12. Key Factors to be Considered when “Meditating” for the Sotāpanna Stage

November 13, 2015; revised August 28, 2022

1. First, one needs to understand what is meant by the Sotāpanna stage of Nibbāna. Many people start meditating without an idea of the goal: It is fine to do breath meditation if one only needs to calm down. Others are doing things needed to attain the Arahant stage, which will not work either because one needs to understand the concept of anicca first, i.e., learning the key concepts comes first (dassanena pahātabba).

  • If one’s goal is to attain the Sotāpanna stage, then one should first read the posts in the “Sotāpanna Stage of Nibbāna” section to get an idea of what is meant by a Sotāpanna and what is involved in getting there.
  • There are many misconceptions about the Sotāpanna stage, and those posts could clarify them. I spent a lot of time doing unnecessary things, so I just wanted to make it easier for those who are just starting or doing the wrong things to get there. Of course, one should decide whether what I say is consistent with Buddha Dhamma.

2. I must also point out that many have been “brainwashed” to think that the Sotāpanna stage is impossible to achieve now. It is disheartening to see even some “mahā Theros” in Sri Lanka have given up striving for even the Sotāpanna stage (presumably because they had used the wrong concepts for many years and could not make any progress). But the Buddha clearly stated that his Buddha Sasana will be there for 5000 years, and we are only halfway through. There will be numerous Arahants also in the near future.

  • Many have attained the Sotāpanna stage and beyond within the past few years, and that number is growing. Pure Buddha Dhamma that had been hidden is out and is beginning to spread. Many who have reaped the benefits are trying their best to get the message out. Most of those efforts are in Sri Lanka or the Sinhala language at this early stage.
  • Even though it may not be possible for some (those with dvihetuka births) to attain the Sotāpanna stage in this lifetime, an all-out effort will help at least in their future lives. Those who can make it (with tihetuka births) simply have done more in past lives.  By the way, if you come across any unknown Pāli words, just enter that word in the Search box, and there will be relevant posts listed.
  • In any case, any efforts will have tangible outcomes in this life itself.
  • The Buddha clearly stated that there are no language, race, cultural, or caste barriers in attaining magga phala, or the four stages of Nibbāna. The critical thing is that one needs to follow the original, pure Dhamma of the Buddha and comprehend his message.
  • The key message of the Buddha is that nothing in this material world (31 realms) can be maintained to our satisfaction in the long run (anicca nature). Thus through uncountable rebirths, we mainly encounter suffering. Some of us may not be experiencing suffering in this life right now, but that does not mean it will be the same in future lives (or even at old age in this life).

3. Secondly, having a road map is NECESSARY to reach an unknown destination. Starting to meditate without an idea of what to meditate on, like just getting in the car and driving without a map showing where the destination is.

  • Again, the posts in the “Sotāpanna Stage of Nibbāna” section will be useful.
  • The “map” to reveal Nibbāna is the comprehension of the key concepts like anicca. When one reaches the Sotāpanna stage, it is like finding the correct map. Then only one can start driving (i.e., kammaṭṭhāna or “meditation recitals”) to reach the final destination. Reciting things without understanding is fruitless.
  • Please contemplate this aspect; I cannot emphasize it enough. Finding the map is the hardest and most important part.
  • I have started a new section where a step-by-step process is described to follow; see “Living Dhamma.” It can also help one figure out where one is on the Path and clarify many fundamental issues.

4. Third point — related to the second point — is that we need to examine what “Bhāvanā” (meditation) means when striving for the Sotāpanna stage. It is NOT a formal meditation technique (reciting a given kammaṭṭhāna) that is mainly needed here.

  • However, the Buddha said that even listening to discourse is Bhāvanā. One could attain the Sotāpanna stage just by listening to a discourse. When listening attentively, one’s mind gets focused on it, comes to samādhi, and can get to magga phala via upacāra samādhi.
  • What is needed to get to the Sotāpanna stage is the contemplation of the key Dhamma concepts, in particular anicca, dukkha, and anatta, but also to try to get an understanding of the Buddha’s world view, with 31 realms of existence, beginningless rebirth process, infinite number of planetary systems (cakkavāḷa), Paṭicca Samuppāda, etc. This is how to “find the correct map” mentioned in #3 above.
  • As explained in those posts in the “Sotāpanna Stage of Nibbāna” section, this meditation (Bhāvanā) involves mainly the contemplation (citta) and examination of dhamma concepts (dhamma vicaya and vīmaṁsā).  The four bases of mental power (chanda, citta, viriya, vīmaṁsā) are very helpful to be cultivated; see “The Four Bases of Mental Power (Satara Iddhipada).”
  • In the above, “chanda” is the liking to attain Nibbāna cultivated by learning and forming a desire to learn more Dhamma. I can assure you there is no other pleasure like the “pleasure of knowing the truth, the pleasure of discovering true Dhamma.”
  • Formal meditation techniques are needed mainly after the Sotāpanna stage, as described in the sub-section Key Points from the Sabbāsava Sutta under the post, “The Sotāpanna Stage.”

5. Fourth is to have a clear idea of the priority items to get done regarding sila (moral behavior). In one of the early meditation posts, I pointed out that one needs to sort out the “big problems” to take care of before tackling smaller problems. If a vessel leaks due to multiple holes, one needs to seal the big leaks first. Spending precious time trying to plug smaller holes when the water is pouring out through the big holes is a waste of time.

  • In the following, I will address the fact that many people have misconceptions about the relative weights of kamma. Please bear with me and read carefully, because some of these ideas go against established and common wrong views. I have discussed some in “How to Evaluate Weights of Different Kamma.”

6. For example, many people are afraid of even accidentally killing a mosquito but do not have any problem making plans to hurt another human or spread rumors about another.

  • Then others think taking an occasional alcoholic beverage is immoral but spend hours thinking about other sense pleasures. By the way, it is not the sensory pleasures that is the problem, it is constantly thinking about them; this is a subtle but important point; see, “Assāda, Ādīnava, Nissarana – Introduction.”
  • Of course, killing any living being should be avoided, and it is best to avoid drinking alcohol (especially if one tends to get drunk; the problem with drinking is that it makes the mind more exposed to the panca nivarana; one’s ability to think is diminished when drunk).
  • My point is that hurting another human will have much more potent kamma vipāka than killing many mosquitos or taking an occasional drink.

7. We can get some ideas on these issues by looking at the Vinaya rules for the bhikkhus. These are the rules of conduct for the bhikkhus. There are  227 rules for fully ordained monks (bhikkhus) and 311 for nuns (bhikkhunis).

  • These rules are called patimokkha (“pati” is getting bonded and “mokkha” or “moksha” in Sanskrit is “Nibbāna“) because they help stay out of trouble and stay on the path to Nibbāna for the bhikkhus. Remember that in the Satipaṭṭhāna sutta, “mukha” in “mukha nimitta” also means Nibbāna.

These rules are categorized according to their importance (or the severity of consequences for breaking them). The top four belong to the class called “Pārājika,” meaning a bhikkhu who breaks any one of the four has been “defeated” and thus needs to leave the monastic order. 

  1. Sexual intercourse: any voluntary sexual interaction between a bhikkhu and a living being, except for mouth-to-mouth kissing, which falls under the Saṅghādisesa (next level below the Pārājika level).
  2. Stealing: the robbery of anything worth more than 1/24 troy ounce of gold (as determined by local law).
  3. Intentionally bringing about the death of a human being, even if it is still an embryo — whether by killing the person, arranging for an assassin to kill the person, inciting the person to die, or describing the advantages of death.
  4. Deliberately lying to another person that one has attained a superior state, such as claiming to be an arahant when one knows one is not, or claiming to have attained one of the jhānā when one knows one has not.

8. The next level is the Saṅghādisesa. The thirteen Saṅghādisesa rules require an initial and subsequent meeting of the sangha (communal meetings). If the monk breaks any rule here, he has to undergo a period of probation or discipline, after which, if he shows himself to be repentant, he may be reinstated by a sangha of not less than twenty monks.

