The Buddha pointed out that inasmuch as other traditions might have holy-men or holy-women, they did not in fact possess "saints" (enlightened beings). Here, "saint" very specifically means someone who has irrevocably overcome the Defilements* (kilesa) and the Ten Fetters** (samyojana) and been liberated, to one degree or another, from suffering and further rebirth. Other traditions, particularly various sects in what is now called (but was not at that time) Hinduism.
There were at the time of the Buddha yogis of immense spiritual powers (siddhis), gods of extraordinary brilliance, glory, compassion, and might, and holy-and-wholesome people. However, "saints" were not to be found in the various traditions outside of the Buddha's dispensation. To say such a thing was shocking -- until one understood what it meant to be enlightened, why some gained it and other did not, and how everyone could. One certainly needn't be a "Buddhist." But one certainly needs to find the "Truth," the Dharma, the Way (Noble Eightfold Path, which doesn't exclude anyone or violate anyone's other religious observances and practices). They're universal and neutral.
Surely, there were holy beings reputed to be saints, exemplary in their behavior, of long standing, and of spotlessly good repute. How, then, could there be no "saints" anywhere but in this Doctrine and Discipline?
The Buddha pointed out that anyone who attains to concentration, who masters and perfects concentration (samadhi, dhyana, jhana) is able to develop psychic powers. These abilities do not, however, give one the distinction of "saint" (arhat, enlightened).
The Buddha also pointed out that anyone might live the holy or supreme-life (brahmacharya). However, to live it to perfection, unblemished, unsullied, untarnished, that was not likely. Nevertheless, they might live it well enough to gain concentration, to gain many and various psychic powers, to gain a good reputation, and even to gain rebirth in a higher world that temporarily offered relief from wandering in the Cycle of Rebirth called Samsara. (This is done, and advocated in many world religions, by taking rebirth in any of a multitude of glorious heavens where lifespans are staggering and hard for humans to comprehend or measure in human terms, which for ease of reference are said to be "eternal" when technically speaking they are not).
All that having been said, the Buddha did not recognize that as "sainthood," or a final solution to the problem of suffering, liberation from and complete freedom from clinging to the illusion of existence now or the taking of future rebirth -- from old age, sickness, and death.
That distinction he reserved for someone who had -- not only suppressed the Defilements* (which is how one attains concentration, purity, powers, and a good rebirth) and the Fetters -- but had actually uprooted and destroyed them once and for all. That was the difference.
By uprooting them through a combination of compassion and wisdom and right-effort known as bhavana ("meditation," cultivation, self-development) one indeed could, in this very life, awaken and become free, become different than one was before. One could be a saint.
The principle reason for the absence of "saints" in other teachings is that right-view (regarding anatta, "no-self," the understanding of Shunayata or "emptiness") does not exist outside of a buddha's teaching. Through countless decades, aeons, and ages, people do not hear this Teaching. Therefore, unable to overcome this pernicious view, which we all take for granted as not even worth considering or investigating (the fundatmental error we make in all our thinking and intention setting), other wrong-views arise based on it. They take hold, predominate, and beings are perpetually stuck wandering through Samsara.
The importance of right-understanding can hardly be emphasized enough. Nonetheless, it is not an intellectual understanding but rather an intuition, a direct-seeing, a certainty arising from living the holy life (temporarily or long term, in clothing or robes, at home or in a hermitage, secluded from defiled states of mind). As the mind/heart (citta) is purified, one sees things just as they are.
The Truth itself sets one free, not an intellectual grasping of doctrinal points or discursive thoughts, not directly the personal effort made to get free. Great compassion leads to great action (karma that is full of kindness and benevolence, which leads to an absence of remorse, worry, lust, anger, restlessness, or drowsiness. As these mental-hindrances are abandoned, joy overcomes one. With joy comes concentration. Mindfulness then applied to this concentrated (and thus temporarily purified) mind results in penetrative wisdom. This mind is wieldy, tractable, and of unsurpassable service to one because it brings about knowledge-and-vision -- enlightenment. One by one, the Ten Fetters* are destroyed. And in stages, by degrees, one is liberated from every trace of clinging and defilement, every cause of suffering.
With dispassion, secluded from unwholesome states of mind, full of joy and serenity, one gains right-concentration (defined repeatedly throughout the sutras as the four jhanas).
Concentrated, one turns attention to the Four Foundations of Mindfulness and develops mindfulness on these phenomena. The result is the fulfillment of the Noble Eightfold Path.
