Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Attaining the state of Sotapanna

Article was written by
Late Deshabandu
Alec Robertson

I was prompted to address myself to this subject because of a question asked at a meeting where a member of the audience asked if I had attained the first state of sainthood. This made me decide to give an authentic and genuine presentation of this subject as given in the Buddhist texts and commentaries.

The question of “How to attain Sovan or Sotapanna” can be answered through the examination of fundamental quetions which are important to the understanding of this subject. They are:

1. What are the pre-eminent qualities of a Sovan?
2. What defilements should be eradicated to attain?
3. How does one recognise a Sovan?
4. How does one attain Sovan?

With regard to the first question of what are the pre-eminent qualities of a Sovan (or Sotapanna, the Pali equivalent), a stanza in the Dhammapada says:

“Patavaya eka Rajjena, Saggassa gamanena va, Sabba lokadhi pachchena, Sothapatti phalan varan”.

“Higher than being a Monarch, greater than being born in the Deva Lokas, or heavenly planes, greater than being a ruler of the three worlds, higher than all of these is the attainment of Sovan.”

We worldings measures success by the yardstick of worldly achievements. Therefore, the Buddha used these similes to explain than Sovan was higher than any worldly achievement. A Sovan for the first time, gets a glimpse of Nirvana and he is never more born in a woeful state of existence (Apayas). Unlike worldly glory which ends at death, his glory is a permanent one. In our case, our existence in Samsara is limitless and we are born over and over again. In the case of the Sovan, his duration in Samsara is limited to a maximum of seven births.

The Buddha explained this point in a simile quoted in the Anguttara Nikaya as follows: Taking some sand on the tips of his fingers the Buddha asked “O Monks, what is greater, the grains of sand on my fingertips, or the grains of sand in the vast expense of the Earth.” The Monks replied, “The grains of sands in the vast expanse of the Earth are greater, and the grains of sand on the fingertips of the Thathagatha are insignificant by comparison.” In like manner, the Buddha explained that when a person attains Sovan, he gets a glimpse of Nirvana and the defilements he has to eradicate are similar to the grains of sand on the fingertips. The number of defilements he has eradicated are similar to the grains of sand in the vast expense of the Earth. This signified the monumental task accomplished by the Sotapanna.

Scholars try to judge Buddhism in terms of scholastic standards (like passing examinations). This is a misunderstanding of what it entails. One has to perfect the paramis (virtues) for an incalculable period of time before one could gain this glimpse of Nibbana, which is a permanent achievement. All worldly achievements however lofty they may be, are but temporary. A person may be the most powerful ruler or the most famous filmstar, but that glory lasts only as long as he lives. As Thomas Gray in his “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” put it so well:

“The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power! And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave. Awaits alike th’inevitable hour, The Paths of glory lead but to the grave.”

In the case of the Sovan this is not so; his achievement is not taken away at death; it is a permanent achievement.

Moreover, a Sovan has eradicated the misconception of a self or Sakkaya Ditti. He also does not depend on rites and ceremonies to get over calamities, and misfortunes. The Sovan has implicit faith in the Triple Gem, i.e. The Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha. He has no doubts (Vichikichcha). He has overcome these fetters. In its place he has Right Understanding and an immaculate and spotless conception of truth (Dhamma Chakku) and Dharshana or pure vision, i.e. seeing things in their proper perspective.

We worldings see things in their proper perspective only at certain times such as during meditation or when we discuss the Dhamma. In the case of the Sovan, however, he always sees things in their proper perspective. i.e. in the light of Anichcha (Impermanence), Dukka (Suffering), and Anatta (Absence of “I”). This firm basis is a part and parcel of his personality and remains with him all the time. In our case we see fleeting glimpses of the truth, similar to lightning illuminating a dark sky. In the case of the Sovan he has this right vision as a permanent acquisition. He sees things as being impermanent, unsatisfactory and without a permanent soul.

When pondering on these characteristics of a Sovan, one might be tempted to ask how it was that Anathapindika and Visakha who were both Sovans had children? Visakha had many children and was attached to them, while. Anathapindika had properties and possessions. However, the important factor is that despite leading a lay life, they had right vision, and craving was reduced considerably. In other words, they did not have a selfish attachment to their children and worldly possessions; and greed and avarice were absent.

Since a Sovan lacks greed, avarice and selfish attachment in their coarser forms he is not born in a woeful state. He realises that things which are impermanent and transitory, cannot give lasting happiness, and so he does not become greedily attached to them. If things are impermanent, then one cannot say this is mine and when one knows that life itself is impermanent and there is no permanent soul, one cannot say “This is I” or “This is mine”.

Another important characteristic of a Sovan is that he will never break the five precepts. He will never kill; He will never steal; He will never indulge in sexual misconduct; He will never lie to engage in slander or malicious gossip; and He will never take intoxicating drinks or drugs. These characteristics are part and parcel of a Sovan’s personality.

