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

November 13, 2015

1. First, one needs to understand what is meant by the Sotāpanna stage of Nibbāna. Many people start meditating without any idea of the goal: It is fine to do breath meditation, if one is only needing to calm down. There are others who are doing procedures that are needed to attain the Arahant stage, and those will not work either because one needs to understand the concept of anicca first, i.e., learning the key concepts comes first (dassanena pahatabba).

  • 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 to get 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 who have been doing the wrong things to get there. Of course one should decide for oneself whether what I say is consistent with Buddha Dhamma.

2. I must also point out that there are many who have been “brainwashed” to think that the Sotāpanna stage is an impossibility to achieve at this time. 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.

  • There are many who 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 taking place in Sri Lanka or in 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 the 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 no language, race, cultural, 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), and 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 get to an unknown destination. Starting to meditate without having an idea of what to meditate on like just getting in the car and start driving without having a map showing where the destination is.

  • Here 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., use kammattana or “meditation recitals”) to reach the final destination. Reciting things without understanding is fruitless.
  • Please contemplate on 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 in the Path, and to clarify many fundamental issues.

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

  • However, the Buddha said that even listening to a discourse is bhavana. One could attain the Sotāpanna stage just by listening to a discourse. When listening attentively, one’s mind gets focused on it, comes to samadhi, and can get to magga phala via upacara samadhi.
  • What it is needed to get to the Sotāpanna stage is contemplation on the key Dhamma concepts, in particular anicca, dukkha, 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 (chakkawata), Paṭicca Samuppāda, etc. This is the way to “find the correct map” mentioned in #3 above.
  • As explained in those posts in the “Sotāpanna Stage of Nibbāna” section, this meditation (bhavana) involves mainly the contemplation (citta) and examination of dhamma concepts (dhamma vicaya and vimansa).  In fact, the four bases of mental power (chanda, citta, viriya, vimansa) 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 and that is cultivated by learning and forming a desire to learn more Dhamma. I can assure that there is no other pleasure like the “pleasure of knowing the truth, the pleasure of discovering true Dhamma”.  From the comments I receive, I know that many of you have found that to be true.
  • Formal meditation techniques are needed mainly after the Sotāpanna stage, as described in the sub-section Key Points from the Sabbasava Sutta under the post, “The Sotāpanna Stage“. However, it is good to do a few kammattana while striving for the Sotāpanna stage and I will discuss those in the next post.

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

  • 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 some 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 there are other who think taking an occasional alcoholic beverage is immoral, but spend hours thinking about other sense pleasures. By the way, it is not the sense 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, it makes the mind more exposed to the panca nivarana; one’s ability to think clearly is diminished when drunk).
  • My point is that hurting another human will have much more potent kamma vipāka compared to 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 staying 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 “parajika” 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 sanghadisesa (next level below the parajika 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 sanghadisesa. The thirteen sanghadisesa rules requiring 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 parajikas, the sanghadisesas can only come about through the monk’s own intention and cannot be accidentally invoked. However, if the bhikkhu does not go through this absolve him/herself, then the consequences will be even more harsh. These thirteen rules are not relevant to our discussion here, but you can read them at:  Patimokkha
  • There two more layers called aniyata and Nissaggiya pacittiya that pertain to bhikkhus and are again not relevant to our discussion. They are even less potent and can be overcome by just confessing to another bhikkhu and making a determination not to repeat.

9. The last set of rules are 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 just confessing to another bhikkhu and making a determination not to repeat. The ones relevant to our discussion are:

  • 10. Should any bhikkhu dig soil or have it dug, it is to 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 very last section of the vinaya rules (with 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 very next birth.
  • And as we saw in #7 above, killing or giving advice to kill even a fetus is a kamma that makes a bhikkhu lose his/her ordination. Killing of 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 also a minor offense even for a bhikkhu, as it is 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 be also deduced that stealing is a misdeed with harsh consequences, since it is included as a “parajika” for the bhikkhus.

  • We need to realize that stealing has many subtle forms too, in addition to “taking something that belongs to another without permission”.  In a society, not doing one’s own part is also a form of stealing, for example. 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”, it is our duty to “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 in a generic way. For example, “killing an animal” is a very generic statement and such an act has a very broad range of kamma vipāka.

  • When you slap a mosquito that bit you while reading a book almost without realizing it, has very little kammic power associated with it. On the other hand, when one aims a gun at a  deer and fires to kill, 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 also “how bad one wants to get it done”. You can almost visualize the difference in the mindsets of killing a mosquito verses deer in the above example. 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 on in order 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 rules and rituals” to be blindly followed. That is exactly the reason that 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 satara iddhipada that we 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 making progress towards the Sotāpanna 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.

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