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Is the opening of the dhamma-eye an earth shattering experience?

Dear forum members,

In several articles and audio talks, and including his most recent article, Ven. Thanissaro claims that the opening of the dhamma eye (dhamma-chakkhu), aka the attainment of the fruit of stream entry, is a ground breaking/earth shattering experience.

To me, this seems to imply that one knows for certain they’re a stream winner, but this raises a few questions and counter-arguments.

1- If someone knows for sure they’re a stream winner, then why would the Buddha provide a checklist to determine if you’re a stream winner (MN 48) and several other suttas where he says “You may claim you’re a stream winner if you have x, y, z (usually faith in the triple gem, virtue, etc…)” - wouldn’t that go without saying if they already know they’re a stream winner, they wouldn’t need to refer to a checklist to determine if they’re a stream winner. The Buddha wouldn’t even tell them that they can declare they’re a streamwinner if they’ve met a criteria, since they’d already know they met the criteria.

2- In the sutta with dighavu, the dying layman boy, the Buddha cross questions him to find out his ariya level. Which leads me to believe that the Buddha can only see if you’re fully liberated (Arahant) by looking at the state of your mind (expanded, contracted, etc…). He can see if your mind has overcome the 5 hindrances, and where you were reborn.

But if your mind is not expanded, which many sotapannas and once-returners are still overcome by the 5 hindrances, then the Buddha determines your ariya level by reading your thought verbalizations. He can know/hear your thoughts.

So it seems like to me that your mind isn’t altered by the dhamma chakkhu, only that you have less bad thoughts (identity view thoughts), which is why the Buddha still needed to question dighavu to find out if he was a sotapanna. Which shows that the sotapanna stage is simply a belief/view stage, except for the brief moment one overcomes the 5 hindrances the first time to attain sotapanna phala (fruit).

The Buddha asked dighavu if he has faith in the triple gem, not if he had an “earth shattering experience”. Since if that were the case, the Buddha would know that, since Arahantship is probably an “Earth shattering experience” but not sotapanna, and the Buddha can directly see if someone is an Arahant, like when he saw Ven. Kondanna in the first sermon.

For these reasons, I don’t believe that the dhamma chakkhu is “earth shattering” but just an understanding that results in the first three fetters being given up.

What are your thoughts and position on this matter?

Thank you

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I meant, as in what Ven. Thanissaro was intending when he said “earth shattering”, but I found the direct quote and he does say it explicitly.

"Finally, you get as far as you can go in concentration. And you begin to realize […], the question comes up, “There’s stress if I stay here, but there’s going to be stress if I move, and this is where it gets paradoxical, you neither stay nor move. There’s no intention either way because you realize whichever way you intend, there’s going to be stress.” And it’s in that moment of non-intention that things open up. And it’s very impressive, it’s not one of these things you say, “Gee, I had stream entry and I didn’t even know it." It’s earth shattering.”

He’s saying that there is an event that makes knowing that one had attained stream entry unmistakable, which goes back to my counter arguments.

edit: it’s from Ajaan Thanissaro: Reading - continued (Part 3) at 1:21:00

Without guidelines to explain what stream-entry is, you would know you were having an experience, but wouldn’t understand the nature or significance of that experience.

I’m not sure “earth-shattering” is a very helpful term to use in this context. My dictionary parses that term as “very important, momentous,” which are fine, but also “traumatic,” which doesn’t seem to be the case for most people. In fact when the experience has been traumatic for people I’ve wondered whether they’ve truly experienced stream entry or are instead still caught up in the fetter of doubt (combined with some kind of insight into the non-existence of the self-idea).

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But why does there have to be any experience other than the letting go of wrong views?

Furthermore, wouldn’t the experience Ven Thanissaro describes mean that you wouldn’t need a conceptual verification/confirmation (such as a checklist)?

It might be instructive to peruse AN8.22 in which Ugga the householder gives a detailed description of his stream entry…

Sir, when I first saw the Buddha off in the distance I was partying in the Dragon’s Park. My heart was inspired as soon as I saw him, and I sobered up.

when he knew that my mind was ready, pliable, rid of hindrances, joyful, and confident he explained the special teaching of the Buddhas: suffering, its origin, its cessation, and the path. Just as a clean cloth rid of stains would properly absorb dye, in that very seat the stainless, immaculate vision of the Dhamma arose in me: ‘Everything that has a beginning has an end.’ I saw, attained, understood, and fathomed the Dhamma. I went beyond doubt, got rid of indecision, and became self-assured and independent of others regarding the Teacher’s instructions. Right there I went for refuge to the Buddha, his teaching, and the Saṅgha. And I undertook the five training rules with celibacy as the fifth.

