The Path to Once-Returning

The path to once-returning takes the fruition of stream entry as its basis. In other words, those who are to attain the state of once-returning bring their previous activity in making the mundane path transcendent to bear on the five aggregates, reducing the aggregates to two classes—physical phenomena and mental phenomena—and then making a focused investigation of both through the power of intuition or liberating insight in this manner:

Right view: They contemplate physical and mental phenomena until they see them clearly as inconstant, stressful, and not-self. Once they see clearly, they become uncomplacent. They set their thoughts on doing away with desire for physical and mental phenomena. They want to withdraw themselves from these things because they have seen their harm. This is right resolve.

Right speech on this level refers to the inner verbal fabrication of vitakka and vicāra, thinking and evaluating, searching rightly for the causes and conditions of physical and mental phenomena. (As for external speech, that was made pure with the attainment of stream entry, so there is no need to mention it on this level.)

Right action on this level is nothing other than the activity of focusing on physical and mental phenomena so as to give rise to tranquility and insight.

Right livelihood here refers to the act of choosing, say, a physical phenomenon as an object for the mind’s activity—this is termed vitakka—and then examining and evaluating it—this is vicāra—with discernment. Once you learn its truth, this leads to mental pleasure. Your focused examination of physical and mental phenomena is right, and the state of your mind is right. This thus counts as right livelihood.

Right effort refers to the effort of focusing and examining for the sake of shedding your preoccupations—physical and mental phenomena—through the power of the corresponding level of liberating insight, making the appropriate effort without being complacent.

Right mindfulness means being mindful of the behavior of physical and mental phenomena as they arise and disband, without getting distracted, at the same time maintaining alertness—in short, being mindful and alert with regard to your body and mind in all your activities, taking the body in and of itself and the mind in and of itself as your frames of reference in a way that leads directly to concentration.

Right concentration here refers to the mind’s being focused exclusively and steadily on physical and mental phenomena, not fixing its attention on anything else. Its activity centers constantly on a single preoccupation, which it examines in terms of liberating insight. This type of concentration, termed appanā citta, the fixed mind, differs in no way at all from the activity of discernment, searching for the causes and conditions of physical and mental phenomena in terms of saccānulomika-ñāṇa, knowledge in accordance with the four noble truths.

When all aspects of the noble path are right, in terms of bodily, verbal, and mental fabrication, the entire path converges in a single mental instant. Focus the mind in that instant and see the truth of physical and mental phenomena. Physical and mental phenomena will disband and won’t appear as a focal point for the mind. The mind will escape from its shackles as thoughts of passion, aversion, and delusion disappear. But only three fetters have been broken, just as in stream entry. Passion, aversion, and delusion have merely been weakened.

This is the fruition of once-returning. Those who reach this level are destined to be reborn only once more. They have completely developed virtue and one aspect of concentration, but they still have to work on the higher aspects of concentration, along with the higher aspects of discernment, because these have been only partially developed. Discernment is still weak. It has cut away only the twigs and branches, while the roots are still intact. Still, people who have reached this level have seen nibbāna appear close at hand.