Revised September 7, 2016; #6 revised on December 2, 2016
There are many myths and misconceptions on who a Sotapanna is, and what needs to be done to become a Sotapanna. Here we discuss some of these misconceptions.
1. When I was growing up in Sri Lanka, I was under the impression that a Sotapanna could fly through the air, and an Arahant could vanish and reappear as he/she wished. These were the “mythical” status assigned to Sotapannas and Arahants. I guess that is due to the fact that such attainments are perceived these days to be impossible to be attained on the one hand and also a clear idea of what those attainments mean has been lost.
- One is unlikely to identify a Sotapanna or even an Arahant if one has even been associating with that person.
- It is true that the attainment of even the Sotapanna stage is not a trivial matter. And one cannot expect it to be trivial; see, “Why a Sotapanna is Better off than any King, Emperor, or a Billionaire“.
2. The attainment of supernormal powers such as flying through the air or to vanish and reappear is possible even by developing anariya jhanas. Most of such attainments are lost at death (even though the ability to get them back will be easier if one is reborn human again).
- Attainment of various stages of Nibbana are accomplished by cleansing one’s mind and it has nothing to do with developing supernormal powers. Even though it will be much easier for an Arahant or a Sotapanna to develop such powers, by the time one attains such levels of purity of the mind they are not enamored anymore with such supernormal powers.
- Most of the Arahants who had supernormal powers at the time of the Buddha had developed those before encountering Buddha Dhamma. For example, Ven. Sariputta and Ven. Moggalana were vedic brahmins who had developed all anariya jhanas and already possessed such powers before they met the Buddha.
3. Various stages of Nibbana are attained by systematically removing the 12 types of akusala citta (immoral thoughts) or, put it in a different way, by removing the ten samyojana. There are other ways to describe those conditions too; see, “Conditions for the Four Stages of Nibbana“.
- The Sotapanna stage is reached via removing the four lobha citta that are based on micca ditthi (wrong vision), and the moha citta of vicikicca. It is important to note that the remaining 7 akusala citta including the two dosa-mula citta are still with a Sotapanna.
- The four lobha cittas that a Sotapanna removes are the ones that are responsible for vyapada, which is the strong version of anger that makes one eligible for rebirth in the apayas; see, “Akusala Citta – How a Sotapanna Avoids Apayagami Citta“. The two dosa-mula citta, which gives rise to milder versions of anger, are removed only that the Anagami stage.
- Furthermore, kama raga (craving for sensual pleasures) is included in the other four lobha-mula citta that are “ditthi vippayutta” or “not associated with wrong views”. Thus craving for sensual pleasures is also removed only at the Anagami stage.
- Therefore, attaining the Sotapanna stage — while not trivial — is not as hard as many people think if one has a tihetuka uppatti. However, it is not possible to determine who has tihetuka or dvihetuka patisandhi; most people belong to those two categories. One with dvihetuka patisandhi cannot attain magga phala or Ariya jhana in this life, but still can make progress towards Nibbana; see, “Patisandhi Citta – How the Next Life is Determined According to Gathi“.
- On the other hand, many people are focused on trying to get rid of the perception of “self”. That is not something that can forced; it just HAPPENS at the Arahant stage. It is not possible to make that perception go away before that.
4. Turning to another myth, NO ONE ELSE can discern what magga phala one has attained: Sotapanna or a higher stage of Nibbana. Only a Buddha has that capability. Let me give an example to illustrate this point:
- One time, Ven. Sariputta was giving instructions to a bhikkhu. The Buddha came along and told Ven. Sarputta that the bhikkhu had already attained the Arahantship and thus there is no need to give instructions to him. It turned out that the bhikkhu in question did not say anything to Ven. Sariputta out of respect for him.
- Now, Ven. Sariputta is only second to the Buddha in this Buddha Säsana. He and Ven. Moggallanna were the two chief disciples: Ven. Sariputta was second in knowledge to the Buddha and Ven. Moggalana was second in psychic powers to the Buddha.
- Thus, if Ven. Sariputta was not able to discern whether that bhikkhu was an Arahant, it is NOT possible for anyone living today to determine the stage of Nibbana (Sotapanna, Sakadagami, Anagami, Arahant) of any other person.
- One could be of any race or even religion and still be a jati Sotapanna (and, even that person may not be aware of it). If one had attained the Sotapanna stage in previous life, he could in principle, be born anywhere in human or deva realms. Buddha Dhamma describes nature’s laws; it applies to everyone the same way.
- Those people who attained various stages of Nibbana during the early years had different religious beliefs. They sat down to listen to the Buddha and by the time the discourse was over, they had attained various stages of Nibbana. Some people came to debate the Buddha and left as Sotapannas. One does not need to formally become a “Buddhist” to realize the true nature of “this world”.
5. This is why one has to be very careful when dealing with other humans, and not to offend anyone intentionally. It is very important to have at least some knowledge of the different weights of kamma; see, “How to Evaluate Different Weights of Kamma“.
- Some people worry about inadvertently killing insects while cleaning the house, but do not think twice about saying a lie or a hurtful thing to a human. That is getting things backwards.
- The severity of the kamma depends on the “level of the being” that it is directed at. It is EXTREMELY difficult to get a human life; thus a human life could be millions times worth compared to any animal life. A Sotapanna is at a more than thousand-fold higher level compared to a normal human, and the subsequent levels are even higher.
- There is no being in the 31 realms that is at a higher level compared to an Arahant. That is why killing an Arahant is a Anantariya päpa kamma, i.e., it will bring extremely bad vipaka in the very next life. And it is not possible to say whether a given person is an Arahant by looking at that person, or even associating with him/her for a short time.
6. How does one discern whether one has attained, say, the Sotapanna stage?
- A Sotapanna does not attain Ariya jhanas coincident with the phala moment. There one’s “lineage” (gotra) is changed from a normal human to a Sotapanna at the gotrabu citta. A similar citta vithi runs in attaining a jhana, but in a jhana one’s lineage is changed only to a jhanic state at the gotrabu moment.
- However, if one who just became a Sotapanna had developed any anariya jhana previously, then that jhana could be easily converted to an Ariya jhana with some practice. Unlike an anariya jhana, an Ariya jhana cannot be broken even if one forcefully tries to generate a sensual/hateful thought. Thus, for someone who has had jhanic experiences this may be a clue.
- Also, if one can get into the fourth Ariya jhana, that means one is likely an Anagami.
- Another way is to contemplate whether one is capable of doing any acts that could destine oneself to the apayas (the four lowest realms). If one has ingrained characteristics or habits (gathi) of an animal, then it is likely that person will be born animal of that character. If one has extreme hate, and is capable of plotting to bring harm to other people, then that person may be destined to the niraya. If one does not have any of such extreme greed, hate, and ignorance, then one may be free of the apayas, i.e., one is likely to be a Sotapanna.
- However, unless one is subjected to extreme pressures, it may not be possible to discern whether one has removed such “apayagami gathi“. It is easier to live a moral life when one has enough resources and when nothing unexpected happens. But there are instances when perfectly “moral people” commit murders in a moment of rage.
- The Sotapanna stage is attained purely via attaining Samma Ditthi, and removing 5 of the 12 possible akusala cittas: 4 lobha cittas associated with micca ditthi and the vicikicca citta that arises out out ignorance of the true nature of “this world”. All these 5 citta are removed via just comprehending anicca, dukkha, anatta to a certain extent; see, “Akusala Citta – How a Sotapanna Avoids Apayagami Cittas“.
- Thus if one has any ESTABLISHED (niyata) wrong views (see, “Ten Immoral Actions (Dasa Akusala)“), then it is unlikely that one is a Sotapanna. Attaining the Sotapanna stage is not possible until one sees the “unfrutiful nature” of existence anywhere in the 31 realms; and that is not possible if one has ruled out rebirth or the existence of other realms; see, “Ten Immoral Actions (Dasa Akusala)“.
- Also see, “How Does One Know whether the Sotapanna Stage is Reached?” for more details.
7. Many people believe it is necessary to meditate a lot to attain the Sotapanna stage. While it is beneficial to meditate, one can in principle be a Sotapanna without doing any FORMAL meditation as I explain below. I have given some examples from the time of the Buddha in #4 above; however, such cases rare these days.
- There are basically two steps to get rid of lobha, dosa, moha or to attain Nibbana: “Dassanena pahathabba” (removal by vision or the “ability to see”) comes first; that is what is necessary to attain the Sotapanna stage.
- However, in order to accomplish “Dassanena pahathabba” or “to see clearly”, one needs to realize what the Buddha meant by “suffering”, which comes in two types. This is described in detail — starting with the first type of suffering that can be eliminated in THIS LIFE — in the “Living Dhamma” section.
- Various stages of Nibbana are attained as lobha, dosa, moha are removed in stages. One attains the Sotapanna stage via “dassanena pahathabba” i.e., one removes those 5 akusala cittas associated with “wrong views” via discerning the true nature of “this world of 31 realms”, i.e., anicca, dukkha, anatta.
- Then, a Sotapanna can remove the remaining 7 akusala citta in three stages via meditation, i.e., “bhavanaya pahathabba” and attain the higher stages Nibbana.
- Of course, it is good to meditate before the Sotapanna stage; it will be beneficial to calm the mind and to contemplate on anicca, dukkha, anatta. But the “bhavana” or meditation that is needed for the Sotapanna stage cannot be restricted to formal meditation because moral conduct or “sila” sets the necessary environment for the mind to “clearly see” by reducing pancanivarana; see, “Living Dhamma“.