Revised March 23, 2017; May 15, 2018; September 22, 2018; August 12, 2019; February 11, 2020
One can determine for oneself whether one has attained the Sōtapanna stage. It becomes clear that one has removed the characteristics (gati) suitable to be born in the four lowest realms (apāyā).
Sōtapanna Is the First Goal
1. The most precious thing sought by a Bhauddhayā (or a practicing Buddhist) is the Sōtapanna stage of Nibbāna; see, “Why a Sōtapanna is better off than any King, Emperor, or a Billionaire.”
- It is the Arahanthood that is the ultimate goal. A Sōtapanna will become an Arahanthood within seven bhava.
- Seven bhava is many more than seven births, because, within a given bhava, there can be many births. See, “Bhava and Jāti – States of Existence and Births Therein“.
- Thus it is essential to know how to figure out whether one has attained that stage. Other than that person himself/herself, only a Buddha can say whether a given person has achieved magga phala; see, “Myths about the Sōtapanna Stage.”
- As we discussed in that post, even Ven. Sariputta (who was only second to the Buddha in Dhamma knowledge) could not do that. Some people today claim they know whether another person has attained the Sōtapanna stage (and make money doing that).
2. A Sōtapanna is one who has seen the way to Nibbāna. He/she still has more work to do, but can see a glimpse of Nibbāna from far. The way to Nibbāna has become apparent.
- In another post, I described a simile. A traveler, who, looking for a particular mountain to get to the top of it, can finally see an outline of it at a distance. He/she still has to travel to the base of the mountain and climb up. Most of the hard work was to find the location of that mountain and to get close to it. See, “Sotāpanna Anugami and a Sotāpanna” and “The Sōtapanna Stage.”
Nibbāna Is the Stopping of the Rebirth Process
3. In Buddha Dhamma, the ultimate goal is to stop the rebirth process anywhere in the 31 realms of this world. That 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 rebirths in the lowest four realms (apāyā).
- 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.”
- Instead, it is to realize the unfruitfulness of 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.
- Therefore, one must work diligently to stop future suffering by “giving up cravings for things in this world,” and strive to reach the only oasis in this desert of the cycle of rebirths or Nibbāna. That is to release the mind from the burdens of the material world.
Comprehension of Tilakkhana will change one’s outlook of life
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 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 Sōtapanna stage is like that. Deep down, one will KNOW the dangers of the rebirth process. That any happiness whether due to health, wealth, or fame, 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.
- That is not a “magical effect.” A living being is a continuous flow of kammic energy; see, “What Reincarnates? – Concept of a Lifestream“. Thus what happens at the Sōtapanna phala moment is to change the “gati” of that lifestream irrevocably. One would have permanently shed any “gati” suitable for a hell-being (with gati of strong hate), a peta (intense greed), an asura (freeloading mentality), or an animal (a mixture all those; “tirisan” or all three “san“).
- One way to assess is to see how much of one’s such “gati” have changed for the better. (Over the period that one has been working towards the Sōtapanna stage). One should be able to see significant changes. For discussions on “gati” (or “gati“), please use the “Search” box on the top right.
“Seeing” the True Nature of This World
5. Let us take another example. When we look in a mirror and see our image, we KNOW that it is not another person or oneself, but merely an image. We don’t need to think twice to realize that.
- But have you seen a dog barking at its reflection in a mirror or the 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, an average human thinks very highly of his/her material wealth. One is willing to “do whatever it takes” to achieve such material things, titles, recognition, etc.
- But a Sōtapanna would instinctively know the unfruitfulness of such struggles. He/she may still enjoy sense pleasures (and thus may still like to eat tasty food or engage in sexual activity, for example). However, he/she will not willingly go to extremes, such as engaging in sexual misconduct having affairs outside the marriage or being excessively greedy.
- A Sōtapanna has reduced lōbha to kāma rāga and dōsa (or dvesha) to paṭigha. In other words, greed or hate that was due to total covering of mind by the five hindrances would reduce to “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. We all KNOW that our reflection in a mirror is not real and thus will not try to talk to that reflection. Similarly, a Sōtapanna INSTINCTIVELY avoids doing anything that is profoundly immoral. He/she does not need to think about the consequences of such acts, etc.
Jhāna Can Be a Distraction
6. One could be a Sōtapanna (or even an Arahant) without being able to get to any jhāna beforehand. Many people in the time of the Buddha attained the Arahanthood upon listening to a desana. Upacara and anuloma samadhi are sufficient for one to get to the Sōtapanna stage. Also, jhāna and magga phala are two different things; see, “Samādhi, Jhāna (Dhyāna), Magga Phala.”
