Practice Guides June 1, 2023

The Four Stages of Enlightenment

Sean Oakes

At the very heart of the Buddha’s life, teaching, and building of spiritual community is enlightenment, also called awakening or liberation. Enlightenment is what makes a person a Buddha, literally “one who is awake,” and it is what we cultivate as we practice. But what is it? Is enlightenment an experience? A state of knowing something? A permanent change in your psychology? The teachings on enlightenment insist that it is possible to uproot the causes of suffering fully from our own hearts and to live from a place of wisdom and compassion rather than delusion and reactivity. This is where the path leads, and no matter how far from “enlightenment” we may feel, if we are practicing sincerely, we are moving toward it.

It is impossible to engage with the teachings and practices of Buddhism without encountering the concept of enlightenment (nibbāna). But it is difficult to describe, leaving many Buddhist traditions to either not try (saying that language cannot possibly describe it), to resort to poetry, or to approach it indirectly by either describing what it is not or identifying what is no longer happening. This last method is the one most frequently used in the early discourses.

The Buddha used the simile of a flame going out to describe the permanent change in a practitioner’s life that happens when “defilements” (āsava) are destroyed by seeing with wisdom. The Four Noble Truths teach us how grasping causes suffering, and how through practice grasping can cease, thereby ending suffering. In the simile, when a flame (grasping) is separated from its fuel (sensory and emotional experiences), it goes out, and the heat of grasping is cooled. This is a core meaning of the word nibbāna (Sanskrit: nirvāṇa), which can be literally translated as “extinguishment.” Something goes out, and then there is enlightenment and liberation. The resulting experience is defined by the absence of grasping, and as a result the absence of suffering (dukkha). We become cooled.

Whether this happens gradually or suddenly, all at once or in stages, it is the experience the whole tradition—and our whole practice—points toward. After this extinguishing, the Buddha says that the practitioner has “done what had to be done, laid down the burden, achieved their own true goal, utterly ended the fetters of rebirth, and is rightly freed through enlightenment” (Iti 44). This lofty goal is broken down into four stages, called paths (magga), which further divide into ten fetters (saṁyojana) that are shed as we move through the process (AN 10.13, AN 4.88).

The Four Paths (Magga) & Ten Fetters (Saṁyojana)

The training that leads to the end of suffering is called the Noble Eightfold Path, which suggests that there is a destination. Enlightenment is that destination. The word path (magga) is used both for the process of cultivation and the result of that cultivation, and the levels or stages of enlightenment are referred to as the “four paths.”

  1. Stream-entry (sotāpanna)

  2. Once-return (sakadāgāmi)

  3. Non-return (anāgāmi)

  4. Perfection (arahant)

Each of these stages is defined in two ways: how close it brings the practitioner to the end of rebirth, and which painful or unskillful qualities are given up or weakened. Attaining the final stage and becoming an arahant is synonymous with full enlightenment, and the discourses say that the level of liberation enjoyed by arahants is the same as the liberation of the Buddha.

While this goal can feel impossibly distant or even like a spiritual fantasy, there are living people now who are understood to be arahants, and many more who have attained the other stages. Generally one’s attainment of a path is something only discussed with a teacher or senior peers. In our Theravāda lineage, announcing one’s own enlightenment at any of the levels is considered unskillful, since even unintentional overstatement of an attainment can be damaging to the Saṅgha. For this reason, monastics are prohibited from naming their level of attainment to laypeople, and lay teachers generally are circumspect about their own accomplishments in practice. For most of us it may be best to understand practice as maturing slowly over time through many stages of insight and letting go, and to not worry about where we are in the process.

The qualities abandoned as we progress through the paths are called the ten fetters (saṁyojana). These painful and unskillful aspects of our emotional and energetic lives include four of the five hindrances and other elaborations of the three poisons—greed, hatred, and delusion—that are overcome as we deepen in insight and wisdom.