  • Like the Pārājikas, the Saṅghādisesas can only come about through the monk’s intention and cannot be accidentally invoked. However, if the bhikkhu does not go through this to absolve him/herself, then the consequences will be even harsher. These thirteen rules are not relevant to our discussion here, but you can read them at Patimokkha
  • Two more layers, aniyata, and Nissaggiya pacittiya, pertain to bhikkhus and are again irrelevant to our discussion. They are even less potent and can be overcome by confessing to another bhikkhu and deciding not to repeat.

9. The last set of rules is the “weakest,” i.e., with the least consequences compared to all others. They are the 92 “pacittiya” rules, which are minor violations and can be overcome by confessing to another bhikkhu and deciding not to repeat them. The ones relevant to our discussion are:

  • 10. Should any bhikkhu dig soil or have it dug, it must be confessed (to avoid killing small animals/insects).
  • 51. The drinking of alcohol or fermented liquor is to be confessed.

10. Many people think “life is a life,” but that is not so. Here digging soil is not allowed for bhikkhus because many lifeforms (insects, worms) are killed in that process. But this act is listed under the last section of the Vinaya rules (with the least consequences).

  • We know that killing an Arahant or one’s parents is an “ānantariya kamma,” a very potent kamma that will send one to the apāyā in the next birth.
  • And as we saw in #7 above, killing or giving the advice to kill even a fetus is a kamma that makes a bhikkhu lose his/her ordination. Killing small insects (inadvertently) by digging soil is a much less potent kamma, as listed in #9 above.
  • Human life is precious because only a human can strive and attain magga phala, AND it is very difficult to get a “human bhava.” But even among humans, there is great variation: an Arahant or one’s parents are ranked way higher. The importance of parents is related to the fact that it is extremely hard for a gandhabba to find a suitable womb. I will discuss this in detail later.
  • We also see that drinking alcohol is a minor offense, even for a bhikkhu, as listed in #9 above. Bhikkhus do not drink alcohol anyway, but this rule came about because of a particular incident at the time of Buddha.

11. It can also be deduced that stealing is a misdeed with harsh consequences since it is included as a “Pārājika” for the bhikkhus.

  • We must realize that stealing has many subtle forms, in addition to “taking something that belongs to another without permission.”  In society, not doing one’s part is also a form of stealing. One is benefitting from others’ work without contributing to it.
  • We also become indebted automatically to our parents, teachers, friends, etc. Even though they may not expect a “payback,” we must “respond in kind” whenever an opportunity arises.
  • More can be found in the post, “Kamma, Debt, and Meditation.”

12. Finally, I would like to point out that it is difficult to quantify the weight of a given kamma generically. For example, “killing an animal” is a very generic statement, and such an act has a broad range of kamma vipāka.

  • When you slap a mosquito that bit you while reading a book almost without realizing it, it has very little kammic power. On the other hand, when one aims a gun at a  deer and fires to kill it, that will have much more kammic power.
  • One way to easily figure out the difference between those two acts is to think in terms of “javana power” of a citta. This goes together with the “intention” and “how bad one wants to get it done.” In the above example, you can almost visualize the difference in the mindsets of killing a mosquito versus deer. For more details, see “Javana of a Citta – The Root of Mental Power” and “What is Intention in Kamma?“.
  • Hitting a person to cause minor pain is done with less javana in the citta. But hitting a person with an iron rod intending to kill has much more javana power, as you can imagine.

13. These are things one needs to contemplate to truly understand the Buddha Dhamma; that is the real vipassana or insight meditation. Getting to the Sotāpanna stage requires learning about such basic things on one’s own by thinking about real life.

  • Buddha Dhamma is not a “set of rules and rituals” to blindly follow. That is exactly why many people have not been able to make any progress and have even given up.
  • When one starts thinking critically and attentively, one develops the four types of iddhipāda discussed in #4 above. Once one gets traction by understanding a few basic things, Dhamma will be the guiding force to generate chanda (desire) to investigate more and to find more. It is boring and fruitless to blindly follow precepts and rituals that will not get one anywhere.

 14. November 11, 2016: I get many questions on this topic, i.e., how to verify one is progressing towards the Sotāpanna stage. The new section,  “Living Dhamma,” provides a systematic way to achieve that goal and guidelines for checking one’s progress.

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