- That becomes clear when we look at the possible rebirths of a Sōtapanna. A Sōtapanna could be reborn at or above the human realm.
- But if one has attained the first anariya jhāna, then one WILL be born in the Brahma realm. Thus a Sōtapanna with even an anariya jhānā WILL NOT be reborn human.
- By the way, if one is not a Sōtapanna, but has attained anariya jhānā, 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.
- What I described above is consistent with the extension of 89 cittā to 121. The “additional 40 cittā” come about when attaining the four stages of Nibbāna for people at various (anariya) jhāna levels; see, “The 89 (121) Types of Citta“. However, these are technical details that may not concern most people. I just wanted to show consistency.
Ariya and Anariya Jhāna Experiences Are the Same
7. We also need to keep in mind that the jhānic experience is the same for anariya jhānā as for Ariya jhānā. They are mental states of the rupavacara and arupavacara realms; they still belong to this world of 31 planes.
- There were yogis even before the Buddha who could attain anariya jhānā to the eighth and also cultivated abhiññā powers. Ceto vimutti (or ceto vimukthi) with anariya jhānā is not the same as magga phala with paññā vimutti. In the former defilements are suppressed. In the latter, they have been removed.
- Of course, having even anariya jhānā makes it easier to do vipassanā (comprehend anicca, dukkha, anatta) and attain magga phala.
Ariya and Anariya Jhāna Are Very Different in Essence
8. Just SUPPRESSION of akusala thoughts and craving for sensual pleasures (kāma rāga) can lead to anariya jhāna.
- On the other hand, the attainment of Ariya jhāna requires the removal of craving (anusaya) for sensual pleasures (kāma rāga). Thus one needs to be an Anāgāmi to attain even the first Ariya jhāna. See, “Possible Outcomes of Meditation – Samādhi, Jhāna, Magga Phala.”
- Here is a desana from the Waharaka Thero describing the difference between jhāna and magga phala (it is in Sinhala, but I have extracted the essence in this post for others):
Changes One Can See For Oneself
9. Even before reaching the Sōtapanna stage, one will notice changes in one’s behavior and attitude towards 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 Sōtapanna stage. That change may not be noticeable in a day. It could take weeks or a few months to see some critical differences in one’s lifestyle when one looks back.
- The tendency to get together with a lot of people will reduce. One will be spending more and more time learning Dhamma and contemplating on concepts that are still not entirely clear. Finding more about the real nature of this world is immensely enjoyable.
- 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.
- The only concrete way to be convinced of the Sōtapanna stage is to make sure that the three samyōjana of sakkāya diṭṭhi, vicikiccā, and silabbata parāmāsa are absent. See, “Sakkaya Diṭṭhi is Personality (Me) View?“.
Should One Declare One’s Attainments?
10. Then there is this question. Is it appropriate or even allowed by the Buddha for someone to declare the magga phala one has attained?
- What is stated in the Tipitaka is the following. If one declares that one has certain magga phala falsely intending to gain respect, money, publicity, etc., that is a bad kamma. A conventional bhikkhu becomes “pārājika,” loses the priesthood automatically, and thus could be born in the niraya for doing that.
- Declaration of a magga phala is not banned. “A person attaining the Sōtapanna stage may declare it if he/she wishes to do so,” in particular for the benefit of others. In the Mahā Parinibbāna Sutta (DN 16), “Katamo ca so, ānanda, dhammādāso dhammapariyāyo, yena samannāgato ariyasāvako ākaṅkhamāno attanāva attānaṃ byākareyya: ‘khīṇanirayomhi khīṇatiracchānayoni khīṇapettivisayo khīṇāpāyaduggativinipāto, sotāpannohamasmi avinipātadhammo niyato sambodhiparāyaṇo’ti.”
- Most people who attain magga phala do not declare it; it is not a bragging point. It is the same with jhānā. Many people start off developing jhānā to attain supermundane (abhiññā) powers, but once they get there, they have already seen the fruitlessness of even those powers.
- In particular, when one develops abhiññā powers to be able to see previous lives, one becomes so disgusted with what one (and others) have gone through in past lives. One does not seek to look back much further.
11. Now let us discuss some episodes from the Tipitaka to clarify some of the points made above.
- Visāka (one of the chief female lay disciples of the Buddha) had attained the Sōtapanna stage at a young age. But she remained at that stage even without developing any jhānā or higher magga phala until death at age 120. The Buddha stated that she would be reborn many times (as I remember 11 times) as human.
