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Sotapatti - hugh, what is it good for?

I don’t quite understand, but maybe I can restate my question: What would we loose of Early Buddhism if all references of the first three ‘attainments’ would disappear and we just had arahants and non-arahants?

We’d loose part of the rebirth-mechanics, but really these details (7 times here, 1 time there), are just metaphysical nonsense to someone who doesn’t know, and impossible to convey/prove for someone who knows. It’s a pure discourse of faith.

But that’s just my take… what important part of Buddhism would you guys lose if references of sotapatti etc. (except arahantship if course) were to disappear forever?

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Personally, this is the first time that I delved into that stream entry, once-returner, non-returner shebang. Maybe because I am a perfectionist, that could not go for less, than trying to experience a new dharmán (dhamma).
Also, I had somewhat understood that, if you were not to aim for arahantship, you would end (for quite a long while,) into some kind of nicer life in paradises.
But for me, that is not a new experience. It is just sweetening the boredom of what can be “expressed” in this Universe. Might they be Mara’s pleasures, or even higher, or going to Mars, or whatever. It is always the same (boring) framework. A framework of boring arising and fading same experiences. Only the “quality” changes. And I am not sure there is “quality” into that.

Aiming for arahantship assures you at least that, who can do the most, can achieve the least.
At worst, one will be back into a good destination. If interesting that can be.

For if we think deeper about it, we are in the ignorance dharmán. We are not just ignorant. We are living in the ignorance dharmán.
How boring.

So for me personally, there is no need for these intermediaries categories; as their contents are already included in the path. But as @suaimhneas says below, they can be interesting stage-posts. Very interesting.
And also a better way to understand these stages.


Now could you express your own view, Gabriel ? Clearly.
What is your straightforward answer to your question in the quote, at the beginning of this post.

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Sotapatti, isn’t a mythical state - one that can be done away with if inconvenient. It will arise on the path regardless of whether there are words and concepts to conceptualise it or not. We already know it means guaranteed enlightenment- like a puncture in a tire the air will eventually run out, of samsaric existence. It is high in practical value (in leading to enlightenment) and high in significance in guaranteeing enlightenment. It like passing your driving test and holding on to the results sheet but you have gone out for your first drive without an instructor yet. Sotapatti is difficult to detect/confirm. Advanced meditation masters must do a good job after having trained hundreds if not thousands of meditators, like those driving test examiners, they must know when their meditation experiences produce an Ariya (Noble) person (if only we could find a better and more specific word than Noble or Saint…). The driving test is the gateway to driving. Similarly Sotapatti is the gateway to the rest of the path. It might feel like people are heading in the same direction but the paths diverge.

With metta

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@Gabriel For me, if there were only the state of perfected one, I would lose options to practise at my own pace. If we go by the early discourses, it’s impossible for any person who wants to become a perfected one to practise as a layperson since complete seclusion from sensual desire is essential, among other things. That would mean all Buddhists must ordain in order to properly practise the teachings of the Buddha. That would be chaotic since there isn’t any lay person who could give them food, and that would mean monastics must break some monastic rules in order to survive (there might be some non-Buddhists who are willing to support the monastics, but I think that they would be very few in number). So, you either ordain in order to become a perfected one, or stay as a worldling and wander in the cycle of birth and death without end, and with high chances of being reborn in the lower realms.

As for your original question, the practical value of other states of noblehood, for me, is options (for awakening). Those who practise Buddhism ultimately want to make an end to all suffering/realise awakening, but some people still enjoy sensual pleasures, so they may aspire to become either stream-enterers or once-returners since these states are available to them. For some, they still enjoy the bliss of absorption, so they may aspire to become non-returners. Though, I agree with you the fact that there’s no way of verifying the first two stages of noblehood is a little problematic (non-returners are without sensual desire and anger, so perhaps they can be verified more easily?). Still, I wouldn’t worry about it too much since it is clear that some things from the early discourses must be gone by (wise) faith. Personally, instead of worrying if I realise this stage or that stage, I am more concerned about unwholesome things that I must let go.

