Special Occasion: Visit by SJBA Sunday Dhamma School Teachers
Does a sotapanan drink alcohol? Ven Aggacitta examines this question with reference to the Pathama-Saranani-Sakka Sutta from the Samyutta Nikaya.
Recently, I received an e-mail, which stated that it was not necessary for one to keep the five precepts to attain the first stage of enlightenment because the scriptures recorded that even Mahanama the Sakyan, who was supposed to be a sakadagami, drank alcohol. To check the credibility of this statement, I searched the Vipassasna Research Institutes’ CSCD (which is a digital copy of the Tipitaka) and found this sutta where Mahanama and alcohol were mentioned.
The story begins with the death of Saranani the Sakyan in Kapilavatthu. The Buddha proclaimed him a sotapanna, one who had attained the first stage of enlightenment, no longer bound for the nether world, fixed in destiny [for favourable existences as a human or a deva], with enlightenment as his ultimate destination.
This caused many Sakyans to ridicule and complain, saying, “Who here will not become a sotapanna? If Saranani who was weak in his training, drinking liquor, was proclaimed a sotapanna, who can’t become one?”
One of the Sakyans, Mahanama, approached the Blessed One and reported the complaints to him. The Blessed One answered, “Mahanama, when a lay follower has gone for refuge over a long time to the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha, as Saranani has, how could he go to the nether world?”
I think what the Buddha meant was that one who had taken refuge in the Triple Gem for a long time and had not broken this refuge at the time of death would not be reborn in the nether world.
The Buddha then explained to Mahanama the types of persons who would not be reborn in the nether world.
- The arahant
The first type is one who possesses confirmed confidence in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. He is one of joyous wisdom, of swift wisdom, and he has attained liberation by the very destruction of taints in this very life. This type of person is freed from hell, the animal realm, domain of ghosts, planes of misery, bad destinations and the nether world. This is the arahant.
A person of joyous wisdom is one who is so lucky that when he practises he does not have much suffering. For example, if he begins with the practice of samatha, his path to the jhanas will be full of bliss and comfort. Then when he switches to vipassana he discerns, with swift wisdom, the aggregates as anicca, dukkha and anatta, and he attains enlightenment. In comparison, one who begins with vipassana without first developing the jhanas will experience a lot of physical and mental suffering. Thus, his wisdom will not be joyous.
- The anagami
The second type of person, like the first, has confirmed confidence in the Triple Gem, is of joyous and swift wisdom but has not attained liberation. With the utter destruction of the five lower fetters, he has become one of spontaneous birth, due to achieve nibbana there without returning from that world. Like the first, he is also free from the lower realms of existences. This is the anagami, the non-returner.
- The sakadagami
The third type has confirmed confidence in the Triple Gem, but does not have joyous and swift wisdom, nor has he attained liberation.. With the destruction of the three lower fetters, and the diminishing of greed, anger and delusion, he will come back only once to this [human] world before making an end to suffering. This is the sakadagami, the once returner, who is also free from the lower realms of existences.
- The sotapanna
The fourth type is the sotapanna. He is also free from rebirth in the lower realms.
These four types of people are the ariyas and, as you all know, they are free from rebirth in the lower realms. Besides them, the Buddha also talked about 2 other types of persons.
- One with a sufficient degree of wisdom
Such a person does not possess unshakeable faith in the Triple Gem. Neither is he of joyous nor swift wisdom. Nor has he attained liberation. However, he has the five faculties of faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration and wisdom. After pondering over the teachings of the Buddha with a sufficient degree of wisdom, he has accepted them.
This can be interpreted as having wisdom that arises through learning; wisdom acquired at the intellectual level. As Sunday School teachers, you are imparting similar knowledge to your students who will use their heads to think and apply in their daily lives the principles they have learnt. However, in meditation one does not use the intellect. Rather, one just observes. So such a one should try to attend retreats and learn to silence the rational mind.
So even if you do not become a sotapanna, but if you accept and apply the teachings you come under this category. However, unlike the ariyas who are freed from rebirth in the lower realms, this category of people is assured of such a favourable rebirth in the next life only.
