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The Curious Case of the Sotāpanna & Sakadagami

It is said of the Sotāpanna that they will be reborn a maximum of 7 more times, either as a human or as a deva. I believe the highest deva realm they can go to are the gods of the 33. For a Sakadagami it is said they will be born once more as a human. To be born as a human or as a deva amongst the 33 is due to excellent virtue. That these realms are the limit for these individuals does tell us something. Neither of them will be reborn in the Brahma worlds or higher. This means that neither the Sotāpanna or Sakadagami has attained the 1st Jhāna or anything higher (formless). They are excelled in virtue, but not in concentration or wisdom. Now, this is fine if we accept that their Right Samādhi is something just short of Jhāna (let’s ignore the absorbed vs not-absorbed debates here). A problem arises however when we consider that those who awaken, either fully or not, are able to attain the Emptiness, Nothingness (sometimes put as Intentionless) and Signless concentrations. In the suttas these concentrations are only possible with a very high degree of equanimity. This is even more explicit in the Āneñjasappāya sutta (MN 106). The three problems I see then are:

  1. How is it possible to have such a high degree of equanimity that one can attain the 3 concentrations, yet not pass through the 4th Jhāna?

  2. How is it possible to have such a high degree of equanimity that one can attain the 3 concentrations, one of which at least is a formless attainment, yet if they die without being an Arahant they will never be born in the formless realms (despite MN 106 saying this is a possibility)?

  3. A Sotāpanna & Sakadagami “know” or have “seen” nibbāna, yet both still have desires for sensual pleasures such as music, sex, food etc. How is this possible?

Thoughts?

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That stream-enterers have no Jhānic attainment is also strongly implied by this sutta

And then Venerable Mahāmoggallāna, as easily as a strong person would extend or contract their arm, vanished from Jeta’s Grove and reappeared in that Brahmā realm.

Tissa saw Moggallāna coming off in the distance, and said to him, “Come, my good Moggallāna! Welcome, my good Moggallāna! It’s been a long time since you took the opportunity to come here. Sit, my good Moggallāna, this seat is for you.” Moggallāna sat down on the seat spread out. Then Tissa bowed to Moggallāna and sat to one side.

Moggallāna said to him, “Tissa, which gods know that they are stream-enterers, not liable to be reborn in the underworld, bound for awakening?”

“The gods of the Four Great Kings know this.”

“But do all of them know this?”

“No, my good Moggallāna, not all of them. Those who lack experiential confidence in the Buddha, the teaching, and the Saṅgha, and lack the ethics loved by the noble ones, do not know that they are stream-enterers. But those who have experiential confidence in the Buddha, the teaching, and the Saṅgha, and have the ethics loved by the noble ones, do know that they are stream-enterers.”

“But Tissa, is it only the gods of the Four Great Kings who know that they are stream-enterers, or do the gods of the Thirty-Three … the Gods of Yama … the Joyful Gods … the Gods Who Love to Create … and the Gods Who Control the Creations of Others know that they are stream-enterers, not liable to be reborn in the underworld, bound for awakening?”

“The gods of these various classes know this.”

“But do all of them know this?”

“No, my good Moggallāna, not all of them. Those who lack experiential confidence in the Buddha, the teaching, and the Saṅgha, and lack the ethics loved by the noble ones, do not know that they are stream-enterers. But those who have experiential confidence in the Buddha, the teaching, and the Saṅgha, and have the ethics loved by the noble ones, do know that they are stream-enterers.”

Moggallāna approved and agreed with what Tissa the Brahmā said. Then, as easily as a strong person would extend or contract their arm, he vanished from that Brahmā realm and reappeared in Jeta’s Grove.

AN 6.34: Mahāmoggallānasutta—Bhikkhu Sujato (suttacentral.net)

Stream-enterers are found amongst these various realms. All of them are lower than the Brahma realms, meaning none of them attained any of the Jhānas. I was wrong though. Gods Who Control the Creations of Others is the highest, not the 33. It should be noted that this sutta has no known parallel.

