10. Attaining the Sotapanna Stage via Removing Ditthasava

The top 11 posts in this section describe the fundamentals of Buddhist meditation. The rest of the posts in this section are on possible meditation subjects. They can be used to clarify unresolved questions, and to gain samādhi. The first 11 posts should be followed in that order, at least initially.

July 30, 2015: I have re-written the two posts #10 and #11 (previously titled, “10. Magga Phala and Ariya Jhanas via Cultivation of Satta Bojjhaṅga” and “11. How to Select and “Grow” Meditation Procedures for Magga Phala”) that written some time back with different titles. Over the past two months, I have clarified some subtle issues in both my own experience and in technical details. Revised August 5, 2017; September 19, 2018 (updated links).

1. First, it would be challenging to get to even a state of samādhi if one is not keeping up at least the “conventional” five precepts: abstaining from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and using drugs or getting intoxicated. Those things make the mind restless and make it hard for the mind to focus attention (the five hindrances “cover the mind”). Just strictly obeying the five precepts may not be effective if one’s mind is full of jealousy, extreme greed, hate, etc.; see, “The Five Precepts – What the Buddha Meant by Them.”

  • Just like one cannot see the bottom of a well if it is highly contaminated, the mind (and the body) will not “feel anything” even in a formal meditation session if the mind is “highly contaminated.” And there is no point in trying to take out the “small defilements” (such as abstaining from taking a glass of wine) if one is engaged in immoral activities.
  • With the “big defilements” removed, one starts seeing a little bit further down the well; similarly, one’s mind will become lighter, with less stress, even when not in a formal meditation session. When one sits down in a quiet place, it will become easier to get to some state of “samādhi,” or tranquility.
  • The Buddha said that “kusala sila” leads to the tranquility of the body and mind, which in turn leads to samādhi. The “kusala sila” accomplished via gaining Samma Ditthi (to some extent) is all that is needed to attain the upacāra samādhi needed for the Sōtapanna magga/phala. All three samyōjanā removed at the Sōtapanna stage (sakkāya ditthi, vicikicca, silabbata parāmāsa) are associated with the wrong vision or ditthi.

2. Many people have the idea that one needs to “get to samādhi” using a separate meditation technique such as conventional breath meditation. Even though one could do that, it would be a waste of time. One can get to samādhi just by listening or reading attentively to CORRECT dhamma.

  • There is not even a single reference in the Tipitaka, where the Buddha asked anyone to do a “Samata Bhāvanā” first and then to “vipassana bhāvanā.”  When one comprehends Dhamma, one’s mind gets calm, and through that Samata state, one can get to magga phala.
  • After attaining the Sōtapanna stage, one can get to Ariya jhānās by focusing on that “state of cooling down” that one has already achieved to some extent, to get to jhānās.
  • One needs formal meditation techniques to attain higher magga phala, i.e., above the Sōtapanna stage; the reason will become clear shortly. However, it is fine to do formal meditation even to attain the Sōtapanna stage. In the following, I will describe what I went through.

3. To get to samādhi, contemplating Dhamma concepts will make it easier and faster. Also, one will be able to stay in “meditation” for a longer time. Different names used are, insight meditation (vipassana), many forms of “anupassanā,” and cultivating the “dhamma vicayasabbojjanga. Concomitantly, one needs to do the correct version of “ānāpānasati” at all times.

  • In principle, working towards the Sōtapanna stage does not require any formal meditation techniques even though meditation can help; there have been countless people who attained the Sōtapanna or even higher stages of Nibbāna just by listening to a Dhamma discourse.
  • It is quite essential to understand this point. Many people have one or more of the following misconceptions about reaching the Sōtapanna stage. (i) Giving up all worldly possessions, (ii) Become a bhikkhu or live in seclusion, (iii) One needs to many types of meditation techniques.
  • To clarify this issue, let us examine what is involved in attaining the Sōtapanna stage.

4. Removal of cravings for worldly pleasures or āsāvās (āsavakkhaya) leads to Nibbāna; see, “Gathi (Character), Anusaya (Temptations), and Asava (Cravings).”

