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Is Enlightenment Achievable in this Life?

Ven Aggacitta addresses a question that must be foremost in the minds of serious Dhamma practitioners. The answer can be found in the Pali suttas—so simple, yet so profound.

People attend intensive retreats in their search for enlightenment. Is there an alternative path to enlightenment? Ven Aggacitta Bhikkhu explains how deep faith and profound wisdom coupled with continual mindfulness of mental states can lead you in your search.

What is Enlightenment?

When you are freed from suffering by eradicating the three evil roots, you become fully enlightened—a buddha. A buddha is one who is awakened. That is the literal meaning of the word ‘buddha’ although in the Theravada context when we use the word ‘Buddha’, we usually mean the Sammasambuddha (Fully Self-Enlightened One), the founder of Buddhism.

There are various stages of enlightenment. These days, people don’t immediately attain full enlightenment, although in the Buddha’s time, there were some special people who could do so upon listening to a Dhamma talk. As we know, the Buddha achieved supreme enlightenment under the Bodhi (enlightenment) tree. The Pali suttas seem to indicate that he attained arahantship1 without having to go through the stages of becoming a sotapanna2sakadagami3 and anagami4. This is contrary to the commonly held Theravada doctrine that to attain full enlightenment one must go through the various levels gradually.

In the suttas, there are cases of lay people who became anagamis without going through the other two stages. For example there is the story (DutiyaUgga Sutta, AN 8:22 ) of Ugga, a lay person whose drunkenness dissipated when he met the Buddha. Subsequently, while listening to the Buddha’s discourse, he attained the Dhamma Eye. Presumably he became an anagami because he immediately observed celibacy and later announced his decision to his four young wives, giving away the eldest to a man of her choice. One thousand early disciples of the Buddha&mdashthe fire-worshippers headed by UruvelaKassapa, NadiKassapa and GayaKassapa&mdashall became arahants upon listening to the Fire Sermon (Adittapariyaya Sutta, Vin Mv) without going through the successive stages of enlightenment.

We have also been made to understand that the moment of enlightenment comprises path (magga) and fruition (phala) occurring in immediate succession: which means that after attaining the path, fruition follows immediately. This is based on the cittavithi (thought process) model in the AbhidhammatthaSangaha, which is similar to the model used by Buddhaghosa in Visuddhimagga5, and by subsequent scholars in other Theravada Commentaries.

However, there is sufficient evidence in the suttas themselves to show that entering the path does not necessarily bear fruit immediately. Now let’s go through some of these references showing that a person who has entered the path need not be a sotapanna but can be assured of becoming one before he dies.

Eight Worthy Persons

In PathamaPuggala Sutta (AN 8:59) the Buddha talked about the eight types of persons who are worthy of gifts, hospitality, offerings, etc.

Monks, these eight persons are worthy of gifts, worthy of hospitality, worthy of offerings, worthy of reverential salutations, the unsurpassed field of merit for the world.

What eight? The stream-enterer [sotapanna], the one practising for the realisation of the fruit of stream-entry; the once-returner [sakadagami], the one practising for the realisation of the fruit of once-returning; the non-returner [anagami], the one practising for the realisation of the fruit of non-returning; the arahant, the one practising for arahantship. (trans. Bhikkhu Bodhi. IBW p 385)

These eight individuals are grouped into four pairs; one of each has already attained the fruit and the other one is still practising to attain it. This other one could take many years within his lifetime to realise the fruit, not just in the next thought moment, as we shall see later.

Patipanna Sutta (SN 48:18) also refers to these eight individuals but from another perspective.

Monks, there are these five faculties. What five? The faculty of faith, the faculty of energy, the faculty of mindfulness, the faculty of concentration, the faculty of wisdom. These are the five faculties. One who has completed and fulfilled these five faculties is an arahant. If they are weaker than that, one is practising for the realisation of the fruit of arahantship; if still weaker, one is a non-returner; if still weaker, one is practising for the realisation of the fruit of non-returning; if still weaker, one is a once-returner; if still weaker, one is practising for the realisation of the fruit of once-returning; if still weaker, one is a stream-enterer; if still weaker, one is practising for the realisation of the fruit of stream-entry.

But monks, I say that one in whom these five faculties are completely and totally absent is “an outsider, one standing amid the worldlings.’ (Ibid.)

So these eight types of individuals possess the five spiritual faculties in varying degrees depending on which stage of the path one is on. It is this that differentiates them from worldlings (puthujjana) who are considered ‘outsiders’, not on the path.

