Turning the Mundane Path into the Transcendent Path

The path of the noble ones—beginning with the path to stream entry—is to take the mundane eightfold path and bring it to bear on the five aggregates—form, feelings, labels, fabrications, and consciousness—or, in short, to bring it to bear on physical and mental phenomena. Focus on these phenomena with the discernment of right view until you see them all in terms of the three characteristics, i.e., until you see all physical and mental phenomena arising and disbanding in the present as inconstant, stressful, and not-self. You see with the eye of intuitive knowledge, the eye of discernment, the eye of cognitive skill, the eye of Dhamma. Your vision is true and correct. It’s right view, the path in harmony, with no admixture of wrong view at all. Your vision of physical phenomena is correct in line with virtue, concentration, and discernment; your vision of mental phenomena is correct in line with virtue, concentration, and discernment. Your right view traces things first forward and then back. You have an adamantine sword—liberating insight—slashing back and forth. You are engaged in focused investigation: This is what forms the path.

You fix your attention on the noble truths as two: cause and effect. When your mind is absolutely focused and fixed on examining cause and effect, that’s the path to stream-entry. Once you have gained clear insight into cause and effect through the power of your discernment, making the heart radiant and bright, destroying whatever mental and physical phenomena are fetters (saṅyojana), the opening to nibbāna will appear. If your powers of discernment are weak, your mind will then return to its dependence on mental and physical phenomena, but even so, it will no longer be deceived or deluded by them, for it has seen their harm. It will never again dare grab on to the three fetters that it has been holding for so long.

Those who reach this stage have reached the transcendent—the path and fruition of stream entry—and form one class of the noble disciples.

There are nine transcendent qualities—four paths, four fruitions, and one nibbāna: the path to stream entry and the fruition of stream entry; the path to once-returning and the fruition of once-returning; the path to non-returning and the fruition of non-returning; the path to arahantship and the fruition of arahantship; all of which come down to the one nibbāna, which makes nine. The term lokuttara dhamma—transcendent qualities—means superior qualities, special and distinct from mundane qualities, reaching a “world” above and beyond all worlds, destined to go only higher and higher, never to return to anything low.

The word magga, or path, refers simply to the way leading to nibbāna. It’s called the ariya magga, the path free from enemies, because it’s the path that Death cannot trace. It’s called the eightfold path because on the transcendent level it has abandoned the eight wrong factors of the mundane path, leaving only the eight right: right view and right resolve, which compose right discernment, let us gain insight into physical and mental phenomena that arise and disband in the present in terms of the three characteristics, so that we let go of them completely with no remaining doubts about the Dhamma we have seen. As for right speech, right action, and right livelihood, our words and deeds reach purity, free from the fetter of self-identity view. And as for right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration, we reach the level of mind that is firm and imperturbable. Our thoughts, words, and deeds are free from groping with regard to habits and practices, and are truly in keeping with nibbāna, not side-tracking or going slack the way the actions of ordinary people do.

People who have attained the fruit of stream entry have the following characteristics: They have firm conviction in the virtues of the Triple Gem. The quality of generosity and relinquishment is a regular feature in their hearts. They are not complacent and never give rein to the power of delusion. They are firmly and joyfully dedicated to the cause of their own inner purity. They love virtue more than life itself. They have no intention of doing any of the baser forms of evil. Although some residual shoddy qualities may still be remaining in their hearts, they never let these unskillful qualities ever again come to the fore.

The stream they have entered is that leading to nibbāna. They have abandoned the three lower fetters once and for all.

1. Self-identity view (sakkāya-diṭṭhi): They have uprooted the viewpoint that once caused them to identify physical and mental phenomena as being the self.

2. Uncertainty (vicikicchā): They have uprooted all doubt and indecision concerning the nature of physical and mental phenomena, and all doubt concerning the Buddha, Dhamma, and Saṅgha. If anyone were to come and say that there is no Awakening, that the practice of virtue, concentration, and discernment doesn’t lead to the paths, fruitions, or nibbāna, they wouldn’t believe that person’s words, because they have seen for certain, with their own discernment, that the paths and their fruitions are unrelated to time (akāliko) and can be known only personally, within (paccattaṁ).

