In the moment when we are born, we do not immediately leap to our feet and run. It takes months of awareness, instruction, and physical and mental growth before we are ready to take our first steps. It is a similar process while walking our spiritual path toward Nirvana.
According to the texts of Theravada Buddhism, Buddha recognized four distinct levels of realization we will go through before we reach Nirvana.
Each of these levels allows us to remove hindrances or “fetters,” that keep us tied to the karmic wheel. Through meditation and the right actions of the Eightfold Path, we move through these levels during our lifetimes.
The Ordinary Person
First, let us remind ourselves what it is like to live as an ordinary person. In the day-to-day, pleasure and whim are what motivate us. These tides of desire can rock and roll us into poor choices and karmic debts. Instead of taking the time to understand the nature of suffering and the way out of this cycle, you are instead devoted to living inside your head.
The ordinary person is a slave to the slightest craving or dissatisfaction. Their circumstances of life and the laws of Samsara trap them; if their karma is lacking in this life, they will pay for it in the next. They are not aware that their actions have consequences, ones that will show themselves when they’re reborn to a more difficult life.
As the Four Noble Truths state, it is important to live knowing the truth about suffering, and with the end-goal of enlightenment in mind.
As Buddhists, we recognize the Four Noble Truths and remember that our suffering can end. We align ourselves with the eight teachings of The Middle Way, and train ourselves in non-attachment through meditation.
Through our Buddhist practice, we take small steps toward a more blissful life and to the first of the four stages of enlightenment.
Stage 1: Stream-Enterer
As you accept the teachings of Buddha, you stand in the stream of the Dharma. The cool water of peace and understanding flows around you as you consider the Eightfold path ahead. The water begins to wash away the presence of your ego.
At this first stage, you are feeling ready to let go of the idea of “self.” You fully realize there is no “you” outside of everyone else. Instead, you recognize that identity is an illusion of the mind and will only cause you suffering.
Here in the stream, you no longer have doubts about the teachings of Buddha. You intuitively understand that you need only follow his instructions. You are strengthened by his teachings and ready to walk the rest of this journey.
As a stream-enterer, you are ensuring that you are born into a better life than this one. Once you have entered the stream, there is a maximum of seven rebirths before you reach enlightenment and end your cycle of rebirth.
Stage 2: Once-Returner
When you have reached the stage of the Once-returner, you experience a significant reduction in attachment. Instead of becoming angry, you feel occasional irritation.
Feeling a preference for something replaces feelings of hatred and greed. As your insight and acceptance of no-self strengthens, your desires and attachments diminish.
With less attachment, your intuitive understanding of suffering becomes clearer.
As the name suggests, the once-returner will be only be reborn one more time after their current life. It is during that final lifetime that they will reach Nirvana.
Stage 3: Never-Returner
At this next stage, your states of mind that include fears, attachments, and desires no longer exist in you. Sexual desires will not stir you even in the slightest way. Gone are the internal sources of your suffering: jealousy, ignorance, selfishness, hatred, and greed.
You are at peace. Content. You neither feel deep joy or deep grief. You are as calm as the stream you stepped into, all those lives ago.
You may still harbor a small seed of “self” inside your mind, but for the most part you do not see a difference between you and those around you. You may still show a small preference toward the positive over the negative, but you will show now ill will toward anyone.
The never-returner will not return to this human plane. This is their last life. They are extremely close to reaching the final stage of enlightenment.
Some non-returner bodhisattvas choose to use their last life to help others move through these 4 stages. Many of them become our guides, gurus and teachers.
Stage 4: The Arhant
In this final stage, your last kernels of self, ignorance, and conceit have now dissipated. Nothing in life creates any sense of attachment or judgment in you.
Bliss envelops you like a cloud. You have now reached the fourth stage of complete enlightenment.
At this point, your karmic wheel has been smashed and the cycle of rebirth has ended. Your long journey is over; now you may be at peace.
Some First Steps
Buddhism, especially Tibetan Buddhism, is a welcoming community. It is sometimes helpful to connect with others who are on the same journey and to use resources to help with your quest for enlightenment.
Below are a few thriving online Buddhist communities where you can find more information to guide you along your path: