What you need to do to become a stream entrant
There are certain things you need to do, and attitudes that you need to cultivate, if you’re going to set up the conditions for insight to arise.
You’ll need periods of intensive practice, such as going on retreat. And I don’t mean just getting away for the odd weekend, which is all some people say they can manage. You need to have intensive spells of meditation for a week, ten days, two weeks, preferably longer.
Sometimes we find it hard to have the time. I heard someone say that when you say you don’t have time to do something it’s not a statement of fact, it’s a statement of values. When we say we don’t have time to go on retreat, this is a statement of what we think is important. Certainly there are practical difficulties — if you have a young child it’s very hard to get away for those first few years — but with time (and willingness) we can overcome these difficulties.
You need to do a lot of work to become a more positive person. You need to get rid of the gross manifestations of greed, hatred, and delusion. You need to be reasonably ethical. You need to work on being kind. You need to take responsibility for yourself. You have to have done a lot of letting go. You need to work on bringing Buddhist practice into your daily life. Your practice can’t be a hobby, and has to be the central orienting principle in your life. So your life has to be your practice. Your work has to be your practice, your parenting has to be your practice, your parenting and your friendships have to be your practice. Every aspect of your life has to become an avenue for cultivating mindfulness, compassion, and insight.
You’re going to need a sangha to do all of the above. We need other people to encourage us — and to challenge us. It’s all too easy for us to kid ourselves on about how spiritual we are, or to let ourselves off the hook when we face a spiritual challenge. A sangha holds a mirror up in front of us, so that we can see ourselves more clearly.
You need to have an enquiring mind. It’s very difficult to develop insight if you’re not prepared to question. And by this I don’t mean making a pain of yourself and arguing about everything. Gaining insight is about questioning your experience and questioning your assumptions about the world — your assumptions about where happiness comes from, your assumptions about who you are, your assumptions about things having permanence. Unless you’re prepared to question, you can’t break the fetters.
The enquiring mind is not afraid of uncertainty. In fact the enquiring mind thrives on uncertainty. I think a lot of what holds people back is too quickly assuming that they understand. It’s so easy to assent to Buddhist concepts, and being clever and having a quick mind can be a problem as well as a blessing. It’s easy to take ideas on board because they seem reasonable, without really thinking them through. The reason I decided to go study Buddhism at university was after I started noticing this in myself. I discovered that I could hold two contradictory ideas in my head at the same time. I could switch seamlessly from one to the other without ever noticing the contradiction, and I wanted an opportunity to be forced to think clearly. To give one example, it’s common to hear that the “eastern tradition” is that we should never talk about spiritual accomplishments such as enlightenment. So if we get enlightened we should be modest and never say anything about it. And then five minutes later we’ll read a sutta where the Buddha, or one of his disciples, proclaims his spiritual attainment, and think how wonderfully confident this all is. Another example would be believing that we literally have to aim to save all sentient beings in order to awaken, and in the next moment reading the Buddha’s life story in which he first gets awakened and then feels impelled to teach and help others. Often we never notice that we have two contradictory ideas in our mind, since each is only evoked under specific circumstances.
Stream entry involves breaking three fetters
Stream entry involves breaking three out of the ten fetters that hold us back from full awakening. These fetters are habits and views and acts of clinging that stop us from making progress.
The first fetter is “self-view.” It’s often expressed as “fixed self-view.” This is the assumption we have that we have a fixed and separate self that’s running the show of our lives. It’s not just that if we think we can’t change, we won’t, although that is true. This fetter is rather more subtle than that. It’s the view that there is a self that is somehow separate from our ever-changing experiences. So we may notice that our experiences are changing, but assume there’s some kind of stable, permanent self that has those experiences. But where could this kind of self lie?
To break this fetter, we have to simply notice, over and over again, that there’s nothing permanent in our experience. It’s not that we just understand impermanence intellectually. That’s often what we do. We talk about impermanence rather than just looking.
We watch our physical sensations. over and over, and see that they’re changing. We enquire. We look deeply. We question assumptions. So we find ourselves thinking “I’ve had this headache all day.” Well, actually you haven’t. Look closer. You’ve had it for a microsecond. Before that you had a slightly different headache for a microsecond. You’ve had a gazillion headaches, all a microsecond long, and each one different. So you notice this endless parade of headaches, coming and going, pulsing and throbbing. You come to realize that the headache is not a permanent thing. At some point you realize that everything that constitutes our sense of self is like that. Even the consciousness that notices the headaches coming and going is changing all the time. There’s nothing here but change. There’s no room for the kind of permanent self that we assume “has” our experiences.
This fetter, although we call it “(fixed) self view” is literally the fetter of “real body view” (sakkāya ditthi) and this literal sense of the term is an important component of the fetter. At a certain point we lose the sense of having a body, and instead we experience ourselves as a mass of ever-changing sensations. There’s a loss of the sense of solidity and permanence of the body. But this experience of the body dissolving doesn’t stop with the body. It extends to every aspect of our experience, and even to our sense of self.
So this is all you need to do. Just look. Notice that everything’s changing. And keep doing this until the penny drops that all there is is change. It’s really simple. We do this with physical sensations, feelings, thoughts, etc.
The second fetter is doubt. All three fetters break at the same time, so this one goes automatically when the fetter of self view breaks. When we break the fetter of self view, we see everything’s changing. This is changing, that is changing, everything is changing. And then it clicks, there’s nothing here that’s permanent. There’s nothing solid in my self.
Now this is very liberating! We’ve been under the grip of a delusion all our lives — the delusion of having a fixed and separate self. There’s been doubt about all this Freudian stuff lurking under the surface. There’s been doubt that we may be fundamentally incapable of becoming enlightened because of all the baggage we’ve been dragging around. And there’s been doubt about whether Buddhist practice can even go beyond making us a bit happier. Now doubt vanishes. Now we have confidence — confidence that comes from the evidence of our senses. So where could there be doubt? Where could it exist? How can your baggage hold you back when it’s impermanent and insubstantial? You’ve seen the reality of not-self, and there’s no room for doubt. (There will be other doubts about other things, but this particular doubt has gone).
The third fetter is “dependence on ethics and religious observances.” The wording of this fetter is strangely complex compared to the others, and it’s also harder to connect this with an experience that happens at the same as the other two fetters break. But apart from the stunning insight that there is no substance to the self, and the surge of confidence we feel as doubt falls away, there’s one other powerful experience that happens at stream entry — a sense of the immediacy and obviousness of the insights we’ve just experienced. Now that we’ve seen, we wonder why we haven’t seen before. After all, the reality of the insubstantiality of the self is out there in the open, just waiting to be seen. The reality of impermanence is not exactly a secret. So there’s this sense of wonder that this is all so easy to do, and we puzzle over why we haven’t seen it before.
So how does this relate to dependence on ethics and religious observances? Basically, this fetter seems to refer to the practices we’ve done that have ended up being a distraction from seeing impermanence and seeing the insubstantiality of the self. We get caught up in external practices that are distractions, like trying to be a “good Buddhist” and trying to impress, and especially trying to understand intellectually rather than just looking and seeing what’s right there in front of us.
Of course we need, in a way, to rely on ethics and religious practices. But sometimes we use them as distractions. We cling to the form of our practice and forget the spirit. We keep forgetting, on some level, what the purpose of practice is. And actually all we have to do is look. And look again. And again. Until finally the penny drops.