Stream-Entry is Seeing Nirvana

by | Apr 4, 2024 | Buddhism for All

(Context: Stream-Entry is Breaking Three Fetters.)

The total abandonment of the first three fetters is only one definition of a stream-enterer.  There is a complementary definition, perhaps a more important one: a stream-enterer is one who has clearly seen nirvana, but is not yet able to enter it fully due to residual grasping. 

One illustration came from a wise Buddhist monk named Nārada, who lived during the Buddha’s time.  He admitted to two fellow monks that even though he had personally seen nirvana, he had not yet “destroyed the taints” within himself, and he was therefore not yet an arahant.  He further explained with an analogy: Suppose there is a well in the desert, but it had neither a rope nor a bucket.  A thirsty man would come along, look down into the well, and he could clearly see the water, but he was not able to “make bodily contact with it”[1].

To be a stream-enterer, you do not have to see nirvana a lot, even one clear glimpse can be enough.[2]  To explain it, let’s use a prison analogy.  Suppose there were a population of people who spent their entire lives in a huge prison building with no windows.  Well, there was one window, but it was permanently closed, and it was painted black so nobody could see outside.  One day, while a prisoner was cleaning the walls, he leaned on that window and accidently flung it open.  Immediately, prison guards rushed to close it back up.  Imagine if you were that prisoner.  You would catch one clear glimpse of the outside world.  You would see for yourself, there is such a thing as a sky, there exists a world without walls, there is such a thing as freedom.  You are still inside the prison, you still only see walls and ceiling, but having had one glimpse of the outside, you will no longer believe that the inside of the prison is all there is to this world.  In the same way, having caught a glimpse of nirvana, you will no longer believe that samsara is all that there is.

This is how a stream-enterer is totally free from doubt.  Having seen nirvana, he no longer has any doubts in the teaching and the path.  It is like someone in a vast desert with a map looking for a city.  He looks around and all he sees is sand, and he experiences doubt.  But if there is a hill nearby, and he climbs the hill and sees the city in the distance with his own eyes, exactly where the map says it should be, he will be free from doubt.

One key implication of directly seeing nirvana is you no longer need to rely on anybody, including even the Buddha, to tell you the true nature of phenomena, because you can already see it for yourself.  That is why one who attains stream-entry is described as “having become independent of others in the Teacher’s Dispensation.”  There is a really nice story that illustrates this point. 

During the Buddha’s time, there was a man named Sura.  Sura gained stream-entry while listening to the Buddha give a discourse, and then returned home.  Mara was dismayed to see one more person leaving his grasp, and so he decided to try to turn this one back.  Mara assumed the form of the Buddha and came to Sura’s home.  Sura was tricked and invited him in with delight.  Mara then told Sura that he had not considered carefully before giving his talk, and thus made a mistake.  The mistake was that he said that the five aggregates are impermanent; but now, after reconsidering, he has realized that the five aggregates are actually permanent.  Sura easily called Mara’s bluff.  Having attained stream-entry, Sura already saw for himself that all five aggregates are impermanent, so he could easily tell this must be Mara in disguise.  Sura added that even a thousand Maras could not shake his faith, which is unshakable like Mount Meru. Mara then disappeared. This story is not found in the oldest texts, but in a medieval commentary[3], so its veracity is not water-tight, but it is definitely illustrative.

Another definition of a stream-enterer I have heard from a living Buddhist teacher is one from Shinzen Young.  He defines stream-entry as “the complete realization that there has never been a thing in me called a self”.  This definition makes perfect sense to me too.  It sounds like a simplified rendering of the fetter of identity view, and it makes sense to me because the first fetter is the lynchpin among the first three fetters: if you break it, the other two will eventually break.  If you can penetrate so clearly into the nature of self that you no longer hold any of the twenty identity views, then you will soon also have no doubt in the teachings and will no longer believe that rites and rituals are sufficient for liberation from suffering.  However, the reverse is not true: if you break any of the other two fetters, there is no guarantee that the first fetter will automatically break.  You may not believe in the power of rites and rituals, and you may have absolute confidence in the teachings of the Buddha, but still, those things alone do not guarantee that you will develop the mental clarity to penetrate into the true nature of self. 

I think this is why the Buddha gave a precise technical definition for the fetter of identity view, but did not do so for the other two.  That, and the other two are more easily understandable.

Soryu has a way of articulating the power of stream-entry that I find particularly inspiring.  I’m going to quote him here:

Before stream-entry, all your thoughts and actions tend towards defilements, and you find your journey towards full enlightenment to be a confused, uphill struggle.  After stream-entry, all your thoughts and actions naturally tend towards nirvana, so you find your journey towards full enlightenment to be straightforward and aided by nature. It’s not that one makes no more mistakes; it’s that each mistake tends to push us back in the right direction, rather than sending us even further from it. 

In that sense, reaching stream-entry is like reaching the summit of a hill. Before it, your journey requires struggle, but after it, you let nature do some of the work for you.  There are still a lot of things you need to work through after stream-entry, yes, but you now proceed in the easy direction. It’s as if you have to fight to remain ignorant, rather than fight to become free of ignorance. 

This metaphor also illustrates why the journey before stream-entry can take so much longer than after it.  Imagine that the journey up the summit, and then down from the summit to the other side, are both roughly the same distance.  On the uphill part of the journey, people tend to meander up, down and across the side of the hill. They try to walk up, but then they think it would be much easier to walk down. Because they walk back and forth, they end up walking one hundred miles to cover a one-mile distance.  On the other side of the hill, though, people can see the destination and it is in the direction aided by gravity, so even though they may lose the trail and get confused, they nonetheless walk not much further than one mile to cover the same one-mile distance.  That is why the Buddha can guarantee that once you have reached stream-entry, you will reach the final goal within a relatively short time.

The ancient texts poetically call the moment of gaining stream-entry the “arising of the Dharma-eye”.  It also comes with a lovely stock description.  Here, for example, is the description of that moment for the householder Upāli, one of the Buddha’s disciples.  As the Buddha was instructing him, the texts say,

While the householder Upāli sat there, the spotless immaculate vision of the Dharma arose in him: ‘All that is subject to arising is subject to cessation.’ Then the householder Upāli saw the Dharma, attained the Dharma, understood the Dharma, fathomed the Dharma; he crossed beyond doubt, did away with perplexity, gained intrepidity, and became independent of others in the Teacher’s Dispensation.[4]

This is all great, but it would be even more useful for us to see what it is like for a modern person to gain stream-entry.  That is coming up later.


  • Reflect on this post with Angela:
    • Prior to direct realization, our practice is on accumulating the conditions for that to happen while practicing the Noble Eightfold Path. This includes receiving Dharma teachings, reading sutras, training our mind, going to meditation retreats, doing our daily practices, cultivating virtues, etc.
    • By accumulating merits and wisdom, we water the seeds of direct realization. When causes and conditions suffice, we will directly realize our true nature and the nature of reality. After that first glimpse of direct realization, our practice and cultivation continues and intensifies until full, complete enlightenment.
    • What insights, learning, or reflection came up for you from this article?


[1] Saṃyutta Nikāya 12.68.

[2] Visuddhimagga 22.126-127.

[3] It is found in the Papancasudani, the commentary to the Majjhima Nikāya, commentary to sutta number 47.

[4] Majjhima Nikāya 56.

Featured image by Colin Goh.

Chade-Meng Tan

Meng is an award-winning engineer, international bestselling author, movie producer and philanthropist. His work has been nominated eight times for the Nobel Peace Prize. (Read Meng's story)

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