Staring Into the Void: The Resolution of Nihilism Through Buddhist Practice

Not saying I understand the entirety of your post, but the core issue seems to be whether one thinks that craving can be abandoned by craving or just leads to dukkha management.
As you might have guessed, I‘m coming at this from Thanissaro Bhikkhu‘s angle which resonates with my previous life experience. He cites suttas such as MN14:

This seems to suggest that the attainment of rapture and happiness is a necessary basis for abandoning the craving for sensuality completely. The Hillside Hermitage group interview, on the other hand, seems to come to the conclusion that one has to „stick it out“ and suffer without giving in to it (either by way of actual sensual indulgence or „dukkha management“) to the point where simply abandoning the craving for sensuality appears more sensible.
This is a very high bar, potentially excluding anyone who doesn‘t have immense amounts of willpower. Maybe getting one‘s suffering into a more manageable state through calming forms of meditation could instead be seen as a step towards the state of mind needed to gain a proper understanding of dependent co-arising leading to wise reflection.

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I believe you’re referring to what they call “Enduring”, as in enduring the dukkha.

MN 14 might be referring to non-returners who have attained jhana sufficiently that they can now attain it at will, so they never return to sensuality.

But until one gets to that level, they would need to endure dukkha instead of giving into it and resorting to “maintenance” such as wrong practice, or distraction such as sensual desires.

It’s like if you want to give up smoking, and you haven’t smoked for a month, you’re enduring the suffering that would normally be suppressed by giving in to craving. You can fall back to that craving or try to eliminate it.

The question is if you can substitute the craving for something less harmful and if that means jhanas, but in the suttas jhanas are the reward for giving up sensual desire, as when you get over the 5 hindrances you get pamojja which later develops into piti and sukha.

So it seems like one must endure dukkha so that they can see dukkha clearly, without distraction or falling back into craving, in order to attain idappaccayatā and right view, so that they then can overcome the 5 hindrances, lower the defilements and attain jhana.

This is shown here

Mendicants, it’s totally impossible that a mendicant who enjoys company and groups, who loves them and likes to enjoy them, should take pleasure in being alone in seclusion. Without taking pleasure in being alone in seclusion, it’s impossible to learn the patterns of the mind. Without learning the patterns of the mind, it’s impossible to fulfill right view. Without fulfilling right view, it’s impossible to fulfill right immersion. Without fulfilling right immersion, it’s impossible to give up the fetters. Without giving up the fetters, it’s impossible to realize extinguishment.

  • AN 6.68

Being alone in seclusion means enduring the dukkha rather than giving into craving, and this needs to be done until one learns the patterns of the mind, because you can’t see dukkha if you appease it with craving. Once you see dukkha, then you can see idappaccayatā and paticcasamuppada, and then you attain right view, yoniso manasikara, overcome the 5 hindrances, and only then can you attain jhana.

In short, your interpretation sounds like you’re putting the cart before the horse. An addict must first see the problem in order to escape it, instead of ignoring the problem via distraction, you need to trigger dukkha by not suppressing it by gratifying the craving.

This is related to my response in another thread regarding the 1st and 2nd noble truths, dukkha isn’t always present but craving is. One needs to trigger dukkha by not giving into craving in order to see how craving and dukkha work How Gotama realised continued existence - #11 by Thito

The only shortcut to this I’ve seen in the suttas is when the Buddha is able to literally infuse others with pamojja, piti and sukha, so they get a taste of what’s it like being without the hindrances, and I actually believe this is the true meaning of metta.


May I ask how the idea of „wrong practice“ developed? This line of thinking reminds me of the reasoning behind dry insight.
Overall, concentration techniques, commentarial or otherwise, don‘t work like an anesthetic. Craving does come up, and most instructions I‘ve seen tell you not to ignore or paste over but investigate it. This way, ideally, the mind gets stilled to a degree where suffering is not as acute, and may be observed from a more detached viewpoint.
To run with your smoking analogy, many people don‘t quit cold turkey but either reduce the number of cigarettes they smoke gradually or think of something else to do instead, like chewing gum. They replace a harmful habit with a relatively less harmful one.

