4 Stages of Awakening

Stages of Awakening
Stages of Awakening

1. 4 Stages of Awakening

The 4 Stages of Awakening in Early Buddhism and Theravāda are 4 progressive stages culminating in full awakening (Bodhi) as an Arahant (SN 22.122).

These 4 stages are:

  1. Sotāpanna,
  2. Sakadāgāmi,
  3. Anāgāmi,
  4. Arahant.

The oldest Buddhist texts portray the Buddha as referring to people who are at one of these 4 stages as Noble People (ariya-puggala) and the community of such persons as the Noble Saṅgha (ariya-saṅgha).

The teaching of the 4 Stages of Awakening is a central element of the early Buddhist schools, including the Theravāda school of Buddhism, which still survives.

2. Origins

In the Sutta Piṭaka several types of Buddhist practitioners are described, according to their level of attainment. The standard is 4, but there are also longer descriptions with more types. The 4 are:

  1. Stream-enterer,
  2. Once-returner,
  3. Non-returner
  4. Arahant.

In the Visuddhimagga the 5 stages are the culmination of the 7 purifications:

The descriptions are elaborated and harmonized, giving the same sequence of purifications before attaining each of the 4 paths and fruits.

The Visuddhimagga stresses the importance of paññā (Sanskrit: prajñā), insight into anattā (Sanskrit: anātman) and the Buddhist teachings, as the main means to liberation.

Vipassanā (Sanskrit: vipaśyanā) has a central role in this. Insight is emphasized by the contemporary Vipassana movement.

3. Path and Fruit

A Stream-enterer (Sotāpanna) is free from:

1. Identity view (Pāḷi: sakkāya-diṭṭhi), the belief that there is an unchanging self or soul in the 5 impermanent skandhas

2. Attachment to rites and rituals
3. Doubt about the teachings

A Once-returner (Sakadāgāmin) has greatly weakened:

4. Sensual desire
5. Ill will

A Non-returner (Anāgāmi) is free from:

4. Sensual desire
5. Ill will

An Arahant is free from all of the 5 lower fetters and the 5 higher fetters, which are:

6. Attachment to the 4 meditative absorptions, which have form (rūpa jhāna)

7. Attachment to the 4 formless absorptions (arūpa jhāna)

8. Conceit
9. Restlessness
10. Ignorance

The Sutta Piṭaka classifies the 4 levels according to the levels' attainments.

In the Sthaviravāda and Theravāda traditions, which teach that progress in understanding comes all at once, and that insight (abhisamaya) does not come gradually (successively – anapūrva),

this classification is further elaborated, with each of the 4 levels described as a path to be attained suddenly, followed by the Realisation of the fruit of the path.

According to the Theravāda exegesis, the process of becoming an Arahant is therefore characterized by 4 distinct and sudden changes,

although in the Sūtras it says that the Path has a gradual development, with gnosis only after a long stretch, just as the ocean has a gradual shelf, a gradual inclination with a sudden drop only after a long stretch.

The Mahāsaṁghika had the doctrine of eka-kṣaṇa-citta, "according to which a Buddha knows everything in a single thought-instant."

4. The ordinary person

An ordinary person or puthujjana (Pāḷi; Sanskrit: pṛthag jñāna; i.e. without knowledge) is trapped in the endless cycling of Saṁsāra.

One is reborn, lives and dies in endless rebirths, either as a deva, human, animal, male, female, neuter, ghost, Asura, hell being, or various other entities on different categories of existence.

An ordinary entity has never seen and experienced the ultimate truth of Dharma and therefore has no way of finding an end to the predicament.

It is only when suffering becomes acute, or seemingly unending, that an entity looks for a "solution" to and, persisting, finds the Dharma (the ultimate solution/truth).

5. The 4 stages of attainment

The Sangha of the Tathāgata’s disciples (Ariya Sangha) can be described as including 4 or 8 kinds of individuals.

There are 4 groups of noble disciples when path and fruit are taken as pairs, and 8 groups of individuals, when each path and fruit is taken separately:

(1) the path to stream-entry; (2) the fruition of stream-entry;
(3) the path to once-returning; (4) the fruition of once-returning;
(5) the path to non-returning; (6) the fruition of non-returning;
(7) the path to Arahantship; (8) the fruition of Arahantship.


The 1st stage is that of Sotāpanna (Pāḷi; Sanskrit: Śrotāpanna), literally meaning "one who enters the Stream," with the Stream being the super-mundane Noble Eightfold Path regarded as the highest Dharma.

The Stream-Enterer is also said to have "opened the eye of the Dharma".

A Stream-Enterer reaches Arahantship within 7 rebirths upon opening the eye of the Dharma.

Because the Stream-Enterer has attained an intuitive grasp of Buddhist doctrine (samyag-dṛṣṭi or sammā-diṭṭhi, "right view") and has complete confidence or Saddha in the 3 Jewels:

Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and has removed the Saṅkhāras that force rebirth in lower planes, that individual will not be reborn in any plane lower than the human (animal, preta, or in hell).


The 2nd stage is that of the Sakadāgāmī (Sanskrit: Sakṛdāgāmin), literally meaning "one who once (sakṛt) comes (āgacchati)".

The Once-Returner will at most return to the Realm of the Senses (the lowest being human and the highest being the devas wielding power over the creations of others) 1 more time.

Both the Stream-Enterer and the Once-Returner have abandoned the 1-3 fetters.

The Stream-Enterer and Once-Returner are distinguished by the fact that the Once-Returner has weakened lust, hate, and delusion to a greater degree.

The Once-Returner therefore has fewer than 7 rebirths.

Once-Returners do not have only 1 more rebirth, as the name suggests, for that may not even be said with certainty about the Non-Returner who can take multiple rebirths in the 5 "Pure Abodes".

They do, however, only have 1 more rebirth in the Realm of the Senses, excluding, of course, the planes of hell, animals and hungry ghosts.


The 3rd stage is that of the Anāgāmī (Sanskrit: Anāgāmin), literally meaning "one who does not (an-) come (āgacchati)".

The Non-Returner, having overcome sensuality, does not return to the Human World, or any unfortunate world lower than that, after death.

Instead, Non-Returners are reborn in one of the 5 special worlds in Rūpa-dhātu called the Śuddhāvāsa worlds, or "Pure Abodes", and there attain Nirvāṇa; some of them are reborn a 2nd time in a higher world of the Pure Abodes.

An Anāgāmī has abandoned the 5 lower fetters, out of 10 total fetters, that bind beings to the cycle of rebirth. An Anāgāmī is well-advanced.


The 4th stage is that of Arahant (Sanskrit: Arhat), a fully awakened person.

They have abandoned all 10 fetters and, upon death (Sanskrit: Parinirvāṇa, Pāḷi: Parinibbāna) will never be reborn in any plane or world, having wholly escaped Saṁsāra.

An Arahant has attained awakening by following the path given by the Buddha.

In Theravāda Buddhism the term Buddha is reserved for ones who "self-enlighten" such as Siddhartha Gautama Buddha, who discovered the path by himself.


Buddha spoke about Paccekabuddhas as solitary Buddhas who discover the path to Enlightenment on their own in Isigili Sutta (MN116), but choose not to teach it.

This is the least known path and not taught in 3 traditional Yānas (Hīnayāna, Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna).