Study Guide - 10. The Planes of Realization

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The cultivation of wisdom, as we have seen, aims at the realization of Nibbāna. The Nikāyas stipulate a fixed series of stages through which a person passes on the way toward the attainment of Nibbāna. In passing through these stages one evolves from an “uninstructed worldling,” blind to the truths of the Dhamma, into an arahant, a liberated one, who has attained full comprehension of the Four Noble Truths and realized Nibbāna in this present life. I have already referred to several of these stages in the earlier chapters of this book. In the present chapter we will explore them in a more systematic manner.

On entering the irreversible path to the attainment of Nibbāna, one becomes a noble person (ariyapuggala), the word “noble” (ariya) here denoting spiritual nobility. There are four major types of noble persons. Each stage is divided into two phases: the path (magga) and its fruition (phala). In the path phase, one is said to be practicing for the attainment of a particular fruition, which one is bound to realize within that same life; in the resultant phase, one is said to be established in that fruition. Thus the four major types of noble persons actually comprise four pairs or eight types of noble individuals. As enumerated in Text 10.1(1), these are: (1) one practicing for the realization of the fruit of stream-entry, (2) the stream-enterer, (3) one practicing for the realization of the fruit of once-returning, (4) the once-returner, (5) one practicing for the realization of the fruit of nonreturning, (6) the nonreturner, (7) one practicing for arahantship, (8) the arahant. Text 10.1(2) grades these eight according to the relative strength of their spiritual faculties, so that those at each subsequent stage possess stronger faculties than those at the preceding stage. The first seven persons are collectively known as sekhas, trainees or disciples in the higher training; the arahant is called the asekha, the one beyond training.

The four main stages themselves are defined in two ways: (1) by way of the defilements eradicated by the path leading to the corresponding fruit; and (2) by way of the destiny after death that awaits one who has realized that particular fruit. Text 10.1(3) gives standard definitions of the four types that mention both the defilements abandoned and their future destiny.

The Nikāyas group the defilements abandoned into a set of ten fetters (saṁyojana). The stream-enterer abandons the first three fetters: identity view (sakkāyadiṭṭhi), that is, the view of a truly existent self either as identical with the five aggregates or as existing in some relation to them; doubt (vicikicchā) about the Buddha, the Dhamma, the Saṅgha, and the training; and the wrong grasp of rules and observances (sīlabbataparāmāsa), the belief that mere external observances, particularly religious rituals and ascetic practices, can lead to liberation. The stream-enterer is assured of attaining full enlightenment in at most seven more existences, which will all take place either in the human realm or the heavenly worlds. The stream-enterer will never undergo an eighth existence and is forever freed from rebirth in the three lower realms—the hells, the realm of afflicted spirits, and the animal realm.

The once-returner (sakadāgāmī) does not eradicate any new fetters. He or she has eliminated the three fetters that the stream-enterer has destroyed and additionally attenuates the three unwholesome roots— lust, hatred, and delusion—so that they do not arise often and, when they do arise, do not become obsessive. As the name implies, the oncereturner will come back to this world only one more time and then make an end to suffering.

The nonreturner (anāgāmī) eradicates the five “lower fetters.” That is, in addition to the three fetters eliminated by the stream-enterer, the nonreturner eradicates two additional fetters, sensual lust and ill will. Because nonreturners have eradicated sensual lust, they have no ties binding them to the sensual realm of existence. They thus take birth in the form realm (rūpadhātu), generally in one of five planes called the “pure abodes” (suddhāvāsa) reserved exclusively for the rebirth of nonreturners. They attain final Nibbāna there, without ever returning to the sensual realm.

The nonreturner, however, is still bound by the five “higher fetters”: desire for existence in the form realm, desire for existence in the formless realm, conceit, restlessness, and ignorance. Those who cut off the five higher fetters have no more ties binding them to conditioned existence. These are the arahants, who have destroyed all defilements and are “completely liberated through final knowledge.”