Your argument about the progression towards jhana seems sound. I can‘t speak from personal experience here, as I have not attained jhana. Maybe I‘m also misrepresenting Thanissaro Bhikkhu‘s point here, so let me make my own.
Rather than calling my interpretation putting the cart before the horse, I’d say that yours is linear or consecutive, while mine is nonlinear or iterative. While you say that a total understanding of the problem and your proposed solution must come first, steadfast endurance second, and release third, I suspect that this may not only be very hard to do, but unrealistic as well. In my experience, few people‘s minds, and I‘m including my own, follow these neat abstractions, but rather work in spiraling and habituated ways, unruly and hard to domesticate if you‘re trying to impose something, surprisingly diligent at times if you work in a way that serves their perceived interests. As a personal anecdote, one of my piano teachers had me practice from a book literally called „Der gerade Weg“ („The Straight Path“), designed to teach techniques according to someone‘s idea of an ideal progression, and the pieces in that book were dreadfully dull. I made much better progress working with a teacher who had me play pieces I liked, some below, others above my level of skill, picking up the techniques as I went along propelled by the joy and passion for music. So while I may plan out an entire path to the end of craving, that doesn‘t mean that it‘s practical for many if it’s all stick to the very end, where a big, juicy carrot might be waiting. Messy minds need to be shepherded from both sides, so to say, building the capacities for calm and inspection in parallel, igniting a passion for the path bit by bit. AN9.41 seems to suggest this two-pronged strategy (emphasis mine):

As you cite a sutta naming right view as a necessary prerequisite for right immersion, let me also quote MN9:

What is your strategy to build contentment and love?

That’s just the reasoning Hillside gives, that as long as someone doesn’t have right view then whatever they do isn’t for uprooting the defilements but for managing dukkha, so the dhamma is misused. This is also found in the suttas, there’s a sutta that says when a fool wields the dhamma improperly they hurt themselves.

Indeed, hence the virtue training and sense restraint comes before one can attain jhana, it’s a prerequisite.

I understand that you have your personal experience, but this is about what the suttas say, not what you perceive to work better or not.

In the suttas right view comes before right concentration, so the scope of this discussion was originally your interpretation of anapanasati, which you took to mean focusing on the physical sense of the breath, then the discussion shifted to enduring dukkha.

So I think the core question is how does one know if what they’re doing is merely “managing” dukkha or actually uprooting it.

My interpretation of the first noble truth is that it’s the symptom, and the second noble truth is the cause. So if you’re only dealing with the symptom, you’re only managing dukkha. If you’re dealing with the cause, you’re uprooting dukkha.

If your goal is to only get rid of dukkha temporarily, then any form of management can work: sensual desires, focusing on breath, yoga, massages, flowers, candle incense rituals, chants, affirmations, etc…

If your goal is to uproot dukkha and have a permanent reduction of dukkha, whether gradually or at once, then you must attack the cause, and that is craving.

Hence the fetter of rituals is destroyed when one has right view because anything that doesn’t deal with the true cause is a ritual aka “management”, it’s pleasant but not sufficient.

So the goal is to arrive at Right View, until then you’re considered ignorant and anything you do can end up harming yourself further, and others too if you teach them the wrong instruction. Trying to attain jhana before knowing and seeing the true cause, is at best a waste of time, at worst harmful and can lead to hallucinations, mental problems and other such issues.

The sutta MN2 says yoniso manasikara starves the unskillful and feeds the skillful. You can only get yoniso manasikara if you have an inkling of right view, which at minimum is the barebones understanding of idappaccayatā or the 3 characteristics. The root of the unskillful is the 3 poisons and the 5 hindrances need to be overcome to get at the 3 poisons, and in order to overcome the 5 hindrances one needs yoniso manasikara which requires hearing the true dhamma with yoniso manasikara.

“Endowed with (the) five (opposite) qualities when listening to the True Dhamma, one is capable of alighting on the orderliness, on the rightness of skillful qualities. Which five?

“One doesn’t hold the talk in contempt.

“One doesn’t hold the speaker in contempt.

“One doesn’t hold oneself in contempt.

