Sotapannā – Just Starting on the Noble Path

November 1, 2021

A Sotapanna is at the beginning stage of the Noble Path, and needs to overcome kāma rāga,  rupa rāga, and arupa rāga.

Getting to Nibbāna Is a Step-by-Step Process

1. In the recent posts, I have outlined the ULTIMATE GOAL of a Buddhist. Those posts may discourage some people. They may think that they will never be able to get to Nibbāna. However, I just wanted to emphasize that it is a “previously unknown worldview.” But getting to that ultimate goal is a step-by-step process. Even a Sotapanna is far away from losing attachments to “this world.” But many people attribute qualities of an Arahant to a Sotapanna.

  • Thus, many people waste precious time by trying to suppress sense desires. In some cases, they try to eliminate the innate sense of “me” or “a self.” That is an impossibility! Their goal should be to understand the “worldview of the Buddha” and first become a Sotapanna.  It is a good idea to read the post, “Is It Necessary for a Buddhist to Eliminate Sensual Desires?
  • Some others also waste time doing Anapanasati/Satpatthana using “breath meditation.” Only a Sotapanna knows how to cultivate them properly. At the beginning of the “Ānāpānassati Sutta (MN 118),” Buddha clearly stated that ALL the Bhikkhus listening to the discourse had various stages of magga phala, i.e., all were at or above the Sotapanna stage.
  • You can read this English translation at Sutta Central: “Mindfulness of Breathing (MN 118).” Of course, the title is quite misleading, and the latter part of the sutta translated incorrectly. But the detailed description of the assembled bhikkhus proves my point. That description starts with, “Bhikkhus, this assembly is free from prattle, this assembly is free from chatter. It consists purely of heartwood..” close to the beginning of the sutta. 

2. The same sutta also has the following verse: “Nāhaṁ, bhikkhave, muṭṭhassatissa asampajānassa ānāpānassatiṁ vadāmi.” In the above translation: “I do not say that there is the development of mindfulness of breathing for one who is forgetful, who is not fully aware.”

  • But the real meaning of that Pāli verse is more like, “I do not teach ānāpānassati to those who do not know where to establish sati (muṭṭhassatissa) and not know how to sort out “san or defilements” (asampajānassa).
  • Therefore, the priority is to understand the worldview of the Buddha that we discussed in previous posts and become a Sotapanna Anugāmi. It is also a good idea to dispel some other myths about Sotapanna Anugāmi/Sotapanna.
Sotapanna Anugāmi/Sotapanna – Knows the Anicca Nature of This World

3. As I explained in the previous post, one gets to the Sotapanna stage by removing wrong views about the world (worldly things can be fruitful/beneficial.) That is the wrong view that the world is of “nicca nature.”

  • We are bound to “this world” with ten saṁsāric bonds (saṁyojana.) They are “mental bonds.” At the Sotapanna stage, only three of those ten bonds break and ALL three are about wrong views only.
    (i) First there is sakkāya diṭṭhi is the WRONG VIEW of a “nicca worldview.” Breaking of that bond leads to the simultaneous breaking of the other two bonds.
    (ii) Vicikicca is to have doubts that Buddha discovered the true nature of this world, his Dhamma is the correct world view, and his Noble disciples can end the saṁsāric suffering.
    (iii) Silabbata parāmāsa is the wrong view that end of suffering is achievable by just following a set of rituals, without understanding the broader worldview.)

4. A Sotapanna has Sammā Diṭṭhi or “the correct world view” and would be able to follow the Noble Path without further assistance. A Sotapanna also knows and understands the other seven steps to get to Arahanthood. That takes place via three more stages: Sakadāgāmi, Anāgāmi, Arahant. The two primary bonds that break at the Sakadāgāmi and Anāgāmi stages are kāma rāga (craving sensory pleasures) and patigha (tendency to get upset/angry when obstacles come in the way of fulfilling such cravings.).

  • The Buddha laid down a systematic way for a Sotapanna to reach those higher goals. He first described them in the Ānāpānassati Sutta. He gave more details in the Mahā Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta (DN 22.) The Ānāpānassati Sutta (MN 118) has the following verse: “Evaṁ bhāvitā kho, bhikkhave, ānāpānassati evaṁ bahulīkatā cattāro satipaṭṭhāne paripūreti” OR “Bhikkhus, that is how ānāpānassati, developed and cultivated, fulfills the four foundations of mindfulness (cattāro satipaṭṭhāna).” Thus, ānāpānassati is just a brief version of satipaṭṭhāna.
It is Not Easy to Remove Kāma Rāga and Get to the Anāgāmi Stage

5. The question is: If a Sotapanna KNOWS that craving worldly things hinder getting to Nibbāna, why is it hard for a Sotapanna to lose those cravings? Why did the Buddha systematize that process to make it easier? The short answer is that even though a Sotapanna has removed the wrong views (diṭṭhi) about this world, wrong perceptions (saññā) about mind-pleasing things in the world still remain intact.

  • The analogy of an alcoholic can be helpful to understand the difference. To give up alcohol, first, he must come to the right view, i.e., that alcohol is bad for health. But most alcoholics get stuck at the second step of getting rid of the “good saññā” associated with drinking. He must persistently be thinking about the bad consequences of drinking. In the same way, even though a Sotapanna KNOWS that sensual pleasures lead to suffering, it is hard to get rid of that “good saññā” associated with sense pleasures. That is where ānāpānassati and satipaṭṭhāna meditations are required.
  • It is a good idea to read the post, “Saññā – What It Really Means” and understand the concept of saññā. Further details of the difference between diṭṭhi and saññā at “Vipallāsa (Diṭṭhi, Saññā, Citta) Affect Saṅkhāra.”

6. That is where many people get confused. Some people INCORRECTLY believe that a person needs to abstain from sensory pleasures completely to GET TO the Sotapanna stage. Of course, one MUST refrain from extreme immoral actions seeking sensory pleasures to get to the Sotapanna stage. But as we discussed above, kāma rāga can be removed only AFTER the Sotapanna stage. Even then, it will take a considerable effort.

  • A simple analogy is an alcoholic. There is no hope of getting rid of that habit without first “seeing” the harmful consequences of drinking. But even after “getting to the correct view,” it takes considerable effort not to “have a drink” when the urge comes! An alcoholic MUST keep thinking about the adverse consequences of drinking. That is precisely what a Sotapanna would do while engaging in ānāpānassati/satipaṭṭhāna Bhāvanā. It is NOT about breathing in and out! Reread #1, #2 above carefully (and read those references) if you have any doubts.
  • Now let us discuss some key features of the Sotapanna stage to dispel some more common myths.
The Sotapanna Stage – Per Tipitaka

7. Valuable information about the Sotapanna Stage is in the “Sotāpattisaṁyutta,” where a series of suttas from SN 55.1 through SN 55.74 provide a lot of information.

  • The first one, “Cakkavattirāja Sutta (SN 55.1),” states that a Sotapanna is better off than an Emperor who rules the whole world because that Emperor is not free of rebirth in the apāyās. The four realms in the apāyās are also named niraya (hell), animal, peta, and vinipāta asura. Furthermore, a Sotapanna has unbreakable faith (aveccappasādena) in the Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha and has unbreakable moral conduct (ariyakānta sīla.)
  • One who gets to the Sotapanna stage can figure that out by himself. That is in the “Paṭhamagiñjakāvasatha Sutta (SN 55.8).” It specifically states that one would know that one is free from the four apāyās. Furthermore, one is free to declare that attainment if so desired. Many people believe one should not state such attainments. Even though one should not brag about it, the above sutta clearly shows that the Buddha allowed it. There are more such myths. 
More Myths About the Sotapanna Stage

8. A Sotapanna has only “seen” what Nibbāna is and knows the path but has just started. His new mindset will not allow any apāyagāmi kamma (immoral deeds that will lead to rebirth in the apāyās).

  • Sarakāni was an old Brahmin who used to drink a lot. At old age, he listened to a discourse by the Buddha and attained the Sotapanna stage. Soon afterward, he died, and the Buddha stated that he was born in a Deva loka. Some people laughed at the notion that an alcoholic could be born in a Deva loka. Buddha explained that those were ignorant of the Buddha Dhamma. That account is in the “Paṭhamasaraṇānisakka Sutta (SN 55.24).” We also know that Angulimala killed almost a thousand people and was able to attain Arahanthood!

