Achieving the ultimate complete liberation from unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) is a gradual process consisting of four stages.
In the time of the Buddha there were people who had such good paramis (specific mental qualities) that after hearing a single verse from the Buddha they went through all the stages at once, but today, because of the decline of the mental state of humanity, we don’t have to harbor the illusion that this will happen to us, we wil just have to work really hard.
Before embarking on the path that leads to liberation, one is a anda-puttujana, which means as much as a blind world citizen.
When the blind world citizen listens to Dhamma, gets inspired and sets forth on the path by practicing morality, concentration and wisdom, he slowly but surely becomes a kalyāṇa-puttujana, a noble world citizen, one who walks on the path to liberation.
After prolonged, patient and persistent effort, the path eventually leads to Nibbāna in four stages.
Until one reaches the first stage one is not safe, not sure. That one is safe and certain is the first characteristic of entering the four stages.
At the moment that Nibbāna is first taken as an object by the mind one reaches the first stage, that of stream-enterer (Sotāpanna).
This means that one enters the stream which leads irrevocably within seven lifetimes to complete liberation, and one is certain of a rebirth in the human realm or one of the higher realms. From that point on there wil be no more big suffering, like being reborn in a hell-world or the like.
This stage is characterized by an unshakeable faith in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha resulting from one’s own experience, and the persistent inability to violate the moral precepts of the Buddha.
Through further and deeper experience with Nibbāna the next stage follows, that of the once-returner (Sakadāgāmī) who, as the name suggests, has only one future life remaining before complete liberation will be achieved. At this stage, desire and hatred are severely weakened.
Next comes the stage of the non-returner (Anāgāmī) who, after death, will be reborn in a very high realm where he or she resides until Nibbāna is attained. At this stage, desire and hatred are completely and permanently destroyed.
The final stage is that of the Arahant (Arahat), who in this very life has achieved complete liberation by eradicating at the root the very last mental corruptions, especially the extremely stubborn and very subtle view that there is an ‘I’.
After death, the Arahant enters into Parinibbāna, that is to say, ‘Nibbāna without there being another body’.
Questions like where is this? Is this a place? Or in the same context, where is the Buddha? Are erroneous questions arising from the view that there is an ‘I’ going ‘somewhere’ when the very giving up of this is a defining characteristic of complete liberation.
From the above it can be concluded that it is of great importance to strive for the first stage, that of the stream-enterer, in order to reach the safe haven in which there will be no more great future suffering and liberation will follow with certainty.
In the words of Ahba:
“Now you are not sure about your future, but if you keep practicing, keep trying, then you will reach certainty, then there will be no more great suffering.”
This text was previously published in The Four Noble Truths: Essence of the Dhamma.
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You yourselves must strive, the Buddhas only point the wayBuddha, Dhp 276