  1. Self-view (sakkāyadiṭṭhi)

  2. Doubt (vicikicchā)

  3. Belief that rites and rituals will liberate (sīlabbataparāmāsa)

  4. Sense desire (kāmacchanda)

  5. Ill-will (vyāpāda)

  6. Craving for form (rūparāga)

  7. Craving for the formless (arūparāga)

  8. Conceit (māna)

  9. Restlessness (uddhaccaṁ)

  10. Ignorance (avijjā)

Stream-entry (sotāpanna)

The first stage of enlightenment is likened to “entering the stream of the Dharma.” Becoming a stream-enterer, the discourses tell us, one will no longer be reborn in any of the three “unfortunate” births—in the hell, hungry ghost, or animal realms—and will attain full liberation in no more than seven further lifetimes. Attaining stream-entry is considered in some traditions to be the most important goal for practitioners because of this promise that full enlightenment is now inevitable in the relatively near future. Attaining stream-entry is also called being “accomplished in view,” and indicates that the first aspect of the Eightfold Path, wise view, is substantially mature (AN 6.91).

Attainment of stream-entry fully ends the first three fetters: self-view, doubt about the path, and belief that rites and rituals can liberate. The first, self-view, is a mature form of the insight into anattā (selflessness or not-self) in which the practitioner knows for themself that there is no permanent, substantial individual being or soul that experiences life. Uprooting the fetter of doubt permanently ends the fifth hindrance, skeptical doubt, as one knows for oneself that the path works and leads to real happiness and freedom. Abandoning the third fetter confirms through direct experience that only the Eightfold Path leads to enlightenment, not other forms of ritual practice. This does not mean that rites and rituals are meaningless or not skillful—there are many important rituals that the Buddha created and supported—but only that they cannot by themselves bring one to liberation.

While the ending of the first three fetters is the most common way stream-entry is defined in the discourses, there are other descriptions such as a beautiful teaching on wise lay practice given to the Buddha’s supporter Anāthapiṇḍika (AN 10.92). Here, stream-entry is said to have been attained when a practitioner keeps the five precepts, has faith in the triple gem, has ethics that lead to meditative immersion, and has insight into causality through seeing dependent origination. This description emphasizes not what is ended with the attainment of stream-entry, but the wholesome qualities that come to maturity in a sincere practitioner.

Different traditions, and even different teachers within a single tradition, often disagree about what constitutes stream-entry and the subsequent paths. But whether the attainment is described as something quite lofty or relatively accessible, our practice is the same: cultivating the wholesome qualities of ethics and immersion that lead to wisdom.

Once-returner (sakadāgāmi)

The practitioner who attains the second path, or stage of awakening, is called a “once-returner” because this path guarantees only one further birth (at most) in the human or spirit realms before full liberation. The paths are cumulative, so the once-returner will have already ended the first three fetters, and in this second stage weakens the following two: sense desire (kāmacchanda) and ill-will (vyāpāda). These fetters are also the first two of the five hindrances that we work with all the time in our practice. They are weakened with the attainment of once-return, but only uprooted in the next stage. This emphasizes the gradual nature of the awakening process. As we practice, unskillful qualities are slowly weakened and skillful qualities slowly strengthened. The four paths can be seen as plateaus or stages of integration along the path.

Non-returner (anāgāmi)

The non-returner is said to be destined for only one further birth at most, this time only in a subtle or formless realm, and completing enlightenment there. With this path, the two fetters/hindrances of sense desire and ill will that were weakened for the once-returner are fully ended. This completes the uprooting of the “five lower fetters.” The remaining five are ended only with the attainment of arahantship. Because the fetters of craving for both form-based and formless meditative states still remain, non-returners can still be attached to meditative tranquility. Being free from sense desire, they will no longer be born in a body, but attachment to meditative bliss will cause their rebirth to be in a subtle realm.

Perfection (arahant)

Arahants are “perfected” because there is nothing further to be attained or cultivated, though they may—and generally do—continue their practice, enjoying the “pleasant abiding in the here and now” of meditation, and cultivating the skillful qualities of teaching and engaging in the world. Arahants have attained nibbāna, extinguishing the flame of craving and knowing the complete ending of grasping and suffering. They have uprooted the five “higher” fetters: craving for form (rūparāga), craving for the formless (arūparāga), conceit (māna), restlessness (uddhaccaṁ), and ignorance (avijjā). They will never again be reborn into suffering, and so this is their last birth.

