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I read SN 55.24 (quoted below) and it says Sarakani became a stream enterer despite having an alcohol drinking habit, because he undertook the training before he died.

What does the sutta really mean? Does it mean he gave up alcohol and undertook the training, then became a stream enterer?

The sutta isn't very clear on whether Sarakani gave up alcohol. Did he give it up? Or not?

Now at that time Sarakāni the Sakyan had passed away. The Buddha declared that he was a stream-enterer, not liable to be reborn in the underworld, bound for awakening.

At that, several Sakyans came together complaining, grumbling, and objecting, “It’s incredible, it’s amazing! Who can’t become a stream-enterer these days? For the Buddha even declared Sarakāni to be a stream-enterer after he passed away. Sarakāni was too weak for the training; he used to drink alcohol.”

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    Your questions appear unanswerable. However, it appears probable he gave up drinking prior to stream-entry. – Dhammadhatu Jul 27 '19 at 5:09
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Does it meant that he gave up alcohol and undertook the training, and became a stream enterer?

That's not how I read the translation, i.e. I'm not sure that is what's implied.

Perhaps I should start by mentioning that, whereas SN 55.24 says ...

Sarakāni was too weak for the training; he used to drink alcohol.”
Saraṇāni sakko sikkhādubbalyamāpādi, majjapānaṃ apāyī”ti.

... there's SN 55.25 which says ...

Sarakāni didn’t fulfill the training.”
Saraṇāni sakko sikkhāya aparipūrakārī ahosī”ti.


Anyway, near the start of SN 55.24 it says,

Mahānāma, when a lay follower has for a long time gone for refuge to the Buddha, the teaching, and the Saṅgha, how could they go to the underworld? And if anyone should rightly be said to have for a long time gone for refuge to the Buddha, the teaching, and the Saṅgha, it’s Sarakāni the Sakyan

So that's one thing and maybe enough.

It isn't the same story but see also the Weaver's Daughter ...

At the conclusion of the discourse that maiden was established in the fruit of stream-entry

... and there a factor (and something that may have in common with this) was her having lived with the Buddha's message for a long time.

The next paragraphs talks about immersion and so on -- variations on a theme (all including immersion as a kind of minimum). The same person (Mahānāma the Sakyan) asked a related question in AN 3.73.

It ends with -- or perhaps, "But it ends with" (though it might be better to understand it without "but", because "without but" is a description of the end-state i.e. having completed stream-entry):

If these great sal trees could understand what was well said and poorly said, I’d declare them to be stream-enterers. Why can’t this apply to Sarakāni?

I get the impression that stream-entry depends on understanding the Dhamma when it's spoken by the Buddha -- there are many examples of that (at the end of SN 56.11 for a start, but also often at the end of many suttas with the Bhagava and a lay-person).

So that's another thing (maybe the same thing), and also enough.

Finally it says,

Mahānāma, Sarakāni the Sakyan undertook the training at the time of his death.
Saraṇāni, mahānāma, sakko maraṇakāle sikkhaṃ samādiyī”ti.

The translation says "training" but the Pali says saraṇa -- maybe "refuge".

I think that's saying he became a stream enterer when he died, before he died, as he was dying -- however long that took, whether it was a moment before (Last thought before death?), or whether the "time of dying" (maraṇakāla) was days or weeks or longer, months.

I think we're meant to believe it's possible for a person -- for almost anyone (see also Aṅgulimāla, "The Buddha had often warned not to judge people from appearances and their external behavior").

And the suttas have many examples of people attaining a higher "stage" of enlightenment as they're dying.

My opinion, if you'll forgive it, is that I may be disinclined to recommend a life of drunkenness -- that might be crazy, and perhaps not in a good way. That said, it's possible (and fortunate) that stream entry may occur towards the end of life (though arguably not a safe bet and compassionate and everything to wait until then).

The sutta isn't very clear on whether Sarakani gave up alcohol. Did he give it up?

Perhaps you give up a lot as you're dying.

  1. People, other than the wise, do not realize, "We in this world must all die," (and, not realizing it, continue their quarrels). The wise realize it and thereby their quarrels cease.
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  • See also e.g. SN 25.3, "He is incapable of passing away until he has realized the fruit of stream-entry." (or translated, "They can’t die without realizing" -- I think the Pali says literally, something like, "Unable lifetime do not fruit-of-steam-entry he realises", so don't read too much into the wording of the translation). – ChrisW Jul 27 '19 at 11:35
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The prerequisite of stream entry is Right View, the first factor of the Noble Eightfold Path. To have Right View, one needs to be able to understand the Dhamma, which is why the Buddha said “even if these great sal trees could understand what is well spoken ... I would declare these trees to be stream enterers”.

The Sila component of the Noble Eightfold Path is Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood; they do not include the 5th precept. In fact, they contain 7 precepts (3 bodily, same as 1st, 2nd, 3rd precept, and 4 verbal).