The Four Classes of Noble Disciples

Class of disciple Fetters newly eliminated Remaining types of rebirth
Stream Winner identity view, doubt, wrong grasp of rules and observances at most seven more births among humans and devas
once-returner none, but weakens lust, hatred, and delusion one more birth in the sensesphere realm
nonreturner sensual lust and ill will spontaneous birth in the formless realm
arahant desire for existence in form realm, desire for formless existence, conceit, restlessness, ignorance none

Besides the four main classes of noble persons, the Nikāyas sometimes mention a pair ranked just below the stream-enterer—see Text 10.1(3). These two—called the Dhamma-follower (dhammānusārī) and the faith-follower (saddhānusārī)—are actually two types belonging to the eighth category of noble disciples, the person practicing for the realization of the fruit of stream-entry. The Nikāyas include this pair to show that those on the way to stream-entry can be distinguished into two classes by way of their dominant faculty. The Dhamma-follower is one for whom wisdom is dominant, the faith-follower one for whom faith is dominant. It may be significant that at this stage prior to the first fruition, it is only faith and wisdom and not the other three faculties—energy, mindfulness, and concentration—that serve to distinguish disciples into different types. The explanation of the classes of noble disciples found in the above text, an extract from the Alagaddūpama Sutta (MN 22), may convey the impression that all those who attain these stages are monks. This, however, is by no means the case. The Alagaddūpama extract is worded in this way only because it is addressed to monks. Text 10.1(4) corrects this impression and provides a clearer picture of how the classes of noble disciples are distributed among the groups of the Buddha’s followers. As an abiding state, arahantship is reserved for monks and nuns. This does not mean that only monks and nuns can attain arahantship; the suttas and commentaries do record a few cases of lay disciples attaining the final goal. However, such disciples either attain arahantship on the brink of death or enter the monastic order very soon after their attainment. They do not continue to dwell at home as arahant householders, for dwelling at home is incompatible with the state of one who has severed all craving.

In contrast, nonreturners can continue to dwell as householders. While they continue to live as lay disciples, they have eradicated sensual desire and thus necessarily observe celibacy. They are described as “lay followers … clothed in white, leading lives of celibacy, who, with the destruction of the five lower fetters, will be reborn spontaneously [in the pure abodes] and there attain final Nibbāna without ever returning from that world.” Though the suttas do not explicitly say this, it is reasonable to suppose that those disciples practicing to attain the fruit of nonreturning also observe full-time celibacy. Lay streamenterers and once-returners, however, are not necessarily celibate. In the sutta the Buddha describes them as “lay followers … clothed in white, enjoying sensual pleasures, who carry out my instruction, respond to my advice, have gone beyond doubt, become free from perplexity, gained intrepidity, and become independent of others in the Teacher’s dispensation.” Thus, while some stream-enterers and once-returners may observe celibacy, this is by no means typical of these two classes.

The Nikāyas occasionally employ another scheme for classifying noble disciples, one that makes the dominant faculty rather than the level of attainment alone the basis for differentiation. The main source for this scheme is a passage in the Kīṭāgiri Sutta included here as Text 10.1(5). This method of classification divides arahants into two categories: those liberated in both ways (ubhatobhāgavimutta) and those liberated by wisdom (paññāvimutta). The former are called “liberated in both ways” because they are liberated from form by their mastery over the formless meditations and liberated from all defilements by their attainment of arahantship. Those arahants “liberated by wisdom” have not mastered the formless attainments but have gained the final fruit by the power of their wisdom combined with degrees of concentration lower than the formless states.

Those who have attained any of the lower stages, from stream-entry up to and including the path to arahantship, are divided into three categories. The “body-witness” (kāyasakkhī) is one at any of these stages who has mastered the formless attainments; the “one attained-toview” (diṭṭhippatta), one at any of these stages who lacks the formless attainments and gives prominence to wisdom; and the “one liberated by faith” (saddhāvimutta), one at any of these stages who lacks the formless attainments and gives prominence to faith. The last two persons in this typology are the Dhamma-follower and the faith-follower explained above.

It should be noted that this scheme does not mention a person at the path of stream-entry who possesses the formless attainments. This should not be taken to mean that such a type is in principle excluded but only that such a type was considered irrelevant for purposes of classification. It seems that at this preparatory stage, the allotment of a separate category to one with outstanding skills in concentration was deemed unnecessary.

In the selection of texts, I next take up the main types for individual consideration. I begin with the stream-enterer, but first some preliminary comments are necessary. In the Nikāyas, the great majority of human beings are called “uninstructed worldlings” (assutavā puthujjana). Uninstructed worldlings have no regard for the Buddha and his teaching, no understanding of the Dhamma or dedication to the practice. The purpose of the Buddha’s path is to lead uninstructed worldlings to the attainment of the Deathless, and the stages of realization are the steps toward the completion of this process. The process of transformation generally begins when one encounters the Buddha’s teaching and gains confidence in the Buddha as the Enlightened One. One must then acquire a clear understanding of the Dhamma, undertake the precepts, and enter upon the systematic practice of the path. In the suttas such a person is called a noble disciple (ariyasāvaka) in a broad sense of the term, not necessarily in the narrow, technical sense of one who has already reached the paths and fruits.

Later tradition calls a person who has faith in the Dhamma and aspires to reach the state of stream-entry a virtuous worldling (kalyāṇaputhujjana). To reach the attainment of stream-entry, the aspiring disciple should cultivate the “four factors leading to stream-entry.” As Text 10.2(1) explains, these are: associating with wise and virtuous spiritual guides; listening to the true Dhamma; attending carefully to things (for example, by way of gratification, danger, and escape); and practicing in accordance with the Dhamma (by undertaking the threefold training in moral discipline, concentration, and wisdom). The peak of the training undertaken by the aspiring disciple is the development of insight: the thorough contemplation of the aggregates, sense bases, and elements as impermanent, bound up with suffering, and devoid of a substantial self. At a certain point, when insight reaches its peak, the disciple’s understanding will undergo a major transition, which marks the entry upon “the fixed course of rightness,” the true Noble Eightfold Path that leads irreversibly to Nibbāna. As Text 10.2(2) puts it, such a disciple has risen up from the plane of worldlings and reached the plane of the noble ones. Though not yet a stream-enterer, a person at this stage cannot pass away without having realized the fruit of stream-entry.

As we have already seen, among disciples who attain the path there is a distinction between those who arrive through faith, called faithfollowers, and those who arrive through wisdom, called Dhammafollowers. But while faith-followers and Dhamma-followers differ by way of their dominant faculty, they are alike in that both must further cultivate the path they have entered. Once they know and see the essence of the Dhamma—when they “obtain the vision of the Dhamma” and “make the breakthrough to the Dhamma”—they become stream-enterers, bound to reach full enlightenment and attain final Nibbāna in a maximum of seven more lives; see Text 10.2(3). Stream-enterers eradicate the first three fetters and acquire the eight factors of the Noble Eightfold Path. They also have “four factors of stream-entry”: confirmed confidence in the Buddha, the Dhamma, and Saṅgha, and “the moral virtues dear to the noble ones,” that is, firm adherence to the five precepts; see Texts 10.2(4)–(5).

Having seen the truth of the Dhamma, the stream-enterer faces the challenge of cultivating this vision in order to eliminate the remaining defilements. The next major milestone, the attainment of the plane of the once-returner, does not eliminate any defilements completely. However, it does attenuate the three root defilements—lust, hatred, and delusion—to a degree sufficient to ensure that the disciple will return to “this world,” the sense-sphere realm of existence, only one more time and then make an end to suffering.

 A disciple who attains either of the first two stages, stream-enterer or once-returner, need not remain fixed there but can advance to the two higher stages. Descriptions of attainment in the Nikāyas suggest that it is also possible for a virtuous worldling with extremely sharp faculties to advance directly to the stage of nonreturner. The state of nonreturner is always said to be attained simply through the destruction of the five lower fetters, the three fetters eradicated by the streamenterer along with sensual lust and ill will. From the Nikāyas, it appears that one with extremely sharp wisdom can achieve this stage at a single stroke. The commentaries, however, explain that in such a case the person actually passes through the first two paths and fruits in very quick succession before reaching the third path and fruit.

According to Text 10.3(1), to abandon the five lower fetters, a monk first attains one of the four jhānas or one of the three lower formless attainments; the constituent factors of the fourth formless attainment are too subtle to serve as objects of insight. Directing his attention to the factors constituting the jhāna or formless attainment, he subsumes them under the five aggregates: as included in form (omitted in relation to the formless attainments), feeling, perception, volitional formations, and consciousness. Having done so, he contemplates these factors, now classified into the five aggregates, as marked by the three characteristics: impermanence, suffering, and nonself (expanded into eleven headings). As contemplation advances, at a certain point his mind turns away from all conditioned things and focuses upon the deathless element, Nibbāna. If he has sharp faculties and can relinquish all attachments on the spot, he attains arahantship, the destruction of the taints; but if he cannot yet give up all attachments, he attains the state of nonreturning.

