It is mostly understood that stream-entry (sotāpatti) is the first level of an irreversible shift from being a wordling (puthujjana). Several passages have a different view and list two levels before that, namely the faith-follower (saddhānusārī) and the dhamma-follower (dhammānusārī). From the two the dhamma-follower is always ranked higher than the faith-follower.
Defining the Faith- and Dhamma-Follower
SN 48.12 - SN 48.17, SN 48.24 mention the two, but don’t mention a specific faith or teachings. In these suttas from all the ariyas the faith- and dhamma-follower simply have the weakest faculties (faith,… wisdom).
DN 28, DN 33, MN 65, AN 7.14, AN 8.22, AN 10.16 also just list them among other types of people with higher realization. MN 70 has a similar list but features definitions as well:
What kind of person is a Dhamma-follower? Here some person does not contact with the body and abide in those liberations that are peaceful and immaterial, transcending forms, and his taints are not yet destroyed by his seeing with wisdom, but those teachings proclaimed by the Tathāgata are accepted by him after reflecting on them sufficiently with wisdom. Furthermore, he has these qualities: the faith faculty, the energy faculty, the mindfulness faculty, the concentration faculty, and the wisdom faculty.
What kind of person is a faith-follower? … and his taints are not yet destroyed by his seeing with wisdom, yet he has sufficient faith in and love for the Tathāgata. [… faculties as before].
SN 55.24, SN 55.25 are similar in definition, but add that faith- and dhamma-followers are freed from the lower realms:
… [for the dhamma-follower] some person does not possess confirmed confidence in the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha. He is not one of joyous wisdom, nor of swift wisdom, and he has not attained liberation. However, he has these five things: the faculty of faith… wisdom. And the teachings proclaimed by the Tathagata are accepted by him after being pondered to a sufficient degree with wisdom. This person too, Mahanama, is one who does not go to hell, the animal realm, or the domain of ghosts, to the plane of misery, the bad destinations, the nether world.
[for the faith-follower as above…] And he has sufficient faith in the Tathagata, sufficient devotion to him. This person too…
To summarize the above: No liberation, no fetters/taints destroyed, but accepted the teachings, or faith in the Buddha, plus the five faculties.
Faith- and Dhamma-followers as ‘mini-sotapannas’
While the above SN 55.24/25 tell us that the two can’t go to hell, MN 22 and MN 34 take a stronger stand regarding the fate of the two and have them heading towards liberation:
…those bhikkhus who are Dhamma-followers or faith-followers are all headed for enlightenment. (MN 22)
Just as that tender calf just born, being urged on by its mother’s lowing, also breasted the stream of the Ganges and got safely across to the further shore, so too, those bhikkhus who are Dhamma-followers and faith-followers -
by breasting Māra’s stream they too will get safely across to the further shore. (MN 34)
Faith in / investigating impermanence
SN 25.1 is more explicit about the teachings and gives it a different spin:
Bhikkhus, the eye [ear…] is impermanent, changing, becoming otherwise… One who places faith in these teachings and resolves on them thus is called a faith-follower, one who has entered the fixed course of rightness, entered the plane of superior persons, transcended the plane of the worldlings. He is incapable of doing any deed by reason of which he might be reborn in hell, in the animal realm, or in the domain of ghosts; he is incapable of passing away without having realized the fruit of stream-entry.
One for whom these teachings are accepted thus after being pondered to a sufficient degree with wisdom is called a Dhamma-follower… [rest as above]
(SN 25.2 - SN 25.10 go on to apply impermanence on forms… eye-consciousness… eye-contact… feelings born of eye-contact… perceptions of forms… volition regarding form… craving for forms… the elements… the aggregates.)
The major difference here is (1) the focus on specific teaching, namely impermanence and (2) that the faith-follower has faith in this teaching, not in the Buddha.
It seems save to say that some concepts about a faith-follower and a dhamma-follower existed in the earliest texts. This is based on (1) occurrence in all four nikayas (2) a diversity of texts, i.e. not just a copy of the same pericope.
The texts agree on several things:
- The dhamma-follower ranks higher than the faith-follower, just below the sotāpanna
- The faculties seem to be involved
- They seem to be aryas in that they are free from rebirth in the lower realms or even heading towards liberation
- They don’t appear nearly as frequently as the other ariyas
- The texts don’t agree if the faith is in the Buddha, his teaching, or a specific teaching
- The only specific teaching we get in this context is impermanence - but we don’t know if the dhamma-follower investigates (or the faith-follower has faith in) impermanence in all the mentioned dhamma, or if one of them is sufficient.
If you already lost faith that you’d not become a sotāpanna in this lifetime, maybe there’s hope: you could well be a faith- or dhamma-follower after all