I believe that the category of noblehood is meaningful, and I don’t think it is a hindrance in anyway. Perhaps, for others, the category serves little to no purpose. But for me, first and foremost, it is an explanation of one of the laws of nature. In this case, the natural progression of one who correctly practises the teachings. I think of it this way: in order for a baby to become an adult, the baby must first become a toddler, then become a kid, next become a teen, and finally become an adult. This is the nature of humans. For me, the way that the category of noblehood is presented in the early discourses is the same: that it is the nature of noblehood (the category is presented in a lot of Chinese Agama discourses along with their Gandhari, Sanskrit, and Pali parallels, so I doubt that it’s inauthentic).

On the last point that I would like to make, the Buddha is clear about teaching things that are relevant to the ending of suffering, so I doubt that he would teach about noblehood just because.

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I think these were important stage-posts along the path, and important in the context of the early sangha in the Buddha’s time too. Typically lay life was probably harder with less free time than in modern developing countries (usually far more children to raise, no social nets; the children likey being the planned social net for old age :slight_smile: ). A dedicated lay follower probably could get some practice in, do uposathas, but probably not be able to spend huge amounts of time at it. Having meaningful but easier to attain goals would be quite motivating. From the suttas, becoming a sotapanna does sound like a fairly realistic goal for a dedicated lay follower with a reasonable and attainable amount of practice. Also, the final two stages of the four path model are portrayed as being rather incompatible with lay life.

Of course, figuring out what being a sotapanna entails is another question. Firstly, there seem to be fine lines between dhamma/faith followers, those on the path to stream-entry and those with the stream-entry fruit. The understanding of it centring on a dependent origination (DO) insight and opening of the Dhamma eye would indicate a sotapanna should know they are a sotapanna. However, you then have the mirror of Dhamma, whose existence might indicate that’s not necessarily the case (though then again perhaps a distinction between path and fruit might explain how one could be on the path to stream-entry without knowing it). A direct insight into DO would nicely explain the ending of the first three fetters. There’s much that isn’t that clear though. For example, why the seven lives? I guess perhaps a Buddha could observe the passage of numerous lives/past lives of others through samsara and empirically observe from sotapanna to full enlightenment seemingly never took more than seven lives. Otherwise what’s the mechanism behind all that?

However, I think the four stages are a good design. They give lower hanging fruit for lay followers relatively short on time and heavy on commitments (and needed to support the monastics! :slight_smile: ). It seems that the Buddha thought that a realistic chance of complete enlightenment only came with the full monastic life (with particularly the final two stages being the primary domain for that I guess). There’s something there for everyone to aim for in the four stages, whether layperson or monastic.

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Thanks for your reply and the interesting perspective. Of course, like anyone else, I just know the texts and not what the Buddha actually said. Yet, I prefer not to assume that what is written is automatically Buddha-word and thus worth keeping. Rather I try to go the other way round, see what is relevant for the actual practice and then adjust the set of teachings that are personally important to me. (Methodically btw I think it would be difficult to distinguish what in the suttas was Buddha-word and what the teachings of, say, two generations later).

That’s interesting, so I understand that the first attainments actually help with the practice, or rather with the motivation (and we can count in the pre-sotapatti stages of dhamma- and faith-follower).

So if there were just wordlings and arahants many people might actually get the impression that the goal is impossible for them to achieve and would not even try. But the rebirth-mechanic together with the attainments would motivate them to start and continue - kind of like more achievable mile-stones, not consolation-prizes, is that correct?

Btw I would love it if the destruction of the individual fetters were clear for myself and others to see. Then the attainments would be actually observable and a confirmation of the teachings.

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Reading that I just had an interesting thought: I somehow get the impression from the texts that it’s easier to become a sotapanna than to master the jhanas (mind you, just from the suttas, not the Abhidhamma). After all ‘only’ trust/no-doubt is needed. Wouldn’t that be weird, if sotapatti was easier than samadhi?

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@Gabriel Yes, that’s it. Those are the words that I actually would like to say as well: that the first three noblehood stages are achievable mile-stones, not consolation-prizes (thank you for saying those words).