I had four teenage wives. And I went to them and said: ‘Sisters, I’ve undertaken the five training rules with celibacy as fifth. If you wish, you may stay here, enjoy my wealth, and do good deeds. Or you can return to your own families. Or would you prefer if I gave you to another man?’ When I said this, my eldest wife said to me: ‘My lord, please give me to such-and-such a man.’ Then I summoned that man. Taking my wife with my left hand and a ceremonial vase with my right, I presented her to that man with the pouring of water. But I can’t recall getting upset while giving away my teenage wife.

So, a momentous life changing insight into the nature of things… a palpable before/after difference in how one lives life and how one chooses to respond to it… how should such a turn of events be described?

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It’s not a question of whether there “has to be any experience other than the letting go of wrong views.” There is.

Stream entry is not just the experience of letting go of wrong views. Now [stream entry having arisen] you know what the teachings were talking about there is the emotional-cognitive experience of the arising of faith in them (the fetter of doubt is broken). And now that you’ve, so to speak, arrived at a destination, you have a better sense, looking back, of what was helpful and unhelpful in reaching that point (the fetter of depending on rules and practices as ends in themselves is broken). And, for most people at least, there is a delight at all this, and particularly a sense of liberation from laying down the burden of the self-idea.

Sometimes people have this experience, have no idea what’s happened to them, and are confused. Sometimes people don’t have this experience but think they’re stream-entrants nonetheless. Some guidelines are helpful for clarification in both of those cases.

I’m curious why this is an issue for you. What is it about having a checklist for verifying stream entry that bothers you? Do you think it’s a bad thing, and if so, in what way?

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Do you have a sutta source that supports this interpretation? I rely on the suttas.

Thank you faujidoc1, this the same formula you see when Buddha Vipassi also enlightens several people.

The Buddha Vipassī taught them step by step, with a talk on giving, ethical conduct, and heaven. He explained the drawbacks of sensual pleasures, so sordid and corrupt, and the benefit of renunciation. And when he knew that their minds were ready, pliable, rid of hindrances, joyful, and confident he explained the special teaching of the Buddhas: suffering, its origin, its cessation, and the path. Just as a clean cloth rid of stains would properly absorb dye, in that very seat the stainless, immaculate vision of the Dhamma arose in the king’s son Khaṇḍa and the high priest’s son Tissa: ‘Everything that has a beginning has an end.’

They saw, attained, understood, and fathomed the Dhamma. They went beyond doubt, got rid of indecision, and became self-assured and independent of others regarding the Teacher’s instructions. They said to the Buddha Vipassī, ‘Excellent, sir! Excellent! As if he were righting the overturned, or revealing the hidden, or pointing out the path to the lost, or lighting a lamp in the dark so people with good eyes can see what’s there, the Buddha has made the teaching clear in many ways. We go for refuge to the Blessed One, to the teaching, and to the mendicant Saṅgha. Sir, may we receive the going forth and ordination in the Buddha’s presence?’

  • DN 14

The only experience is that they’ve overcome the 5 hindrances and doubt of the Buddha Dhamma. It doesn’t sound like an earth shattering experience, but only that they understood the dhamma, as I stated in my original post.

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I would not trust the description given in DN14 because it is a third hand account of stream entry achieved by people under a previous Buddha. Such a clinical account is likely to be short on the actual details of what it actually felt like to those people.

I would prefer to rely on Ugga’s first hand account of his own awakening for the detailed description of what it felt like and how his life changed. It just seems more real, more likely, more human…

PS:- I see your point though. Lists are useful too. There are people like Sarakani… who knows what he experienced through the stupor of alcohol?

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Yes, but even in Ugga’s account it just seemed like he became more responsible and lost interest in mundane trivial things which results in the fetters being given up, not that he had a mystical experience that clearly delineates a point in time where he attained an experience that is stream entry or “this is stream entry”, or “now I am a stream winner there is no doubt about it”.

