What those who have entered the Buddhist Path have ‘seen’: the realisation of ‘stream-attainment’ (sotāpanna)


If we read the texts that contain the stories of the Buddha’s awakening, we find that, during the three watches of the night he perceived paṭicca-samuppāda in forward and reverse order.[1] It is the realisation of this same process which establishes one as a ‘stream-attainer’ (sotāpanna). The stream-attainer is the first of four ‘noble-persons’ (ariya-puggala) of the Pāli canon, along with the ‘once-returners’ (sakadāgāmin), ‘never-returners’ (anāgāmin) and Arahants. The stream-attainer is one who is assured of awakening within a maximum of seven rebirths.[2] The texts give the following realisation as the insight or sammā-diṭṭhi that establishes one on the path of stream-attainment:

‘All that is subject to arising is subject to cessation.’[3]

This realisation, in this case that of Upāli, is said by the text to be the arising of the ‘vision of the dhamma’ (dhamma-cakkhu), which may be understood as the achievement of the path of stream-attainment. This insight appears as part of a standard formula and is found a number of times in the Nikāyas. This is the formulation of the ‘step by step discourse’ (anupubbi-kathā). I will give the passage in full, as it gives some context to what actually occurs when one attains ‘right-view’ (sammā-diṭṭhi):

‘Then the Blessed One gave the householder Upāli instruction step by step, that is, talk on giving, talk on virtue, talk on the heavens; he explained the danger, degradation, and defilement in sensual pleasures and the blessing of renunciation. When he knew that the householder Upāli’s mind was ready, receptive, free from hindrances, elated, and confident, he expounded to him the teaching special to the Buddhas: suffering, its arising, its cessation, and the path. Just as a clean cloth with all marks removed would take dye evenly, so too, while the householder Upāli sat there, the spotless immaculate vision of the dhamma arose in him: ‘All that is subject to arising is subject to cessation.’ Then the householder Upāli saw the dhamma, attained the dhamma, understood the dhamma, fathomed the dhamma; he crossed beyond doubt, did away with perplexity, gained intrepidity, and became independent in the teacher’s dispensation.’[4]

One could suggest that the Buddhist path develops from the cultivation of actions of body, speech and mind. This is reflected in the ‘ten wholesome courses of action’ (dasa kusala-kammapathā. In these actions there is a cultivation of physical and mental acts, culminating in the realisation of sammā-diṭṭhi. In a similar way, the step by step discourse progresses from instruction on giving and virtue to its culmination in the realisation of dependent-origination. In this instruction there is a very strong resemblance to the different types of right-view which are part of the Buddhist path. Right-view is at first the view that ‘actions have consequences’, It is the acceptance of the law of karma. This affects the actions of the person who holds the view, and the actions in turn affect the mind of the person performing these actions. This, in turn, leads to the realisation of dependent-origination. With the achievement of this view, one no longer grasps or craves any view whatsoever. This is the right-view of the path which goes beyond attachment. It is the view which transcends all views.

[1] For example Vin I 1, though not all accounts give the awakening in these terms.

[2] The ‘once returner’ (sokadāgāmin), will be reborn as a human no more than once and is assured of awakening; the ‘non-returner’ (anāgāmin) will, at death, be reborn in a ‘pure abode’ (suddhāvāsa) and gain awakening there; and the Arahant, who will never be reborn again.

[3] yaṃ kiñci samudayadhammaṃ sabbaṃtaṃ nirodhadhamman ti, M I 380.

[4] atha kho bhagavā upālissa gahapatissa ānupubbīkathaṃ kathesi. seyyathīdaṃ: dānakathaṃ, sīlakathaṃ, saggakathaṃ, kāmānaṃ ādīnavaṃ, okāraṃ saṅkilesaṃ, nekkhamme ānisaṃsaṃ pakāsesi. yadā bhagavā aññāsi upāliṃ gahapatiṃ kallacittaṃ muducittaṃ vinīvaraṇacittaṃ udaggacittaṃ pasannacittaṃ, atha yā buddhānaṃ sāmukkaṃsikā dhammadesanā, taṃ pakāsesi: dukkhaṃ samudayaṃ nirodhaṃ maggaṃ. seyyathāpi nāma suddhaṃ vatthaṃ apagatakāḷakaṃ sammadeva rajanaṃ patigaṇheyya. evam eva upālissa gahapatissa tasmiṃ yeva āsane virajaṃ vītamalaṃ dhammacakkhuṃ udapādi: yaṃ kiñci samudayadhammaṃ sabbaṃ taṃ nirodhadhamman ti. atha kho upāli gahapati diṭṭhadhammo pattadhammo viditadhammo pariyogāḷhadhammo tiṇṇavicikiccho vigatakathaṅkatho vesārajjappatto aparappaccayo satthu sāsane, M I 379-80. This passage is also found in the Brahmāyu-sutta (M II 133-46) at M II 145, where it is realised by Brahmāyu, in the Ambaṭṭha-sutta (D I 87-110) at D I 109-10, where it is realised by Pokkharasāti, in the Kūṭadanta-sutta (D I 127-49) at D I 148, where it is realised by Kūṭadanta, in the Mahâpadāna-sutta (D II 1-54, spoken by Buddha Vipassī ) at D II 41, where it is realised by both Khaṇḍa and Tissa. The full formula is also found in the Sīhasenāpati sutta (A IV 179-88) at A IV 186 realised by Sīha, in the Vesālika-ugga-sutta (A IV 208-12) at A IV 209-10, realised by Vesāli, and at Udāna 49 realised by Suppabuddha. Further occurrences are found at Vin I 37, realised by twelve brahmins and householders of Magadha and King Bimbisāra. In the Dīghanakha-sutta (M I 497-501) at M I 501 the second half of the passage appears (from ‘the spotless immaculate vision of the dhamma arose’) and Dīghanakha realises the dhamma-cakkhu. In the Sakkapañha-sutta (D II 263-89) at D II 288-9 the dhamma-cakkhu arises in Sakka and eighty thousand devas, and they utter the sammā-diṭṭhi. The same thing happens in the Cūḷarāhulovāda-sutta (M III 277-80) at M III 280 to ‘many thousands of deities’. In the Gilāna-sutta (S IV 46-7) at S IV 47, an anonymous bhikkhu realises the dhamma-cakkhu and utters the view. Peter Masefield has looked at a longer version of this formula appearing in the canon; see Peter Masefield, Divine Revelation in Pali Buddhism (Colombo/London, 1986), pp. 58-71, 166. A further set of passages containing descriptions of the arising of the dhamma-cakkhu are found in the first book of the Vinaya. In these passages the Buddha’s first five followers realise the dhamma-cakkhu and utter the view. The occurrences are Koṇḍañña at Vin I 11, Vappa and Bhaddiya at Vin I 12, and Mahānāma and Assaji at Vin I 13. At Vin I 40-42 Sāriputta and Moggallāna realise the dhamma-cakkhu.

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