The Path to Stream Entry
June 08, 2024

The Buddha’s first teaching was the noble eightfold path. His last teaching was the noble eightfold path. And again and again, throughout his teaching career he kept focusing there on the noble eightfold path.

Yet we have this tendency to think that he didn’t tell us everything in the path, that there’s much more to be figured out. Well, of course there are a lot of details in the path that he didn’t tell. And a lot of his other teachings are “details” in the path.

But there is that tendency to think that there’s something else we need to know. For instance, when we hear about stream entry and how it cuts three fetters, we think we’ve got to figure out what those fetters are, so that we can cut them and get there. But the fetters are cut by stream entry. The cutting of the fetters is not the cause, it’s the result.

Think of the time when Sāriputta the wanderer had gained the Dhamma eye—which is another term for stream-entry—after hearing a very short teaching from Ven. Assaji. He goes back and sees his friend Moggallāna, who was also a wanderer at the time. Moggallāna sees him and says, “Your complexion is bright. Your faculties are bright. Could it be that you’ve seen the deathless?” And Sāriputta says, “Yes.”

That’s what you see. That’s what the Dhamma eye sees: the deathless. That experience is then what cuts through the fetters. That’s because you see not only the deathless, but also how you got there. You realize that it was through your own efforts, through your discernment, and yet what you’ve seen is outside of space and time: something that cannot be touched by change.

There’s a weird sense that it’s always been there, even though “always” doesn’t really apply to the deathless because it is outside of time… but you know it’s not going to change.

And in stepping outside of time, you see back and you realize that your experience of time didn’t start with the day you were born, or the day you were conceived this time around. It goes way, way back.

You also realize that, in that experience, there are no aggregates. There’s no form, no feeling, no perception, no fabrication of anything, and no consciousness of the six senses—and yet there is an awareness.

As a result, there’s no tendency to want to identify yourself with any of the aggregates ever again. You still have a lingering sense of self that hovers around them, but you never hold to the view that the aggregates are you or yours, or that you’re in the aggregates or that the aggregates are in you. That’s how the first fetter gets cut—the fetter of self-identity views.

Of course, doubt about the Buddha gets cut, too. Seeing the deathless, you realize that what the Buddha said was true; it really does put an end to suffering. You’ve had a glimpse: As the Canon says in several places, you’ve actually had a direct experience, a direct knowledge of nibbāna. That’s what guarantees your conviction in the Buddha.

Think of the sutta of the elephant’s footprint: The image is of the elephant hunter who sees big footprints in the forest. Does he really know that they’re the footprints of a big bull elephant? Well, not really, because there are dwarf females with big feet. But, the footprints look promising. So he follows them, and sees scratch-marks up in the trees. Is that proof that a big bull elephant has been through there? Not necessarily, because there are tall females with tusks: The scratch-marks might be theirs.

It’s only when you follow the footprints, and you finally see the big bull elephant that you know for sure: That’s the big bull elephant you’re looking for, because you want a bull elephant who can do a lot of work.

In the same way, it’s when you’ve seen the deathless you realize the Buddha really knew what he was talking about—there is an end to suffering, and it’s achieved by following the path.

Part of the path is composed of precepts and practices, but your relationship to precepts and practices also changes. Sometimes this fetter is defined as grasping at rituals and rites. And some people say, “Well, I don’t have any rituals—I’m done with that one.” But even people without rituals still have a lot of habits that they hold to.

You realize that even good habits can’t guarantee awakening. There has to be an act of discernment that sees through not only the things outside but also what you’ve been doing.

Because what have you been doing? You’ve been doing the path. So even though we may know ahead of time what the fetters are, that knowledge is not going to cut them. It’s through doing the path that things get cut. It’s through doing the path that gets to the experience that cuts through things: That would be a better way of putting it.

The same old noble eightfold path all comes together. That’s what the Buddha said is “the stream.” Actually, Ven. Sāriputta said that, but the Buddha confirmed that what he said was true.

So, we don’t have to anticipate anything else aside from the path. Do the path, focus on what you’re doing, reflect on what you’re doing, and that combination of commitment and reflection will take you to something that’s beyond the path. After all, the path is fabricated—you do put it together—but it can take you to something unfabricated.

This is one of the big paradoxes in the Buddha’s teachings that has been a stumbling block for a lot of people. You hear it again and again through different periods of Buddhist history in different places: “How can something fabricated lead to something unfabricated?” Well, think of the image of the path: The path doesn’t cause the things that it leads to, but by following the path, you get there.

And following the path, you’re not just doing what you’re told. You’re reflecting on what you’re doing and you’re getting some discernment into this process of fabrication—of how the mind puts things together here in the present moment.

You see it as you’re doing concentration: You begin to see a thought form that could pull you away, but if your mindfulness and alertness are good, you realize you don’t have to go there. But you can see the steps by which it happens.

Then you turn around and reflect on the concentration itself. It’s the same sort of thing: This is how fabrication happens, this is how things originate in the mind. After all, that’s where the problem is. As the Buddha said, the cause of suffering is right here, so you want to learn how to observe your mind in action right here.

