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How valid or verifiable is the claim that a sotapanna leads no more than seven lives? Or a once returner returns once?

There is another claim that practicing earnestly for seven days or seven weeks or a maximum of seven years should be enough to attain nibbana.

Whereas as far as I can see, nibbana doesn't seem too common at all. Certainly not the kind of numbers one would expect if it was possible in a few years.

Is there present day evidence for the latter? If there isn't then shouldn't it also lead me to wonder about the former?

(Note: I'm not saying arahatship or lesser ariya states are impossible, just not very sure about the maintainability and significance of the number 7)

What is the learned opinion here?

The Zen approach of nowhere to go, nowhere to arrive seems more commonsensical to the extent that there is nothing to disprove. On the flip side one can be really only wearing out one's cushion in the Zendo, and there'd be no way to verify one's attainment.

  • 1
    ("No way to verify one's attainment" in Zen reminds me of this story). – ChrisW Jul 4 '15 at 9:39
  • By 'verifiable' do you mean to be able to test in a lab and find out or to be able to meditate yourself and find out? AFAIK, science has no idea of Nibbana :) – Sankha Kulathantille Jul 4 '15 at 9:49
  • @SankhaKulathantille the method works, maggas are attainable, I'm not disputing those, that much my experience supports, but the 7 year maximum seems questionable because of the numerous spiritual seekers, who after decades of practice remain without signs of arahatship, still getting angry, still getting hurt. – Buddho Jul 4 '15 at 11:18
  • @ChrisW I'm not saying Zen doesn't have its method, or its great masters, I've practiced under Thich Nhat Hanh, and it changed my life, but it's also a system that can succumb more than others to crazy ideas or approaches. In short, all I'm asking is, why did the Buddha say seven years maximum to arahatship when the vast majority seem to not even get to stream entry in that time? – Buddho Jul 4 '15 at 11:23
  • Maybe they didn't practice proper Vipassana – Sankha Kulathantille Jul 4 '15 at 11:43
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Ajahn Brahm addresses this in his book Mindfulness, Bliss, And Beyond. He notes that most people are not correctly practicing mindfulness such that it will allow them to attain stream entry.

Although this is an alluring promise from the Buddha, understanding it requires a measure of brutal personal honesty: Are we in-fact practicing true, unwavering mindfulness during all waking moments of our lives for seven days straight? Such a task is actually quite difficult; even when we get a good, mindful groove going, it is exceedingly easy to lapse out of mindfulness and have to start again.

I imagine that much of the meditation average folks do is primarily aimed at cultivating (i.e. learning, developing, and strengthening) mindfulness. It takes full mastery of mindfulness to be able to apply it long enough to break down our delusions to attain enlightenment.

One final point Ajahn Brahm notes: depending on an individuals level of attainment (i.e. once-returner, arahant, etc) it may be very difficult to truly identify them. Traditionally, only the Buddha himself could verify these attainments. Thus, we should be careful in assuming how likely or unlikely occurrences of enlightenment are, though it is clear that even basic stream-entry requires serious work.

  • Of course, external validation is always going to be problematic - I recall a well known (name withheld) monastery in Burma that was or maybe still is handing out stream-entry/once-returner certificates. Laugh! Anyway,so that being the case, one of the so-certified people, I heard, ran away with the monastery's petty cash and a nun in tow. Either the certification is broken, or the virtuous conduct of the ariya is not 100% perfect. Ariya states do make it easier, IMO to be well behaved, but I'm careful like Shantideva, in the belief that all it takes is one moment of carelessness. – Buddho Jul 6 '15 at 6:51
  • It's better to be careful, and consider oneself unenlightened, than to imagine certain acts are beyond one now and forever, and drop all guard. Shantideva's humility in his Bodhisattvacharyavitara is illuminating and humbling - for all his attainment, the palpable caution he exercises is remarkable, because he knows all it takes is one slip of his mind to damn him. Zen mind, beginner's mind indeed. One is never enlightened, for one is never unenlightened. One is ever arriving in the present, and finding Buddha nature in it. – Buddho Jul 6 '15 at 6:57
  • Part of the problem arises when one uses the Abhidhamma influenced Visuddhimagga map of nanas to determine path and fruition. It's self reported, and one can delude oneself without meaning to, by making mistakes in assessment (even assuming the maps are fully correct). There are of course critics who I've just been reading, who don't think too much of the abhidhamma and commentaries, and would dispute any claim to attainment based on the Visuddhimagga. – Buddho Jul 6 '15 at 7:13

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