As one starts to meditate more frequently, read more widely about the topic, and pay more attention to meditation-focused media, the phrase “stream entry” may pop up from time to time. While Stream Entry may sound like the name of an obscure early 90’s electronic music track, the phrase actually refers to the reaching the first of four stages of enlightenment in the Pali Buddhist tradition. In order to achieve stream entry, one must see the Dharma clearly and must break the three chains, or fetters, commonly seen to hold people in a realm of delusion.
Unfortunately, I am nowhere near having achieved Stream Entry, so my understanding is very much that of an outsider. However, I will do my best to explain what I can.
What is Stream Entry?
The phrase Stream Entry, or Sotāpanna, has multiple layers of meaning. It is an assembly of two words, sota, and āpanna. The word āpanna can be translated as “entered”, “gone down”, or “knowledge”, and the word sota could be seen as “ear” or “stream”.
So you could think of Stream Entry as one who has entered into the stream, but also one who has heard the knowledge. Another common translation is “stream winner”.
Stream Entry is the first of four stages of enlightenment and is achieved transcending identity with the self, and by seeing the Dharma for what it is.
Stage 1 Sotapanna (Stream Entry)
This is the first stage of awakening. In order to experience Stream Entry, one must detach oneself from the three fetters of Buddhist thought. These are:
Non-Self Oriented Thought
The Buddhist concept of the self is a difficult one to describe, and is practically ineffable. Many writers and speakers far better than I have tried and failed to hit this one!
But the idea of no-self is quite important to understand in order to move toward Stream Entry. Unfortunately, most feel that it is impossible to really grasp the core of this concept without extensive meditation, and words simply don’t fully explain it.
The general concept is that the belief in a self that is generating and directing thought is a delusion, and that no self actually exists apart from the world around. Anything that has an inside also has an outside, and because of this, the idea of a self, separate from the environment doesn’t really make any sense when carefully examined.
Breaking from the Need for Ritual
Negation of the idea that purity of mind and soul comes from ritual in any form. Religious icons, worship services, chanting, and the like do not bring enlightenment and only serve to obscure true thought.
This is essentially the understanding that there are no shortcuts to enlightened behavior, and only through the noble eight-fold path can one practice awakened behavior.
Loss of Doubt about the Buddha’s Teachings
Because the path to Stream Entry requires people to follow the noble eight-fold path, all who achieve Stream Entry will by necessity experience insight as the Buddha did, and see that the Buddha is correct in his explanation of the world, and of awakening. All doubt is eradicated.
I’ve always found this requirement to be quite odd. You’re supposed to break from any sort of ritual, but also revere the Buddha’s set of ideas. Huh?
As many Buddhist traditions, most prominently Zen, are steeped in contradiction, so it’s hard to understand how one can simultaneously break the need for ritual and hold the Buddha’s teachings as sacrosanct. The Zen koan “if you see the Buddha, kill him!” comes to mind when pondering this seeming clash of ideas.
And of course, the Stream Entry Subreddit is invaluable.
- Daniel M. Ingram
- Publisher: AEON Books
- Edition no. 2 (06/28/2018)
- Paperback: 800 pages
A Note on Enlightened Behavior vs. Enlightenment
You can find a whole lot of gurus who will tell you that they are enlightened. There are countless people who believe they understand something that others do not, and they feel the need to teach others what they understand.
However, this expression of enlightenment means little.
The goal is not the enlightenment of mind, but rather enlightened behavior, which is then transformed into enlightenment. The relationship between ones experience of enlightenment, and the ways that the experiences of enlightenment alter perception and behavior over a long period of time are key. For more on this, Culadasa/John Yates PhD, author of the fantastic mediation guidebook The Mind Illuminated discusses the topic here.
- Touchstone Books
- John Yates, Matthew Immergut, Jeremy Graves
- Publisher: Atria Books
- Paperback: 512 pages