The Buddha recognized differences in the approaches individuals take to achieving the final goal, and in Text 10.3(2) he divides persons into four categories with respect to its attainment. The four are obtained through the permutations of two pairs. He first distinguishes disciples on the basis of the strength of their spiritual faculties. Those with strong faculties reach final Nibbāna in this very life. Those with relatively weak faculties attain final Nibbāna in the next life, and thus presumably expire as nonreturners. The other pair distinguishes disciples by their mode of development. One class takes the “difficult” approach, which uses meditation subjects that generate sharp wisdom and lead directly to disenchantment and dispassion. The other class takes the smoother and more pleasant route leading through the four jhānas. These two types correspond roughly to those who give emphasis to insight and those who give emphasis to serenity.

A short sutta in the Sotāpattisaṁyutta, Text 10.3(3), relates the story of Dīghāvu, a youth who took the difficult route emphasizing insight to the stage of nonreturner. Dīghāvu was lying on his deathbed when the Buddha came to him and asked him to train in the four factors of stream-entry. Dīghāvu said that he was already endowed with these factors, indicating thereby that he was a stream-enterer. The Buddha then instructed him to develop “six things that partake of true knowledge.” He evidently heeded the Buddha’s advice, for shortly after he died the Buddha declared him to have expired as a nonreturner. Though it is possible that Dīghāvu had already gained the jhānas and thus did not need to be instructed in their practice, it is also possible that he attained the stage of nonreturner entirely through the power of the deep insight arisen from these six contemplations.

Text 10.3(4) makes further distinctions among those who attain arahantship and the stage of nonreturner. Such suttas point to the great variety that can exist even among those at the same spiritual level. It is because he was able to make such distinctions that the Buddha was said to possess perfect understanding of the diversity in the faculties of sentient beings.

Since nonreturners have eradicated the five lower fetters, they are no longer bound to the sensual realm of existence. However, they are still not entirely liberated from the cycle of rebirths but are still bound by the five higher fetters: desire for existence in the form realm, desire for existence in the formless realm, the conceit “I am,” subtle restlessness, and ignorance. The conceit “I am” (asmimāna) differs from identity view, the view of self (sakkāyadiṭṭhi), to which it is partly akin. The view of self affirms an enduring self existing in relation to the five aggregates, either as identical with them, or as their inner core, or as their owner and master. But the conceit “I am” lacks a clear conceptual content. It lurks at the base of the mind as a vague, shapeless, but imperious sense of the “I” as a concrete reality. Though the view of self is already eliminated at the stage of stream-entry, the conceit “I am” persists in noble disciples even up to the stage of nonreturner. This is the point of the incisive Khemaka Sutta—Text 10.4(1) —with its two beautiful similes of the flower’s scent and the laundered cloth. The noble disciples differ from ordinary people in that they do not buy into the conceit “I am.” They recognize the conceit “I am” as a mere figment of the imagination, a false notion that does not point to a self, to a truly existent “I.” But they have not completely overcome it.

The subtle attachment and the residual sense of “I am” that persist in the nonreturner both stem from ignorance. To reach the end of the path, the nonreturner must obliterate the remaining segment of ignorance and dispel all traces of craving and conceit. The critical point when ignorance, craving, and conceit are eradicated marks the transition from the stage of nonreturner to arahantship. The difference between the two can be a subtle one, and therefore standards for distinguishing them are necessary. In Text 10.4(2) the Buddha proposes several criteria by which a trainee and an arahant can determine their respective standings. One of particular interest concerns their relationship to the five spiritual faculties: faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom. The trainee sees with wisdom the goal in which the faculties culminate—namely, Nibbāna—but cannot dwell in it. The arahant sees with wisdom the supreme goal and can also dwell in that goal.