[The commentary to this sutta explains that this type of person is a dhammanusari (dhamma-follower), a canonical term for one who is on the path to the first stage of enlightenment, and who has wisdom as a predominant spiritual faculty. Following this explanation, the wisdom in question would not be intellectual in nature, but rather, it should be intuitive and insightful.]
Let us now look at the 5 faculties.
It takes faith to believe in the teaching of the Buddha but some people are by nature sceptical and like to ponder. Today, with so many spiritual beliefs and traditions as well as people who claim that they are meditation teachers and that their path is the best, it is good to exercise discretion.
Sometimes it is wise to exercise our rational wisdom, as in the case of one of our staff who has a lot of faith in the Triple Gem. He met a monk who told him that he needed money to go home to his own country so he gave him money. Later he found out that this “monk” was sharing a hotel room with a girl! So one who has a lot of faith tends to be gullible and must therefore be careful.
Putting the Dhamma into practice requires energy. A person may have a lot of faith, but without energy he gets nowhere. For example, if he attends talks and takes notes but forgets about them, then it is of no use.
Mindfulness is non-forgetfulness, remembering to do what one is supposed to do and not to do. There are many aspects of this. For instance, when one is meditating, one must remember to keep the mind on one’s object and not let it wander,
Concentration is being able to focus one’s attention on one particular object without being distracted. When the mind remembers to stay on one object, then only will concentration arise. This is a faculty that is important to all of us. If you are a student and do not concentrate because your mind keeps drifting, then you cannot study well.
I would like to make a comparison between mindfulness and concentration in the practice of vipassana and samatha meditation. In samatha you keep your attention on one conceptual object and disregard everything else. In vipassana you keep your mindfulness alive to be aware of one object to another and observe the true nature of reality.
In our daily lives, the mindfulness we have experienced during vipassana retreats can be very helpful if we are doing multi-tasking or are in managerial positions. Concentration doesn’t help because one is focussed on one task to the exclusion of all others. Here mindfulness is the antidote to help us be aware of things as they arise.
There are three types of wisdom: wisdom born of learning, wisdom born of thinking and wisdom born of meditation. They are equally important depending on circumstances.
- One with sufficient faith and devotion
This person does not possess unshakeable faith in the Triple Gem. Neither is he of joyous nor swift wisdom. Nor has he attained liberation. However, he has the five faculties as well as sufficient faith and devotion. Such a person is also assured of a favourable rebirth in the next life.
In the traditional Buddhist countries of Thailand, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, many people have this sort of devotion and faith that is internalised in them as part of their culture. They may not even meditate. In Malaysia, we tend to question and investigate before accepting what others tell us.
There is the story of a boy who, when he was dying, looked upon the face of the Buddha who happened to be passing. This inspired faith in him, although he was not a lay devotee, and resulted in his rebirth as a deva.
Even if one does not become a sotapanna, but still has faith in the Dhamma when one dies, one is assured of not going to the woeful states in the immediate succeeding life.
[The commentary to this sutta explains that this type of person is a saddhanusari (faith-follower), a canonical term for one who is on the path to the first stage of enlightenment, and who has faith as a predominant spiritual faculty. Following this explanation, the faith in question would not be blind or traditional faith, but rather, it should arise from meditative insight.]
The Buddha then told Mahanama:
“Even if these sal trees, Mahanama, could understand what is well spoken, and what is badly spoken, then I would declare these great sal trees to be stream-enterers, no longer bound to the nether world, fixed in destiny, with enlightenment as their destination. How much more, then, Saranani the Sakyan? Mahanama, Saranani the Sakyan undertook the training at the time of his death”
Now that we have gone through the whole sutta, we can see that the e-mail I mentioned at the beginning of the talk gave a distorted picture of the story. Mahanama was not in any way connected with drinking alcohol. Rather, he was the one who sought clarification from the Buddha regarding the Sakyans’ accusation that Saranani was a confirmed sotapanna who drank alcohol.
In concluding the discourse, the Buddha explicitly stated that though Saranani the Sakyan had taken alcohol before, he still managed to become a sotapanna because just before he died, his five precepts were intact. Presumably, he became a sotapanna at the time of his death.
From this sutta, we also learn that it is important to have the five spiritual faculties, especially faith and devotion in the Buddha, Dhamma and the Sangha, in order to be assured of a good destiny in the next life.