Guy wrote:Hello all,
I was wondering why it is that some people skip straight from being ordinary beings to Arahants without going through the stages of Stream-Winner, Once-Returner and Non-Returner? Also is it possible to skip 1 or 2 stages (eg. from Stream-Winner to Non-Returner)? What are the reasons for this?
I think the stages are meant to provide a structural basis to practice, while not to be misunderstood as being fixed constraints upon reality. They can be useful to follow as a guide, but they aren't meant to invalidate a particular observation or practice.
In the suttas, it's not difficult to find examples which fall outside such restrictions. As two examples, Angulimala went from being a mass-murderer to an Arahant, upon meeting the Buddha. Also, there is Vakkali who was a deluded person obsessed with the Buddha's physical appearance and who went from being an "ordinary, unenlightened person" (puthujjana) to an Arahant, obtaining final release, in the act of committing suicide. Now, a person might claim that Angulimala and Vakkali both technically went through all the stages, but they just went through them very, very quickly, but in experience, if it's possible for such progress to happen so suddenly, instantaneously, and spontaneously, there's really no reason to just say, "Yes, it's possible to skip ahead through the stages". However, cases like these are rare, typically due to the presence and influence of a sammasambuddha it seems, and do not reflect the norm of gradual progress over many lifetimes.
As a similar point, I was reading through Bhikkhu Bodhi's Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma
recently and found the stages of insight meditation rather out-of-order: Purification of virtue precedes purification of mind and purification of view. But one might ask, "Doesn't one need purification of mind and of view, for there to even be purification of virtue in the first place?" The suttas themselves even say that, of all the aspects of the eightfold path, right view is the forerunner. The suttas make many classifications, you have to start somewhere, all language is circular by nature, and it can be useful for different people to start in different places.
Anyway, evidence that traditional Theravadins take such categorizations far too seriously is the overabundance of commentary and the creation of verbose lists where a simple explanation can be more concise and effective. The Buddha himself did not view the categorizations he made so dogmatically or over-seriously. As an example, there is the Bahuvedaniya Sutta
. In the sutta, a monk and a layperson argue over whether the Buddha taught two kinds of feeling or three kinds of feeling. The Buddha comes along and claims he taught both, and also many different classifications of feeling. This argument here would seem to be of the same spirit as the argument in that sutta. Saying "stages can be skipped," is not to be misunderstood as meaning dhamma is like magic or luck, that progress comes without diligence or causal foundation, and "stages cannot be skipped," is not to be misunderstood as meaning there are fixed limits to progress, that purification is deterministic.