The Path to Non-Returning

The path to non-returning takes the fruition of once-returning as its basis. In other words, those who are to attain the state of non-returning gather all eight factors of the noble path and bring them to bear on physical and mental phenomena as before. They then make a focused examination in terms of the discernment of liberating insight. What this means is that right view and right resolve are brought together at the same point and applied to physical and mental phenomena so as to see such phenomena in terms of the three characteristics. This is termed right discernment.

Right speech, right action, and right livelihood are brought together at the same point: The mind’s normal state is now that of being focused at the level of physical and mental phenomena. The activity on this level is reduced to two sorts: “bodily action,” i.e., the act of focusing the mind on the behavior of physical phenomena; and “speech,” the mind’s inner dialogue, directed thought and evaluation (vitakka, vicāra) focused on the behavior of fabrications. Bodily activity is in a state of normalcy; mental activity is in a state of normalcy: Thus we can say that heightened virtue (adhisīla) has been established.

As for right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration: The mind makes a persistent, unwavering examination of physical and mental phenomena, resolutely intent on them as its single preoccupation. Once the qualities of virtue, concentration, and discernment are gathered together and brought to bear on physical and mental phenomena, use the power of discernment to make a focused examination back and forth: This is termed the path to non-returning. When physical and mental phenomena disband and disperse from the primal heart, the fourth and fifth fetters—kāma-rāga, passion and delight for physical and mental phenomena caused by the power of sensual defilement; and paṭigha, mental irritability and resistance caused by aversion for physical and mental phenomena—are absolutely abandoned. Once these two qualities have been shed from the heart through the discernment of liberating insight, this is termed the fruition of non-returning. Non-returners have thus put behind them once and for all the rocky, five-league trail composed of self-identity view, uncertainty, groping at habits and practices, sensual passion, and irritation. Never again will they have to be reborn in any of the sensual worlds.

Forsaking these things forever,

they savor the fruit of non-returning,

earning the title, “noble one.”

According to the Canon, non-returners are of five sorts. After they pass away from the human world, they will appear in the five Pure Abodes, the highest of the Brahmā worlds, there to attain the path and fruition of arahantship, never again to return to the sensual plane. Non-returners have only a little work left to do. Their virtue is completely developed into heightened virtue (adhisīla); their training in concentration is also complete, so that they no longer have to work at it. The only thing left for them to develop is discernment. Everything else they simply maintain. They are noble disciples who are genuinely close to nibbāna.