Even stream-entry is a full vision of Nibbāna
“…he sees those states of feeling, perception, fabrications and consciousness as impermanent, as suffering, as a disease, as a tumor, as a barb, as a calamity, as an affliction, as alien, as disintegrating, as void, as not-self. He turns his mind away from those states and directs it towards the deathless element thus: ‘This is peaceful, this is sublime, the stilling of all fabrications, the relinquishment of all acquisitions, the destruction of craving; dispassion, cessation, Nibbāna.’ If he is steady in that, he attains the destruction of the taints. But if he does not attain the destruction of the taints because of that desire for the Dhamma, that delight in the Dhamma, then with the destruction of the five lower fetters he becomes due to reappear spontaneously in the Pure Abodes, and there attain final Nibbāna without ever returning from that world. This is the path…” — Mahā-mālunkya Sutta (MN 64)
In the previous article we pointed out that it is inappropriate to ask, ‘What is the purpose of Nibbāna? Why should one attain Nibbāna?’ Nibbāna is the ultimate aim of the Holy Life (brahmacariya) or the Noble Eightfold Path. The Buddha declares anuttara brahmacariyapariyosāna: “Nibbāna is the supreme consummation of the Holy Life.” — Poṭṭhapāda Sutta (DN 9)
If the purpose of x is to reach y, and the purpose of y is to attain z, then to inquire about the purpose of z implies there is something beyond it. Since the purpose of the Holy Life is Nibbāna and it merges in Nibbāna at the end, questions about the purpose of Nibbāna are inapplicable. Nibbāna is the ultimate goal; it has no purpose because there is nothing further beyond it.
When it is said that ‘the Holy Life merges in Nibbāna at the end’ (Māra Sutta, SN 184.108.40.206), it means that even the path is to be let go upon reaching Nibbāna:
“Here, bhikkhus, when that man got across and had arrived at the far shore, he might think thus: ‘This raft has been very helpful to me, since supported by it and making an effort with my hands and feet, I got safely across to the far shore. Suppose I were to haul it onto the dry land or set it adrift in the water, and then go wherever I want.’ Now, bhikkhus, it is by so doing that that man would be doing what should be done with that raft. So I have shown you how the Dhamma is similar to a raft, being for the purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of grasping.” — Alagaddupama Sutta (MN 22)
The following phrase announcing a new Arahant is found in 45 Suttas:
“In this very life he realized by his own higher knowledge and attained to that supreme consummation of the Holy Life for the purpose of which clansmen of good family rightly go forth from home to homelessness.”
The justification for saying that the completion of the Holy Life is directly Nibbāna is that the Noble Eightfold Path is a straight path: Ujuko nāma so maggo, abhayā nāma sā disā: “This path is called ‘the straight’ and the direction it goes is called ‘the fearless’.” — Accharā Sutta (S I 33)
“To the learner, learning In pursuit of the straight path, First comes the knowledge of destruction And then immediately the certainty.” — Indriya Sutta (It 53)
Here the word anantarā (immediately following) is used. That concentration proper to the fruit of Arahantship is called ānantarikā samādhi — (Peṭ 188). This means the attainment of the fruit, Nibbāna, is immediate.
This may be so for the Arahant, but what about the sotāpanna (Stream-enterer)? There is a general belief that the vision of Nibbāna for a sotāpanna is like a glimpse of a distant lamp on a twisting road, and the sotāpanna has just negotiated the first bend.
But according to the Dhamma, the norm of immediacy is applicable even to knowledge of the first path. The phrase sandiṭṭhiko akāliko: “immediate and timeless”, in respect to the Dhamma appears no less than 35 times in the Suttas. Nibbāna is not some ‘thing’ or ‘destination’ far away on a meandering path. It appears immediately in the here-and-now as soon as the Holy Life is complete.
A sotāpanna may be a beggar, an illiterate person, even a seven-year-old child. Maybe he has just heard the Dhamma for the first time. Nevertheless, the Suttas give a long series of epithets about his qualifications:
And just as a clean cloth from which all stain has been washed away will readily take the dye, just even so did Pokkharasādi, the Brahman, obtain, even while sitting there, the pure and spotless. Eye for the Truth, and he knew: ‘Whatsoever has a beginning in that is inherent also the necessity of dissolution.’