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That stream-enterers aren’t reborn higher does make sense in away, since those Deva realms are still part of the Kāmaloka. Since stream-enterers and Once-returners still have sensual desire, they can’t be born into the Brahma realms or higher (the Rūpalokas). Interestingly this implies they are still struggling with the hindrances.

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Becoming Sotapanna & Sakadagami and attaining Jhana are different things.
There are two different paths to Insight wisdom: samadhi-led path and vipassana-led path.
Jhanas are milestones on samadhi-led path but they are not necessarily a part in vapassana-led path.
Brahma realms are related with Jhanas (it also applies to non-Buddhists)
So, sotapanna/sakadagama with jhanas may reach Brahma realms but sotapanna/sakadagama without jhanas can’t reach Brahma realms.

Thanks and regards,

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Where are you getting this from? I have never heard of any limitation for stream-enterers in regards to heavenly rebirth. Are you basing this on lack of examples, or some statement from the Buddha?

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I quoted a sutta above as an example.

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That sutta doesn’t say that at all. You are drawing the conclusion that stream-enterers can’t be born in the Brahma world just because they are not mentioned in this sutta?

You need to make a much stronger case before coming to other conclusions. At a minimum you need to find somewhere that the Buddha says where stream-enterers can and cannot be reborn. As far as I know the only statement we get about this is that steram-enterers cannot be born in any of the lower realms.

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Well in the sutta it’s asked where stream-enterers are found. All of the deva realms listed which contain stream-enterers are below the Brahma realms, thus meaning they have virtue but no Jhana. Do you know of any suttas which do say that stream-entry can lead to birth in the Brahma realms?

Also any comments on the other issues I raised?

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So are you saying that all the beings born in the brahma realms are noble disciples? Because they obviously aren’t. So are you proposing that beings in the brahma worlds are either non-noble disciples or noble disciples higher than stream-enterers? But never stream-enterers?

Or are you saying that being a stream enterer is not sufficient for rebirth in the brahma realms and it is also not required?

This is also not true. They will be reborn at most once more. The location of that rebirth is not specified.

So the argument you are building is, to me, based on several flawed premises. But perhaps I am misunderstanding what you are saying.

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No, but birth there is correlated with attaining the Jhanas in much the same way as being reborn in the formless realms is with the formless attainments. Based on the texts I’ve read it seems all those born in the Brahma worlds have Jhana, but not all are noble disciples and none are stream-enterers.

This is also not true. They will be reborn at most once more. The location of that rebirth is not specified.

This could be true. I’d have to check again.

So the argument you are building is, to me, based on several flawed premises.

What was the flawed premise regarding stream-enterers, considering the sutta I quoted? An argument against would be a lack of a parallel, but i don’t see a fault in the premise? Regarding stream-entry and Jhana, even if they did have the Jhanas my 3rd question still remains.

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A Sotāpanna & Sakadagami still has loba/dosa but both have eradicated the worst unwholesome mind which can lead to lower realms.
Only the arahats discard all akusalas.
Abhidhamma explains details - eg. out of 12 Akusala minds, a Sotāpanna has successfully abandoned 6; they still have the remaining 6. What guarantees Sotāpannas is that they can’t be reborn in lower realms.

Thanks and regards,

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How can a stream-enterer know and see Nibbana and can attain the emptiness, nothingness and signless meditations yet still desire food, sex and entertainment?

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As I said above, they still have 4 out of 8 loba-led akusala minds.
So, they get married; live a worldly life; make a living; but they don’t commit serious akusala acts; details in Abhidhamma.

thanks and regards,

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I know, but if they know Nibbana and Nothingness, for example, then it’s difficult to understand why they would still want those things. I know what the suttas, Abhidhamma and commentaries say. I’m questioning if it makes any sense.

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Stream-enterer saw Nibbana once.
Once-returner saw Nibbana twice.
Non-returner saw Nibbana thrice.
Arahat saw Nibbana four times.
It is like 4 levels.

