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Buddhist Life: The Stages of Enlightenment

The lotus blooms out of water, which can sometimes be murky or muddy. Enlightenment is often symbolized by a lotus.
The lotus blooms out of water, which can sometimes be murky or muddy. Enlightenment is often symbolized by a lotus.
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Depending on beliefs, there are generally four stages between becoming a Buddhist and attaining Enlightenment, though some belief systems specify this is for the sangha or the “brotherhood” of clergy comprised of monks, ministers, and others devoted to Buddhism. The Buddha’s Teachings do not specify that one must be that type of devoted flower to attain Enlightenment, however, as we are all born with an innate Buddha-Nature giving the potential for any to reach Enlightenment.

The burning candle can be seen as a symbol of the knowledge found with Enlightenment, with the darkness around the candle being "everyday life" in ignorance.
Photos by S. Maggio, National Buddhism Examiner

The different stages that lead to Enlightenment are described in terms of which fetters or bonds are abandoned, and these fetters are divided into lower and higher classifications. There is also, in many schools of Buddhism, an additional specification regarding the number of rebirths or samsara cycles remaining in that person’s life before they likely attain Enlightenment.

The Lower Fetters or Bonds

The “lower fetters” include:

  1. View of self
  2. Doubt in the Teachings
  3. Attachment to things, places, ideas, people, etc.
  4. Sensual Desire (involving any of the senses, not just in terms of sexual desire)
  5. Ill Will

When a Buddhist first accepts that the Eightfold Path is the one for them, they are, in essence, entering that Path. This process of accepting the Eightfold Path generally includes an acceptance that the Buddha and the Buddha’s Teachings are valid, thereby eliminating doubt; the second of the lower fetters listed above. This person also acknowledges the Four Noble Truths regarding attachment and suffering, and although it’s a long process, the elimination of attachment, the third of the lower fetters, is also part of this process.

Entering the Path

The view of self is slightly more complicated because it involves concepts that one must experience to fully understand. In essence, that first fetter is the attachment to individual identity, but it is not the abandonment of ones identity that leads to Enlightenment but rather the adoption of a sense of selflessness. When one has accomplished these three things, to the point where they are natural, not forced, then this person is considered to have reached the first stage of Enlightenment and may be referred to as a Path-enterer or Stream-enterer, with the Path or Stream being the Eightfold Path. At this stage, the person is considered to have anywhere from one to seven more rebirths before final Enlightenment is reached.

The Once-Returner & the Non-Returner

The once-returner is one who has successfully completed their abandonment of the first three fetters. As the name suggests, this stage is called the “once-returner” because they are believed to be one rebirth from their final Enlightenment.

When that first stage has been achieved, the Buddhist works to eliminate the fourth and fifth fetters or bonds keeping them from advancing. The elimination of sensual desires, that is those desires for anything that excites any senses, is part of fitting into the second stage of Enlightenment. This is where the person stops pleasure seeking, in a sense. While pleasure can be derived from many things, the active seeking of pleasure purely for pleasure’s sake is what the Buddhist wants to abandon.

At this stage, the non-returner also ceases any ill will behaviors, including thoughts. This comes with increased compassion and increased compassion comes with the reduction of selfishness and adoption of selflessness. This is not done to the extreme, as extremes are avoided, so it should not be misinterpreted to mean that one is expected to give beyond reason with regard to selflessness. But, consideration for others, abstaining from judgment, attempting to understand, and being kind for the sake of being kind are part of being a non-returner. The non-returner is often considered likely to be reborn once more but in a life somewhat different from average human life.

The Higher Fetters and the Arahant

The final stage before full Enlightenment involves the abandonment of the five “higher fetters.” The five higher fetters include:

  1. Lust for material reincarnation
  2. Lust for immaterial reincarnation
  3. Self-importance, conceit, vanity and pride
  4. Restlessness – physical and mental restlessness, including worry and boredom
  5. Ignorance

This list of 10 fetters coincides with the hindrances detailed in Buddhist Teachings. Abandoning the higher five fetters is not something easily done, and it may take many times of almost abandoning but then regressing with regard to each. The arahant is also relatively flexible so sudden, unexpected changes do not result in distress or distraction; changes such as loss, pain, pleasure, and others associated with the fetters that should no longer be an issue at this point.