Revised March 23, 2017
One basically realizes (with time) that one has attained the Sotapanna stage, because it becomes clear to oneself that one has removed the characteristics (gathi) suitable to be born in the four lowest realms (apayas).
1. The most precious thing sought by a Bhauddhaya (or a practicing Buddhist) is the Sotapanna stage of Nibbana; see, “Why a Sotapanna is better off than any King, Emperor, or a Billionaire“.
- It is really the Arahanthood that is the ultimate goal, but when one has attained the Sotapanna stage, Arahanthood is guaranteed to follow within 7 bhava (which can lead to many more than 7 births; see, “Bhava and Jati – States of Existence and Births Therein“).
- Thus it is important to know how to figure out whether one has attained that stage. As we discussed in another post, other than that person him/her self, only a Buddha can say whether a given person has attained magga phala; see, “Myths about the Sotapanna Stage“.
- As we discussed in that post, even Ven. Sariputta (who is only second to the Buddha in Dhamma knowledge) could not do that even though some people today claim they know whether another person has attained the Sotapanna stage (and make money doing that).
2. A Sotapanna is one who has seen the way to Nibbana (or a glimpse of Nibbana). He/she still has more work to be do, but can see a glimpse of Nibbana from far. The way to Nibbana has become clear, and one does not need further guidance from anyone else.
- In another post I described how this can be compared to a traveller who, looking for certain mountain to get to the top of it, can finally see an outline of the mountain at a distance. He/she still has to travel to the base of the mountain and climb up. But most of the hard work was to find the location of that mountain and make it to the vicinity of the mountain; see, “The Sotapanna Stage“.
3. In terms of Buddha Dhamma (where the ultimate goal is to stop the rebirth process anywhere in the 31 realms of this world), this corresponds to realizing that there is only suffering to be had by staying in this rebirth process. In particular, one has to comprehend the dangers of the rebirths in the lowest four realms.
- The ONLY WAY to come to this realization is to comprehend the true nature of this world of 31 realms: anicca, dukkha, anatta. And that is NOT impermanence, suffering, and “no-self”; see, “Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta – Wrong Interpretations“.
- Rather it is to realize the unfruitfulness, suffering that one undergoes in striving to reach the mirage of happiness in this world of 31 realms, and thus convince oneself that one is truly helpless in this cycle of rebirths.
- Thus one realizes that the only fruitful thing to do is to work diligently to stop the suffering by “giving up the cravings for anything in this world” and strive to reach the only oasis in this desert of sansara (cycle of rebirths) or Nibbana. To release the mind from the burdens of the material world.
4. Once that idea sinks in, one’s attitude, behavior, and outlook on life will change forever.
- Let us take an example. Once a child really learns the way to add two numbers, there is no way that the child will ever forget that. There will be no second guessing. If an adult, even a teacher, tells that child that “two plus three is six”, there is no way that that child will ever agree to that.
- Attaining the Sotapanna stage is like that. Deep down one will KNOW the dangers of the rebirth process, and that any type of happiness whether due to health, wealth, or fame that can be had in this life is of NO VALUE in the long term; he /she has truly understood the value of the Buddha Dhamma, and that faith based on understanding will prevail through future rebirths.
- This is not a “magical effect”. A living being is a continuous flow of cittas that started at an untraceable time in the past; see, “What Reincarnates? – Concept of a Lifestream“. Thus what happens at the Sotapanna phala moment is to change the “gathi” of that lifestream irrevocably. One would have permanently shed any “gathi” suitable for a hell-being (with gathi of strong hate), a peta (strong greed), an asura (freeloading mentality), or an animal (a mixture all those; “thirisan” or all three “san“).
- Thus one way to assess is to see for oneself how much of such “gathi” have changed over the time period that one has started working towards the Sotapanna stage. One should be able to see significant changes.
5. Let us take another example. When we look in a mirror and see our reflection we KNOW that it is not another person or oneself, but merely a reflection. We don’t need to think twice to realize that it is just a reflection.
