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THE FOUR FACTORS OF A SOTAPANNA

(An excerpt from the discourse by the late Ven. Mogok Sayadaw)

By Dr. Tin Htut, Sheffield, UK

08-03-99

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Manussattabhavo dullabho”

         The meaning of the above Pali stanza, a direct word of Buddha is that it is difficult to be reborn as a human. Some may disagree with this statement arguing that the world is facing an explosion of human population. However, if one is more observant one can easily notice the relative abundance of the other life forms on earth. In Buddhist philosophy, higher life forms of the animal kingdom are regarded as sentient organisms like humans and the population of insects alone can surpass humans in many folds.

         Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism believe that one can reborn as animals or insects which has a sentient life. The life span of such animals are short and the only rule that governs is the survival of the fittest. We do not need to elaborate the pain and suffering of such beings and they are classed as the second worse existence of the nether world, next to the hell beings.

         If one believes in life after death one may wish to be reborn either as a human or in heavenly realms if there is an option, but it is more likely to reborn in the nether worlds. Our passions, lust, hatred and ill will can drag us to take rebirths as animals, ghosts, demons and hell beings. According to Buddhism the certainty of a rebirth is a hundred percent as everyone holds in the heart, an ignorance (avijja) of the four fold truth of Dhamma and sensuous passions (tanha).

         If that is the case how can we assure ourselves for a rebirth away from the nether world ?

         Good will, good actions, righteousness, morality and charity can help us in many ways , but still it cannot guarantee us as our mind can waver at the last moment. The thought at the verge of death is said to condition the successive thought of rebirth and it is likely to be not in order at the critical moment.

Are we totally helpless then ?

         We can condition ourselves to prepare for that critical moment by purifying ourselves physically and mentally. We can improve our morality by taking the five precepts, by abstaining from killing or injuring any life forms that can suffer, by abstaining from stealing, taking intoxicants, telling lies and from sexual misconduct. We can proceed to mental purification with any level of physical cleansing.

         This involves training our mind to focus on one object first, then to be mindful of all objects that come into contact with us. This is known as Vipassana meditation, the object of which is to reflect the impermanence of every object, living or non living. This will lead to a state of mental alertness and insight where one will come to know that personalisation is a relative condition based upon the ignorance of the truth that no mundane thing is eternal and that every being is composed of all or some of the five aggregates of physical/ corporeal and mental components. If we come to the basic level of perfection and enlightenment, a Sotapanna, we will have been trained to focus our mind on any object at our will and will be relatively free from attachments and ill will. This can help us condition our last thought in this existence and can pave our way to the realms of good destination. This is the assurance for a pleasant rebirth which we cannot buy with any amount of money, but with our effort and our understanding.

         The Venerable Mogok Sayadaw in his discourse on Sotapanna given on the 2nd March, 1960, in Upper Burma, explained the four factors of a Sotapanna, quoted from the original Pannaca Pali.

1) A person who has a right view towards the absence of self or personality view, but the aggregation of five corporeal and mental parts in every being.

2) A person freed from any doubt about this view.

3) A person who has a firm and non-wavering decision about this view.

4) A person who comes to know this view not only through external sources, but also with his or her own effort to know this view through Vipassana meditation and insight.

         Such a person can be classified as a Sotapanna which has two classes, a Sula Sotapanna, a smaller, lesser and primary state or a Maha Sotapanna, a larger, greater and higher state. A Sula Sotapanna is assured for a rebirth in good destinations for one life and a Maha Sotapanna has been assured absolutely. A Maha Sotapanna will be totally extinct from defilements within a maximum of seven future existences. A Sula Sotapanna is relatively easy to achieve if one practises Vipassana meditation with right effort and right understanding.

         The Ven. Mogok Sayadaw had emphasised that one could only know for certain by self analysis if one was a Sotapanna or not and other non-Ariya or those who were not enlightened could only make a guess out of the text book knowledge. For a serious Buddhist, this is of utmost importance as it is the objective of being a human, if not for a full liberation.

How are we to know if we hold the right view by Vipassana Insight ?

         Everyone who practises Vipassana seriously will have learnt about the right view from external sources. If one considers that one has reached a certain level of insight, either being told by the teacher or have judged oneself by the texts, how shall one know if the right view is reflected by Vipassana insight (bhavana maya) and not acquired through the second hand knowledge (sutamaya and cintamaya).