But more like “I understand the purpose of the dhamma and why it is indeed true”, there is no mystical experience, but just a new understanding that wasn’t there before.

Whereas Ven Thanissaro states the experience is something unique and powerful, “a glimpse of the unconditioned”, something that sounds very mystical to me.

Part of what makes the arising of the Dhamma eye such a powerful experience is that the realization that “Whatever is subject to origination is all subject to cessation” must follow on a glimpse of what stands in opposition to “all that is subject to origination,” i.e., a glimpse of the Unconditioned — deathlessness.

  • Into the stream by Ven Thanissaro

I’m still not sure to what extent the experience goes to, perhaps Ven Thanissaro is right that it is a mystical experience and that your complexion becomes bright from having seen the deathless.

I’d be interested in hearing Ven. Sujato’s perspective on the eye of dhamma and what kind of experience it entails.

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I understand it this way too.

As for the nature of the experience, all through the suttas it is variously described as being momentous, life changing, something important… the essential elements being the insight achieved (the Got it!! moment) and the resulting change in understanding and behaviour patterns.

We should also bear in mind that thanks to the difficulties of language and more importantly, our expectations and emotional overlay, different people describe experience differently. (The first time a person experienced a smartphone? Mystical for some…meh for others. :slightly_smiling_face:)

An additional factor to consider is the effect of the commentaries and the Visuddhimagga which, while doing a commendable job of formalizing and checklisting various experiences may have also made them seem mystical and difficult to obtain. Opinions of stream entry have consequently swung time and again down the ages, alternating between it being an everyday thing to something achieved after superhuman effort.

SN55.24
If these great sal trees could understand what was well said and poorly said, I’d declare them to be stream-enterers.

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I think that’s a reasonable question in the OP. The opening of the dhamma-eye does indicate an experiential insight into the truth of the dhamma, which in some suttas is expressed as into dependent origination but sometimes in terms of other aspects of the dhamma (enough anyway that doubt ceases and the other two fetters).

But, as you say, if this is “earth-shattering”, why these guidelines? Another important guideline that comes to mind is the “Mirror of the Dhamma” that the Buddha gives towards the end of his life in DN16 (crops up several times elsewhere in the Nikayas too):
https://suttacentral.net/dn16/en/sujato#2.7.16

I think there are at least two possibilities. One is that this insight isn’t of such a nature that everyone who has had it actually realizes they have become a stream-enterer (so not “earth-shattering” in this sense at least if the first possibility holds).

A second possibility rests on the distinction between path and fruit. In the suttas, the eight kinds of noble persons seem actually distinct, implying perhaps two kinds of stream-enterers (those who haven’t and those who have already received the fruit of stream-entry). I guess it’s possible the guidelines might only be needed for the first type? I’m not sure if answers to questions like this are always entirely clear-cut when trying to balance the various sutta descriptions.

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My interpretation is based not just on texts, but on people’s experiences as well.

It’s good to rely on the suttas, but the Buddha’s advice was to rely also on your experience and the testimony of the wise. Heaven knows I’m not claiming to be wise or suggesting that you rely on anything I say, just suggesting that a reliance on texts is incomplete. The words of the texts point to practice and to experience, and practice and experience is found in ourselves and in other people: hence the Buddha’s insistence on the importance of sangha and kalyana-mittata.

But with regard to texts: that there are three fetters broken in the arising of stream-entry—self-view, doubt, (mis-)reliance on rules and practices—presumably isn’t in question.

The positive counterparts of these three fetters are found in MN 24: “purity of mind is of purpose as far as purity of view; purity of view is of purpose as far as purity through crossing over doubt; purity through crossing over doubt is of purpose as far as purity of knowledge and insight into the Way and what is not the Way.”

I kind of get the feeling you would like stream entry to be a kind of intellectual realization, but really it’s the powerful and liberating experience of directly seeing through an illusion. It’s powerful because until you see through the illusion you can’t appreciate how invested you’d been in it.

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MN 48 in particular seems like a way of testing yourself to determine if you have the fruit of stream entry. In other words, one may have the fruit of stream entry but is unsure that they have it, which would conclude that the experience of attainment wasn’t definitive but a rather ambiguous experience that is open to interpretation.