Seeing Nibbana is like burning the forest of Kilesas- the more time one sees (more burning), the more kilesas are eradicated.

Thanks and regards,

But you can’t make these kinds of conclusions based on a single sutta. Especially when the sutta itself doesn’t make any definitive claims. I mean, you can. But your conclusion won’t be useful outside of your argument.

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Not alone, no. Ven. Bodhi has obvioulsy given a more detailed argument here as to why sotāpannas might not have any Jhāna: Bhikkhu Bodhi - The Jhānas and the Lay Disciple - According to the Pāli Suttas (dhammatalks.net)

The sutta I quoted was an interesting one, since it’s the only one I know of where the question of where sotāpannas can end up in the deva realms is asked. The answer given excludes the realms that are always associated with the Jhānas and the formless. In other suttas, which I will have to provide later, these lower deva realms are also tied with sotāpannas in some way or another (the destination of a deceased sotāpanna for example). That these realms are paired with sotāpannas whilst the Brahma realms and higher are not suggests that the compliers of the cannon didn’t see them as having achieved the required attainments through which one is born into those realms. Now in relation to the sutta itself, as I say, it doesn’t have a parallel that I’m aware of. It also makes it difficult to understand how a sotāpanna can have the 3 contacts, which all depend upon highly developed equanimity, without going through the 4th Jhāna. A counter might be that sotāpannas do indeed have the Jhānas. This would answer how the 3 contacts are possible, but it would still leave open as to why a sotāpanna still lusts for trivial things such as food etc despite having all 4 Jhānas, the 3 contacts and having “seen” nibbāna?

"Before my awakening—when I was still unawakened but intent on awakening—I too clearly saw with right wisdom that: ‘Sense objects give little gratification and much suffering and distress, and they are all the more full of drawbacks.’ But so long as I didn’t achieve the rapture and bliss that are apart from sense objects and unskillful qualities, or something even more peaceful than that, I didn’t announce that I would not return to sense objects. But when I did achieve that rapture and bliss, or something more peaceful than that, I announced that I would not return to sense objects."

  • MN 14

“When serenity is developed, what purpose does it serve? The mind is developed. And when the mind is developed, what purpose does it serve? Lust is abandoned.”

“When insight is developed, what purpose does it serve? Wisdom is developed. And when wisdom is developed, what purpose does it serve? Ignorance is abandoned."

AN 2.31

Simply attaining the Jhānas is enough to abandon lust for sensual pleasures according to these suttas. If the sotāpanna knows nibbāna through the Jhānas, why do they still lust for said pleasures? This would make sense if they did not have the Jhānas, but this brings me back to my original problem.

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According to the Visuddhimagga a sotāpanna can enter into their fruition attainment whenever they like, where they take nibbāna as object. This would mean they don’t see nibbāna only once. They can see it as many times as they want. Why then do they still lust for trivial things?

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In relation to the Once-Returner I found this sutta

In addition, I heard and learned this in the presence of the Buddha: ‘There are fewer mendicants who, having ended the five lower fetters, are reborn spontaneously, and will be extinguished there, not liable to return from that world. There are more mendicants who, with the ending of three fetters, and the weakening of greed, hate, and delusion, are once-returners, who come back to this world once only, then make an end of suffering.’

SN 55.52: Vassaṁvutthasutta—Bhikkhu Sujato (suttacentral.net)

I then did a quick search for "who come back to this world once only, then make an end of suffering.’ This phrase appears in quite a few suttas as a stock description of a Once-returner’s destination. To be reborn as a human is considered to be the result of virtue, but not because of any Jhānic attainment. This adds some weight to the idea that Sotāpanna & Sakadagami’s have not developed the Jhānas, which in turn helps to explain why they both still have sensual desire.

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Magga and Phala are different.
In Magga, one sees both “cessation of Dukhas” and “Nibbana”.
In Phala, one sees only “Nibbana”.

With first level Magga, a stream-enterer can be absorbed in Phala (Nibbana) to the extent he/she eradicated Kilesas.

Thanks and regards,

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