Stream-entry: the turning point of all Dharma practitioners

Picture by Jérôme Prax on Unsplash

My first teacher once told me: “Stream-entry is a big deal.”

He was referring to obtaining a level of spiritual realization in which you verify that the Dharma is real, that what the Buddha says is accurate, and that it is not just another belief.

This attainment is called “stream-entry” because when you get it, it is like entering the current of a river that inevitably drags you to total freedom (Nirvana). It is not enlightenment yet, but it is an essential step on the spiritual path.

This event has enormous implications, like:

  • Since you cannot help but see the Dharma everywhere, you strengthen your faith in the Buddha. You cannot help but see in your experience that what the Buddha said is true.
  • Your belief in the Self, in the Ego, is substantially weakened.
  • You begin to let go of harmful habits that you couldn’t let go of before.

Suppose you belong to the Mahayana tradition, where the intention is not only to free yourself from personal suffering but to get enlightened for the benefit of all beings. In that case, Stream-entry corresponds to obtaining the First Level of the Bodhisattva (of 10 levels). You become an awakened existence headed to full Buddhahood.

Entering the stream is a radical event that permanently changes the practitioner’s life for the better

This achievement is a big deal because you catapult personal development. You don’t go backward. There is still much work to do, karma to purify, and setbacks to live through. Some missteps can be dangerous, and you might think you’ve lost the stream.

But when you verify the truth of the Dharma, the conditions to free yourself from suffering are irreversible. Your destiny is enlightenment. If not in this life, it will be in the next. Even if your karma is hideous, the Buddha says you will reincarnate at least seven more times, after you enter the Stream.

The conditions that must be present to enter the Stream are several. Thanissaro Bhikkhu wrote an excellent guide that compiles different discourses of the Buddha about the practices that lead to Stream-Entry. To enter the Stream, he says, the following conditions must be present:

  • Associate with people of integrity
  • Listening to the True Dharma
  • Appropriate attention
  • Practice in accordance with the Dharma
  • Mindfulness & Alertness
  • Restraint of the senses
  • The three forms of right action (bodily, verbal, and mental)
  • The four establishings of mindfulness
  • The seven factors for awakening
  • Clear knowing and release

Many auspicious things have to happen for your mind to verify the truth of the Dharma. That is, to ascertain the truth of impermanence, the dependent arising of things, the truth of suffering, its cause, and the cessation of suffering. Our mind must be tamed enough to investigate the cognitive experience and verify that what we call SELF cannot be established as something fixed, defined, and independent.

Many Buddhists do not know about the existence of this attainment or of something called “stream-entry.” But even among the Buddhists who do know, many think they cannot achieve it in this lifetime, even though they have many conditions for it to happen.

Even more disconcerting is to come across Buddhists who, by adhering to a minimalist Buddhist practice, consider that aspiring to enter the stream is one more distraction of the ego, one more exercise of spiritual materialism.

It is challenging to gain Stream-Entry but not impossible

Thinking that “one cannot achieve Stream-Entry” or that “aiming for it is just another ego trip” are two easy ways to give up before trying. It is to sabotage the process leading to Stream-Entry. They are ideas that validate our desire to stay the same.

The practice here is to reject the impulse to believe that it is impossible to enter the stream, to abandon the tendency to dismiss the aspiration to enter the stream as one more distraction of the ego.

The truth is that it doesn’t matter if you make it into the stream or not. What matters is dedicating yourself to it now. If you do, your life will change radically even before you enter the stream that leads to Nirvana.

Furthermore, in Buddhism, it is said that we all have the potential to become Buddhas. Given this fact, why not aim for that?

You sabotage Stream-entry by thinking:

  • I live a worldly life; I am not worthy.
  • I have many samsaric distractions like work, family, debts, or entertainment.
  • I do not want to tie myself to a single religion; I prefer to know several before committing to a spiritual path.
  • I don’t have the time to practice the Dharma.
  • Buddhism is very dense. I’m not that intense.

You nurture your path to Stream-entry by thinking:

  • Worldly life is perfect for purifying our ego. Adversities bring out the worst in us, thus we should embrace them.
  • Samsara and all its distractions remain a part of Dharma practice. You must learn to see the sacred quality of work, family, debt, and even entertainment.
  • It is okay to try various spiritual traditions. However, our time is limited, and if we don’t make a decision and pick a tradition, we will reincarnate again, and there is no guarantee that it will be in a higher realm. We can reincarnate in a lower realm like that of animals, hungry spirits, or the hells.
  • To say that one does not have the time to practice the Dharma is really to say: I do not want to make the time to practice the Dharma. We must make time.
  • Buddhism is for intense people because there is no other way: our negative karma is more substantial than Dharma practice. So you have to start redirecting the ship one way or another.

My suggestion: don’t sabotage your practice, honor your own buddha-nature and aspire to enter the stream in this lifetime.