Are only stream-entrants destined to attain Nibbana?

I don't know whether it is possible to be destined to attain Nibbana more than 7 lives beforehand.

Is it not possible to be destined to attain Nibbana more than 7 lives beforehand ?


9 Answers 9


Say, you wanted to lose weight and stay healthy. If you have no idea about Calories, Carbs, Fat, and Exercise - you may spend years randomly trying all types of foods, fasting, etc. - your weight going up and down endlessly. But once you get a clear idea of the science behind the body weight, you start eating healthy and exercising. Then you can draw a burn-down chart of weight by day and see how fast you're moving. At this point you can more or less precisely predict how long it will take you to reach your target weight. So it gets rather "deterministic" for you (wrong use of the word but I will go with you here). While for the people who are on a random diet based on their cravings and dislikes, the weight loss is pretty much never going to happen, because they don't have a methodical system in place that creates rational causes leading in the right direction.

Similarly, with stream entry. You understand "wrongness" (dukkha), the way it arises from conflict between "is" and "should", and the behaviors leading to conflict. You also understand "peace", the way it arises from the cessation of conflict, and the behaviors leading to no-conflict. Once you clearly see that, you can act accordingly. Once you act accordingly, it can be known that you will finish the process in finite time (seven lives being a figure of speech).

It's really simple, no need to over-complicate it.


First off, although determinism was established by the Greek philosophers, during the 7th and 6th centuries BC, so around the life time of the historical Buddha, it is unlikely that this Greek concept was known in Northern India during that era. There is no direct reference to determinism in the original canon. The same goes for "free will", which is a Judeo-Christian concept. You are, as it were, looking at the concept of karma and rebirth through western spectacles.

The Buddhist concepts of karma and rebirth are heavily influenced by Hinduism, the predominant cosmology in Northern India during the Buddha's lifetime. As the concepts developed in Buddhism, in many lineages they were not taken literally anymore. The 6 realms of reincarnation were taken to mean the changing state of mind a person goes through daily (e.g. anger, hunger, delight,...). In Nichiren, this is called "Three thousand realms in a single moment of life".

Lastly, on the concept of Dukkha, can be translated as "suffering", but is also translated as "uneasy, uncomfortable, unpleasant, difficult, causing sadness". It refers primarily to the unsatisfactoriness of daily life caused by the five Skandhas, not necessarily to a "judgement day" eternal type of suffering as conceived in Christianity.


Determinism is true for stream entrants e.g Attainment of nibbana within 7 lives and definitely within 7 lives etc. So why not for others who aren't stream entrants?

One reason may be that a stream-entrant sees the dhamma properly, and has "noble virtue" (ariya sila) -- and therefore can't (or won't) slip back into samsara nor be reborn into a lower destination (i.e lower than human, e.g. animal or ghost or hell).

I think the premise is that both of these (i.e. right view and noble virtue) are necessary for liberation.

I'm not sure where the "7 lives" comes from, perhaps it's e.g. AN 3.88 ...

If they don’t penetrate so far, with the ending of three fetters, they have at most seven rebirths. They will transmigrate at most seven times among gods and humans and then make an end of suffering.

Taṃ vā pana anabhisambhavaṃ appaṭivijjhaṃ tiṇṇaṃ saṃyojanānaṃ parikkhayā sattakkhattuparamo hoti, sattakkhattuparamaṃ deve ca manusse ca sandhāvitvā saṃsaritvā dukkhassantaṃ karoti.

... or something similar in SN 13.2.

Some people, or at least one person i.e. here, is of the view that sattakkhattuparamaṃ is referring to "seven more fetters" (as stream entrants have abandoned the first 3 of 10 fetters), rather than "seven more lives". I don't see how to be sure of what sattakkhattuparamaṃ means -- translators e.g. Ven. Sujato and Thanissaro Bhikkhu say "lives" or "lifetimes" -- but "fetters" would make sense too, in context.

I might end up suffering severely in the next life

Perhaps ... isn't it true that anyone unenlightened or only partially enlightened isn't immune from suffering?

I think though that in a partially enlightened person, "the path leading to the cessation of suffering" is seen and is being developed.

Perhaps too your perspective changes with stream entry, which the abandoning of "identity-view" and vicikicchā.

In fact all my striving might end up being completely forgotten and eradicated and I might end up being extremely ignorant forever and suffering forever (due to "free will"), whereas someone who had no interest in the Buddha and never does might end up suffering less overall due to "free will".

