The Sōtapanna Stage

It is imperative to learn the correct Dhamma from an Ariya in order to attain the Sōtapanna stage (one of the four requirements); see, “Four Conditions for Attaining Sōtapanna Magga/Phala“. We will discuss a simile for attaining the Sōtapanna stage in that regard. The Sabbāsava Sutta is briefly discussed to show the importance of removing wrong views first.

A Simile for Sammā Ditthi (attaining the Sōtapanna Stage)

1. Suppose a man lives in an area that is normally full of sense pleasures. But there are occasional flooding, droughts, and also Earthquakes. When such calamities occur, he gets distraught and thus his mind is not at ease most of the time.

  • Yet, he has accumulated some wealth and in the back of his mind, he believes that “everything will be OK” in the long run.

2. Then one day, an old friend (who has been on travel for many years) comes back and tells him that the reason he left was to find a better place to live. The friend says that he did some research and found out that this land is inherently unstable and within several years is going to be destroyed in an Earthquake.

  • Furthermore, he says that he found a place that is very prosperous and that there are no worries about flooding, drought, or Earthquakes there. But it is a long journey to that place.

3. The man tells the friend that he had heard about such wonderful places from other people before. He had followed them at times, but everytime came back after trekking for some time, because he could not see any benefit. Plus, he says, “how do I know what you say is right? I know that everything is not perfect here, but can you show evidence for your theory that there is going to be a big Earthquake? Also, how can I believe you that this place you found is so wonderful?”

4. The friend shows him all the evidence that he had gathered why this area is unsuitable for living in the long run. He also shows evidence about the prosperity of the new place and also describes to him the travel path.

  • The evidence is compelling, and the man decides to follow the advice of the friend and see where that leads to. This is analogous to becoming a Sōtapanna magga anugāmi.

5. The man spends a lot of time reading about and contemplating on all the evidence that he received. Then he begins to realize that what the friend is saying is true. He decides to take an exploratory trip on that path, and makes suitable preparations as suggested by the friend.

  • Once in a while he wonders whether all these preparations are going to be a waste of time. But as he keeps on assessing the evidence he becomes more and more convinced that he needs to take that trip.

6. He starts on the trip and is encouraged by seeing some “landmarks” that the friend told him about. Even though once in a while he thinks about all the “pleasures” he could have had if he stayed home, these “landmarks” give him encouragement to go further and then reaches one of the four “major stopovers” that the friend told about.

  • Once he gets to that destination, he becomes totally convinced about the truth of his friend’s conclusions. Now there is no going back for him. This is the Sōtapanna stage.

7. Thus it is very important to first find out all about what the goal is (Nibbāna), correct instructions to get there (the Path), and most of all why it is not profitable or wise to stay home (i.e., to stay in “this world”). The last one is the critical one to comprehend first, because unless one sees the dangers of the status quo, one will not be motivated to take action (to start on the Path).

8. Realizing the inherent instability of “this world” is the true understanding of the Three Characteristics: anicca, dukkha, anatta. He realizes that there is no point in the current struggle in trying to make permanent peace in a place (“this world”) which is inherently not set up to provide that relief (see, “The Grand Unified Theory of Dhamma”). And that Nibbāna means ultimate, permanent peace of mind. Just this realization leads to the “point-of-no-return”, the Sōtapanna stage.

9. One day the Buddha asked Ven. Sariputta to clarify what is meant by “sōta” and “Sōtapanna“. Ven. Sariputta said, “sōta” is the Noble Eightfold Path, and a “Sōtapanna” is one who follows the Path correctly. To follow the Path, first one needs to have a map or the layout of “our existence”.

  • What we observe with our limited sense faculties is only a very small part of a much more complex world; we are beginning to see a bit more of that wider world with the technological advances made by science. But it is still an insignificant fraction of the whole picture.
  • The whole picture is very complex, but we do not need to learn all about it (but if one has time one could learn Abhidhamma and learn minute details).  The Buddha has condensed the very essence of the existence in this wider world by its Three Characteristics (Tilakkhana): anicca, dukkha, anatta. When one comprehends those characteristics, one can “see” what lies ahead, and what to do about it.
  • Thus one attains the Sōtapanna stage with just Sammā Ditthi, which is the correct view of the wider world.

10. After attaining the Sōtapanna stage, he KNOWS what needs to be done and HOW it is to be done. Then he diligently follows the Path and attains the next three stages, culminating in Nibbāna.

The Way to the Sōtapanna Stage

The key here is that without knowing about the Buddha’s world view (31 realms of existence and the suffering in the four lower realms, see “The Grand Unified Theory of Dhamma“), one does not comprehend the “sansaric suffering”; most suffering is incurred when one is born in any of the four lowest realms. This is important because it is possible that (especially young and wealthy people) may not experience that much physical and mental suffering in this life. And in order to have faith in the Buddha’s world view, one needs to spend some time examining the evidence for it.

1. When one clearly sees why it is not fruitful to stay in “this world” of 31 realms, he/she has understood the true nature, the three characteristics anicca, dukkha, anatta, of “this world”.

