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Stages of Enlightenment in Buddhism

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MODULE 9: The Planes of Realization (stages of enlightenment)

Enlightenment is a concept and a word that is commonly used and associated with mediation, the practice of Buddhism and its benefits. Most of the time, it is used in connection with the concept of Nirvana. In most Buddhist texts and literatures, enlightenment can be read to have started with the Buddha himself, thus the term samma-sambodhi is used to apply to the attainment of enlightenment of bodhis or meditators aiming for it. This is the goal of the paths of meditation based on most Buddhist traditions.

In the original context, the word bodhi is a Pali and Sanskrit term that is used to refer to a person who has figuratively woken up and understood things. It is also used to point out to a specific level of understanding or knowledge that the Buddha has gained when he experienced his own awakening. This understanding gave him knowledge on to the natural causes of things that contributes to how human and other sentient beings come into their specific existence and also the workings of the mind that contributes to keeping human and other sentient beings trapped into concepts such as suffering, rebirth and cravings. In this sense, the word bodhi can then be connected to gaining a deeper level of understanding on how a person can liberate him or herself from the things that causes him or her to be imprisoned on the three concepts mentioned above.

  1. Enlightenment in the Buddhist Traditions

The Buddha Siddharta Gautama, is the first recorded being to have attained a level of full enlightenment. This level that he has successfully achieved is written as sammasambuddha in the Pali language (samyaksambuddha in Sanskrit), or what is called as the perfect form off Buddhahood.

In the Theravada tradition of Buddhism’s chronicles or the sutta pitaka, there are numerous texts and descriptions about how the Buddha has experienced awakening or enlightenment himself. This can be seen in the seventeeth chapter of the Vanapattha Sutta, the Majjhima. In this specific chapter, it is described how the Buddha has lived his life in the jungle and how from there, he was able to attain a state of awakening or enlightenment. This, the texts show, was done after the Buddha has successfully destroyed the disturbances that occurred in his mind, allowing him to achieve concentration of the mind. This has resulted into him attaining the Vidhyas or the the knowledges. This includes the presence of insight into his past lives, attaining insight into the workings of reincarnation and karma and insight to the presence of the Four Noble Truths.

In the texts, the attainment of insight into the Four Noble Truths is what gave enlightenment the other term awakening. This means that any meditator practicing it has already achieved a level of attaining a security from bondage on a supreme nature. Moreover, awakening is also related to having reached the stage of Nirvana, where sufferings are ended and the process of being reborn no longer occurs. In the texts, the Buddha has claimed that the liberation he got from this is certain because the presence of knowledge happening to him has allowed him to develop insight. This have then given him certain freedom, rendering him to be free from rebirths.

In teaching this concept to a meditator, the teacher must stress that the presence of awakening means gaining insight into the concepts of rebirth and karma, into the presence of the Four Noble Truths and the elimination of all things which contribute to attaining the state of Nirvana. Only in experiencing this would liberation be certainly experienced by the student.

  1. Attaining Awakening or Enlightenment

The attainment of enlightenment or awakening at its fullest capacity can be achieved by a meditator by becoming a Buddha and entering into Buddhahood. When faced with this concept, the teacher must first explain to the meditator the various meanings and context of the word Buddha in the Buddhist traditions. Moreover, another term Tathagata should also be explained to the student. This term means “the thus-gone” and is used as an equivalent to the word Buddha.

Reaching full awakening or enlightenment is considered in the Theravada Buddhist tradition to be equated in reaching the stage of Nirvana. This means that when a meditator starts practicing, the teacher should set his or her path to have the ultimate goal of reaching Nirvana. This is also true in other Buddhist traditions as well. This path involves the meditator abandoning the then fetters of his existence and working toward the ceasing of suffering or dukkha. This full awakening or enlightenment is attained by the meditator in four stages.

Moreover, Budhaghosa, another authority in the Theravada Buddhist tradition has described another path to attaining enlightenment. In the Visuddhimagga or the Path to Purification, he has described what he calls the Seven Stages to Purification which is based on the Noble Eightfold Path originally described by the Buddha. The difference, however, lies on the fact that Buddhaghosa has emphasized on insight based on the three characteristics of life which are dukkha, anatta and anicca. These concepts are what distinguishes it apart from the four stages of enlightenment where the ten fetters or human existence are abandoned in a gradual manner.

  1. The Four Stages of Enlightenment

In Buddhism, there are four stages of a progessing nature that is related to the four stages of enlightenment. These stages are important in resulting into the full enlightenment of a meditator as an Arahat. The people who are into either one of the four stages of enlightenment are referred to by the Buddha as the ariya-puggala or the noble people. Conversely, the people within the community of the bikkhu-sangha are called as the ariya-sangha or the noble sanghas.

The four stages of enlightenment are the Sotappana, Sakadagami, Anagami and the Arahat. These four stages of enlightenment and their teaching to meditators are central elements in the Buddhist schools such as Theravada tradition. This was chronicled in the sutta pitaka, and how each level are attained were described as well. Apart from the four stages mentioned above, the teacher would have to tell his or her students that there are also other types which describes other stages as well. However, the focus of this module is on the four stages of enlightenment so these four would be the ones that are to be described in detail here.

As mentioned in the previous sections, the four stages of enlightenment are the end product or result of the seven purifications that a meditator goes through. This was discussed at great lengths in the Visuddhimagga. The teacher can encourage his or her student meditators to read on excerpts from the Visuddhimagga about the seven purifications, their sequences and how each of these are related to four paths and fruits. Moreover, in the Visuddhimagga, prajna and its importance is also described in detail, as well as gaining insight into anatta and how these are related to liberation and can be attained in the practice of Insight meditation or Vipassana.