- But have you seen a dog barking at its reflection in a mirror or in water? A dog thinks it is another dog, and barks at it. A dog would not know the reality of a reflection.
- In the same way, a normal human thinks very highly of the material wealth, and is willing to “do whatever it takes” to achieve such material things, titles, recognitions, etc.
- But a Sotapanna instinctively knows the unfruitfulness of such struggles and desires. Even though he/she may still be tempted by material things (and thus may still likes to eat tasty food or engage in sexual activity, for example), he/she will not willingly go to extremes such as engaging in sexual misconduct having affairs outside the marriage or being excessively greedy.
- At the Sotapanna stage lobha is reduced to kama raga and dosa (or dvesha) is reduced to patigha. In other words, greed or hate that was due to total covering of mind by the five hindrances would be reduced to less strong “attachments” and “dislikes”; see, “Lobha,Dosa, Moha versus Raga, Patigha, Avijja“.
- The most important thing is that he/she will NEVER do any act that is immoral enough to lead to rebirth in the lowest four realms. Just like we all KNOW that our reflection in a mirror is not real and thus will not try to talk to that reflection, a Sotapanna INSTINCTIVELY avoids doing anything that is highly immoral. He/she does not need to think about consequences of such acts, etc.
6. If one has developed jhanas, it is easier to confirm the attainment of the Sotapanna stage. A Sotapanna who can regularly get into Ariya jhanas can easily verify that such jhanas cannot be “broken”.
- A Sotapanna who gets into even the first Ariya jhana can think about anything at all, and that jhana WILL NOT be disturbed. At the extremes one could think about the most pleasurable experience one had or play back an adult movie one had watched in one’s mind, and that jhana will not be disturbed.
- Therefore, this is a guaranteed way of confirming the attainment of the Sotapanna stage, and is consistent with Nibbana being ragakkhaya, dosakkhaya, mohakkhaya or the “wearing out of greed, hate, and ignorance”. It happens partially, but permanently, at the Sotapanna stage.
- This is the critical difference between Ariya jhanas and anariya jhanas. One could develop anariya jhanas, and they will be instantly broken by thinking such thoughts.
- This is why a Sotapanna could live with the same mindset either in a mansion or in a hut. And this is also why those yogis who can get into higher anariya jhanas tend to live in remote places, away from possible temptations.
- Similarly, one could verify the attainment of the Anagami stage by being able to get to the fourth Ariya jhana.
8. However, one could be a Sotapanna (or even an Arahant) without being able to get to any jhana beforehand; there were many people in the time of the Buddha who attained the Arahanthood upon listening to a desana. Upacara and anuloma samadhi are sufficient for one to get to the Sotapanna stage, even though one attains the first Ariya jhana automatically at the Arahanthood. This is a technical detail that will be discussed in the Abhidhamma section.
- This becomes clear when we look at the possible rebirths of a Sotapanna. A Sotapanna could be reborn at or above the human realm.
- But if one has attained the first Ariya jhana then one WILL be born in the Brahma realm; thus a Sotapanna with any Ariya jhanas WILL NOT be reborn human.
- A Sotapanna can attain Ariya jhanas with practice.
- By the way, if one has attained anariya jhanas and had not lost that jhana at the time of death he/she will also be born in a Brahma realm. But the difference is that he/she is not free from rebirths in even the lowest four realms in the rebirths after that.
- What I described above is consistent with the extension of 89 cittas to 121. The “additional 40 cittas” come about when attaining the four stages of Nibbana for people at various (anariya) jhana levels; see, “The 89 (121) Types of Citta“. However, these are technical details that may not concern most people. I just wanted to show the consistency.
9. We also need to keep in mind that Anariya jhanas could have many of the “symptoms” as for Ariya jhanas, possibly including the “white light” at the fourth jhana.