You might want to say, “I’d like to see something else besides my mind in action. I don’t like what I see.” You’ve got to learn how to really look at what you’re doing. That’s one of the reasons why we try to do good things and act on only skillful intentions, because that makes the mind a lot easier to watch.

Then, as you watch what the mind is doing, you begin to see that its doing goes very deep—deeper than you might have imagined.

That relates to the expression of what’s seen through the Dhamma eye: “Whatever is subject to origination is all subject to cessation.” You have to stop and think: What kind of experience would lead to that idea spontaneously appearing in the mind?

Now, sometimes it’s translated as, “Whatever arises passes away.” That makes it sound as if you’ve finally accepted the principle of inconstancy. Part of your mind resisted it, but now you say, “Yes, I think that’s really true.” Well, that kind of realization is not going to shake the earth. It’s not going to shake up your mind. What shakes up your mind is, as the path leads you toward the deathless, you begin to realize how much you’ve been shaping your experience.

Because the passage doesn’t say, “Whatever arises…” it says, “Whatever is subject to origination…” Origination means something caused. And the cause comes from within the mind.

Basically what it’s saying is that whatever is caused by the mind is going to cease. That insight appears spontaneously when you’ve seen something that’s not caused by the mind, and it doesn’t cease. Whereas, everything else that was caused by the mind does cease in that experience.

Which is why you don’t have to be primed ahead of time to be told, “This is what you’re going to see at stream entry.” The experience of the deathless is what leads you to that conclusion, because you saw that this was not originated in the mind. And you know that you know, because you’ve gotten really good at observing the mind.

You also watch as everything that was originated—anything that has anything to do with the six senses or the five aggregates—all falls away. What’s left is something that you know is not originated, but it doesn’t cease—which is why it’s called the deathless.

This all happens when the noble eightfold path comes together. So, the issue keeps coming back to the path. You read all about the wings to awakening—all those different lists—and it sounds as if you have different paths you can choose from. And there is an element of choice as you practice, but in every case, the Buddha says, how do you develop, say, the seven factors for awakening? How do you develop the four bases for success, the four establishings of mindfulness, the five strengths, the five faculties? Through developing the noble eightfold path. You want to get all its factors to come together.

In the beginning, they sound like eight fairly random things, but as you practice, you begin to see that they all come together. Ajaan Lee wrote a book on the eightfold path, and his explanations of the different factors blurred the lines between the factors.

He did that intentionally, because virtue has an organic relationship with right concentration; right concentration has an organic relationship with discernment. They all come together in this process of being very attentive to what your mind is doing—what its intentional actions are; what the results are—and how you keep refining, refining, refining what you’re doing. It’ll get so refined that it leads you to something that’s not done.

So, when you wonder why your practice isn’t developing as it should, you don’t have to look anywhere else. Look into the factors of the noble eightfold path. Try to figure out which one is lacking.

Ajaan Lee points out that the path is like building a bridge across a river: The pilings on this side of the river aren’t hard to get in place; the pilings on the far side aren’t hard to get in place. It’s the pilings in the middle of the river, where the current is strongest, that are really hard to get in place. In the same way, the principles of the precepts or virtue are not that hard. The principles of discernment are not that hard, either. It’s the concentration that requires a lot of work. In other words, the factors of right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration: That’s where most of our focus is going to be; that’s where the steady work has to be done.

But don’t forget the other elements as well, because as you practice following the precepts, what do the precepts demand of you? That you be really clear about what your intentions are. You have to be mindful to keep the precepts in mind. You have to be alert to watch your actions, to make sure they’re in line with the precepts. And you have to be ardent in trying to do this well, because there will be times when it’s going to be really easy to break the precepts: Your old habits will push you in that direction, and you’ve got to say No. You’ve got to make an effort.

Well, these three qualities—mindfulness, alertness, ardency—are all qualities of right mindfulness. Right mindfulness is basically the Buddha’s instructions on how to get the mind into right concentration. So all the factors do come together.

As the Buddha once said of his teachings, “There’s nothing lacking, and there’s nothing in excess.” So try to be virtuous and discerning in your concentration. Try to be discerning and concentrated as you practice virtue. And then as they all come together like this, that’s when they take you to something really special. You gain a glimpse of what the Buddhist goal is.

An analogy they give in the Canon is that it’s like standing at the edge of a well. You see that there’s water down in the well, but you haven’t totally plunged into it. But it’s enough to know, okay, there’s water there.

When you’ve seen the deathless, there’s more work to be done, but having seen the deathless really rearranges your mind. That’s what cuts the fetters without your having known about the fetters beforehand. That’s what leads to the conclusion that “Whatever is subject to origination is all subject to cessation.” Without ever having heard that, you’d still come to that conclusion. And it’s at that point that the Buddha says you actually start your genuine training.

Right now we’re training to get prepared for the real training. So keep your focus here—right in doing the factors of the eightfold path. Bring the path together in your mind, and it’ll take you to where you want to go.