Their conviction is firm

and free from indecision.

Their vision is sure.

3. Groping at habits and practices (sīlabbata-parāmāsa): They have uprooted all unreasonable beliefs concerning physical and mental phenomena, both within and without. They are no longer groping in their habits, manners, or practices. Everything they do is done with a reason, not out of darkness or ignorance. They are convinced of the principle of kamma. Their concern for their own thoughts, words, and deeds is paramount: Those who do good will meet with good, those who do evil will meet with evil.

People who have reached stream entry have faith in the virtues of the Buddha, Dhamma, and Saṅgha that have appeared within them. They are no longer groping in their virtue. Their virtues are pure and free from defilement. They have cut off the three fetters with regard to physical and mental phenomena—right at their own thoughts, words, and deeds—through the practice of virtue, concentration, and discernment acting in concert. What this means is that they have made a focused examination back and forth, over and over, through the power of their own discernment. They have traced the path back and forth, cutting away at the grasses and weeds. One mental moment they trace things forward, and the next moment they trace them back. In other words, they focus on the phenomenon of arising and passing away, and then are able to know through the discernment of liberating insight that there in the midst of physical and mental phenomena exists something that isn’t subject to arising and passing away.

The path to stream entry is the act of focusing on physical and mental phenomena, back and forth. When events are traced back and forth—sometimes two times in succession, sometimes three, depending on the power of one’s discernment and insight—physical and mental phenomena disband and change-of-lineage knowledge arises in the same instant, enabling one to see the quality within one that isn’t subject to arising or passing away. This is the opening onto nibbāna, appearing sharp and clear through the power of one’s own discernment, bringing with it the fruition of stream entry, the state of being a noble disciple in the Buddha’s teaching. One’s fetters are absolutely severed, once and for all. Having seen the pain and harm coming from the actions that lead to the realms of deprivation, one is now freed from them and can breathe with ease.

Such people have received a treasure: They have attained transcendent discernment and seen nibbāna for sure. They are like a traveler who has seen a palace of gold in the distance: Although he hasn’t yet reached it, he is bound to think of it at all times. Stream-enterers have already gone three leagues (yojana) on the way, with only seven leagues left to go. Whoever has the chance to see or know such people, help them, or associate with them, is truly fortunate.

There are three classes of stream-enterer: ekabījin, those who will be reborn only once more; kolaṅkola, those who will be reborn three or four more times; and sattakkhattu-parama, those who will be reborn seven more times.

Why are there three? Because the natural propensities of each individual determine the way he or she pursues the path. The first group is comprised of those with a propensity to aversion. They tend to develop insight meditation more than tranquility meditation, reaching Awakening quickly with few of the mundane skills or powers. The second group is comprised of those with a propensity to passion. This group develops insight and tranquility in equal measure, reaching Awakening at a moderate rate, along with a moderate number of mundane powers and skills. The third group consists of those with a propensity to delusion. They tend to develop tranquility in large measure, with very strong powers in the direction of jhāna, before going on to develop insight meditation. They attain Awakening along with a large number of powers and skills. When they reach the transcendent level, they tend to have mastered the three skills, the six forms of intuitive power (abhiññā), and the four forms of acumen.

But if these three propensities exist in everyone, why do we now assign them to different individuals? Because the moment you are about to know the truth, you focus on the good and bad features of a particular mental state and attain Awakening then and there. In some cases the state is passion, in some cases aversion, and in some cases delusion. Once you have focused on knowing a particular state and know its truth for what it is, then that truth will place you in a particular class.

Those who reach this stage are headed straight for the higher paths and fruitions culminating in nibbāna. People who have attained stream entry have their virtue completely developed. They don’t have to worry about virtue any longer. They no longer have to look out for their virtues, for they’ve been a slave to virtue long enough. From now on the quality of their virtue will look out for them, safeguarding them from the four realms of deprivation. What this means is that their vices have been tamed, and so they no longer have to worry about keeping them in line. They still have to work at concentration and discernment, though. They’ve wiped out the cruder forms of unskillful behavior, but the medium and subtle forms—which are to be wiped out by the higher paths, beginning with the path to once-returning—still remain.