Destined for Enlightenment

Alagaddupama Sutta (MN 22) tells us more about a stream-enterer; introduces two types of persons who are not stream-enterers, yet have enlightenment as their destination; and declares another type who is destined for heaven.

In the Dhamma well expounded by me thus, which is clear, open, evident and free of patchwork, those monks who have abandoned three fetters are all stream-enterers, no longer bound to the lower world, fixed in destiny, with enlightenment as their destination.

In the Dhamma well expounded by me thus, which is clear, open, evident and free of patchwork, those monks who are Dhamma-followers or faith-followers all have enlightenment as their destination.

In the Dhamma well expounded by me thus, which is clear, open, evident and free of patchwork, those monks who have sufficient faith in me, sufficient love for me, are all headed for heaven. (trans. Bhikkhu Bodhi. IBW p 386)

The first paragraph tells us a stream-enterer (sotapanna) has abandoned the three fetters. The first fetter is the view that there is a permanent unchanging self (sakkayaditthi) in the five aggregates. The second fetter is grasping at rites and rituals, thinking that merely by following rites and rituals one can become enlightened. A sotapanna can perform rites and rituals as part of the culture that she belongs to but is aware that this is not the way to gain further stages of enlightenment. The third fetter is doubt in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha: doubt that the Buddha discovered the Dhamma and revealed the path to its realisation; doubt in the truth of the Dhamma and that it can be realised by oneself; and doubt that there are fellow practitioners (members of the ariya Sangha) who have entered the path as revealed by the Buddha or have also realised the Dhamma. A sotapanna is free from all such doubts because she herself has realised the Dhamma through that very path.

She will no longer take rebirth in the lower realms because whatever evil kamma she had done prior to her attainment, that has the potential to cause rebirth in lower realms, becomes defunct and she will not create any new evil kamma of such nature. Her destiny is fixed because she will henceforth take rebirth only in the human or higher realms. Other suttas (e.g. DutiyaSikkha Sutta, AN 3:88; Sa-upadisesa Sutta, AN 9:12) state that she will have a maximum of seven more lifetimes to live in this sensual realm before she attains final enlightenment as an arahant.

The second paragraph tells us about Dhamma-followers (dhammanusari) and faith-followers (saddhanusari) who have not abandoned any fetters but also have enlightenment as their destination. But when? It is not stated in this sutta but we shall see later in other suttas.

Destined for Heaven

In the third paragraph, the Buddha talked about another lower class of people who have sufficient love for and faith in the Buddha. What is meant by sufficient faith, by sufficient love? The Commentary to MN 22 says:

…This refers to vipassana practitioners who do not have any ariya quality other than sufficient faith in and love for the Tathagata. For faith in and love for the Buddha arise in monks who are seated doing vipassana meditation. They are as if taken by the hands and placed in heaven by that faith, by that love. It seems they are of fixed destinies. Moreover, the ancient theras (elders) call such a monk a minor stream-enterer (culasotapanna).

The Visuddhimagga (Ch. 19, para. 691) also uses the same term culasotapanna, but in a more specific sense.

A vipassana practitioner who possesses this knowledge [that grasps the conditionality of mind and matter] is called a minor stream-enterer, one who has gained relief and a foothold in the BuddhaSasana (Buddha’s teachings or dispensation), one with a fixed destiny.

So it seems people in this third class are also of fixed destiny, i.e. in the next life they will go to heaven. This is rather questionable, isn’t it? Firstly, this person has not yet attained stream-entry and so his past evil kamma has not become defunct. Secondly, it doesn’t mean that just by virtue of his vipassana insight he will be perfect in observing, for example, the five precepts. Some of you have gone for retreats before and might have got insights higher than this. But after the retreat do you still kill insects, tell lies, or break the other precepts? If you do, it means that you still create bad kamma that has the potential to give rebirth in the lower realms. The insights which you got for a few seconds in a two-week meditation retreat may not be strong enough to inspire you to perfectly observe the five precepts for the rest of your life. When you are back in the world again, you forget all about the retreat, mind (nama) and matter (rupa) and how they are conditioned, and you are back to your old ways. So I think it is really not very plausible that you can definitely go to heaven if you have done a lot of akusala (unskilful, unwholesome) kamma.

But the Buddha did declare that “those monks who have sufficient faith in me, sufficient love for me, are all headed for heaven”, didn’t he? So how could the Buddha be wrong? Perhaps this quotation could be used to counter the popular Christian evangelical tool: “Accept Christ and you will definitely go to heaven.” It may be tempting for Buddhist missionaries, but I prefer to interpret the Buddha’s declaration as referring specifically to the the monks he was addressing then, or to those who have such sentiments just prior to death.

