Myths about the Sotapanna Stage

Revised September 7, 2016; December 2, 2016; September 28, 2018

There are many myths and misconceptions on who a Sōtapanna is, and what needs to be done to become a Sōtapanna. Here we discuss some of these misconceptions.

1. When I was growing up in Sri Lanka, I was under the impression that a Sōtapanna could fly through the air, and an Arahant could vanish and reappear as he/she wished. These were the “mythical” status assigned to Sōtapannas 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 Sōtapanna or even an Arahant if one has even been associating with that person.
  • It is true that the attainment of even the Sōtapanna stage is not a trivial matter. And one cannot expect it to be trivial; see, “Why a Sōtapanna is Better off than any King, Emperor, or a Billionaire“.
  • A Sōtapanna is incapable of doing only six things: Killing mother, killing mother, killing an Arahant, injure a Buddha, Sangha bheda (teaching adhamma as Buddha Dhamma), having niyata miccā ditthi; see, “Bahu­dhātu­ka­ sutta (MN 115)“.

2. The attainment of supernormal powers such as flying through the air or to vanish and reappear is possible even by developing anāriya jhānās. 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 Nibbāna 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 Sōtapanna 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. Sāriputta and Ven. Moggalana were vedic brāhmins who had developed all anāriya jhānās and already possessed such powers before they met the Buddha.

3. Various stages of Nibbāna 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 Nibbāna“.

  • The Sōtapanna stage is reached via removing the four lōbha citta that are based on miccā ditthi (wrong vision), and the mōha citta of vicikicca. It is important to note that the remaining 7 akusala citta including the two dōsa-mula citta are still with a Sōtapanna.
  • The four lōbha cittas that a Sōtapanna removes are the ones that are responsible for vyapada, which is the strong version of anger that makes one eligible for rebirth in the apāyās; see, “Akusala Citta – How a Sōtapanna Avoids Apayagami Citta“. The two dōsa-mula citta, which gives rise to milder versions of anger, are removed only that the Anāgāmi stage.
  • Furthermore, kāma rāga (craving for sensual pleasures) is included in the other four lōbha-mula citta that are “ditthi vippayutta” or “not associated with wrong views”. Thus craving for sensual pleasures is also removed only at the Anāgāmi stage.
  • Therefore, attaining the Sōtapanna 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 jhāna in this life, but still can make progress towards Nibbāna; 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: Sōtapanna or a higher stage of Nibbāna. Only a Buddha has that capability. Let me give an example to illustrate this point:

  • One time, Ven. Sāriputta 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. Sāriputta out of respect for him.
  • Now, Ven. Sāriputta is only second to the Buddha in this Buddha Sāsana. He and Ven. Moggallāna were the two chief disciples: Ven. Sāriputta was second in knowledge to the Buddha and Ven. Moggallāna was second in psychic powers to the Buddha.
  • Thus, if Ven. Sāriputta was not able to discern whether that bhikkhu was an Arahant, it is NOT possible for anyone living today to determine the stage of Nibbāna (Sōtapanna, Sakadāgāmi, Anāgāmi, Arahant) of any other person.
  • One could be of any race or even religion and still be a jāti Sōtapanna (and, even that person may not be aware of it). If one had attained the Sōtapanna 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 Nibbāna 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 Nibbāna. 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 Sōtapanna 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 pāpa kamma, i.e., it will bring extremely bad vipāka 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 Sōtapanna stage?

  • A Sōtapanna does not attain Ariya jhānās coincident with the phala moment. There one’s “lineage” (gotra) is changed from a normal human to a Sōtapanna at the gotrabu citta. A similar citta vithi runs in attaining a jhāna, but in a jhāna one’s lineage is changed only to a jhanic state at the gotrabu moment; see, “Citta Vithi – Processing of Sense Inputs“.
  • However, if one who just became a Sōtapanna had developed any anāriya jhāna previously, then that jhāna could be easily converted to an Ariya jhāna with some practice. Unlike an anāriya jhāna, an Ariya jhāna 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 jhāna, that means one is likely an Anāgāmi.
  • Another way is to contemplate whether one is capable of doing any acts that could lead to rebirth in the apāyās (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 apāyās, i.e., one is likely to be a Sōtapanna.
  • However, unless one is subjected to extreme pressures, it may not be possible to discern whether one has removed such “apāyagāmi 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 Sōtapanna stage is attained purely via attaining Sammā Ditthi, and removing 5 of the 12 possible akusala cittas: 4 lōbha cittas associated with miccā 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 Sōtapanna 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 Sōtapanna. Attaining the Sōtapanna 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 Sōtapanna Stage is Reached?” for more details.

7. Many people believe it is necessary to meditate a lot to attain the Sōtapanna stage. While it is beneficial to meditate, one can in principle be a Sōtapanna 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 lōbha, dōsa, mōha or to attain Nibbāna: “Dassanena pahātabbā” (removal by vision or the “ability to see”) comes first; that is what is necessary to attain the Sōtapanna stage.
  • However, in order to accomplish “Dassanena pahātabbā” 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 Nibbāna are attained as lōbha, dōsa, mōha are removed in stages. One attains the Sōtapanna stage via “dassanena pahātabbā” 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 Sōtapanna can remove the remaining 7 akusala citta in three stages via meditation, i.e., “bhāvanāya pahātabbā” and attain the higher stages Nibbāna.
  • Of course, it is good to meditate before the Sōtapanna stage; it will be beneficial to calm the mind and to contemplate on anicca, dukkha, anatta. But the “bhāvanā” or meditation that is needed for the Sōtapanna 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“.

Next, “Why a Sōtapanna is better off than any King, Emperor, or a Billionaire“, …….

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