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Yes, that’s very much my impression too! :slight_smile: It sounds like it usually went along with some ability to do jhana, but probably not mastery of it (and there are the described incidences where the Buddha progressively guided a receptive listener in a talk, likely with no prior jhana experience, preparing their mind and eventually got their Dhamma eye to open). It really doesn’t sound like some one-in-a-million rare Dhamma attainment in the suttas, rather something a dedicated lay follower could realistically aim for with a decent chance of attaining (if not in life perhaps then at death). Heavier-duty jhana seems more associated with later path stages. Even first jhana sounds a bit more attainable in the suttas than the later jhanas (maybe something a layperson could more likely get to grips with?). If so, which begs the question of where the sotapannas all are? Or maybe there are actually some there but the commonly understood goal posts have been moved much further along?

@suaimhneas @Gabriel
One thing for sure is that faith and works are at stake here. And that faith is on the same ground than the work of losing the self view (sakkāya-diṭṭhi /sam-Ka-ya-diṭṭhi) (viz. the “this is mine” and “I am”) + losing uncomprehendingness (as undiscerning) (~doubt ?) (vicikicchā).

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For the same reason we have terms for stages of human development. We don’t just have the words baby and adult. If we want to talk about the stages of development of anything then we have to provide definitions for those stages. They may not be relevant for the vast majority but if you were going through these stages and you were working with someone that had already been through them - you would really want to be able to have some way of communicating about and understanding what is going on.

I don’t get the sense that these stages are at all subtle. Look at the descriptions from Ajahn Boowa for example or Thanissaro’s ‘awareness outside of time and space’ as a description of stream entry.

Sorry for the Ajahns - and I have much much much respect for Thanissaro Bhikkhu - but I don’t think that you have to go as far as the consciousness ayatana (6th Jhana - viz. to leave the space ayatana), to be a stream enterer.

Second/third jhanas (starting with cetaso ekodibhava [transcendence of citta] and ending with sampajano [clearly discerning]) —or— the 12th/13th steps of anapanasati [freeing the mind (vimocayam cittam) and contempling impermanence (aniccanupassi)], would be quite sufficient to do away with sakkāya-diṭṭhi and vicikicchā (undiscerning), I presume.

You don’t have to take my word for it, but neither do teachers agree nor is there a foolproof criterion for practitioners to know - outside of specific schools. Which again means that the school gives the confirmation, not the experience in itself.

Thanks, I haven’t made the connection yet: that faith can be seen as the dhamma having transformed the unconscious. One would then have a ‘buddhist mind’, not a desire-oriented mind any more. This could be indeed described as a stream-entry (though as a very gradual one - not as a ‘dip’ into a nibbana-moment).

As I understand it so far there are several possibilities:

  • the attainments are real, but the concrete criteria lost
  • the attainments are real, but were always meant to be confirmed by an arahant with the divine eye (e.g. in SN 55.23 “The Blessed One alone would know whether or not he possesses these things”)
  • the attainments were real but meant to be theoretical, not for the practical concerns of individuals. Almost all mentions of sotapanna are not of people, but of the ‘map’: “One who… is called…”. Are you aware, apart from SN 55.24/25, where a concrete person (here Sarakani) was said to be a sotapanna?
  • the attainments and the criteria are not real but functional ‘motivators’
  • the attainments and the criteria are not real but attempts by the early sangha to relate to an otherwise disinterested laity and to recruit monastics with ‘intermediate’ spiritual skills
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I think there is a very slight “connection”.
These are just two different ways to make it to stream-entry, (and its little reward not to fall into bad destinations again) .

The quality of faith must equate the difficulty of the attainment of sakkāyadiṭṭhi (viz. 3rd jhana, or 13th step of anapanasati).
This is the connection, I suppose.

Each one its own interpretation or pretence.
Some see it as the result of the end of sakkāyadiṭṭhi (4th jhana - end of dukkha), as Armstrong in the video above. Some see it as an ultimate peaceful state, as Buddha defines it.

What imports, is to start with the right course anyway (AN 10.103/104).

I don’t know what you exactly mean with “concrete criteria”. But the attainments are real, and they have to be reached again; although some underlying impressions of the attainments, (actualisation of the field of experience,) always remain; I suppose.
Attainments are ruled by the law of impermanence, as long as we live in this paticcasamuppada (dharmán).