And then the Brahman Pokkharasādi, as one who had seen the Truth, had mastered it, understood it, dived deep down into it, who had passed beyond doubt and put away perplexity and gained full confidence, who had become dependent on no other man for his knowledge of the teaching of the Master… — Ambaṭṭha Sutta(D I 110)
The second verse quoted above reads: diṭṭhadhammo pattadhammo viditadhammo pariyogāḷhadhammo tiṇṇavicikiccho vigatakathaṃkatho vesārajjappatto aparappaccayo satthusāsane. In fact the exact same description of the sotāpanna is found in 12 Suttas.
Diṭṭhadhammo: he has seen the Dhamma, the truth of Nibbāna. It is said in the Ratana Sutta that three fetters are abandoned with the vision of the first path: sakkāyadiṭṭhi (selfhood view), vicikicchā (skeptical doubt) and sīlabbataparāmāsa (attachment to holy vows and ascetic practices.) Some might argue that only these fetters are abandoned at the stage of Stream-entry and not the rest, because it is a merely a glimpse of Nibbāna from a distance.
But there is more, pattadhammo: he has reached the Dhamma, he has arrived at Nibbāna. Not only that, viditadhammo: he has understood the Dhamma, which is Nibbāna. And he is pariyogāḷhadhammo: he has dived into the Dhamma, which is Nibbāna. And tiṇṇavicikiccho: he has crossed over doubts. Vigatakathaṃkatho: his waverings are gone. Vesārajjappatto: he has attained to proficiency. And finally aparappaccayo satthusāsane: he is not dependent on others in regard to the dispensation of the teacher. That is to say, he could go on to attain Nibbāna even without help, though of course with a realized teacher’s help he could attain it sooner. These epithets testify to the efficacy of the realization by the first path. It is not merely a distant glimpse — it’s reaching, arrival, a plunge into Nibbāna.
This verse clearly indicates what happens when knowledge of the path arises. It cuts off, even for a moment, the ever-flowing river of fabrications born of craving. Saṅkhārānaṃ khayaṃ ñatvā: one realizes the destruction of fabrications. Fabrications part for a moment to reveal the unfabricated (asaṅkhata). Akata, the unmade, is equivalent to asaṅkhata, the unfabricated. So in stream-entry one has a momentary vision of reality free from fabrications. Of course, after that experience influxes flow in again; the realization of Nibbāna in Stream-entry is still unstable. But diṭṭhāsavā, influxes of wrong views, are gone for good.
Some with keen wisdom like Bāhiya attained Arahantship even while listening to a short sermon from the Buddha. Just by hearing the Buddha he attained four powerful visions of path-knowledge in quick succession, clearing away all possible influxes:
“And since for you, Bāhiya, in what is seen there will be only what is seen, in what is heard there will be only what is heard, in what is sensed there will be only what is sensed, in what is cognized there will be only what is cognized; therefore, Bāhiya, you will not be with that. And since, Bāhiya, you will not be with that, therefore, Bāhiya, you will not be in that; and since, Bāhiya, you will not be in that, therefore, Bāhiya, you will not be here or hereafter or in between the two — just this is the end of suffering.” — Udāna 1.10
Akata or asaṅkhata, the unmade or unfabricated, the imperturbable Nibbāna, is not something distant, ‘out there’ as an object of thought. It is not a symbol or sign to be grasped by one who wants to attain Nibbāna. Language and education condition us to think in terms of symbols, a habit of convenience difficult to break. The worldlings with defilements want to communicate with each other, and the structure of the language has to answer their needs. So the subject-object relationship is a very significant feature in language. It assumes there is an ‘object’ to be grasped and a ‘subject’ who grasps, that there is a ‘doer’ and a ‘thing’ to be done. So it is almost impossible to avoid usages such as: ‘I want to see Nibbāna; I want to attain Nibbāna’. Language conditions us to think in terms of being, doing, having and attaining.
The Buddha reminds us that this is only a conventional usage, not to be taken seriously. When the deity Kakudha asks the Buddha, “Do you rejoice, O recluse?” The Buddha retorts, “On getting what, friend?” Then the deity asks, “Then, recluse, do you grieve?” And the Buddha quips back, “On losing what, friend?” So Kakudha concludes, “Well then, recluse, you neither rejoice nor grieve!” And the Buddha replies: “That is so, friend.” — Kakudha Sutta (S I 54)
Although we say we ‘attain’ Nibbāna, there is nothing to gain and nothing to lose. If anything is lost, it is the ignorance that there are ‘things’, the conceits ‘I am’ and ‘I have’, and the craving that ‘there is not enough’ — and that is all one loses.