I don't know what "free will" doctrine you're referring to.

You seem to be comparing people ("I strive and might suffer" versus "they have no interest and might suffer less").

That kind of comparison might not be skilful -- I think it's a kind of comparison which the brahmaviharas are meant to help you to avoid.

There is one form of comparison (or "conceit") that is said to be skilful, i.e. "That person is progressing toward enlightenment, if I practice as they do then I will too".

Then it's as if for non-stream entrants there is no free will

Maybe avoid extreme views. Maybe "everything is random" is one extremity, "everything is under one's self-control" is another extremity, and both wrong views.

Speaking of "streams", perhaps an analogy might be taking a boat across a stream -- you don't control the stream (though you may observe it), but if you're skilful and diligent, well taught, and have a good boat, then you may cross it.

  • Thanks for asking -- maybe I mis-remembered, I don't find that phrase. Perhaps it's "ethical conduct is loved by the noble ones, unbroken, unflawed, unblemished, untainted, liberating, praised by sensible people, not mistaken, and leading to immersion" (SN 55.1). See also The Character of a Stream-winner which mentions "virtue".
    – ChrisW
    Commented Nov 2, 2018 at 20:15
  • It might be worth mentioning that different schools have different definitions/understandings of what it is or means to "enter the stream" -- see e.g. "equipoise" in this topic.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Nov 2, 2018 at 20:20
  • Another definition might be SN 12.15 -- truly seeing the world, not attached to a notion of self, no doubt about suffering arising and ceasing, and a knowledge of this that's independent of others.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Nov 2, 2018 at 20:39

Why aren't any non-stream-entrants destined to attain Nibbana?

Stream Entrant means, he has understood very clearly what's the issue with this world (pancca-upadanaskanda) and has seen and understood from his own life. After he has that knowledge (with the understanding) he will gradually (can be instantly depend on how wise he is) attain Nibbana. So without knowing the issue no one can attain Nibbana. It's like only when you understand how to swim (or ride a bicycle) you just can swim ( or ride). Just because you take lessons you can't swim or ride, you have to experience it by your self.

I don't know whether it is possible to be destined to attain Nibbana more than 7 lives beforehand. It isn't possible to be destined to attain Nibbana more than 7 lives beforehand (?).

Many interpretations around this.

  • The seven represents rest of the phala and marga (Stream-enterer, path to Once-returner, Once-returner, path to Non-returner, Non-returner, path to Arahant, Arahant).

  • The rest of the fetters (after being a stream enterer, he has dropped first 3 fetters out of 10. So 7 rest to be dropped as well).

With all these, it's bit hard to say this is about 7 lives (births). Since above are bit more logical and that sense, this can happens in the same birth as well. If we think about Buddha's time this makes more sense. Because there are many who attain Nibbana in the same life. Anyway I'm not sure which is right.


Puthujjanas love to claimthat

  • they know what they are doing,

  • know what is good for people,

  • know what people should do and should not do.

From this, thePuthujjanas love to create rules and chase people who appear to them to not follow those rules, in order to judge them and punish them, and educate them to their rules. Not a single good thing stems from their delusion.

But at the end of the day, a puthujjana has zero knowledge of morality, no matter what puthujjanas claim,

  • Puthujjanas do not know what is right
  • Puthujjanas do not know what is wrong
  • Puthujjanas do not know how do stop doing wrong in order to start doing right

THe only good thing a puthujjan can do is:

  • acknowledge that this puthujjana has zero knowledge of morality
  • ask a buddha what are good actions and wrong actions and how to avoid bad actions and how to act well
  • memorize word for word the reply
  • strive to do good and avoid at all cost doing bad

this what the buddha explains about karma :

  1. "Here, student, some woman or man when visiting a monk or brahman, does not ask: 'What is wholesome, venerable sir? What is unwholesome? What is blamable? What is blameless? What should be cultivated? What should not be cultivated? What, by my doing it, will be long for my harm and suffering? Or what, by my doing it, will be long for my welfare and happiness?' Due to having performed and completed such kammas, on the dissolution of the body, after death, he reappears in a state of deprivation... If instead he comes to the human state, he will be stupid wherever he is reborn. This is the way that leads to stupidity, that is to say, when visiting a monk or brahman, not to ask: 'What is wholesome?... Or what, by my doing it, will be long for my welfare and happiness?'