There is a sutta where a monk does not participate in the sewing of the robes; and the other monks complain to the Buddha.
But once the Buddha speaks to that monk, he tells the other monks that this monk can attain the jhanas very easily.
It shows how states in the path have always to be attained again.

I have learned a lot also, when I understood why in His parinibbāna (lit. almost nibbāna), the Buddha does all the jhanas, and go back to the fourth before dying.
A man can go as far as he can through the states. But he still has to die as a man.

I personally take all of these descriptions of altered, elevated states with a grain of salt. It is not possible to get inside someone’s head to verify that they are really experiencing what they say they experience and think they experience. More importantly, I often suspect that if I were inside their heads, I wouldn’t describe the experiences they are having in the same way they do.

And regrettably, some people might be faking it - trying to live up to people’s expectations of the way an enlightened master is supposed to behave, and the kind of metaphysical lingo they are supposed to use.

We’ve had a few people visiting here who said they were arahants. I heard a podcast once where some guy was sure he had devised a drug that arahantized him and gave him the “enlightenment experience.” I wasn’t convinced in either case.

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I think its possible that some people would be discouraged from practice because they would see the Arahant ideal as being too far removed from their experience - they couldn’t see themselves being able to attain it in this life.

This illustrates the problem of telling someone that you have an attachment (which you genuinely believe you have). How many people took these visitors at their word and had a genuinely beneficial experience based on this proclamation? Not many IMO. Alternatively think of monks like the Ajhans that we know who made 0 proclamations yet are beneficial to us daily.

With metta

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I don’t see how that would be possible. Though I do believe that any level of jhana may be sufficient for stream entry to occur, there must still be the direct experience of cessation. Jhana is conditioned. As it is fabricated, it cannot be the basis for the insight that arises from the unconditioned. It would be like saying going really slow on a merry-go-round is the equivalent of not being on it.

I agree. But if you unpack that statement further, could not the differences be the result of fundamentally different practices? Meditation practices are by definition fabricated. If those practices are altered, is it not reasonable that the results of such a practice would also be different? If you take a look at Dharma Overground (which someone linked to) you will learn that the suttas are confused and that is why you need the commentaries, you cannot gain insight in the jhanas, stream entry is sort of a mind blip which you can learn to call up at will, and so on. If the practices and the result of those practices are redefined can we even compare them. Why would we expect them to have the same result?

I agree. But I am not talking about someone showing up on a forum and proclaiming their attainment. I am talking about well respected people that have a long history of practice and dedication. A fairly well known meditation teacher that I have a great deal of respect for once commented ‘if a person comes out and says they are awakened, they will be ripped to pieces’. Imagine if the Buddha were to go on a forum today and announce his awakening? Ripped to pieces.

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I don’t quite understand. Do you mean to say that there are different types of sotapannas? one would have faith, the other a nibbana-dip, the third an insight to the noble eightfold path, etc, and also their experiences would have little in common? It’s possible, but then the Buddha/suttas would have introduced an utterly confusing category. Again, possible, but just #notmybuddhism (which I admit is not an objective criterion)

This argument refers to social recognition. Why would someone practicing in solitude be less trustworthy than someone building a reputation by hanging around a monastery?

Which the Buddha did - ‘forum’ as you probably know is an open public space, and it seems from the suttas that the Buddha after awakening was not shy at all to tell that he was fully enlightened. If people after enlightenment are really more concerned about ‘their’ ‘peace of mind’ than the compassion to help others on the way, maybe there is not much to their enlightenment after all.

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Maybe they don’t owe an explanation or a ‘coming-out’ to anyone? If they taught others it’s only a bonus. Like ‘sound is a thorn to the first jhana’ some Ariyas might not like to engage students because of the vexation that would cause. In the East the student seek out teachers. It’s not the duty of teachers to advertise their existence, or experiences. This way, I think, those not seeking in earnest and the most likely to display troublesome behaviour stay at superficial levels of the Dhamma, as they simply may not be ready to fully commit to the practice, immediately.

With metta

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