The fetters of craving for form and craving for the formless refer to the lingering desire for the meditative blisses of samādhi: the four “form” absorptions (jhāna) and the four “formless” states (arūpa). Conceit is a subtle form of ego that is present when we judge ourselves as better than, the same as, or worse than others. This sense of self as separate from others can arise long after the insight into selflessness that matured with stream-entry, and is one of the last delusions to be uprooted. The last of the five hindrances to be ended is restlessness, which refers not just to physical impulses but also to the tendency of the mind to wander.

The final fetter is the deep root of all of our suffering and the process of rebirth: ignorance (avijjā). The ending of ignorance is the arising of enlightenment. In the teaching to Anāthapiṇḍika, wisdom and stream-entry is attained by clearly seeing dependent origination. The first link in the sequence of dependent origination is ignorance, and the links are connected by causality. Thus the ending of ignorance means that the second link (volitional formations) will not arise, and onward through all twelve links. The ending of ignorance is thus the guarantee that rebirth (link eleven) will not arise.

While arahants live, they experience the happiness and ease of enlightenment, but may still experience the painful results of past unskillful actions. After the ex-serial killer Aṅgulimāla became an arahant, people still attacked him out of anger and grief for his past killing of their loved ones (MN 86). But even though arahants experience the results of their actions (kamma), their hearts are free from grasping, fear, or worry about it. They experience pleasure and pain like everyone with a body, but they no longer experience the grasping, fear, and confusion we are so familiar with. At death, arahants attain parinibbāna, or “final nibbāna” in which the remaining kamma from the past is finally fully released, and the stream of birth and death ceases forever.

Enlightenment in Ordinary Life

All Buddhist traditions recognize that enlightenment is hard to describe, partly because it is not an altered state of profound silence or bliss, but simply the absence of craving and suffering. Its subtlety and infinite scope can thus be understood to include all of ordinary life. After his enlightenment, the Buddha even wondered whether it was so subtle that nobody would understand what he was describing, and he considered not teaching (MN 26). As experiences of profound immediacy, the qualities of enlightenment like equanimity, wisdom, and freedom of heart are available anytime we let go and arrive fully in the present. If enlightenment is the liberated perfection that the texts describe, it must be independent of pleasant and painful conditions and therefore able to be found in any moment.

Though the descriptions of perfection and the uprooting of hindrances that feel like they’ve been with us forever may seem unattainable, this is a gradual path, and through practice we do progress on it. While maturing can feel slow, if we take a long-term view of our practice we may see ourselves more clearly. Are we less doubting of ourselves and our path than when we began? Are we less reactive, judgmental, or anxious? These are fruits of practice, and the beginning of fetters being weakened. Every time we come back to our bodies and hearts in the present, out of the spinning stories of wanting and fearing, we weaken unwholesome states and strengthen wholesome ones. This is the path to enlightenment.

The Buddha emphasized that no matter where we are on the path, the practice is the same: to understand suffering and let go of the attachments that keep us bound (SN 22.122), and if you are practicing toward any of the four paths and the uprooting of the fetters, you are part of the “noble Saṅgha” (AN 8.59).

The teachings are called “beautiful in the beginning, beautiful in the middle, and beautiful in the end” (DN 2), and however our process is unfolding, our only task is to continue to practice, spend time with wise friends and teachers, and cultivate the path. Practicing in this way we will one day find the “heartwood of the holy life,” the unshakeable freedom of heart that is available in this very life (MN 29).

Sean Oakes

Sean Oakes

Guest Teacher

Sean Oakes, PhD, teaches Buddhism and Yoga focusing on the integration of meditation, trauma resolution, and social justice. He received teaching authorization from Jack Kornfield, and wrote his dissertation on extraordinary meditative states. His current research explores identity, ancestry, and rebirth, and working with the body in contemplative inquiry.