Category: Buddhist Enlightenment
If you want to reach any of the Four Paths or Stages of Enlightenment, you need to have “insight.” Insight (vipassana in Pali) is the penetrative or direct understanding of the real nature of phenomena. This understanding is gained through the direct meditative experience of the Three Marks of Existence (impermanence, suffering, and non-self). It is this insight that leads to the attainment of the supramundane states of awareness and full Enlightenment.
Insight can be developed through the practice of Vipassana Meditation. The highest point of the development of insight is the attainment of the supramundane paths and fruits.
|Supramundane Paths||Supramundane Fruits|
|(1) The path of stream-entry||(2) The fruition of stream-entry|
|(3) The path of once-returning||(4) The fruition of once-returning|
|(5) The path of non-returning||(6) The fruition of non-returning|
|(7) The path of arahantship||(8) The fruition of arahantship|
Before I give the details about the Four Paths/Stages of Enlightenment, let me first explain what is meant here by the words “path” and “fruit.”
Path or Supramundane Path – A “path” is a heightened state of awareness in which you gain Insight (Vipassana) into the true nature of existence. This insight allows you to permanently cut off certain defilements (the Ten Fetters to Enlightenment, explained below). These defilements/fetters are the ones that keep you chained to the cycle of existence. Through meditation, once you can clearly see that the defilements are in constant flux (impermanence), are unsatisfactory (suffering), and are merely conditioned phenomena (non-self) you can then put an end to them. Their removal allows entry into any one of the Four Paths/Stages of Enlightenment.
Fruits or Fruition – A “fruition” is a moment of consciousness that you experience after you enter a path or stage of enlightenment. It is a meditative state that gives the feeling of bliss and peace which is the result when a path is completed. A “path” involves the active function of cutting off defilements, is limited to a single moment of consciousness, happens only once, and can never be repeated. “Fruition,” on the other hand, may last for two or three moments and can remain accessible to you at any time depending on your level of attainment. In certain circumstances, the experience of fruition may repeat for numerous times in your life.
The Ten Fetters To Enlightenment
As mentioned earlier, you need to get rid of certain defilements in order to progress on the path to enlightenment. These defilements are generally grouped into a set of ten "fetters."
Some of these fetters may also belong to the Ten Defilements and Unwholesome Roots or the Five Hindrances to Meditation. You may find additional definitions and instructions in these articles so please check them out.
The Four Paths/Stages of Enlightenment
1. The Path of Stream-Entry
The first path/stage of enlightenment is also called the path of the stream-enterer (sotāpanna). A stream-enterer has eradicated the first three fetters: the false view of self, skeptical doubt, and clinging to rites and rituals. This marks his/her entry into the stream of the Dharma, thus the name “stream-enterer.”
After removing the first three fetters, a stream-enterer has reduced his future births to a maximum of seven more times in the happy states of the human and heavenly realms. After this period, the stream-enterer will attain full enlightenment. In his/her subsequent birth/s, the person may or may not be aware of the fact that he/she is a stream-enterer.
A stream-enterer will be safe from falling into the states of misery (they will not be born as an animal, ghost, or hell being). Their lust, hatred and delusion will not be strong enough to cause rebirth in the lower realms. Hence, they can only be born in realms of humans or devas (superhuman beings).
It is not necessary for a stream-enterer to be reborn seven more times before reaching full enlightenment. By aspiring for the next higher path and again undertaking the development of insight with the aim of reaching that path, the stream-enterer can become fully enlightened within his/her current lifetime.
2. The Path of Once-Returning
The second path/stage of enlightenment is also called the path of the once-returner (sakadagami). A once-returner has eradicated the first three fetters and has greatly weakened the fourth (sensual desire) and fifth (anger or ill-will). Although the once-returner is a partially-enlightened person, he/she may still be occasionally disturbed by thoughts of lust and anger to a slight extent.
The once-returner is so called because he is destined to put an end to suffering after returning to this world only one more time. The once-returner will realize Nirvana after one more birth. If, however, the once-returner reaches the next stage of enlightenment (anagami) within the current life, he/she will no longer be reborn in the human realm.
3. The Path of Non-Returning
The third path/stage of enlightenment is also called the path of the non-returner (anāgāmi). A non-returner has completely destroyed the first five fetters: belief in a self, skeptical doubt, attachment to rites/rituals, sensual desire, and anger/ill-will. The non-returner is a partially enlightened person who has cut off the first five chains that bind the ordinary mind to the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.
The non-returner is so called because he/she will never be re-born in the sense-sphere (human realm or anywhere lower). After death, non-returners are reborn into the heaven of the Pure Abodes, where only anāgāmis live. There they attain full enlightenment (arahantship) and live till the end of their lives.
4. The Path of Arahantship
The fourth and final path/stage of enlightenment is called the path of the arahant (or arhant, arahat, arhat). The word "arahant" is sometimes used as a synonym for Tathagata (the name the Buddha used to call himself). An arahant has completely destroyed the Ten Fetters and has attained Nirvana or full enlightenment in this very life. The arahant has also destroyed greed, hatred, and delusion - the unwholesome roots which underlie all defilements and fetters.
The arahant has completed the development of the Noble Eightfold Path of the Buddha. After full enlightenment, the Five Aggregates (form, feelings, perception, mental formations, and consciousness) will continue to function for the arahant since there are still karmic residues remaining that he/she needs to exhaust. Once the arahant passes away, the physical body disintegrates and the five aggregates cease to function. This removes all traces of existence in the phenomenal world which gives way to the total release of the arahant from the cycle of rebirth. Final Nirvana (parinirvana) happens at the death of an arahant.