  • Out of the four āsāvās that we have, only one goes away at the Sōtapanna stage: ditthāsava or the craving for wrong worldviews. In the Sabbāsava Sutta, this is referred to as removal by clear vision (“dassanena pahātabbā,” where dassanena is vision and pahātabbā is removal).
  • The other three āsāvās of kāmāsava (craving for sense pleasures), bhavāsava (desire to live somewhere in the 31 realms of this world), and avijjāsava (ignorance of anicca, dukkha, anatta) go away at the higher stages of Nibbāna; see the above post.

5. The critical point is that one does “apāyagāmi apunnābhisankhāra” (or strong immoral deeds that makes one eligible to be born in the lower four realms) only when one has wrong worldviews. Contrary to most people’s beliefs, one does not need to lose the craving for sense pleasures to attain the Sōtapanna stage. Kāma āsava is reduced in stages in the Sōtapanna and Sakadāgāmi stages and is removed only at the Anāgāmi stage.

  • That is why learning dhamma concepts and getting rid of “ditthis” or “wrong views” is key in attaining the Sōtapanna stage, as I emphasized in several posts; if you enter “ditthi” in the Search box on the top right, you will see many relevant posts.
  • We all have many ditthis. These can be removed only via learning the true nature of this world, i.e., by learning Dhamma.
  • One meaning of Sōtapanna (“sōta” + “panna“) is “one who has cultivated wisdom by listening to Dhamma”; in the days of the Buddha, that was how one learned Dhamma, by listening.

6. Even before meeting my teacher Theros, I had been thinking about dhamma concepts for 3-4 years and had been trying to get a consistent picture in my mind. Even at that time, I could quickly get to samādhi because my mind was focused.

  • When I “got stuck” trying to figure out what a particular concept means concerning others, I would look through books and also listen to desanas (discourses) on the internet. It is at this stage that I realized that most of the explanations did not make sense, and of course, were not consistent with other key concepts.
  • To give an example, I had a hard time explaining the rebirth stories by so many children. If “being born human” is so difficult as explained in many suttas (see, “How the Buddha Described the Chance of Rebirth in the Human Realm“), then how can all those children remember their recent past lives? Furthermore, there were “gaps” from the time they died in the previous life to the time they were born in this life.
  • Once I met my teacher Thero, I was able to clarify that issue along with numerous others: Birth is different from “human bhava“; see, “Bhava and Jāti – States of Existence and Births Therein.” Also, when one dies and has energy left in the “human bhava,” one becomes a gandhabba and has to wait until a suitable womb becomes available; see, “Mental Body – Gandhabba.”
  • Thus rebirth in the human realm does not happen instantaneously. One could in the gandhabba state for years before being directed to a suitable womb. And one can be born in the human realm many times before the kammic energy for that “human bhava” is exhausted.

7. However, I was able to get to samādhi even before resolving many of these issues. I was making steady progress with the concepts that I could quickly grasp. I would sit at the desk and contemplate and feel my body getting lighter and the mind becoming calm. It was much better than just wasting time doing “breath meditation.”

  • If I sat in a quiet place and meditated (contemplated about a Dhamma concept), my mind would “latch on to it,” and I could get to possibly an anariya jhānic experience. That started about a year before I learned the true meanings of “anicca, dukkha, anatta.”
  • It started with “tingling sensations inside my brain”; I could feel things happening there. And then I could feel “needle pricks” all over the body, and my body would start “freezing,” mostly the upper body. These “symptoms” are not common to all.
  • Learning Dhamma is a critical part of “kusala sila,” especially for the Sōtapanna stage. Kusala sila automatically leads to samādhi, as discussed in the “Na Cēta­nākara­nīya Sutta.”

8. After I heard the “true meanings of anicca, dukkha, anatta,” I made progress very quickly. When I look back now, I may have attained the Sōtapanna stage while listening to that very first desana. However, it took me some time to realize it and to convince myself.  One needs to look back at the progress one has made, and see that one in now incapable of committing immoral deeds that would make one eligible for rebirth in the apayas.