I guess you could say it’s an instruction for path attainers to attain fruit, but it’s worded in such a way that it’s comparing yourself to the standards the Buddha set, i.e. a fruit attainer.

Furthermore, a noble disciple reflects, ‘Do I have the same strength as a person accomplished in view?’ And what, mendicants, is the strength of a person accomplished in view? The strength of a person accomplished in view is that, when the teaching and training proclaimed by the Realized One are being taught, they find joy in the meaning and the teaching, and find joy connected with the teaching. They understand, ‘I have the same strength as a person accomplished in view.’ This is the seventh knowledge they have achieved that is noble and transcendent, and is not shared with ordinary people.

This sounds less like a guide for the path attainer to attain fruit, but more like a self-evaluation for one who wants to know if they’ve attained fruit.

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Thanks for the sutta reference, however I don’t see anything in that sutta regarding the experience of the dhamma eye and I don’t see what this has to do with this topic regarding the opening of the dhamma eye being earth shattering or just an understanding.

I think you’re considerable underestimating what is meant by “…the stainless, immaculate vision of the Dhamma arose in me: ‘Everything that has a beginning has an end.’ I saw, attained, understood, and fathomed the Dhamma. I went beyond doubt, got rid of indecision, and became self-assured and independent of others regarding the Teacher’s instructions.”

This is momentous. It’s not an intellectual understanding; he’s talking about having an insight experience that completely changed his life. He’s talking about being able to understand everything the Buddha says, without need of help, because he’s now seeing things the same way the Buddha is and therefore talking the same language at the Buddha.

I’m not sure that the language of “mystical experience” is helpful, though. I’ve never heard any Buddhist describing an insight experience in those terms.

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Just because insight isn’t explicitly mentioned doesn’t mean it’s not part of that teaching.

Part of my difficulty in replying appropriately to you was that your question about “this interpretation” didn’t specify which aspect of my interpretation you were seeking references for. Also, as I said, texts are not the only source of information about Dharma practice. Actual Dharma practitioners are, too.

Anyway, I think I’ll bow out from this point on, having other things to attend to at present. I wish you well with your explorations.

Just my two-speculative-cents, here:

I think there are a lot of apparent gaps or variations for some descriptions of events and practices in the suttas, that most practitioners try to fill and to make sense of based on others experiences and descriptions, or based on one’s own particular.

The more I study the suttas, read from other practitioners and deepen my own practice, the more I think that these gaps are just spaces for variations and flexibility of experience. Instead of telling us exactly what has to be experienced at the moment of stream-entry, the suttas maybe tell us about some cases in particular. I’m not sure we should extract from these invariant rules about how the punctual experience will be.

By the way, I think that maybe this could also be the case for the jhanas, which could help to explain why, for instance, vitakka and vicara are not detailed: are they part of what one should “do” during first jhana (to evoke and increase piti, maybe), or are they something like a residue from mundane experience? Should both exclude one another?

Kind regards!

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I think providing an objective criteria to what constitutes the opening of dhamma-eye is useful in the sense that it helps us reflect on how worldly knowledge operates.

An objective criteria has a transcendental aspect to it in the sense that it does not always adhere to our individual preferences and personal biases, and therefore considered authoritative and a reliable reference point for measurement. When the criteria in question is “the end of doubt” then how the knowledge of the ending of doubt can be known first hand? Under this state of affairs the end of doubt can be known as long as doubt does not arise again, which makes it dependent on the possibility of arising without completely eliminating it. If the possibility of doubt is completely eliminated, then the question of “how to end doubt” becomes a meaningless question.

Under the same logic, for the end of doubt to be known, it has to belong to different “episteme” that is not subject to falsification. For this coherence to be maintained, such knowledge is described as supramundane.

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The ceasing of the three fetters for stream-enters is also supposed to carry across into a potentially next (possibly human) life. That does imply something quite profound has to have changed. The three fetters are not really meaningful in the context of a younger child (aside from being inherent tendencies). However, I think the implication is that as a stream-enter who has been reborn gets older, they will automatically have an intuitive grasp into the true nature of reality (proper insight into non-self etc.), independent of what’s going on or actually being taught around them.

So, on one hand, these guidelines may imply a less earth-shattering experience in some respects, but, on the other hand, other data points imply that any change has to be rather deep in other ways.

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