Still on this subject, there is another interesting occasion when the Buddha mentioned those who will not be reborn in the lower realms. PathamaSarananiSakka Sutta (SN 55:24) tells the story of a Sakyan6 by the name of Saranani, who was an alcoholic. When he died, the Buddha declared that he had become a sotapanna, no longer bound for the lower worlds, fixed in his destiny and bound for enlightenment. When other Sakyans heard this they derided it, saying, “How could he be a sotapanna when he could not even fulfil his training?” Mahanama, the Buddha’s cousin reported this to him. The Buddha answered by enumerating a whole list of persons who will not go to the nether worlds in the next life as well as those who are forever freed from such destinations, and concluded by revealing that Saranani fulfilled his training (which includes abstaining from drinking) when he died. Right before the list is the Buddha’s interesting remark on the lay follower.

Mahanama, when a lay follower has gone for refuge over a long time to the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha, how could he go to the nether world? (trans. Bhikkhu Bodhi. CDB p 1811)

This could also be an inspiration for lay Buddhists, although I feel that other considerations, such as the ethical conduct of one’s lifestyle and the state of one’s mind when facing death, should also be taken into account.

How to Become Destined for Enlightenment

Let us now get back to the suttas to find out more details of what it takes to be destined for enlightenment. In the process we will make out the differences between the faith-follower, Dhamma-follower and sotapanna. Cakkhu Sutta (SN 25:1) and the next nine suttas give the most graphic descriptions available.

Monks, the eye is impermanent, changing, undergoing alteration. The ear &hellip The nose &hellip The tongue &hellip The body &hellip The mind is impermanent, changing, undergoing alteration. One who places faith in these teachings and resolves on them thus is called a faith-follower, one who has entered the fixed course of rightness, entered the plane of superior persons, transcended the plane of worldlings.

He is incapable of doing any deed by reason of which he might be reborn in hell, in the animal realm, or in the domain of afflicted spirits; he is incapable of passing away without having realised the fruit of stream-entry. (trans. Bhikkhu Bodhi. CDB p 1004)

Now this means that the faith-follower is one who accepts what the Buddha says about the impermanence of the six sense-bases. She accepts these teachings out of faith—not necessarily having seen or experienced them—but just out of faith, “Because the Buddha says so, it must be true.” That faith itself puts her on “the fixed course of rightness (sammattaniyama)”. Sammatta (rightness) is a synonym for the Noble Eightfold Path as defined in Micchatta Sutta (SN 45:21; AN 10:103), Sangiti Sutta (DN 33), and Ekadasama Sutta (AN 10:133). It is therefore a synonym for magga or ‘path’. No wonder she has “transcended the plane of worldlings”, i.e. no longer a puthujjana and therefore an ariya (noble one). That faith itself is able to prevent her from doing any deed that will cause her to be reborn in the lower realm. That faith itself will make her incapable of passing away without realising the fruit of stream-entry. That is why people say, “Faith can move mountains.” If you really have such great faith, it can inspire you to become enlightened in this life.

So enlightenment is achievable in this life.

Let us now look at the next type of person called the Dhamma-follower.

One for whom these teachings are accepted thus after being pondered to a sufficient degree with wisdom is called a Dhamma-follower, one who has entered the fixed course of rightness, entered the plane of superior persons, transcended the plane of the worldlings. (Ibid.)

The rest of his attributes are similar to that of a faith-follower.

We can see that the difference between a faith-follower and a Dhamma-follower is in their faculties of faith and wisdom: one has a lot of faith and the other a lot of wisdom. But like the former’s faith, the latter’s wisdom is not based on experience or insight. Rather, it comes about through the sharpness of his intellect&mdashbeing able to understand the Buddha’s teachings, accept and internalise them so that he becomes incapable of doing any deeds that will cause him to be reborn in the lower worlds. The strength of his intellectual wisdom is so great that before he dies, he must also become a sotapanna.

What is the definition of a sotapanna in comparison with the faith-follower and Dhamma-follower?

One who knows and sees these teachings thus is called a stream-enterer, no longer bound to the lower world, fixed in destiny, with enlightenment as his destination. (Ibid.)