- We need to remember that there were yogis even before the Buddha who could attain anariya jhanas all the way to the eighth, and also cultivated powerful abhinna powers. Ceto vimutti (or ceto vimukthi) with anariya jhanas is not the same as magga phala with panna vimutti, where some anusaya (and sanyojana) are permanently removed.
- Of course, having even anariya jhanas makes it easier to do vipassana (comprehend anicca, dukkha, anatta) and attain magga phala.
- Here is a desana from the Waharaka Thero describing the difference between jhana and magga phala (it is in Sinhala, but I have extracted the essence in this post for others):
- The only concrete way to be convinced of the Sotapanna stage is to make sure that the three sanyojana of sakkaya ditthi, vicikicca, and silabbata paramasa have been removed; see, “Sakkaya Ditthi is Personality (Me) View?“.
10. Even before reaching the Sotapanna stage, one will notice changes in one’s behavior, attitude, and how one treats not only other humans but all living beings: all those will gradually change as one starts following the Path.
- But there will be significant changes after attaining the Sotapanna stage. That change may not be noticeable in a day; it could take weeks or a few months to see some key differences in one’s lifestyle when one looks back.
- The tendency to get together with a lot people will be reduced. One will be spending more and more time learning Dhamma and contemplating on concepts that are still not quite clear. One will start to enjoy finding more about the real nature of this world.
- One will also start noticing things that one had not noticed before. One will see clear instances of people’s “self-induced” suffering as they try to enjoy life by “partying harder”, but only getting exhausted in the process.
11. Then there is this question of whether it is appropriate or even allowed by the Buddha for someone to declare the magga phala one has attained.
- What is stated in the Tipitaka is that if one declares that one has certain magga phala falsely with the intention of gaining respect, money, publicity, etc., that is a very bad kamma. A conventional bhikkhu becomes “päräjika“, loses the priesthood automatically, and thus could be born in the niraya for doing that.
- Even though declaration of a magga phala is not encouraged, it is specifically stated that, “a person attaining the Sotapanna stage may declare it if he/she wishes to do so” in particular for the benefit of others.
- Most people who attain magga phala do not declare it; it is no longer anything to boast about. It is the same with jhanas. Many people start off developing jhanas with the intention of attaining supermundane (abhinna) powers, but once they attain them they have already seen the fruitlessness of even those powers.
- In particular, it is said that when one develops abhinna powers to be able to see previous lives (this needs at least reaching the fourth jhana), they become so disgusted with what they (and others) had gone through in previous lives, that they do not seek to look back much further.
12. Now let us discuss some episodes from the Tipitaka to clarify some of the points made above.
- Even though Visaka (one of the chief female lay disciples of the Buddha) had attained the Sotapanna stage at a young age, she remained at that stage even without developing any jhanas or higher magga phala until death at age 120. The Buddha stated that she will be reborn many times (as I remember 11 times) as human.
- Similarly, the wealthy businessman Anathapindika, who built the very elegant and expensive monastery Jetavanaramaya, attained the Sotapanna stage upon hearing his first desana from the Buddha. He died and was reborn in the Tusita realm (one of the six deva worlds). Since those deva worlds also belong to the kama loka, it is clear that he never attained an Ariya jhana.
- Mahanama was a wealthy person who was related to Prince Siddhartha’s family. He was told by the Buddha that he had attained the Sotapanna stage. However, when he was engaging in his business activities he often got frustrated and angry with his servants and often yelled at them. After such an episode of outburst, he would think, “if I am still able to become angry like this, I must not have attained the Sotapanna stage yet”. So, he would go to see the Buddha, explained what happened and ask whether the Buddha was certain about the declaration. He still had doubts about his attainment of the Sotapanna stage until the Buddha confirmed it for a third time; see, “Paṭhama Mahānāma Sutta (SN 55.21)“.
- The key is that there is a difference between hate (dvesha) and getting angry (patigha); patigha is removed only at the Anagami stage.