  • This clear vision or Sammā Ditthi itself (the realization that there is nothing “substantial” to be had by staying in “this world”), makes the mind to determine that there is no point in doing immoral things (those that cause rebirth in the four lower realms).

2. We strive to gain or own “things” in this world because we perceive that we can achieve happiness eventually; this is sakkāya ditthi or sathkāya ditthi (both “sakka” and “sath” mean “good” or fruitful, and “kāya” means “kriya” or actions; ditthi means wrong view: thus both these mean our wrong view that our actions to acquire “things” or to “seek happiness” are good and fruitful.

  • When one truly understands anicca, dukkha, anatta, this wrong view is removed. One realizes that nothing we do can lead to permanent happiness “in this world”.

3. Furthermore, for one who has clearly seen anicca, dukkha, anatta, the mind does not allow serious wrong doings (vici + ki+ichcha = liking for wrong actions or things) that could lead to birth in the lower four realms; there is no doubt regarding the “world vision” that he/she realized. Thus vicikicca, or the liking for unfruitful and harmful actions, is removed at the Sōtapanna stage.

4. It is clear that all that is needed to be done is to contemplate on the true nature of the world. It is done by purifying the mind, and cannot be done just by following certain rituals, such as just obeying precepts on certain days.

  • Thus the idea of “silabbata paramasa” or “Nibbāna can be attained by following rituals” is removed at the Sōtapanna stage. One realizes what the Buddha said by “sanvarattena seelan“, i.e., “sila” or moral behavior is achieved by constraint of eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind, at ALL TIMES, not by “observing precepts” for a day or even several days.

5. For one who has become “dassanena sampanno” (one with true and clear vision), the mindset changes not by following formal procedures, but by understanding the futility of breaking any precepts or wrong doings. Even if one does a wrong act, the mistake is realized and one takes care to avoid it.

6. Please keep in mind that this is not to discourage people from observing precepts as a formality. This is a good thing to do for those who are starting on the Path, and also a good habit to create in children. It is customary in Buddhist countries for whole families to go the temple and observe “panca sila” or “attangika sila” on Poya (Full Moon) days.

Key Points from the Sabbāsava Sutta

The key to attaining Nibbāna is to remove the āsavas (residue from fermentation of bad thoughts/habits over many sansaric births). This will be discussed under the key Dhamma Concepts.

In the Sabbāsava Sutta, the Buddha listed seven steps to remove the āsavas and to purify the mind thus paving the way to Nibbāna.  These seven steps are listed below:

1. Removal by clear vision (“dassanena pahathabba”, where dassana is vision and pahathabba is removal). This is clear understanding of anicca, dukkha, anatta.

2. Removal by  the restrained use of the senses (“sanvarena pahathabba”, where sanvara is disciplined use of the sense faculties: not to over-indulge in the senses).

3. Removal by good and frequent associations (“patisevana pahathabba”, where sevana is association: for example, with good friends and good deeds).

4. Removal by tolerance and patience (“adhivasana pahathabba”). For example, even if one is tempted to steal because one is hungry, one should contemplate the consequences and bear the hunger.

5. Removal by staying clear of “bad influences and environments” (“parivajjana pahathabba”). One needs to avoid bad friends, bad locations for living (due to floods, bad neighbors, etc), avoiding unsuitable times to go out, etc.

6. Removal by getting rid of certain things (“vinodana pahathabba”). One needs to get rid of bad thoughts that come to mind, for example, for excessive sense pleasure, hate, etc.

7. Removal by meditation (“bhavana pahathabba”). When one has the clear vision in #1, it becomes apparent what to contemplate on.

The clear vision is the first on the list. Just like one should not undertake a journey without learning about the destination, the path, and the reason for the journey, one needs to start getting rid of āsavas by first having a clear vision of the Buddha’s world view (see, “The Grand Unified Theory of Dhamma“) and understanding what these āsavas are and how they arise. More on this topic will be discussed in the “Key Dhamma Concepts” section.

  • There are four āsavas: kāmāsava (craving for sense pleasures), ditthāsava (cravings due to wrong views) , bhavāsava (craving for existence), and avijjāsava (cravings due to ignorance).

The ditthāsava is removed by the Sōtapanna through clear vision. Once one understood the true nature of “this world” by contemplating on anicca, dukkha, anatta, one would not commit any immoral acts to gain anything in “this world”; see, “Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta“. This alone saves one from future rebirths in the lower four realms.

  • A Sōtapanna still has the other three āsavas left. Those are removed mainly by the meditation on the Saptha Bojjanga.

The other five steps listed in the Sabbāsava Sutta, as one can clearly see, are common sense things to do. They need to be followed at any stage. Actually those steps can be used by anyone to enhance the quality of life and to remove any bad habits that they have, for example, alcohol or drug use, to eating too much. A clear vision of why those are bad, and why they need to be stopped is an important step.

  • The Mahā Satipatthāna Sutta covers all seven steps in a somewhat different fashion. The Anapānasati bhāvanā (not the breath meditation version) plays a major role here.

Next, “How to Cultivate the Noble Eightfold Path Starting with Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta“, ……

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