“One listens to the Dhamma with an unscattered mind, a mind gathered into one [ek’agga-citto].1

“One attends appropriately.” (yoniso manasikara)

“Endowed with these five qualities when listening to the True Dhamma, one is capable of alighting on the orderliness, on the rightness of skillful qualities.”

So again, the issue is not what comes after Right View, it’s getting to Right View in the first place.
Your earlier sutta reference MN 14 about using jhana to not return to sensuality comes later, way later.


Thito •

Your wisdom is touching my heart, beautiful lecture, you hit the point.

Thank you for your detailed explanation.
If I‘m understanding correctly, you agree that Hillside Hermitage‘s interpretation of how to progress on the path is reflected in the suttas. Now, I still don’t understand entirely which consequences follow for one‘s progress in the Dhamma. Could you explain, in everyday terms (as I‘m having trouble translating the pali abstractions into an idea of moment-to-moment practice), what a typical meditation session looks like for you?

Well it’s not a technique, it’s an understanding that makes one practice correctly, which I explain further below.

Actually Arittha’s basic anapanasati version is sufficient enough to attain sotapanna/right view.

Sir, I’ve given up desire for sensual pleasures of the past. I’m rid of desire for sensual pleasures of the future. And I have eliminated perception of repulsion regarding phenomena internally and externally. Just mindful, I will breathe in. Mindful, I will breathe out. That’s how I develop mindfulness of breathing.”

  • SN 54.6

For Anapanasati for example, I discern the breath long/short in/out but not in detail, just enough to know the breath mentally. This causes the breath to become subtler, the body becomes tranquil and “invisible”, and one sees more mental images arise. If for example a mental image that is unwholesome arises like say pizza, I let it pass and return to knowing the breath. Eventually if you keep at it, mental images no longer arise, and then one is content in the present moment, and I’ve been able to spend an entire day like this, without even having to move. But if I have to move, then the mind is still content because it has been set up properly for the day.

This is reflected in the panner sutta

When they’ve been given up and eliminated, only thoughts about the teaching are left. That immersion is not peaceful or sublime or tranquil or unified, but is held in place by forceful suppression.

But there comes a time when that mind is stilled internally; it settles, unifies, and becomes immersed in samādhi. That immersion is peaceful and sublime and tranquil and unified, not held in place by forceful suppression. They become capable of realizing anything that can be realized by insight to which they extend the mind, in each and every case.

  • AN 3.101

As well as dhamma viharin sutta

"Then there is the case where a monk studies the Dhamma: dialogues, narratives of mixed prose and verse, explanations, verses, spontaneous exclamations, quotations, birth stories, amazing events, question & answer sessions. He doesn’t spend the day in Dhamma-study. He doesn’t neglect seclusion. He commits himself to internal tranquillity of awareness. This is called a monk who dwells in the Dhamma.

  • AN 5.73

Once the mind is propely set up it’s important to not leave your territory, as the Buddha says, and enter Mara’s domain where you’ll be hunted, this is where proper understanding is required, if you have the wrong understanding you’ll take Mara’s domain to be your “self”, and then for sure you’ll suffer. Someone with proper understanding doesn’t enter mara’s domain by not assuming ownership/self over the body, mind, feelings, etc… Instead paticcasamuppada replaces identity view, and this whole mass of suffering is discerned.


Thank you again. I‘ll consider your words carefully in the coming days.

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It was actually during a period staying at Wat Mettā that I came to the understanding and fundamental positions on the Dhamma that I expressed in my book. I was, for a long time, a follower of Ajahn Geoff and was very much convinced by just the same rhetoric you describe of “using meditation as a stop-gap replacement of sensuality.” Between the fact that this approach—in my personal experience—was ultimately failing and seemed to be a dead-end, Ajahn Geoff’s inability to provide any convincing means of discriminating between sensual pleasure and “spiritual pleasure” when I questioned him in-person, and Ajahn Ñaṇamoli’s repeated insistence that meditation methods were almost invariably just another coping mechanism and form of sensuality, I started to take my practice into a completely different direction.

