Myths about the Sotāpanna Stage

Revised September 7, 2016; September 28, 2018; July 31, 2023

There are many myths and misconceptions about 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.
  • Indeed, 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 “bad kamma“: Killing mother, killing father, killing an Arahant, injuring a Buddha, Saṅgha Bheda (teaching adhamma as Buddha Dhamma), having niyata micchā diṭṭhi; see, “Bahu­dhātu­ka­ sutta (MN 115)“. Here a Sotapnna is referred to as “diṭṭhisampanno puggalo” (“person accomplished in view.”) Also, these six types of worst kamma are called “ānantarika pāpa kamma;” they lead to rebirth in an apāya without exception.

2. Attaining supernormal powers, such as flying through the air or vanishing and reappearing, 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 is 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 differently, 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 by removing the four lōbha citta that is based on micchā diṭṭhi (wrong vision) and the mōha citta of vicikicca. It is important to note that it is still possible for the remaining seven akusala citta (including the two dōsa-mula citta) to arise in a Sōtapanna. 
  • The four lōbha cittā that a Sōtapanna removes are the ones that are responsible for vyapada, which is the robust 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 give rise to milder versions of anger, are removed only at the Anāgāmi stage.
  • Furthermore, kāma rāga (craving for sensual pleasures) is included in the other four lōbha-mula citta, that is, “diṭṭhi 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 complicated 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 Gati.”
  • On the other hand, many people are focused on trying to eliminate the perception of “self.” That is not something that can be 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 was 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 would NOT be 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 a previous life, he could, in principle, be born anywhere in human or deva realms. Buddha Dhamma describes nature’s laws; it applies to everyone similarly.
  • 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 Sotāpannas. 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 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 backward.
  • 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 of times worth compared to any animal life. A Sōtapanna is at a more than thousand-fold higher level than an average human, and the subsequent levels are even higher.
  • There is no being in the 31 realms that are at a higher level compared to an Arahant. That is why killing an Arahant is an ānantarika 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 jhānic 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 jhānic 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 (gati) of an animal, then it is likely that person will be born an animal of that character. If one has extreme hate and is capable of plotting to harm 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 gati.”  It is easier to live a moral life when one has enough resources and when nothing unexpected happens. But there are instances when presumably “moral people” commit murders in a moment of rage.
  • The Sōtapanna stage is attained purely via attaining Sammā Diṭṭhi and removing 5 of the 12 possible akusala cittā: 4 lōbha cittā associated with micchā diṭṭhi and the vicikicca citta that arises out of ignorance of the true nature of “this world.” All these five citta are removed via just comprehending anicca, dukkha, and 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 “unfruitful 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 are 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, and mōha are removed in stages. One attains the Sōtapanna stage via “dassanena pahātabbā,” i.e., one removes those 5 akusala cittās 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 seven 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, and 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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