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An Overview
The Practice of Virtue
The Development of Insight
The Development of Insight

Section 4: The Four Stages of Holiness

The Attainment of Path
42) The First Stage
Having explored the removal of residual clinging, we can now return to the description of the attainment of Path consciousness. Sotapanna, the Pali word for Stream Entry, represents the first stage of Holiness or the letting go of the first three of the five fetters. The first fetter to fall away is the belief in a permanent identity or personality. The second is skeptical doubt about the path. The third is belief in mere rules and rituals as a method of purification.

When the first fetter falls away there are no longer debates in our mind as to what is meant by a "self", we no longer see ourselves as permanent or static entities. It is clear that who we were as children, is different from who we became as teenagers. We see that our personality and sense of self changes over the years. There is no essence that remains the same, yet it is clear that all three -- the child, the teenager and the adult -- are causally related.

The personality traits that have developed over the years are unique to this lifetime and to us as individuals. However, if we examine the mind and body over a period of years, it is obvious that they are changing. If we practice meditation and are somewhat aware we notice the changes from day to day. If we have true insight then we see that we are not the same from moment to moment. The adult could not exist without the child or teenager. So when we speak about the second fetter falling away we are referring to an utter conviction and knowledge that a path has been traversed to bring us to this present state and further more, that there is a path to be cultivated that leads to a greater unfoldment.

When we speak about the third fetter falling away, what is meant is that we are no longer blindly following a dogma or ritual. For instance here are two examples: "If I go and bathe myself in some holy river I will become purified" and "If I do so many prostrations I will become purified." In the attainment of Sotapanna these views are seen to be foolish. It is only the mind that purifies the mind. So we should understand from this that a ritual could be used as an aid to help focus the mind. However, it is only the motivation and state of mind that actually brings about results. If we understand life in this way we realize that the outer rituals are not so important, they are certainly not something to be clung to and they should only be used as a vehicle for expressing the inner truth or confidence of your being. It is only activity that increases our awareness of the unwholesome ­ and the intention to refrain from it ­ that purifies consciousness. It is only activity that increases our awareness of the wholesome, with the intention of developing it, that purifies consciousness. Merely believing in rules and rituals is seen to be blind superstition and completely lacking in the ability to transform consciousness.
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43) The Second Stage
In the attainment of the second stage of purification the gross defilements of the fourth and fifth fetter are lessened. Sakadagami, the Pali word for Once Returner, represents a stage of purification in which sensuous craving and ill will are lessened. Sensuous craving produces distortions of consciousness due to attraction and hence is not a true seeing. Because we crave a certain stimulus, the mind is askew and pulled off balance.

When the mind craves a particular sensuous experience we become limited and because of this we ignore other stimuli and focus only on what we crave. Ill will is a distortion of consciousness caused by aversion. It also clouds our mind and does not allow us to experience directly the nature of what is. When the mind is focused by way of aversion, we are repelled by a particular stimulus. This could be coming from one of the five senses or from the mind itself. What we cannot see is that we are driven by this aversion and by trying to get away from something or striking out at it we are defined and limited by it. At this stage of development we are only partially free of these veils of ignorance.
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44) The Third Stage
In the attainment of the third stage of purification, we are freed from the gross defilements. Non Returner (or Anagami in the Pali) represents a state free from personality belief, skeptical doubt, attachment to mere rules and rituals, sensuous craving and ill will. At this stage we have become free from greed and hatred, but have yet to dispel all clinging and ignorance.
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45) The Fourth Stage
In the attainment of the fourth stage of purification we become free from all defilements including the five higher defilements. The term Arahat in the Pali literally means ‘destroyer’ and is symbolized by a wheel of knives that cuts down all the formations that create ignorance, suffering and enslavement. The Arahat is one who has achieved the goal, has done what had to be done and because of this, is no longer subject to becoming. Such a being is free of craving for fine material existence, free of craving for immaterial existence, free of all conceit, no longer has any restlessness and is free from all states of ignorance. Ignorance is the cause of all suffering; ignorance is the cause of all defilements; ignorance is the tangle that keeps us entrapped in endless cycles of blind becoming. Ignorance produces lives in which we have no choice. It is only by abstaining from this ignorance, using our energy to abandon this ignorance, exercising our patience to be free of this ignorance and using the power of mindfulness to restrain automatic and blind reactions, that the wisdom of non-transgression can come into being and the completion of the Path be attained.

Each of these attainments of sainthood comes in two stages. The first is Path realization and the second is fruition. In other words, our first experience of Sotapanna imparts direct knowledge or insight into the first three fetters. In the fruition of Sotapanna, the first three fetters do not arise in consciousness. For each of the four stages of Holiness this twofold attainment occurs: first the initial experience or insight, and second, the fruition of freedom from the defilements.

So in this way abstinence is virtue, energy is virtue, patience is virtue, mindfulness is virtue and the wisdom of non-transgression is virtue. Such virtue leads to non-remorse in the mind, to gladdening, to happiness, to tranquility, to joy, to repetition, to development, to cultivation, to embellishment, to the basis for concentration, to the tools of concentration, to fulfillment, to complete dispassion, to fading away, to cessation
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