As the various Fetters (simultaneously binding one to the illusion of existence and the reality of suffering) fall away, and one gains the first stage of sainthood:
These are all ways of saying the person gained enlightenment (Stage Four) or that the "spotless eye of the Dharma" (Pali, dhammacakkhu; Sanskrit: dharmacakṣus) arose, meaning the person had attained Stream-entry (Stage One).
The Buddha himself explained that he gave "gradual discourses" preparing the minds of his audience (his hearers) before leading them to insight.
A stream-enterer is guaranteed enlightenment after no more than seven successive rebirths, and possibly in fewer. The stream-enterer can also be sure that s/he will not be reborn in any of the unhappy states of existence (i.e., rebirth as an animal, preta, or in the the Downfall). One can only be reborn as a human being or higher and then no more than seven times.
The stream-enterer has attained an intuitive grasp of Buddhist Dharma (the doctrine, samyagdṛṣṭi or sammādiṭṭhi, "right-view"). That person can know for certain that this is the case because s/he suddenly has complete confidence (saddha) in the Three Jewels of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and has good moral behavior (sila) as a natural consequence of the knowledge-and-vision that arose spotlessly in the mind uprooting the first three Fetters.
- Once-returner (Sakadagami): the second stage is that of the Sakadāgāmī (Sanskrit: Sakṛdāgāmin), literally meaning "one who once (sakṛt) comes (āgacchati)" [to birth again]. The once-returner will at most only be born one more time in the human world, where s/he will attain enlightenment and become an Arahant (Stage Four, enlightenment)
- Non-returner (Anagami): the third stage is that of the Anāgāmī (Sanskrit: Anāgāmin), literally meaning "one who does not (an-) come (āgacchati)" [again to rebirth here]. The non-returner does not come back into human existence, or any world lower than the human, after death. Instead, s/he is reborn in one of the worlds of the Rūpadhātu ("Form Realm") called the Śuddhāvāsa worlds ("Pure Abodes"), where s/he will attain Nirvāṇa; (Pāli: Nibbana). Some Anagamis are reborn a second time in a higher world of the Pure Abodes, but in no case are born into any lower state. The reason for that is, as with the other three types, an Anāgāmī has abandoned the five lower Fetters that bind the mind to the cycle of rebirth (Samsara). An Anāgāmī is thus partially enlightened (purified in motivation and conduct) and on the way to perfect and complete Enlightenment.
- Enlightened-one (Arahant): the fourth stage is that of Arahant (Sanskrit, Arhat), a fully enlightened human being who has abandoned all ten Fetters, and who upon passing away (now not called "death" but in Sanskrit: Parinirvāṇa, Pāli: Parinibbāna since there is no further rebirth) will not be reborn in any world, having wholly abandoned Saṃsāra and suffering of all kinds for all time.
Left out of the discussion is the simple and direct correspondence between what Fetters drop away as one moves through these four stages.
Technicalities and Definitions
Saṃyojana: "fetters." There are Ten Fetters tying beings to the wheel of existence, namely:
- personality-belief (sakkāya-diṭṭhi, q.v.)
- sceptical doubt (vicikicchā q.v.)
- clinging to mere rules and ritual (sīlabbata-parāmāsa; see upādāna)
- sensuous craving (kāma-rāga, q.v.)
- ill-will (byāpāda)
- craving for fine-material existence (rūpa-rāga)
- craving for immaterial existence (arūpa-rāga)
- conceit (māna, q.v.)
- restlessness (uddhacca, q.v.)
- ignorance (avijjā, q.v.).
The first five of these are called "lower fetters" (orambhāgiya-saṃyojana), as they tie one to the Sensuous World. The latter five are called "higher fetters" (uddhambhāgiya-saṃyojana), as they tie one to the Higher Worlds, that is, the Fine-material and Immaterial worlds (A. IX, 67, 68; X. 13; D . 33, etc.)
Kilesa: "defilements" are mind-defiling, unwholesome qualities. Vis.M. XXII, 49, 65: "There are Ten Defilements, thus called because they are themselves defiled, and because they defile the mental factors associated with them. They are:
- greed (lobha)
- hate (dosa)
- delusion (moha)
- conceit (māna)
- speculative views (diṭṭhi)
- skeptical doubt (vicikicchā )
- mental torpor (thīna)
- restlessness (uddhacca)
- shamelessness (ahirika )
- lack of moral dread or unconscientiousness (anottappa)."
For 1-3, see mūla; 4, see māna; 5, see diṭṭhi; 6-8, see nīvaraṇa; 9 and 10, see ahirika -anottappa.