The first and foremost of the arahants is the Buddha himself, to whom the last section of this chapter is devoted. The section is titled “The Tathāgata,” the word the Buddha used when referring to himself in his archetypal role as the discoverer and bringer of liberating truth. The word can be resolved in two ways: taken as tathā āgata: “Thus Come,” it implies that the Buddha has come in accordance with an established pattern (which the commentaries interpret to mean the fulfillment of the ten spiritual perfections—the pāramīs—and the thirty-seven aids to enlightenment); taken as tathā gata: “Thus Gone,” it implies that he has gone in accordance with an established pattern (which the commentaries interpret to mean that he has gone to Nibbāna by the complete practice of serenity, insight, the paths, and the fruits).

Later forms of Buddhism draw extreme distinctions between Buddhas and arahants, but in the Nikāyas this distinction is not as sharp as one might expect if one takes later texts as the benchmark of interpretation. On the one hand, the Buddha is an arahant, as is evident from the standard verse of homage to the Blessed One (iti pi so bhagavā arahaṁ sammā sambuddho …); on the other, arahants are buddha, in the sense that they have attained full enlightenment, sambodhi, by awakening to the same truths that the Buddha himself realized. The proper distinction, then, is that between a sammā sambuddha or Perfectly Enlightened Buddha, and an arahant who has attained enlightenment and liberation as a disciple (sāvaka) of a Perfectly Enlightened Buddha. However, to avoid such complex locutions, we will resort to the common practice of phrasing the distinction as that between a Buddha and an arahant.

What then is the relationship between the two? Is the difference between them primarily one of temporal sequence, with perhaps a few additional capacities specific to a Perfectly Enlightened Buddha? Or is the difference between them so vast that they should be considered distinct types? The Nikāyas display an interesting, even tantalizing, ambivalence on this question, as the texts included here illustrate. Text 10.5(1) raises the question about the difference between “the Tathāgata, the Arahant, the Perfectly Enlightened One” and “a monk liberated by wisdom”; apparently the expression bhikkhu paññāvimutta is used here in a sense applicable to any arahant disciple rather than solely to one who lacks the formless attainments (that is, in an inclusive sense, not as a wisdom-liberated arahant contrasted with a both-ways liberated arahant). The answer the text gives expresses the difference in terms of role and temporal priority. A Buddha has the function of discovering and expounding the path, and he also possesses a unique familiarity with the intricacies of the path not shared by his disciples. His disciples follow the path he reveals and attain enlightenment afterward, under his guidance.

The polemical literature of later Buddhism sometimes depicts the Buddha as motivated by great compassion and his arahant disciples as cool and aloof, indifferent to the plight of their fellow beings. As if to forestall this criticism, Text 10.5(2) states that not only the Buddha but arahants as well as learned and virtuous disciples still in training arise for the welfare of many people, live their lives out of compassion for the world, and teach the Dhamma for the good, well-being, and happiness of their fellow beings, devas as well as humans. Thus, if this text is taken as authoritative, it cannot be claimed that compassion and altruistic concern are qualities that distinguish Buddhas from arahants.

Yet Text 10.5(3) gives us another perspective on this question. Here, the Buddha challenges the Venerable Sāriputta’s “bellowing utterance” by asking him whether he fully knows the moral discipline, qualities (perhaps concentration), wisdom, meditative dwellings, and liberation of the Buddhas of the past, present, and future. To this the great disciple can only answer in the negative. But Sāriputta declares that he knows that all the Buddhas of the three periods of time attain perfect enlightenment by abandoning the five hindrances, by establishing their minds in the four establishments of mindfulness, and by developing correctly the seven factors of enlightenment.

These, however, are aspects of the path that Buddhas have fulfilled in common with arahant disciples. Beyond this, the Buddhas possess certain qualities that elevate them above even the foremost of the arahants. From the Nikāyas, their superiority seems to rest on two main pillars: first, their being is essentially “for others” in a way that the most altruistic of the arahant disciples can only emulate but never equal; and second, their knowledges and spiritual powers are much greater than those of the arahant disciples.