In many suttas, the Buddha talk about these 7 precepts instead of the 5. The 7 precepts are earlier because they are in the Noble Eightfold Path. As the monastic sangha grew, many precepts (including the 5th precept) were gradually added.

Anyway, the main message in this Sutta is that listening and understanding the Dhamma to get Right View is the prerequisite to stream entry.

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I think the natural assumption is that Sarakaani became either a Faith-Follower and or a Dhamma-Follower during his life and thus realized fruition of stream-entry as he was dying.

"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.

"One who, after pondering with a modicum of discernment, has accepted that these phenomena are this way is called a Dhamma-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.

"One who knows and sees that these phenomena are this way is called a stream-enterer, steadfast, never again destined for states of woe, headed for self-awakening."SN25.1

As i see it, it is the natural assumption because;

  • I think it's clear that these are the exact type of people who having to an extent neglected the training would be realizing fruition as they die.

This interpretation is also inferrable from the Sarakaani Sutta because it is said in those very Sutta;

"Take the case of another man. He is not even endowed with unwavering devotion to the Buddha, the Dhamma, the Sangha. He is not joyous and swift in wisdom and has not gained release. But perhaps he has these things: the faculty of faith, of energy, of mindfulness, of concentration, of wisdom. And the things proclaimed by the Tathaagata are moderately approved by him with insight. That man does not go to the realm of hungry ghosts, to the downfall, to the evil way, to states of woe.

"Take the case of another man. He is not even endowed with unwavering devotion to the Buddha, the Dhamma, the Sangha. He is not joyous and swift in wisdom and has not gained release. But he has just these things: the faculty of faith, of energy, of mindfulness, of concentration, of wisdom. Yet if he has merely faith, merely affection for the Tathaagata, that man, too, does not go to... states of woe.SN55.24

Which is in so many words a clear descriction of the pair. Furthermore Sarakaani is further described as a good seed;

a teaching that’s well explained and well propounded, emancipating, leading to peace, proclaimed by someone who is a fully awakened Buddha. This is what I call a fertile field. A disciple remains in such a teaching, practicing in line with that teaching, practicing it properly, living in line with that teaching. This is what I call a good seed. Why can’t this apply to Sarakāni? SN55.25

Therefore i say it is natural to assume that Sarakaani was faith and or a dhamma-follower as he took to drink.

This interpretation is disagreeable to those who hold that a Sotapanna cannot drink alcohol because the pair [faith- and the dhamma-follower] are also considered Ariya and those who hold the position that Sotapanna cannot drink also, from what i've seen, hold that Ariya cannot drink at all. That also because it seems like some discourses might not differentiate between a stream-enterer and the pair.

Therefore people will hold that Sarakaani was a putthujjana [worldling] and a common alcoholic at that. That he was without any substantiaĺ belief nor understanding of the Dhamma up until the point of death and then realized fruition of stream-entry.

As to whether a Sotapanna can drink alcohol these are the considerations;

  • It has never been stated that they can not or that they wouldn't want to. I think it's reasonable to assume that they at the very least can be forced to but some hold that it is impossible and it cannot happen. Actually that has not been proclaimed to be impossible even of an Arahant;

Five impossibles, to wit, for an Arahant intentionally to take life, or to take what is not given, so as to amount to theft, or to commit sexual offences, or to lie deliberately, or to spend stored up treasures in worldly enjoyments, as in the days before he left the world. DN33

Of the Sotapanna it is proclaimed that they are incapable of the six Abhithanani; i. matricide, ii. patricide, iii. the murder of arahants, iv. the shedding of the Buddha's blood, v. causing schism in the Sangha, and vi. pernicious false beliefs (niyata micca ditthi) and furthermore;

Any evil action he may still do by deed, word or thought, he is incapable of concealing it; since it has been proclaimed that such concealing is impossible for one who has seen the Path (of Nibbana). Snp2.1

Here it's noteworthy that it is explicitly expressed "since it has been proclaimed that such concealing is impossible".

Also this is proclaimed;

"There is the case where a monk is wholly accomplished in virtue, moderately accomplished in concentration, and moderately accomplished in discernment. With reference to the lesser and minor training rules, he falls into offenses and rehabilitates himself. Why is that? Because I have not declared that to be a disqualification in these circumstances. But as for the training rules that are basic to the holy life and proper to the holy life, he is one of permanent virtue, one of steadfast virtue. Having undertaken them, he trains in reference to the training rules. "With the wasting away of [the first] three fetters, he is one who has seven more times at most. Having transmigrated and wandered on among devas and human beings, he will put an end to stress. AN3.86

Noteworthy here is that the pali is;

They break some lesser and minor training rules, but are restored. So yāni tāni khuddānukhuddakāni sikkhāpadāni tāni āpajjatipi vuṭṭhātipi

The wording is the same as DN16;

If it wishes, after my passing the Saṅgha may abolish the lesser and minor training rules. Ākaṅkhamāno, ānanda, saṃgho mamaccayena khuddānukhuddakāni sikkhāpadāni samūhanatu.

