From what I understand in the suttas, unless you renounce the household life and desire almost entirely, chances are you won't eliminate the necessary fetters to achieve nibbana in this life. For someone who has to take care of a family, work a job, and be social, stream-entry seems like a more realistic goal, which is achieved through faith and virtue (AN 10.92, SN 55.7). Despite the importance of these topics, I can hardly find any instruction on cultivating faith and virtue outside of the suttas and Visuddhagga. Is interest in the devotional practices really so scarce?
The Kitagiri Sutta says:
"And what is the individual who is a conviction-follower? There is the case where a certain individual does not remain touching with his body those peaceful liberations that transcend form, that are formless, nor — having seen with discernment — are his fermentations ended. But he has a [sufficient] measure of conviction in & love for the Tathagata. And he has these qualities: the faculty of conviction, the faculty of persistence, the faculty of mindfulness, the faculty of concentration, & the faculty of discernment. This is called an individual who is a conviction-follower.
I think the conviction follower and faith follower refers to the same thing.
The faith follower also has faith and conviction in the impermanence of various phenomena, according to SN25:
"One who has conviction & belief that these phenomena are this way is called a faith-follower: one who has entered the orderliness of rightness, entered the plane of people of integrity, transcended the plane of the run-of-the-mill. He is incapable of doing any deed by which he might be reborn in hell, in the animal womb, or in the realm of hungry shades. He is incapable of passing away until he has realized the fruit of stream-entry.
Faith in the Buddha and the teachings would lead one towards stream entry. But it's insufficient by itself.
According to the Vera Sutta (AN10.92), to achieve stream-entry, one needs to still the five forms of fear and animosity, attain the four factors of stream entry and rightly see & rightly ferret out through discernment, the noble method.
The five forms of fear and animosity are caused by:
- Taking a life
- Illicit sex
- Telling untruth
- Heedlessness through intoxicating substances
The five precepts are training rules undertaken to abstain from the above five.
The four factors of stream entry are:
- Verified confidence in the Buddha
- Verified confidence in the Dhamma
- Verified confidence in the Sangha (the 8 types of individuals)
- Has virtues appealing to the noble ones: untorn, unbroken, unspotted, unsplattered, liberating, praised by the wise, untarnished, leading to concentration.
To elaborate on the fourth factor of stream entry, we find some details in the Thana Sutta:
And then there is the case where one individual, through living with another, knows this: 'For a long time this person has been untorn, unbroken, unspotted, unsplattered in his actions. He has been consistent in his actions. He has practiced consistently with regard to the precepts. He is a virtuous, principled person, not an unprincipled one.'
In the Nandiya Sutta, there is further elaboration:
"Furthermore, the disciple of the noble ones is endowed with verified confidence in the Dhamma... verified confidence in the Sangha... virtues that are appealing to the noble ones: untorn, unbroken, unspotted, unsplattered, liberating, praised by the wise, untarnished, leading to concentration. Not content with those virtues pleasing to the noble ones, he exerts himself further in solitude by day or seclusion by night. For him, living thus heedfully, joy arises. In one who has joy, rapture arises. In one who has rapture, the body becomes serene. When the body is serene, one feels pleasure. Feeling pleasure, the mind becomes centered. When the mind is centered, phenomena become manifest. When phenomena are manifest, he is reckoned as one who dwells heedfully.
This then leads to the "noble method".
The noble method mentioned here is understanding dependent origination and its relationship to the ending of suffering.
Interestingly, in the Gihi Sutta, the householder only needs to keep the five precepts and fulfill the four factors for stream entry (known in this sutta as the four pleasant mental abidings) in order to attain stream entry. The last "noble method" is not mentioned.
I doubt faith, virtue & devotion to the Buddha (alone) can bring stream-entry because these suttas include penetration of lokuttara dhamma as one of the four factors of stream-entry, namely:
He is endowed with verified (avecca) confidence in the Dhamma: 'The Dhamma is well-expounded by the Blessed One, to be seen here & now, timeless, inviting verification, pertinent, to be realized by the wise for themselves.'
avecca absol. understanding, having penetrated (see aveti)
This surely must mean enlightenment to the noble truths & liberating anatta, which ends the fetters of self-belief (sakkāya-diṭṭhi) & doubt (vicikicchā). It also appears to negate beliefs in reincarnation as factors of stream-entry because the dhamma to be verified is to be seen here & now, etc.
Genuine buddhist practises produces very tangible benefits to the recipient very rapidly. You don't need any belief. You can feel incredibly and undeniably 'great' and 'high' from meditation done correctly. But the teaching has got a little fuzzy and diluted over time from when it first emerged. Most people in the West (and the East even) get very little genuine benefit because the skill in teaching has decreased
Quite aside from spiritual devotion as an ends-unto-itself, if people got simple benefit from buddhism they would flock to it.
I suspect that the quality of meditation teaching has simply declined over time to the point that buddhism in the west is more or less an intellectual choice.
In it's time it would have been producing very powerful and real benefits to ordinary people very rapidly which disseminated it. It was aimed at lay-people. Something like Christianity 'rode on the back of' the Roman Empire's Emporers and the 'love and tolerance' mantra probably helped their culture advance. Buddhism spread because it was very simple and worked. I don't think many people honestly speaking get much benefit out of meditation as it is practised in modern times.