- Similarly, the wealthy businessman Anathapindika, who built the beautiful and expensive monastery Jetavanaramaya, attained the Sōtapanna 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 kāma lōka, it is clear that he never attained an Ariya jhāna.
- Mahānāma was a wealthy person who was related to Prince Siddhartha’s family. The Buddha told him that he had attained the Sōtapanna stage. However, when he was engaging in his business activities, he often got frustrated and angry with his servants and 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 Sōtapanna stage yet.” So, he would go to see the Buddha, explained what happened, and ask whether the Buddha was sure about the declaration. He still had doubts about his attainment of the Sōtapanna stage until the Buddha confirmed it for the third time; see, “Paṭhama Mahānāma Sutta (SN 55.21)“.
- The key is that there is a difference between hate (dōsa) and getting angry (paṭigha); paṭigha is removed only at the Anāgāmi stage.
More Accounts From Tipitaka
12. Then there was the Sarakāni brāhmin, who also belonged to a “high caste.” He used to consume alcohol and get drunk regularly. His relatives, who were vedic brāhmins, disowned him from their lot, saying that he was unworthy to be one of them. He also attained the Sōtapanna stage, but could not give up the habit of drinking even after achieving that. When he died, Mahānāma (mentioned above) asked the Buddha where Sarakāni was reborn. The Buddha said Sarakāni had attained the Sōtapanna stage and has been reborn a deva. Sarakāni’s relatives laughed out loud contemptuously upon hearing this and declared, “if Sarakāni was a Sōtapanna, then we all should be Arahants.” When Mahānāma reported this back to the Buddha, the Buddha said those ignorant brāhmins would go by outward appearances. That description is in the Sarakāni sutta (Do a Google search to find several translations of the sutta).
- Of course, that episode does not imply that one could keep doing immoral activities and still attain the Sōtapanna stage. What we need to understand is that drinking alcohol by itself is not one of the dasa akusala (ten immoral actions), but heavy consumption could lead to it. Sarakāni probably continued with his long-time habit to some extent, but was unlikely to have “got drunk.” A Sōtapanna removes only strong greed (lōbha). Kāma rāga or attachment to sense pleasures is removed only at the Anāgāmi stage.
- In the Mahānāma sutta (delivered to Mahānāma mentioned above), the Buddha described the sila (moral conduct) of a Sōtapanna: “pānātipātā pativiratō hōti, adinnādānā pativiratō hōti, kamēsu micchācārā pativiratō hōti, musāvādā pativiratō hōti, surāmēraya majjapamā dattānā pativiratō hōti.” It is essential to realize the deep meanings of “five precepts”; see, “The Five Precepts – What the Buddha Meant by Them.”
- In the above “pativiratō hōti” does not mean “will not” but rather “will not do with liking.” After all, a Sōtapanna (unless had attained Ariya jhānā) is not yet released from the higher realms of the kāma lōka, only from the lowest four realms.
Asmi Māna Removed Only at the Arahant Stage
13. Some people try to remove the sense of “me” or sense of “self” to get to the Sōtapanna stage, but that is removed only at the Arahant stage.
- As long as one is bound to the 31 realms, a sense of “self” will be there. These “gati” are removed in stages, starting with “gati” suitable for rebirth in the apāyā as discussed in #4 above. Even an Anāgāmi has a sense of “self” left, though most of his/her attachments for sense pleasures would not be there. One cannot pass a college exam without having graduated from high school.
- One has to advance systematically through stages; see, “The Way to Nibbāna – Removal of Āsavā” and “Conditions for the Four Stages of Nibbāna.”
- 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; 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 understanding “grow” if one is doing correct types of meditation; see, “13. Kammattana (Recitations) for the Sōtapanna Stage“.
Only a Buddha Can Know Another Person’s Attainments
13. Finally, only a Buddha could discern whether another person has attained magga phala. However, there are many instances of people declaring their attainments by themselves when that declaration helped a noble purpose.
- All those who participated in the first four Buddhist Councils (Dhamma Sangāyanā) were Arahants, according to the Tipitaka. Thus all those many thousands of Arahants who attended those four Sangāyanā must have declared the Arahantship by themselves.
- Ven. Ananda attained the Arahantship just the night before the first Sangāyanā. He came to the Council by air (with abhiññā powers) and entered the hall through the keyhole. He did that 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 essential to remove any doubts of others about the Arahantship of Ven. Ananda because of the critical role he played at the First Sangāyanā.