A sotapanna is one who knows and sees that the eye, ear, nose, etc. are impermanent, changing, undergoing alteration, but the faith-follower and the Dhamma-follower do not have this experiential knowledge. They accept the same teachings based on faith and intellectual wisdom respectively. That is the difference; but it is interesting to see that both the faith-follower and the Dhamma-follower have “entered the fixed course of rightness”, i.e. the path that leads to Nibbana. They are no longer puthujjanas because they have transcended the plane of the worldlings, i.e. they are ariyas. They have not realised stream-entry yet but are destined to realise the fruit of stream-entry before they die. In other words, they can be considered to be practising for the fruit of stream-entry. Therefore, together with the sotapanna, they make up the first two of the eight worthy persons.

This Cakkhu Sutta refers to the eye and the rest of the senses. The next nine suttas (SN 25:2 &ndash 10) repeat the definitions of these low-end ariyas with reference to objects, consciousness, contact, feelings, perception, volition and craving pertaining to the six senses; the six elements and the five aggregates. So they cover all aspects of sentient experience through the sense doors.

However, it is important to understand that if you have mere faith in the Buddha but your faith is not strong enough to make you refrain from committing any deeds that can cause rebirth in the lower world, then you do not qualify to be a faith-follower and you are not destined to attain stream-entry before you die. You only qualify to attain stream-entry before you die if your faith or your intellectual wisdom is so extraordinary that it is able to prevent you from doing any bad deeds that can cause rebirth in the lower realms.

What are these bad deeds? They are not just the five precepts. They refer to a wider range of activities that are referred to frequently in the suttas. They are the ten types of bad conduct (duccarita) of body, speech and mind.

Killing, stealing and sexual misconduct are borne of the body. Bad conduct in speech encompasses lying, divisive speech that disrupts harmony among people, coarse or harsh speech, and frivolous chatter that do not conduce to spiritual or material benefit. There are three types of bad conduct borne of the mind. The first is covetousness, or the desire to possess someone or something belonging to somebody else. You do not really steal these animate or inanimate objects, but just toying with the idea in itself—without it being manifested in speech or in action—is bad conduct of the mind that can lead one to be reborn in the lower realms. Next is ill will, i.e. wishing harm towards another being. The last one is wrong view—that there is no such thing as the law of kamma, life after death, spiritual practitioners who can perceive other realms of existence, etc. I think most Buddhists already believe in the law of kamma and rebirth. It is unlikely that you will have wrong view.

More about Dhamma-followers and Faith-followers

Kitagiri Sutta (MN 70) establishes the teachings that the Dhamma-followers and faith-followers are on the path, practising to destroy the three fetters, from which the sotapanna is already freed.

What kind of person is a Dhamma-follower?

Here some person does not contact with the body and abide in those liberations that are peaceful and immaterial, transcending forms, and his taints are not yet destroyed by his seeing with wisdom, but with wisdom he has sufficiently gained a reflective acceptance of those teachings proclaimed by the Tathagata.

Furthermore, he has these qualities: the faith faculty, the energy faculty, the mindfulness faculty, the concentration faculty, and the wisdom faculty. This kind of person is called a Dhamma-follower.

I say of such a monk that he still has work to do with diligence (appamada). Why is that? Because when that venerable one makes use of suitable resting places and associates with good friends and balances his spiritual faculties, he may, by realising for himself with direct knowledge here and now enter upon and abide in that supreme goal of the holy life for the sake of which clansmen rightly go forth from the home life into homelessness. Seeing this fruit of diligence (appamada) for such a monk, I say that he still has work to do with diligence. (trans. Bhikkhu Bodhi. IBW p 391-2)

Earlier on, we established that the Buddha said that those who have fully developed the five faculties is an arahant who is at the highest level of achievement along the path. The development of these five faculties is progressively weaker for those further down the path until the lowest level, i.e. one practising for the realisation of the fruit of stream-entry. So even if you are not yet a sotapanna but only practising to become one, you must have these five faculties. Any one who does not have these five faculties is considered “an outsider, one standing amid the worldlings (puthujjana)”.

According to the definition above, a Dhamma-follower has not cut off any taints whereas a sotapanna has eradicated three fetters. However, the Buddha goes on to say that he has the five faculties. So we can infer that he is on the path, still working towards the realisation of the fruit of stream-entry.

In the third part of the quotation, the Buddha expounded the list of activities the Dhamma-follower can do in order to make further progress. It is impossible for these activities to be carried out within a thought moment. Clearly, a person on the path cannot be one thought moment away from fruition.

Now let’s look at the faith-follower, who is defined in exactly the same words, except for the first two paragraphs.

What kind of person is a faith-follower?

Here some person does not contact with the body and abide in those liberations that are peaceful and immaterial, transcending forms, and his taints are not yet destroyed by his seeing with wisdom, yet he has sufficient faith in and love for the Tathagata. (Ibid.)

Like the Dhamma-follower, he is also an ariya, on the path to the realisation of the fruit of stream-entry.

Enlightenment in This Lifetime

So is enlightenment achievable in this life? Do you have the faith or wisdom to fully accept the teachings of the Buddha on impermanence? That leads us to a very pertinent point. We are talking about people with overwhelming faith and extraordinary wisdom in accepting the Buddha’s teachings on impermanence. They may not even have embarked on the practice of vipassana, although their intense faith and wisdom will eventually prompt them to do so before they die.

What about vipassana yogis? They experience insights in meditation retreats; so they know and see but not enough to be sotapannas. Neither do they have the extraordinary faith or intellectual wisdom to qualify them as faith-followers or Dhamma-followers. When they come out of a retreat and go back to the world, they can still create bad kamma that may result in rebirth in the lower realms. So under which category do they belong? None. Although the Visuddhimagga says that a yogi with certain insights is a culasotapanna whose destiny is fixed, this does not conform with what is stated in the suttas. Cakkhu Sutta (SN 25:1) and the subsequent suttas say that faith-followers and Dhamma-followers have not seen the Dhamma, yet they are incapable of committing any bad kamma that will land them in the lower realms. We can only infer that their overwhelming faith and extraordinary intellectual wisdom will prevent them from doing so.

The vipassana yogi who comes out from retreat may not possess this overwhelming faith and intellectual wisdom. The experiential insight she has gained in the retreat may not be powerful enough to prevent her from committing such unwholesome deeds.

So if you are not a vipassana yogi but you really want to achieve enlightenment in this lifetime, be a faith-follower, or a Dhamma-follower. If you are a vipassana yogi, complement the experiential insights gained in retreats with deep faith in and intellectual acceptance of the Buddha’s teachings on the impermanence of sensory experience; better still, try to integrate and adapt the skills of vipassana meditation developed during retreats to your daily life&mdashby continually observing, with the body as an anchor or reference point, how mental states constantly arise and pass away due to causes and conditions.

Food for Thought

The main thesis of this article is based on Ven Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation of sammattaniyama as “the fixed course of rightness”, which accords with the Commentarial interpretation. This interpretation takes sammattaniyama to be equivalent to magga, which is supposed to be immediately followed by phala. As I have pointed out, this is self-contradictory in the suttas.

Upon further pondering however, it occurred to me that sammattaniyama can also be rendered as “the fixed course (leadingto rightness”, which will give a radically different perspective. This will suggest that the faith-followers and Dhamma-followers, although classified as ariyas, do not yet possess all the factors of the Noble Eightfold Path (sammatta = magga), but are on the fixed course (niyama) that will eventually lead to its consummation and the consequent realisation of the fruit (phala) of stream-entry before they pass away. Although this interpretation does not necessarily preclude the contiguity of magga and phala, I find it more tenable because of the following considerations:

  • Both the faith-follower and Dhamma-follower do not yet know or see the impermanence of the eye, etc.; therefore they would be lacking in right view, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.

  • Because the sotapanna knows and sees the impermanence of the eye, etc. he must possess the Noble Eightfold Path. This is confirmed in DutiyaSariputta Sutta (SN 55:2), where the Buddha endorsed Ven Sariputta’s answer that sota (stream) is defined as the Noble Eightfold Path and sotapanna as one who possesses this Noble Eightfold Path.


1 state of an arahant (or, in proper Pali, arahanta), a person who has eradicated all mental defilements and thus liberated from further rebirths.

2 Stream-enterer, one who has attained the first stage of enlightenment and is destined to attain Nibbana within seven lifetimes.

3 Once-returner, one who has attained the second stage of enlightenment and is destined to be reborn in this world of humans and deities at most once more.

4 nonreturner, one who has attained the third stage of enlightenment and who after death will never again return to this world of humans and deities, but either reappear among the brahmas (inhabitants of non-sensual heavens) or attain Nibbana.

5 Path of Purification; a manual of Buddhist meditation based on both the Pali Tipitaka and the ancient Sinhala commentaries.

6 a native of the Sakyan territory, in which the Buddha was born

IBW: In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon
edited and introduced by Bhikkhu Bodhi

CDB: The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya
translated from the Pali; original translation by Bhikkhu Bodhi

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