To caveat this talk: 1. I am not enlightened and do not claim to be, 2. This is from a Theravadan Buddhist perspective, and 3. I’m sorry but there will be a lot of lists and this is going to be dense. I like to have a theoretical understanding of things before I embark upon them and when pondering the Buddhist path, enlightenment was no different. I was curious about this end goal, what it was, how it was measured, and what it was like. To this end, I studied a lot about this topic and hope to impart some of that to ease the curiosity of others. I was asked this, and I do think this orients my practice in a different way knowing these things. So to start, who has heard of enlightenment, awakening, nibbana, or nirvana? 

            To get the ball rolling let’s discuss the Buddha’s first main use of this which is in the Four Noble Truths. First, that life has dukkha or suffering/unsatisfactoriness/etc. Two, that this unsatisfactoriness is caused by our craving to things to be, things not to be and craving for sensual desires. Third, that by letting go of this craving we are able to let go of the hold of dukkha on us and this is nibbana. Fourth, that the eightfold path is the means by which we release cravings hold on us. This eightfold path being broadly grouped into factors on virtuous living (speech, action, and livelihood), factors of mental cultivation and meditation (effort, mindfulness, and concentration), and factors of wisdom (view and intention). 

            Now, the Buddha described that there are four stages to enlightenment. This doesn’t necessarily have to come all at once but can progress in gradual stages. I found this very interesting because while the edifice of enlightenment can seem quite daunting. Breaking it down into a gradual awakening was much more manageable. I do also like this word awakening. We are slowly waking up and as we awaken different things come into focus at different times as our eyes are opened. The first stage of enlightenment is the one discussed the most frequently in the suttas and the word to describe it translates to stream-enterer. You have entered the stream heading towards awakening and there you will stay. There is no regressing. Now, while the Buddha was alive, he often noted that this person or that person had attained some stage of enlightenment but the monks asked him, how will we do this when you are gone? And so he listed out how to know when these have been attained. For a stream enterer, three main things have fallen away. Those are belief in the efficacy of rites and rituals falls away. That anything aside from your own effort (skillful effort) is going to change your circumstances. The second is that the idea that you have a permanent unchanging self has been shaken. You aren’t all the way there on this non-self stuff but there is a major crack in the idea of unchanging souls. And lastly, that there is a conviction that this path is the correct one. Lastly, one who is a stream-enterer does not and can not break the five precepts. It does not compute. Killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and being intoxicated are off the table. At this point, one has made the first step on the path of enlightenment. You can see the aspects of the eightfold path clearly in these different assorted fetters. 

            The second and third stage of enlightenment have similar attainments or fetters that fall away. This is the language of the suttas. We are fettered and as we wake up these fetters that chain us to ignorance are falling away as we become free. The fetters of the second and third stage are anger and desire. In the second stage these are weakened, and in the third stage they are banished. There are some great examples that come from the suttas and commentary on how this differs. In your own life you can think about how you can be sitting there looking out the window and a memory of an angry disagreement just pops into your head and away the story goes with no prompting. Nothing out the window reminded you, it just showed up. You can also think of the same situation but where the person you had that angry disagreement with just walked by the window you were looking out of. One had stimulus for those angry thoughts and one did not. Similarly if you were looking out the window, and you were fantasizing about someone but there is just a tree outside versus the person you are fantasizing about walking by outside that kicks off the thoughts. One had a stimulus and one did not. In the second stage, the mind has been refined such that without stimulus, anger and desire will not arise. You may still fantasize but without the object of the fantasy directly in front of you, it will not arise. However, by the third stage of enlightenment, even this presence of the object will not sway you with anger or desire. It is stilled and those fetters have fallen away. This is a spectacular attainment. It is also the last stage at which a lay person can exist “normally” in the lay life. There are descriptions of people stopping at one of these two either because they have a dear spouse or an elderly parent to care for. The concentration factors of samadhi which can be combined with the brahma viharas are critical here because of their ability to provide spiritual nourishment and bliss as we remove the ties to worldly desire and aversion.

            So what’s left? What is there still remaining? It is that pesky sense of self again. Two fetters have to deal with what happens to us when we die. The falling away of the desire for a pleasant material rebirth. There is also the falling away of the desire for a pleasant immaterial rebirth. I wish I could be reborn wealthy or I’m ready to go to heaven. We let these go. We let go of pride, arrogance, and conceit. We let go of our restlessness. And finally we let go of our ignorance as we fully awaken to how things are. At this point, it is said that a householder must enter the spiritual life as it is not possible to continue living in the lay life. It just doesn’t’ make sense anymore. 

            So, what does that say about our practice? One, we don’t have to fully realize this non-self thing until much later. Two, ethics and virtuous conduct are incredibly important. Both for the first stage, and for the next two. First we calm our actions, then we calm our mind. Three, the development of spiritual bliss through samadhi and the brahma viharas is an important part of stilling anger and desire. Fourth, we must cultivate mindfulness to be able to catch ourselves getting caught. Otherwise we will be hopeless to stop getting hooked. Lastly, enlightenment is not a monolith. 

            I also want to mention some other interesting asides. In the monastic vinaya or the code of conduct for monks and nuns, they are expressly forbidden from claiming these enlightenment stages to lay people. Also, you can see in these descriptions, how a person who has attained them would act. Also, it is frequently asked if non-Buddhists can become enlightened and the Buddha answered this with, wherever the eightfold path is found, enlightenment can be found. Wherever there are people who see that letting go of attachment is letting go of suffering, that renunciation and good will are key, that good speech, action, and livelihood are critical, who put forth spiritual effort and striving, and who still the mind, there will be enlightened beings. 

            The concept of rebirth is also sprinkled into these teachings as once a person is a stream-enterer they will be enlightened within at most seven lifetimes and can not be born below the human realm. At the second stage, one is a once-returner with at most only one more human life. At the third stage, a non-returner with perhaps rebirth in a heavenly realm before full enlightenment but no more human birth. And lastly the arahant or one who is fully enlightened for whom there is no more birth. 

            So I will try to leave you with several ways to make this practical. Pay attention to your ethical decision points. Be mindful of how you speak and act. Be mindful of what makes you angry and what you fantasize about. Letting these go and developing more skillful speech and action makes you happier and more pleasant to be around.