  • I was over-joyed with being able to comprehend the “foundation of Buddha Dhamma.” It does not make sense to struggle to seek more worldly pleasures and possessions, That is guaranteed to be a failure in the long run. One spends one’s whole life making money to enjoy such “pleasures” and before one realizes, one has come to old age. I would call or e-mail my friends and tell them that they needed to listen to desanas by those Theros.
  • It took me a little while to realize that most of them could not figure out what I was excited about. Now, looking back, I realize that their minds were not ready. They were too busy making “more money.” For me, who had been struggling seriously for a few years, it was a revelation. But most people who just spent a bit of their time reading, critical concepts do not “connect.” Reading Dhamma should not be done the same way as reading a newspaper or a novel; one needs to be engaged.
  • Anyway, after getting the true meaning of “anicca, dukkha, anatta,” I spent the next few months scouring the internet for the desanas of those Theros. After five months, I made a trip to Sri Lanka and brought back more material to listen to. It was so fulfilling and exciting; I was learning at a very rapid pace. At that time, I didn’t even think about jhānās, but I could feel “jhānic effects,” i.e., my samādhi was getting intense, even though I was not trying to cultivate them.
  • September 19, 2018 update: For the past few years, I have been listening to only those desanas by Waharaka Thero.  They are available only in the Sinhala language at “සදහම් දේශනා“; also see: “Parinibbāna of Waharaka Thēro.”

9. Even though I had an inkling about reaching the Sōtapanna stage soon after listening to that desana, I developed the jhānās some months later. However, those turned out not to be Ariya jhānās though, since they can be attained only by an Anāgāmi; see, “11. Magga Phala and Ariya Jhanas via Cultivation of Satta Bojjhaṅga“.

  • Once I finished investigating and “filling the gaps,” the jhānās came almost automatically. The meditation experience that I described in #7 became much stronger; I could close my eyes and “feel the change in the head and the body” within minutes (and nowadays within seconds).

10. The above is what I mean when I say, “feel the results of meditation.” One can feel it in the body as well as in mind. Let us first discuss the reasons for the “body effect” and then the “mind effect.”

  • We have a very complex nervous system that the brain uses to control various body parts and also to communicate with the five physical senses. There is a “duplicate nervous system” associated with the manomaya kaya, and as we grow up, those two systems get somewhat displaced. The displacement becomes more prominent when we start enhancing all types of bad habits; they go “out of sync.”
  • When we start learning Dhamma and stay away from most egregious acts, the two nervous systems try to get to the ideal overlap positions, and one could feel that. That becomes noticeable during meditation. Some people may feel aches and pains, sweating, etc. That is why I had said in other posts that things MAY look worse before getting better. In a way, such “body signals” are a good sign; it means the body is starting to respond.

11. Now to the “mind effect.” Many people tell me that they cannot keep the mind focused on even the breath for too long. That is a sansaric habit that we have; the mind does not like to stay in one place. It wants to “know” about everything that is happening not only in the vicinity, but it also randomly thinks about past events or future plans too.

  • The only way to remove this “bad habit” is to get into the habit of thinking about Dhamma concepts slowly. And that cannot be forced either. Unless and until the mind sees the benefits of learning Dhamma, it can be a “chore” to some people. But once one gets some traction, one starts enjoying the “taste of Dhamma,” and then it is easy to stay focused.
  • The key here is that when one learns Dhamma,  “diṭṭhāsava” (or craving for wrong worldviews) starts to dissolve, initially slowly, but picks up speed as one starts grasping concepts.
  • The two critical components of pancanivarana (kāmacchanda and vyāpāda) reduce as diṭṭhāsava reduced. That, in turn, lead to the reduction of the other three of the pancanivarana as well. This process goes all the way to the Sōtapanna stage.

12. Of course, I did not realize until after meeting my teacher Thero (online) that what I had been doing all along was a crude version of the Satta Bojjhaṅga Bhāvanā. The crucial part of that is dhamma vicaya (contemplating Dhamma concepts).

13. November 11, 2016: I get many questions on this topic, i.e., how to verify one is making progress towards the Sōtapanna stage. The new section,  “Living Dhamma, “provides a systematic way to achieve that goal, in addition to providing guidelines on how to check one’s progress.

  • January 23, 2020: The new section on ” Origin of Life” is an attempt to start “at the beginning” and to get to more in-depth concepts of anicca, dukkha, anatta. The deeper I get into the fundamental concepts, I realize that there is much more! However, basic comprehension becomes more natural too. I may need to go back and revise many of the old posts. So, I would encourage everyone to read the new series written with my deeper understanding.
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