The Buddha states that even monks fully liberated in mind, who possess “unsurpassable vision, practice, and liberation,” venerate the Tathāgata, because his attainment of enlightenment helps others to attain enlightenment, his deliverance helps others gain deliverance, his realization of Nibbāna enables others to realize Nibbāna (MN 35.26; I 235). In Text 10.5(4), we encounter two sets of qualities considered special endowments of a Buddha, enabling him to “roar his lion’s roar in the assemblies” and set rolling the wheel of Dhamma. These are the ten Tathāgata’s powers and the four grounds of selfconfidence. Though several of these powers are shared by disciples, in their totality these two sets are distinctive of a Buddha and equip him to guide and instruct beings in accordance with their individual aptitudes and dispositions. The four grounds of self-confidence confer upon the Buddha a boldness of authority, a magnitude of mission, that only the founder of a religion can exercise. Text 10.5(5) compares the Tathāgata to the sun and moon, for his appearance in the world is the manifestation of great light and dispels the darkness of ignorance. Text 10.5(6) compares him to a man who rescues a herd of deer from calamity, thus portraying him as the great benefactor of humanity.

With Text 10.5(7) we return to the metaphor of the lion’s roar, introduced earlier, with a lengthy simile that compares the Buddha’s proclamation of universal impermanence to the roar of a lion when he emerges from his den. Like the closing passage of the First Sermon (see Text 2.5), this text draws our attention to the cosmic scope of the Buddha’s mission. His message extends not only to human beings, but reaches up to the high heavenly realms, shaking the delusions of the deities.

Finally, Text 10.5(8) offers us a series of brief explanations why the Buddha is called the Tathāgata. He is called the Tathāgata because he has fully awakened to the nature of the world, its origin, its cessation, and the way to its cessation; because he has fully comprehended all phenomena within the world, whether seen, heard, sensed, or cognized; because his speech is invariably true; because he acts in conformity with his words; and because he wields supreme mastery within the world. The text ends with an inspired poem, probably attached by the compilers of the canon, which celebrates the Buddha as the supreme refuge for the world.

The personal devotion toward the Tathāgata expressed by both the prose text and the poem introduces us to the warm current of religious feeling that runs through Early Buddhism, always present just beneath its cool and composed exterior. This religious dimension makes the Dhamma more than just a philosophy or an ethical system or a body of meditative techniques. Animating it from within, drawing its followers upward and onward, it makes the Dhamma a complete spiritual path—a path rooted in faith in a particular person who is at once the supreme teacher of liberating truth and the foremost example of the truth he teaches.


10. The Planes of Realization

1. The Field of Merit for the World

(1) Eight Persons Worthy of Gifts (AN 8.59)

(2) Differentiation by Faculties (SN 48.18)

(3) In the Dhamma Well Expounded (MN 22)

(4) The Completeness of the Teaching (MN 73)

(5) Seven Kinds of Noble Persons (MN 70)

2. Stream-Entry

(1) The Four Factors Leading to Stream-Entry (SN 55.5)

(2) Entering the Fixed Course of Rightness (SN 25.1)

(3) The Breakthrough to the Dhamma (SN 13.1)

(4) The Four Factors of a Stream-Enterer (SN 55.2)

(5) Better than Sovereignty over the Earth (SN 55.1)

3. Nonreturning

(1) Abandoning the Five Lower Fetters (MN 64)

(2) Four Kinds of Persons (AN 4.169)

(3) Six Things that Partake of True Knowledge (SN 55.3)

(4) Five Kinds of Nonreturners (SN 46.3)

4. The Arahant

(1) Removing the Residual Conceit “I Am” (SN 22.89)

(2) The Trainee and the Arahant (SN 48.53)

(3) A Monk Whose Crossbar Has Been Lifted (MN 22)

(4) Nine Things an Arahant Cannot Do (AN 9.7)

(5) A Mind Unshaken (AN 9.26)

(6) The Ten Powers of an Arahant Monk (AN 10.90)

(7) The Sage at Peace (MN 140)

(8) Happy Indeed Are the Arahants (SN 22.76)

5. The Tathāgata

(1) The Buddha and the Arahant (SN 22.58)

(2) For the Welfare of Many (It 84)

(3) Sāriputta’s Lofty Utterance (SN 47.12)

(4) The Powers and Grounds of Self-Confidence (MN 12)

(5) The Manifestation of Great Light (SN 56.38)

(6) The Man Desiring Our Good (MN 19)

(7) The Lion (SN 22.78)

(8) Why Is He Called the Tathāgata? (AN 4.23 or It 112)