Next we come to the question of how one recognises a Sovan. In the Vattupuma Sutta, it is explained that if the following six defilements are eradicated, that one is a Sovan. These six defilements are:

1. Maya - Deception
2. Satheiya - Hypocrisy
3. Issa - Jealousy
4. Machcheriya - Avarice
5. Makko - Denigration of others
6. Palasso - Arrogance

With regard to Maya or deception, many people deceive others and deceive themselves too. A great writer once said: “The first and greatest deceit or fraud is to deceive yourself.” The Buddha stressed the quality of being honest, frank and perfectly upright, in the Karaniya Metta Sutta: (Sakko Ujucha Sujucha). There are people who lead a dual life; they are one thing in their private life and something quite different in their public life. This brings us to the second point of Satheiya or hypocrisy. In the case of the Sovan, he speaks what he thinks, and he acts what he thinks and speaks. There is perfect harmony in his thoughts, deeds, speech and action. In our case we do not possess this perfect harmony. We may say something but do something quite different. One can direct the search-light to oneself and analyse honestly whether one possesses these qualities.

Thirdly, we come to “Issa” or jealously. This is a basic quality in man, and in a world such as ours, this quality is promoted because of the high degree of competition that exists today. There is professional jealousy.

In the case of the Sovan, however, all traces of jealousy and envy have been completely eradicated.

The fourth quality is Machcheiyya or avarice. This is another quality which is conspicuous in human nature. Human beings are not only greedy to get things for themselves but they resent others getting the same things. In the Anguttara Nikaya the Buddha mentions such things, e.g. A monk may have a large temple but he may not like other monks having such a temple. Secondly, if a person is famous or popular, he may not like others to be famous or popular. Thirdly, if a person is virtuous,he may not want another to be more virtuous. Fourthly, if one is learned and knowledgeable, he may not like others to be equally learned and knowledgeable.


Lastly, if an individual is wise, he does not like to see others acquire similar wisdom. This is an aspect of Machcheriyya that the Sovan has completely eradicated.

Next is “Makko” the denigration of others, and not being able to appreciate the good in others. People try to find some small defect in another and try to tear him down.

The last is “Palasso”, or arrogance. People are preoccupied with their own self-importance. This may be in relation to their wealth, status or knowledge. Issac Newton once went near the sea beach, picked up a few pebbles and said: “What I know could be compared to the pebbles in my hand but what I do not know could be compared to the pebbles on the sea beach.” Humility is a great quality that few people possess. A Sovan is humble, he has eliminated arrogance in its entirety.

Therefore, looking at the positive side, a Sovan is possessed with qualities of honesty, uprightness, benevolence, altruistic joy, magnanimity, modesty and humility. To find out if one is a Sovan one should direct the searchlight inwards and analyse truthfully if one has traces of the negative qualities of deceit, cunning, hypocrisy, jealousy, avarice, feelings of self-importance and arrogance. A Sovan does not have even a modicum of any of these qualities. This is the acid test necessary to ascertain if one is a Sovan.

Finally, with regard to the question of How to become a Sovan, in the Anguttara Nikaya, the Buddha mentions four qualities. They are not easy. As Longfellow described:

“The heights by great men reached and kept
Were not attained by sudsden fight.
But they, while their companions slept,
Were toiling upward in the night.

Thus, the attainment of Sovan , too, is not an easy task; but we must begin this long journey. The first step as the Buddha explained is “Dhamma Savana” or Listening to the Dhamma. This creates a spiritual revolution in one’s mind. During this time one’s mind is concentrated and the five defilements, i.e. sense desires, ill-will, sloth and torpor, restlessness and worry and doubts are all suppressed. In their place, the mind is infused with energy, joy, concentration and poise. These are factors which promote enlightenment.

The second is to associate with good friends or Kalyana Mitta. The Buddha said that association with a Kalyana Mitta is the whole of the holy life. Here at Kalyana Mitta also refers to a Guru or Teacher. The third is the ability to see things in their proper perspective. If one is attached to another, one only sees the good in that person. If a person is one’s enemy, one only sees bad in that person. A Sovan sees the good as good and the bad as bad and is not prejudiced and influenced by other factors. For example, if we take a gold coin, three different people will see it in three different ways. A child would be taken up by the glitter, a peasant would think of the utility value, a goldsmith would analyse it carefully to determine its true quality. A Buddhist should analyse things in the way a Goldsmith analyses gold to determine its true nature.

Another illustration is a beautiful head of hair. This is considered to be an object of beauty admired by many. But if one hair falls into a cup of tea it becomes an object of revulsion. But both items are exactly the same, they are composed of the same elements (Patavi, Thejo, Vayo, Ayu, Varna, Gada, Rasa, Oja), but we see one as attractive and the other as unattractive.

The last factor is the cultivation of Virtue, Concentration and Wisdom. With effort and diligence, one must practice and develop these qualities to become a Sovan . In other words, one must be a “spiritual” athlete and develop the qualities of Sila, Samadhi, and Panna and focus one’s mind through meditation so that with penetrative insight thus gained, one can get a glimpse of the Truth, through the attainment of Sovan.

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