I can not say definitively that any particular person’s meditation is simply another form of sensuality. What I can say is that, as I evaluated my own practice, I ultimately came to the conclusion that Ajahn Ñaṇamoli was absolutely right. I was using meditation as a coping mechanism. I was meditating with sensuality. And I didn’t like it. I didn’t like that all my meditation efforts were simply reinforcing my dependence on pleasure and suitable conditions and the slimy tendency in my mind of perpetually seeking out the “good stuff.” And what really killed it was that I found even the pleasure I did successfully attain through my meditation practices to be ultimately as meaningless and worthless as the pleasure I got through taking drugs prior to practicing the Dhamma, and certainly not leading me anywhere in terms of wisdom.

To me, this comment is also related to your post-script

I fully understand that my book’s approach to Dhamma and the tone it was presented in would be abrasive to a general audience. I have heard the same criticisms leveled at Ajahn Ñaṇamoli as well, that he comes off in his videos as arrogant and harsh. And they’re right. The issue is that, for some such as myself, such harshness is absolutely refreshing to hear. Hearing the confidence Ajahn Ñaṇamoli spoke with instantly indicated to me that I should listen carefully to what he had to say—that he had something to say. His obvious indifference to how he was perceived indicated, at the very least, his authenticity and willingness to be an outsider. Ajahn Ñaṇamoli literally embodies a radical criticism of the entirety of mainstream Buddhist discourse in his very body language and way of speaking. Such defiant and subversive communicators have always been attractive to me personally because I have found that even when such people are wrong, their criticisms of the status quo are often enlightening simply as an alternate dialectic. They point to the cracks and weaknesses in the mainstream understanding, even if such cracks are not actually fatal weaknesses.

So, my book is harsh, but it was written for exactly those people who would respond positively to both the approach and the tone. It was written for radicals: those who are ready, willing, and eager to endure any burden and pay any price that might be required to resolve their existential situation. To “pull my punches,” explain every passing philosophical and literary reference, and soften the tone would have ultimately undermined the book’s message. For radicals, an uncompromising message is attractive.

So I do hear your criticism; it was criticism I leveled at myself many times while writing. But over and again I would respond to such internal criticism by acknowledging that softer Buddhist books exist in abundance. The market for easily-digestible Western introductions to Buddhism is already heavily saturated. So I wrote the book that I felt needed to be written for an audience in desperate need of an alternative to the perpetual futility of sensuality or, to be deadly serious, suicide. Other books on “Existential Buddhism” could be written that will appeal to other audiences, even books that I myself am contemplating writing. I would need to write with a lot more philosophical literacy and precision in order to appeal to professional philosophers and a lot more Pali/sutta literacy to appeal to Buddhist monastics or Buddhist academia. Upon gaining and then using that literacy to write a more formal, rigorous, and less polemical work I will absolutely need to change my tone. But that work will take time; this is the book that I was capable of writing at the moment. The goal of this work was not to get published in an academic journal or university publishing house. The goal was to throw a message in a bottle into the ocean of the internet that, with luck, would eventually prevent someone, somewhere, at some time from committing suicide—to instead send them down the path I wish someone had pushed me towards a decade ago. As Fight Club describes, there is a population of people who are absolutely desperate for an alternative to the mindless, empty, and absurd dynamics of contemporary society, even if, (especially if), that alternative comes in the form of a punch to the jaw.

If you felt like this book spiritually punched you in the face then mission accomplished.


Not quite, but many of the more unappealing aspects have stayed with me, creating some turmoil in the background. Can‘t say I‘ve worked it out for myself, that I will in the near future, or that I will come to the same conclusions you have drawn, but the points you made are not entirely lost on me, so mission accomplished anyway.

On a different note, I greatly appreciate your measured and honest response, and the fact that you came to some of the realizations laid out in your book while staying at Wat Metta adds a whole new dimension to it.
I may have to clench my teeth at the presentation and watch some more Hillside Hermitage. To be perfectly honest, some of the red flags I learned about while associating with a (Vajrayana) cult pop up when I watch those videos. My intuition is rather dependent on context and could easily be mistaken, but it makes watching them an exercise in tolerating ambiguity nevertheless.

Since you know Ajahn Thanissaro‘s approach, could you comment on his idea about progressing along the path in spiral patterns, i.e. path factors strengthening each other? From @Thito‘s posts, I got the impression that people with an existentialist approach, or at least Ajahn Ñaṇamoli, wouldn‘t agree, positing a high degree of appropriate attention as a bottleneck to productive practice instead.