9. Another myth is that a Sotapanna would not crave sensory pleasures. But there were millions of Sotapannas who got married and led normal family lives during the days of the Buddha. For example, Vishākā (or Visākā), who was the leading female lay disciple at the time, attained the Sōtapanna stage at age seven and went on to get married and have twenty plus children. She did not abstain from sex. She still had kāma rāga since she was not an Anāgāmi. Of course, she would not have engaged in sex outside the marriage.

  • There are only six types of strong kamma that will not happen by a Sotapanna: killing mother, father, or an Arahant, injuring a Buddha, causing “saṅghabheda,” and following a path other than that of the Buddha.  These are in the “Bahu­dhātu­ka­ Sutta (MN 115)“. So, it is a myth to say that a Sotapanna will not break any of the five precepts. It is an Arahant who is incapable of breaking them.
  • That is not to minimize the status of a Sotapanna. A Sotapanna would NEVER be born in an apāya.
A Sotapanna Understands the Paṭicca Samuppāda Process

10. In the “Dutiyasāriputta Sutta (SN 55.5),” the Buddha discussed the Sotapanna stage with Ven. Sariputta. As we discussed in the previous post,  someone who has embarked on the Noble Eightfold Path is a Sotāpanna. That sutta also states how one can get to the Sotapanna stage. Venerable Sariputta says, “Sappurisasaṁsevo hi, Bhante, sotāpattiyaṅgaṁ, saddhammassavanaṁ sotāpattiyaṅgaṁ, yoniso manasikāro sotāpattiyaṅgaṁ, dhammānudhammappaṭipatti sotāpattiyaṅgan” ti OR “Bhante, the necessary conditions are: associating with Noble Persons, listening to the true teaching, yonisomanasikāra, and practicing in line with the teaching.” Here, the key point is that one cannot be exposed to the correct Dhamma unless taught by someone who has understood it first. Another is the term yoniso manasikāra (mundane translation “proper attention”) meaning “to understand how various types of births (bhava and jāti) arise via Paticca Samuppada.”

  • The  “Paṭhamabhayaverūpasanta Sutta (SN 55.28)” in the same series explains yonisomanasikāra as follows: “Idha, gahapati, ariyasāvako paṭiccasamuppādaññeva sādhukaṁ yoniso manasi karotiiti imasmiṁ sati idaṁ hoti, imassuppādā idaṁ uppajjati; iti imasmiṁ asati idaṁ na hoti, imassa nirodhā idaṁ nirujjhati; yadidaṁ avijjāpaccayā saṅkhārā, saṅkhārapaccayā viññāṇaṁ …pe… evametassa kevalassa dukkhakkhandhassa samudayo hoti.” In other words, one has yonisomanasikāra when one understands Paṭicca Samuppāda.
  • I have only provided a summary of the most essential facts about the Sotapanna stage above. It is good to scan through the available English translations, even though they are not correct in some aspects. Here is the link to the first sutta in the series at Sutta Central: “A Wheel-Turning Monarch (SN 55.1).” 

11. Living  moral life is NECESSARY but NOT ENOUGH to get to the Sotapanna stage. One MUST see the dangers in the rebirth process, just like an alcoholic must first see the dangers (health risks) associated with drinking.

  • Many people have wrong ideas about the Sotapanna stage. I have addressed some in this post.
  • Sotapanna Anugāmi/ Sotapanna stages are the beginning stages of the Noble Path, not the end. A Sotapanna has understood the dangers in remaining in “this world” (rebirth process) but has to overcome kāma rāga,  rupa rāga, and arupa rāga (that binds one to the kāma loka, rupa loka, and arupa loka.) But a Sotapanna has overcome the lowest realms in the kāma loka and thus is free from MOST of the suffering in the rebirth process.
  •  Many people start “meditating” even before understanding “what to meditate on.” Of course, if one is doing “breath meditation,” there is nothing to learn. Breath meditation can be used as a “Samatha Bhāvanā” to calm the mind. But it WILL NOT get one closer to the “end of suffering.”
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