is a monastic one will never know if he/she is such person. If he/she is a lay person there is no forum for him/her to come out and me to find him/her.

Anyway the Buddha didn’t need a Mirror of the dhamma to validate his Awakening, so why should I need such person?