How are your ordination plans progressing?

Just to clarify, my ideas are a smorgasbord of the suttas, my own ideas, ven Punnaji, Buddhadasa, and Nanavira (and other existentialists like Bodhesako), and several smaller known monks, and not a representative of one ideology or interpretation.

So Keller’s interpretation of the dhamma may be a lot more different than mine.

The mutual support and reinforcement of each of the path factors strengthening one another is a perfectly valid idea, one I even mention in the book when I referenced Ajahn Geoff’s description of the path as “holographic.” This is a very, very good word to describe the Buddha’s teachings and even applies to some aspects of the teaching Ajahn Geoff may not have had in mind, like mindfulness practices as one example. The consummation of the brahmaviharas is equivalent to the consummation of mindfulness of breathing which is equivalent to the consummation of mindfulness of death. When mindfulness is taken to apply not on the level of moment-to-moment attention but on the level of remembrance, knowledge, and non-contradictory/non-sensual composure of mind, all of the different “methods” of mindfulness described in the Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Sutta holographically merge into a singular image: a mind rooted in unshakable dispassion with respect to every single aspect of their current experience as well as any other possible experience.

But that was a digression, back to Ajahn Geoff. In my book I cite Ajahn Geoff more than any other Buddhist teacher because I think he has a large number of very good ideas. I do ultimately disagree with him specifically on the topic of samadhi (and on his description of nibbāna as a type of consciousness), but as far as Early-Buddhism-friendly teachers writing in English go there are very few that can match Ajahn Geoff in terms of clarity, creativity, rigor, breadth, and depth.

Yeah, well, a practitioner needs to know what appropriate even is before they can start working correctly. Ajahn Ñaṇamoli takes the culturally-radical but highly sutta-supported position that there is no practice of Dhamma prior to stream-entry. The practice prior to stream-entry can only ever be a best-guess approximation of the Noble Eightfold Path that is inevitably going to be miscalibrated to some degree or another because putthujjanas are categorically incapable of confidently and authentically discriminating wholesome from unwholesome. Sure, people will have a general idea of wholesome and unwholesome, but they won’t know for themselves and will have to take a great deal on faith. And the path factors only start to reinforce each other when they are Right; Right Effort can only support Right Samadhi and vice-versa when both factors are properly calibrated and understood on account of Right View. The proper calibration of the path is the understanding one gains upon stream-entry, an understanding that naturally implies an understanding of the interpenetration of all the path factors. Upon attaining Right View, the reason that the path can be described as holographic becomes obvious: one “sees” the holographic “image” that all the different path-factors are pointing towards. At that point, then, one does not even really need to think about or try to manipulate and cultivate each of the different factors individually; having seen the image that they are all circling around, the factors with their specific details are recognized as simply necessary aspects of the one singular practice of effacement, dispassion, and wisdom.

So I guess you could say that I agree with Ajahn Geoff on the mutual support of the path factors on a theoretical level. Where the tension lies is on the level of practice and pedagogical emphasis. I think the fundamental assumption that lies at the heart of most Buddhist practice in the world is the very natural idea that, through learning about and then “practicing” the Noble Eightfold Path, one will eventually experience liberative insight into the nature of existence during an intense meditation session that comes as the end result of a long process of preparatory work in cultivating the path. It is my position that, while quite intuitive and common-sensical, this projected narrative of how one comes to be enlightened is fundamentally mistaken, at least on the level of emphasis and attitude. Where specifically I think it goes wrong is the additional underlying co-assumption to the view I previously described: the co-assumption that, by simply hearing about and then practicing the Dhamma according to how our chosen teacher teaches it, we will, in fact, be all the while be truly practicing the N8P. This is incorrect.