The four stages of attainment or enlightenment are also associated with occurring in pairs of path and fruit. The following are the path and fruit pairs of the four stages of attainment:

  1. The path to stream entry and the fruition of stream entry
  2. The path to once returning and the fruition on once returning
  3. The path to non returning and the fruition of non returning
  4. The path to becoming an arahant and the fruition of becoming an arahant

Each of these are described below in their relation to the attaining of enlightenment:

  1. The Sotapanna. This is the first stage of enlightenment and is derived from the Pali language (written as Srotapanna in Sanskrit). This term means or is translated to mean the person or the one who enters the streams (apadyate sota). The stream being described here is the super mundane representation of the Noble Eightfold Path and is regarded as the highest form of Dhamma as well. The person who is this stage is also considered to be one who was able to open the eye of the Dhamma (or dhammacakkhu in Pali and dharmacaksus in Sanskrit). The meditator who enters the stream is said to be able reach the state of being an arahant in a span or seven rebirths after he or she has attained opening the eye of the Dhamma. Another aspect that the teacher needs to stress out in teaching this is that the meditator can attain a grasp of the Buddhist doctrines on an intuitive level or what is known as the right view (samyagdrsti in Sanskrit or sammaditthi in Sanskrit). Moreover, the meditator can also have a complete confidence, or Sadha on what is considered the three jewels of practice namely the sangha, dharma and Buddha. This means that when the meditator passes away, he or she will not undergo rebirth in any plane that is categorically lower than the human plane such as the animal or in hell.
  2. The Sakadagami. This is the second stage of enlightenment which is also called the stage of the once returner. The origin of this word is Pali (Sakrdagamin in Sanskrit), which when translates means the once who once comes (sakrt and agacchati, respectively). When explaining what this means, the teacher should tell the student that people who belong in this stage will return once more to the human plane or world one more time in most instances. A person who progresses in this stage after going through the first is said to have abandoned the first three of the ten fetters. Meditators who are in this stage are also seen to display a weaker sense of lust for things, milder feelings of hate, and even weakened delusions. This means that anyone who is considered to be a once-returner would be experiencing rebirths fewer than seven times and that these rebirths usually occur in the higher planes although there would occur a rebirth in the human plane at least one more time. Also, their rebirths can occur in multiples in the five pure abodes.
  3. The Anagami. The third stage, the Anagami (Pali; also Anagamin in Sanskrit), is also known as the stage of the non returner. The word Anagami means one who does not come. These are meditators who have been successful in overcoming sensuality and are deemed not to lower planes such as the human one even after their death. These are those who were rewarded with being reborn in the Suddhavasa worlds or Pure Abodes, which are one of the five special worlds in the Rupadhatu. In these worlds, the meditators are able to attain Nirvana or can even be reborn for another time in a world that is considered to be higher than that of the Pure Abodes. A person who is considered to be a non returner is said to have been able to abandon the five lower fetters of the ten that binds humans to the cycle of rebirth on the human plane. When a meditator has reached the level of the Anagami, they are considered to be well-advanced already.
  4. The Arahant. The fourth stage of enlightenment, the Arahant, is related to a person who is fully awakened. This stage is where the individual is seen to have been able to fully abandon all the ten fetters. When this happens, the person would not be experiencing rebirth on any plane or world even after his or her death (Parinibbana in Pali; Parinirvana in Sanskrit) because he or she have escaped samsara wholly. This stage will be attained by a meditator when he or she would follow the path that is given by the Buddha himself. In teaching this, the teacher should tell his or her students that in the Theravada tradition of Buddhism, the word Buddha is reserved for use with Siddharta Gautama Buddha, the first who discovered the path to enlightenment.
  1. The Path and the Fruits of Enlightenment

Attaining each stage of the path to enlightenment has its subsequent fruit, as mentioned in the previous sections of this module. This is necessary to be included in the teaching of the paths to enlightenment since the fruit of each path and their attainments has to be present and seen in the life of the meditator. This ensures that the attainment of knowledge is set on the right paths as well. In the Theravada tradition, there is a belief that gaining understanding is a sudden process, that it does not come gradually as other disciplines believe it to be. This means that once a meditator enters on a path to enlightenment, its fruits should be realized as well. So when a meditator enters the stages and becomes an Arahat (the liberated one) in the process, it can be said that according to the Vipassana tradition sudden changes should characterize the entire process.

  1. The Benefits of Enlightenment

An endless cycle of samsara traps an ordinary person who does not have enlightenment (puthujjana in Pali; prthagjanai in Sanskrit). This means that a person is endlessly reborn, live and dies and the cycle is repeated numerous times over. This occurs not only on the human plane but in other various planes as well such as the animal. This can be ended when a person enters the Dhamma and aims for gaining insight and enlightenment. This means that the person would not have to be experiencing this endlessly and be miserable for the rest of his or her existence.

As the teacher guides the student into this path he or she would have to set it in their minds that the aim of the entire process, apart from gaining insight is to realize attaining Nirvana. In doing this, the meditator would be transformed from someone who is considered to be an uninstructed being who is oblivious to the truths that practicing the Dhamma brings into an arahant (or the liberated one). This stage of liberation enables the individual to have comprehension of the Four Noble Truths fully and to have experience of Nirvana in the present life. Moreover, in attaining this stage, the concepts that were discussed in detail in this module should be reinforced by the teacher with proper actions and words from someone who has experienced them in a personal level.


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Mahasi Sayadaw,The Progress of Insight (Visuddhiñana-katha)

Bhikkhu Nanamoli; Bhikkhu Bodhi (1995),The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha. A New Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya

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