  2. "But here some woman or man when visiting a monk or brahman, asks: 'What is wholesome, venerable sir?... Or what, by my doing it, will be long for my welfare and happiness?' Due to having performed and completed such kammas, on the dissolution of the body, after death, he reappears in a happy destination... If instead he comes to the human state, he is wise wherever he is reborn. This is the way that leads to wisdom, that is to say, when visiting a monk or brahman, to ask: 'What is wholesome, venerable sir?... Or what, by my doing it, will be long for my welfare and happiness?' https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.135.nymo.html

But puthujjanas prefer to base their actions on their opinions, on their views, feelings, desires, gut feelings, instinct which is precisely what makes them suffer in the first place.


Determinism is true for stream entrants e.g Attainment of nibbana within 7 lives and definitely within 7 lives etc. So why not for others who aren't stream entrants?

A simple analogy, 2 people try to climb a mountain, one's already reached the peak while the other's still trying to reach it. For the one who already did, it's guaranteed and just a matter of time (in 7 days or fewer) to get down to the bottom of the mountain on the other side, while for the other guy, there's no guarantee at all: he can reach the top soon after or continue to climp and trip, climb and trip several times before reaching the top. Similarly, Stream-Enterers have passed one of the biggest hurdles, the accomplishment of moral virtues (AN 9.12) and that's why they've earned the warranty. "Determinism" sometimes leads to wrong connotations cuz we worldlings operate in "deterministic" mode all the time. To an untrained Puthujjhana male who's strong and lustful, putting him in a dark room with a young voluptuous lustful female, and it's "deterministic" that the two are going to engage in some interesting business.

  • Of course you can add whatever details you want. But the gist of the matter should be pretty clear. There's a threshhold to be reached, and once one's over the hump, the end result is pretty much set. This applies to everything in life, not just the state of Stream Entry.
    – santa100
    Commented Nov 2, 2018 at 20:46
  • You definitely should check again cuz you've been doing it all the time. As a kid, once you've studied hard and done all your homeworks, passing the class is guaranteed. At work, work diligently to meet all the deadlines, and not getting fired is guaranteed (whether u get laid off is a different story due to the economy). You used to be a chain smoker, quit smoking with strong resolution, exercise and quit eating junk food, and your health will definitely improve, guaranteed, etc...
    – santa100
    Commented Nov 2, 2018 at 22:39
  • 1
    @Angus Perhaps it isn't a matter of 10 minutes versus 11. A neighbour (a musician) said that to learn to play a new musical instrument you should practice for 5 minutes every day -- that practising regularly, 5 minutes every day, is the effective way to learn, and that half an hour of practice once per week is not -- that if you practice regularly for a short time then on some days you might practice for longer, but that the important thing when training -- and that what determines whether you continue to make progress -- is to develop the new habit.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Nov 3, 2018 at 9:03
  • 1
    So, I guess if the key point of OP question is the discrete threshold, then that's what we should address. The discrete threshold is due to understanding of the fundamental principle behind 4NT, you either get it or not. If you get it and know what you're doing, the process is finite. If you don't get it, the process may never finish.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Commented Nov 3, 2018 at 16:36

I believe you seem to imply that because stream-entrants will achieve enlightenment in a given time, that it suggests a determinism absent from other spiritual aspirants.

However, karma is karma. First, according to many Buddhist traditions, all sentient beings will attain enlightenment eventually. Isn't this determinism?

More so, I don't believe one can cheat karma. Beneficial and compassionate acts will produce later reward, while detrimental and harmful acts will cause later suffering. I don't think that it is different for stream entrants and other practitioners in this respect. Bodhisattvas, for example, may 'deterministically' affect their rebirth, due to karmically induced merit.

Where there is a difference is when it comes to 'definite goodness', namely the release from karma itself. This is achieved by gaining insight into ignorance by means of understanding emptiness, by gaining a view into how reality is. The karmic seeds come to an end via this knowledge. Thus, here one might argue an escape from determinism, if only the determinism of the cyclical nature of samsara. But, in a sense, the outcome is still deterministic, because release from samsara occurs also by virtue of karmic seeds. I doubt that a person without merit might achieve enlightenment.