On the contrary, it is very important to recognize that prior to stream-entry we will necessarily be practicing what might be called the “Ignoble Eightfold Path” or (more charitably) the "Pseudo-noble Eightfold Path. It is only upon understanding precisely what makes the Noble Eightfold Path noble that we are then able to actually practice it. By believing that they are practicing the N8P prior to stream-entry, most practitioners, I believe, will inevitably fall into dead-ends because they are assuming that what they are currently doing is eventually going to work rather than focusing their attention on the difficult but ultimately necessary work of being self-critical regarding their practice, their understanding, how they think that what they’re doing is eventually going to lead to liberation from suffering and how it may be that they are mistaken regarding some or all of their most fundamental assumptions regarding the practice, the nature of suffering, and the nature of happiness/goodness. So these are two completely different attitudes regarding the nature of the practice I’m describing here. The first works under the implicit assumption that it is the practice itself that will result in liberative insight and wisdom, while the second works under the assumption that wisdom and insight is what will allow us to practice properly in the first place.

A putthujjana will be practicing wrongly at first in any case, and I’m not saying that putthujjanas shouldn’t practice at all. What I’m saying is that that practice should be done under the working assumption that the practice is indeed wrong and that the bulk of one’s effort should be put not into the practice itself but rather into the “meta-practice” of continually modifying, experimenting with, and exploring the theory behind one’s practice creatively/intellectually so that someday, through that exploratory effort and throwing away of wrong views, the putthujjana will eventually gain the prerequisite understanding needed to practice rightly, and thus stop being a putthujjana.

Humming along just fine. I’ve been at SBS Monk Training Center in Malaysia for a month-and-a-half now and this place has truly lived up to its projected online image of being an “Early Buddhist” international monastery. I plan on ordaining here if they’ll have me; I haven’t done anything to make them throw me out yet, at least! :rofl:


This aligns neatly with an intuition that‘s been brewing in my mind for the past few months, so while I am in no position to know one way or the other, I guess we can agree! :smile:
What does your process of exploration look like? I have some difficulty calibrating, as an emphasis on studying one source may lead to ossified views, an emphasis on studying and comparing many sources may lead to confusion, an emphasis on persistent meditative effort may indeed be a waste of energy on an incorrect mode of practice, and an emphasis on experiment in meditation may lead to missing the point at which one would have to expend persistent effort over a long time. It‘s like driving at night, not knowing whether you‘re going straight ahead or in circles.

Congratulations! I‘m looking for a monastery in Europe for ecological and practical reasons, but SBS sounds very tempting. I‘ve heard almost exclusively positive things. If all else fails, we may meet in a year or two.

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The putthujjana’s predicament is deeply Kafka-esque indeed. How do you move ahead despite all that? You simply don’t allow yourself to forget that everything you wrote in that quote is a completely accurate description of your situation, and then you just do your best with the discernment and understanding that you currently have because that’s all you can do. This is why I wrote in my book

It is only an eagle-eyed commitment to the truth, an uncompromising
lionheartedness, the burning fire of saṃvega, and
a totalized disenchantment with all other possible modes of life
that will provide the necessary strength and motivation to keep
trudging forward through the muck of your own mind.

The “totalized disenchantment with all other possible modes of life” is especially important here because, upon cementing yourself within the correct attitude of refusing to deny or ignore the reality of your situation, the only real danger at that point will be the perpetually-present possibility of just giving up. Allow yourself to feel the weight of that possibility—don’t deny it. And then simply grit your teeth and bear it and keep going. Being existentially pushed up against a wall, having already discarded any and all other conceivable ambitions or resolves or bad-faith notions of alternative salvation, is helpful in this regard. A man with nothing to lose is a man without fear.

Refuse to live in bad faith and refuse to give up and then do your best. That’s what the Buddha did, and it worked out pretty well for him.

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This reminds me of who I believe was Eckhart Tolle who said on the night of his “enlightenment” it felt like he was suffocating and trapped in an apartment that was on fire and the only escape was to psychologically die, after which nothing mattered anymore. Although I’d argue that his “enlightenment” is purely extreme nihilism.

I don’t know if I agree with your interpretation that it’s what it takes to attain sotapanna, as the Buddha seemed to imply that sotapanna is so easy to attain “even the great sal trees would become sotapanna if they could hear the true dhamma”, not to mention the alcoholic sarakani who people couldn’t believe was a sotapanna path attainer. And what about the lowly thugs sent by Devadatta to kill the Buddha who he instantly coverted one by one? These aren’t PhD philosophers becoming sotapannas. Neither are they ascetics, like Sakka who has a pool of nymphs, or Isidatta the once returner uncle who was married and not celibate.

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I‘ve been wondering the same thing. The two explanations I‘ve heard are that 1) the true Dhamma isn‘t as readily available to us as it was then, and 2) people today generally aren‘t the kammic high quality material from back then. 1 could mean that we lack context to understand the Dhamma correctly, or it could mean that the Canon is corrupted. 2 could be interpreted more in a multiple lifetime way of lacking merit, or in a one lifetime way of a very complicated and sensual lifestyle obstructing insight. Arguably, both interpretations of 2 might lead to Keller‘s take on stream entry.


Well, if we take such statements at face value then I believe we should also take the timeline presented in the Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Sutta at face value. If someone thinks they’re a stream-enterer and has been practicing diligently in accordance with the insight they believe they have attained but are not at least a non-returner after 7 years then such a person can know for sure that they are not, in fact, a stream-enterer. Pragmatically, I’d say it’s way better to overestimate the difficulty of stream-entry than underestimate it. “Shoot for the moon so even if you miss you’ll land among the stars” and all that. Bringing up Eckhart Tolle is actually a great example of why it’s better to maintain standards that are perhaps excessively high in our contemporary spiritual landscape. There’s so much counterfeit Dhamma and discrepant definitions of enlightenment out there that it could be very easy for someone to believe that they have reached the top of Mt. Everest when, in fact, they’re only standing at the top of a big hill in North Dakota. Not only are they not nearly as high up as they might like to be, they’re not even on the right continent.

If it’s not total freedom from suffering then it’s not good enough.


Oh I totally agree that there’s so much distorted dhamma, but even during the Buddha’s time there was a net of wrong views and many different teachings, just like Gotama going from teacher to teacher. He did however know that a teaching wasn’t the right one because it didn’t lead to dispassion, to giving things up, etc… so that was his guiding stick in the dark.

As per the Gotami sutta

Gotami, the qualities of which you may know, ‘These qualities lead to passion, not to dispassion; to being fettered, not to being unfettered; to accumulating, not to shedding; to self-aggrandizement, not to modesty; to discontent, not to contentment; to entanglement, not to seclusion; to laziness, not to aroused persistence; to being burdensome, not to being unburdensome’: You may categorically hold, ‘This is not the Dhamma, this is not the Vinaya, this is not the Teacher’s instruction.’

So even if we’re blind we have some rules to guide us, so I don’t think it should be that difficult to attain sotapanna if one is well versed in the suttas and practices it, as per the dhamma viharin sutta, where the Buddha talks about the ways of not practicing correctly, and the way that does

Then there is the case where a monk studies the Dhamma: dialogues, narratives of mixed prose and verse, explanations, verses, spontaneous exclamations, quotations, birth stories, amazing events, question & answer sessions. He doesn’t spend the day in Dhamma-study. He doesn’t neglect seclusion. He commits himself to internal tranquillity of awareness. This is called a monk who dwells in the Dhamma.

As for knowing if you’re a sotapanna, I don’t think you can directly know because 1) the buddha gives you a checklist of things to compare against 2) his cousin mahanama was scared of having a bad rebirth and the Buddha had to reassure him that he won’t

In the end, I don’t think any of that matters, as you’ll never know if you’re a sotapanna. I don’t think relying on authority is the way to go, I think relying on results evident in your experience is the way to go, which is the same yardstick the Buddha used when judging other teachers, which I wrote above in this post.

If you notice that you have less unwholesome thoughts, and thus less emotional turbulence, resulting in more calm and improved quality of life, more friends because your speech is better, better sleep, you enjoy nature and have no need to consume things for pleasure, etc… then to me that’s a win “here and now” regardless if the Buddha was real or a fairytale, and that’s what I take to mean “Independent in the teaching”, you no longer need to look externally for validation, instead you can look at the level of 3 poisons in your experience as per Kalama sutta.

Only an Arahant achieves that, the other 3 ariyans don’t. If total freedom was the goal for a sotapanna, Sarakani would instantly stop becoming an alcoholic.