This is very important because we know that the First Buddhist Council, held shortly after Buddha's parinibbana, couldn't agree on what these minor and lesser rules were(!).

Second point to note is that here in the AN3.86, it is proclaimed that the transgressions are possible 'since it has not been declared to be a disqualification' i would propose that the principle of not being proclaimed is emphasised as it was in 'since it has been proclaimed that such concealing is impossible' in the Snp2.1 and is of particular importance.

As for the meaning of disqualification i see two interpretations i. Expulsion from the Order, ii. Disqualification from the Status.

  • Intoxication isn't listed among vices that wise never praise;

"What are the four vices in conduct that he has eradicated? The destruction of life, householder, is a vice and so are stealing, sexual misconduct, and lying. These are the four vices that he has eradicated." Thus spoke the Exalted One. And when the Master had thus spoken, he spoke yet again: Killing, stealing, lying and adultery, These four evils that the wise never praise. DN31

I think it's clear based on this evidence that it cannot be assumed that a Sotapanna cannot drink and one who holds that position needs to prove it as it is an extraordinary assumption because it has not been proclaimed to be impossible.

Here is more circumstantial evidence;

The nāga (living in the fire building) saw that Ven. Sāgata had entered and, on seeing him, was upset, disgruntled, and emitted smoke. Ven. Sāgata emitted smoke. The nāga, unable to bear his rage, blazed up. Ven. Sāgata, entering the fire element, blazed up. Then Ven. Sāgata, having consumed the nāga’s fire with his own fire, left for Bhaddavatikā.[...]

The lay followers of Kosambī heard, ‘They say that Ven. Sāgata did battle with the Ambatittha nāga!’,[...] One, went to Ven. Sāgata and, on arrival, having bowed down to him, sat to one side. As they were sitting there they said to him, ‘What, venerable sir, is something the masters like that is hard for you to get? What can we prepare for you?‘

“When this was said, some group-of-six bhikkhus said to the Kosambī lay followers, ‘Friends, there is a strong liquor called pigeon’s liquor (the color of pigeons’ feet, according to the Commentary) that the bhikkhus like and is hard for them to get. Prepare that.’

“Then the Kosambī lay followers, having prepared pigeon’s liquor in house after house, and seeing that Ven. Sāgata had gone out for alms, said to him, ‘Master Sāgata, drink some pigeon’s liquor! Master Sāgata, drink some pigeon’s liquor’ Then Ven. Sāgata, having drunk pigeon’s liquor in house after house, passed out at the city gate as he was leaving the city. Vinaya, prohibition precept origin

It also has to be assumed that there were more attainments before the rule was established because it is said;

What is the cause, lord, what is the reason, why before there were fewer training rules and yet more monks established in final gnosis, whereas now there are more training rules and yet fewer monks established in final gnosis?[...] When beings are degenerating and the true Dhamma is disappearing, there are more training rules and yet fewer monks established in final gnosis. SN16.13

  • In the Snp2.1 it is also said that they can be "excessively heedless", alcohol is said explicitly to cause heedlessness. Just pointing out that maybe if one causes the other...

Those who hold that Ariya cannot drink do it based on commentary and there are different commentary positions on this matter where some do not exclude the possibility.

This is a very taboo subject because many contemporary teachers hold the view that it is impossible and cannot happen. The list would include many prominent teachers of The Thai Forest and Mahasi Sayadaw. Some contemporary teachers go as far as entertaining the idea that alcohol would simply evaporate from the lips of the Ariyans if forced to drink.

The implications of Sotapanna being unable to drink are very interesting to analyze because as i see it, it allows for equating ariyakhantisila [virtues dear to noble one's] to the five precepts and this has quite big social & moral implication in the Sangha.

Remember that 1st Council didn't establish which rules could be abandoned, now think a little about how many and which rules become minor & lesser if the fundamental rules are defined as the 5 precepts (which is from what i've seen the interpretation by those who hold that a Sotapanna cannot drink as they typically tend to equate ariyakantisila to pancasilani ['virtues dear to noble one's' with which all ariyans are endowed and 'five precepts']).

I think it is clear who has the burden of proof and what the most natural interpretation is based on the tipitaka.

Fwiw and not that it matters but to exhaust what i know of this;

  • I think the commentary holds that Sarakaani died with alcohol in his system but this is just something i heard being taught.
  • I also vaguely recall hearing a commentary story of a female lay disciple, at some point proclaimed to be Sotapanna being at some point implicated in a story where some drinking did or might have happened. Iirc this would be Nandiya and it might be in relation to the discourse given to her where it is said that "the heedless noble disciple dwells in pain". It could be someone else tho, i recall she went with her friends to like picnic of sorts.
  • in the Dhp commentary to "the hand without a wound and the carrying of poison" verse it is said that he says that 'Sotapannas do not kill, they do not want others to be killed'.
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