- Then there was the Sarakani brahmin, who also belonged to a “high caste”. He used to consume alcohol and get drunk on a regular basis. His relatives, who were vedic brahmins, disowned him from their lot, saying that he was unworthy to be one of them. He also attained the Sotapanna stage, but could not give up the habit of drinking even after attaining that. When he died, Mahanama (mentioned above) asked the Buddha where Sarakani was reborn. The Buddha said Sarakani had attained the Sotapanna stage and has been reborn a deva. Sarakani’s relatives laughed out loud contemptuously upon hearing this and declared, “if Sarakani was a Sotapanna, then we all should be Arahants”. When Mahanama reported this back to the Buddha, the Buddha said those ignorant brahmins would just go by outward appearances. This is described in the Sarakani sutta (several descriptions of the sutta can be found by doing a Google search).
- Of course that episode does not imply that one could keep doing immoral activities and still attain the Sotapanna stage. What we need to understand is that drinking alcohol by itself is not one of the dasa akusala (ten defilements), but heavy consumption could lead to it. Sarakani probably continued with his long time habit to some extent, but was unlikely to have “got drunk”. Only strong greed (lobha) is removed by a Sotapanna; kama raga or attachment to sense pleasures is removed only at the Anagami stage.
- In the Mahanama sutta (delivered to Mahanama mentioned above), the Buddha described the sila (moral conduct) of a Sotapanna: “panatipata pativirato hoti, adinnadana pativirato hoti, kamesu miccacara pativirato hoti, musavada pativirato hoti, surameraya majjapama dattana pativirato hoti“. It is important to realize the deep meanings of “five precepts”; see, “The Five Precepts – What the Buddha Meant by Them“.
- In the above “pativiratö höti” does not mean “will not” but rather “will not do with liking”. After all, a Sotapanna (unless had attained Ariya jhanas) is not yet released from the 6 realms of the kama loka, only from the lowest four realms.
13. Some people try to remove the sense of “me” or sense of “self” to get to the Sotapanna stage, but that is removed only at the Arahant stage.
- As long as one is bound to the 31 realms, there is a “life stream” with certain “gathi” that gives a sense of “self”. These “gathi” are removed in stages, starting with “gathi” suitable for rebirth in the apayas as discussed in #4 above. Even an Anagami has a sense of “self” left, even though most of his/her attachments have been removed. One cannot pass a college exam without having graduated from high school.
- One has to advance systematically through stages. These are discussed in “The Way to Nibbana – Removal of Asavas” and “Conditions for the Four Stages of Nibbana“.
- As long as one is bound to the 31 realms or “this material world”, it is not correct to say there is a “self” or there is “no-self”; they are both wrong and extreme views. The incorrect interpretation of anatta as “no-self” has been a huge obstacle to attaining the Sotapanna stage; see, “Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta“.
- Any meditation with the wrong concepts of anicca, dukkha, anatta “will not grow”. One should be able to “feel” one’s meditation “grow” if one is doing correct types of meditation; see, “13. Kammattana (Recitations) for the Sotapanna Stage“.
14. Finally, since only a Buddha could discern whether another person has attained magga phala, we have many instances of people declaring their attainments by themselves when that declaration helped a noble purpose.
- In the Tipitaka it is stated that all those who participated in the first four Buddhist Councils (Dhamma Sangayana) were Arahants. Even the very first Sangayana was held after the Parinibbana of the Buddha. Thus all those many thousands of Arahants who attended those four Sangayana must have declared the Arahantship by themselves.
- It is stated that Ven. Ananda attained the Arahantship just the night before the first Sangayana. It is also stated that he came to the Council by air (with abhinna powers) just to dispel any doubts from the minds of the other Arahants of his attainment.
- There are only a relatively few instances of Arahants or even the Buddha performing such supernormal acts. It was important to remove any doubts of others about the Arahantship of Ven. Ananda because of the key role he played at the First Sangayana.
Also see, “Difference Between Jhana and Stages of Nibbana“.