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You will never know for sure on a metaphysical level, of course. Even if you had a sammasambuddha available to confirm or deny your attainment and assure you that you will attain full liberation within seven lifetimes, you’re still taking it on faith that

  1. the person in question is indeed a sammasambuddha
  2. sammasambuddhas are capable of accurately understanding and conveying in conventional language metaphysical truths that are, by virtue of their metaphysic-ality, always going to remain beyond the reach of verification by experience (even a teleportation odyssey up to the Tāvatiṃsa heaven would not “prove” the validity of traditional Buddhist cosmology any more than any scientific theory could be “proven” by any conceivable set of experiences)

Going beyond the metaphysical, a sotapanna can also only know for sure in retrospect that the understanding that they arrived at upon become a sotapanna was, indeed, the understanding that is pointed to in the Pali Canon. They can only know for sure that they were destined for complete liberation upon becoming an arahant. The final elimination of suffering is the only conceivably adequate confirmation that a person’s prior spiritual experiences were directly isomorphic to the linguistic descriptions found in Buddhist scripture. Before that there will always be the possibility for doubt that suffering can be completely eliminated entirely because, though a sotapanna can no longer doubt that they understand what suffering is and know how to suffer less, the prospect of suffering being eliminated entirely will still remain an open question to precisely the same extent that whether or not it was possible for a person to walk on the moon remained an open question right up until the very moment of foot-moon contact. The fact that the sotapanna’s metaphorical lunar-lander has made touch-down can only ever be, to put it in appropriately humble terms, a “very good sign.”

However, all of the above does not mean that a sotapanna does not know that they are a sotapanna. A sotapanna might not know they’re a sotapanna according to the Buddha’s specific terminology and metaphysical worldview, but a sotapanna certainly knows that they’re something, something that has, to metaphorically employ the Abrahamic mythos, “eaten from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” A sotapanna knows what suffering is and they categorically know how not to suffer and there can never be any doubt for them about that ever again. To that extent, a sotapanna does indeed know that they are a sotapanna.

Sarakani had the benefit of a sammasambuddha to confirm his stream-entry and also, I assume, sufficient faith to take the Buddha at his word that, having attained what he attained, Sarakani’s drinking or not drinking in the present life was, metaphysically-speaking, a moot point: one tiny grain of additional dust thrown on top of the miniscule pile of suffering that still laid in store for him. But mythical stream-enterers’ life goals are rather besides the point, I think. Hypothetical contemporary stream-enterers is the topic under discussion and I do maintain that

  1. It is impossible for a heedful stream-enterer to remain a stream-enterer
  2. Because most people who think they are stream-enterers today probably aren’t, it would be wise for any who are convinced of their attainment to continue practicing diligently in order to verify beyond a doubt that they are indeed an ariya because doing so, as it is so neatly put in the suttas, fortunately “won’t take long.”

Indeed, even if you saw someone die right in front you and saw a ghost/spirit come out of their body, it doesn’t mean it will happen to you, for all you know you’re hooked up to a VR implant in your brain and everything is a simulation. So the Buddha grabbing your hand and teleporting you to the land of nymphs doesn’t mean much in terms of knowledge. People make assumptions which they confuse for knowledge and reality.

Regarding sotapanna:

All I know is that I wake up, eat, do some repetitive activity I call “work”, have a little free time and go to bed when the sky gets dark. Rinse and repeat (or maybe there is no repeat, and the repeat is an implanted memory by my masters). Whether this will go on for eternity or will one day end, or only happens once, is an assumption and not a knowledge.

Between those experiences I call “events in a day”, discontent and boredom can arise which I presume is caused by a perversion of perception resulting in identity view and conceit and from ignorance and Improper attention. This is what I believe the suttas call sotapanna magga (path), but this is not a knowledge this is a faith and reason based belief. This is what Sarakani and Mahanama had.

Sotapanna phala (fruit) has confirmed knowledge of dependent origination, as one has overcome the 5 hindrances for at least a moment of a finger snap, but even then one doesn’t know directly that they’re a sotapanna as MN 48 gives them a checklist to determine if they’ve attained the fruit, otherwise they wouldn’t need a checklist. This is my reasoning, understanding and belief.