I feel when you talk about free will, you mean 'chance'. You allude to various metaphysical ideals about intention, the nature of ignorance, etc. which I can't all address easily. But, I wish to say that Buddhism emphasizes greatly cause and effect, whereby effects arise from causes. Through a worldly view, this causal chain explains what we perceive, and may be deterministic. But for example with Nagarjuna's ultimate view, in the two truths, causal links are denied and questioned as 'empty of self'.

Since emptiness is acquired as a view (without being grasped quite like a view), it possesses a mental reality, that of wisdom; this wisdom, though mental, reflects how reality actually is. Hence, paradoxically, wisdom affects even karma, via emptiness -- it alters how karma is perceived, and consequently how it exists. Just as this removes a person from the shackles of karma, it also precludes determinism. So, if emptiness affects 'determinism', it implies determinism is also empty of intrinsic existence.

This mirrors psychological phenomena whereby a paradigm shift causes a self-fulfilling effect, for example with self-efficacy. People sometimes fail to do things out of limiting beliefs, and have trouble changing these views. Yet, they could change their views but a static conception inhibits this possibility.

I invoke this psychological phenomenon because Buddhism speaks of diverse mental factors linked with confidence or even skillful means. One may view your notion of determinism applied to spiritual aspirants as such a limiting belief. I suggest strongly you look into the subject of Buddhist 'emptiness', as in addition to potentially solving such questions, it expands one's understanding as a whole; if everything is empty of intrinsic essence, then so are the variety of limitations inhibiting your aspirations to enlightenment.

Hope this helps!

  • "First, according to many Buddhist traditions, all sentient beings will attain enlightenment eventually." Possible Hindus using Buddha to trade, and yes they are many...
    – user11235
    Commented Jul 2, 2019 at 4:59

Brain-masturbating does not lead to release but is the joy in becoming => one who put's thinks like taught into practice is one who knows and sees by himselves by time.

When ever the free-will debate arises my person encourages to following:

Point with your right hands finger to your right eye. Focus only on the finger. Now when the concentration is good fastly push the finger into your eye.

Much insight!


The are, by the way, two kind of non-stream-enter, who will arrive at Nibbana by entering the stream at least at times of death: Faith-follower and Dhamma-follower. Aside of those worldling, for all others, the whole Samsara is open for long, long time, for the most.

Okkanta-samyutta — Entering

(Note that this gift of Dhamma is not dedicated for trade, exchange, stacks or entertainment but as a means to make merits toward release from this wheel)

  • "I don't understand the finger thing" because you didn' put it into practice... @Angus Commented Nov 2, 2018 at 10:57
  • "looks like the Buddha never said whether nibbana is guaranteed or not for those who haven't achieved stream entry" it's not guaranteed and less will archiv it, Nyom @Angus. Why? Because even lucky to meet, they don't put it into practice... Commented Nov 2, 2018 at 10:59

Stream entry is the point at which the teachings become fully understood, not just intellectually, but also through one's experience.

When a stream entrant feels jealousy due to deeply ingrained latent tendencies and habits, he can quickly see how his jealousy relates to his clinging and craving. He is not free from suffering yet, but he can see how everything works. He also has had a glimpse of Nibbana, at least in moments of mindfulness (sati sampajanna).

The stream entrant has lost the first three fetters - doubt on the Buddha's teachings, attachment to rituals and rules, and belief in a self (or self-view). He has lost his self-belief or self-view, but not his self-habit. There are no more doubts because the teachings have been fully understood - it's very clear what everything means and how everything fits together.

In SN 13.1, the Buddha taught that the suffering remaining for a stream entrant is like dirt at the tip of a finger nail, compared to suffering that has been endured, the size of planet Earth.

Before attaining stream entry, the enthusiastic Buddhist learns about the four stages of enlightenment - stream entry, once-returner, non-returner and the arahant. He also learns about the seven remaining lifetimes (at most) of the stream entrant, and the relatively little amount of suffering left for the stream entrant, relative to the past suffering that seems endless.

After attaining stream entry, then comes the first plot twist.

Self-view or self-belief is now completely gone. So, WHOSE seven lifetimes is remaining? WHO is going to be reborn?

Then comes the second plot twist - no more attachment to rules and rituals.

What does this mean? Now the stream entrant doesn't care how many more lifetimes exactly he has left, or how many stages of enlightenment are there, or at what stage he is at, or which precept he did not keep perfectly, or where he will be reborn. To him, the only important task left is to uproot his remaining fetters, latent tendencies and bad habits, without caring about how long that would take.

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