         In some Vipassana camps a level of insight which may be called a Bhanga can be easily reached if one follows the instructions meticulously. If one is actually in this stage, one is supposedly be a Sula Sotapanna as the primary levels of insight, Nama Rupa pariccheda, Paccaya pariggaha, Samma sana and Udayabbaya nana, must have already been achieved.

         If that is the case, over fifty percent of those who have attended such camps and have practised seriously will be a Sula Sotapanna according to the unpublished statistics. Is it an over-statement or a corrupted conception ?

         Sula Sotapanna is not difficult to achieve, yet it will not be as easy as one considered to be. So, what is the definite Vipassana hall mark of this state. There are published accounts about the morality and concepts of a Sotapanna, but a well defined hall mark of Vipassana insight for the Sula Sotapanna is lacking although it is present for a Maha Sotapanna .

Shall we take the features of Bhanga or Sankharupekkha as the hall mark or the features of Uddayabaya nana for a Sula Sotapanna ?

         My personal opinion is that when one reaches Udayabbaya nana one must have built the concentration (samadhi) strong enough to experience the by-products such as intense raptures, bliss, divine light etc. (upek kilesa) which may be an indication that this stage has been reached. At this level of Vipassana insight one would have gone through the stages where the distinction between the corporeality and the consciousness would become apparent and the non existence of the living ego or soul were reflected. One would also have had reflected the causal relation between defilements of present and past and the manifestation of nama-rupa such as rebirth-consciousness of the present life, the cycle of dependant origination. If one is crystal clear that nama-rupa is only conditional or just mere cause and effect and that there is no permanent soul or ego-entity that passes on from one life to another, Kankhavitarana-visuddhi or the purity of belief has been accomplished. It is the level of insight of a Sula Sottapa according to the texts. The hall mark of Udayabbaya nana is well established and it may be used as a definite indication for one to decide if one has reached the stage of Sula Sotapanna.

         The hall mark of the insight of Maha Sotapanna is well defined. According to the discourse on Sallekha Sutta of the late Ven. Mahasi Sayadaw: “When the analytical insight-knowledge is complete, the yogi will, while watching the ceaseless arising and passing away of namarupa, see the cessation of namarupa formations, that is Nibbana at the Sotapatti stage of the path.”

         The difficulty with the hall mark of Udayabbaya nana, however, is that Samatha meditation can also experience such extra-mundane sensations at the first Jhana which may not hold the right view of a Sula Sotapanna. Vipassana and Jhana have some characteristics in common. Although Samatha and Vipassana meditation can be classified separately according to the mode of viewing objects, it is often mixed in the practise of Vipassana meditation as it usually starts with a more or less of a Samatha technique. Those who have a cumulative potential (parami) for Samatha practice can usually experience these extra-mundane sensations without difficulty and if one is inclined to practise Vipassana, this hall mark may not be appropriate to regard oneself that a Sula Sotapanna stage has been reached.

         A degree of corruption in the belief in oneself as a Sula Sotapanna exists. It is also the same for Maha Sotapanna where one needs to know the right view by Magga nana, a state of complete extinction of all sensations, subtle or gross. This experience can also be obtained with Samatha meditation which occurs gradually as the concentration becomes stronger. It is quite distinct from Magga nana which is said to occur abruptly after experiencing rapid arising and dissolution of sensations. One also needs to identify Magga nana from a short spell of unconsciousness (htina). There can be a lot of misconceptions for being a Sotapanna in those who are practising the Buddhist way of life seriously. Anyway, one will know oneself how committed one is to the right view of non-personalisation when one comes across this hall mark.

         Human life is very important to gain the right view as one can opt for the right practice of cleansing. Humans have a well balanced pleasant and unpleasant conditions to practise and realise the truth. The nether world cannot practise Vipassana and it is often difficult to realise impermanence in the heavenly realms. The only snag for being humans is the loss of knowledge of the past life and experience. If we do not achieve Maha Sotapanna in this life and take rebirth as a human again, we may have to start from the very beginning and we are prone to all the defilements which can prevent us from the right view and knowledge. It is difficult to reborn as a human, but more difficult to come to a realisation of the right view. If we know this difficulty, we should be putting more effort to practise Vipassana and know for sure that we have achieved Sula Sotapanna at least, a priceless assurance of a lifetime that is not far fetched.

All constructive criticisms and suggestions to improve this understanding are welcome.


Author

Tin Htut

Email: t.htwt@sheffield.ac.uk

Tel: +44 (0)114 248 7943