I just found this message from Upasaka Culadasa
in the 'jhana insight' yahoo! group from 2009
, and it's absolutely brilliant and relevant to the original topic of this discussion:Matheesha writes: Would you be able to expand upon
1) how a magga-phala moment can be identified
2) how a sotapanna has changed (you briefly note this above) Culadasa:
...your second question involves the changes that subsequently take place in a sotapanna, I want to take this opportunity to share with you some questions I have with regard to the relationship between magga-phala and sotapanna. I assume that for the most part what we are talking about here are magga-phala experiences that are the culmination of an extensive period of intense practice according to one of the traditional Buddhist paths to Awakening, and as such, the individual becomes a Sotapanna following the magga-phala event. But there are two questions I want to raise here. First, are magga-phala events always and exclusively the result of Buddhist practices? And second, does an individual always become a Sotapanna following a magga-phala event? I have come to think that experiences identical to what we call magga-phala can and sometimes do occur in consequence of non-Buddhist methods of training; that they can spontaneously occur without any formal training at all as a result of intense periods of profound suffering, compassion, or devotion for example; and further, that it can even happen unexpectedly with no apparent cause. I am sure not everyone agrees with me on this, but please consider it for the moment as a hypothesis. I have also become convinced that in order for a magga-phala experience to constitute stream entry, it is essential that the experience saturate to the very core of the yogi’s mind, and that requires either or both of a prolonged abiding in phala and a frequent repetition of the phala experience in order to make a sufficiently lasting imprint on the mind. If this doesn’t happen, the ‘magga-phala’ event becomes a one-time, memorable, peak experience that may perhaps permanently change the person in certain ways, but without irrevocably setting them on a path to eventual full Enlightenment.
It would seem from the scriptures that, once knowledge has replaced ignorance through direct experience, an irreversible change has been rendered such that even if death follows immediately after magga-phala, full Enlightenment is assured in a future rebirth. I don’t know, and so I can’t speak to that, but experience and observation tell me that the fruit of the original magga-phala experience must be firmly established and carefully nurtured through repetition if it is not to become smothered over time, and if true Stream Entry is to occur. Any habitual patterns of egocentric behavior and thinking that were not destroyed prior to magga-phala will reassert themselves afterwards whenever the right conditions are present, and so the work of the Stream Entrant is to apply Path Knowledge to their recognition and eradication. Desire and aversion are still present, and the Stream Entrant must therefore apply his/her understanding of sunnata and annata to their attenuation. This is where the ‘saturation of the mind’ with the experience of phala comes in. The advantage of traditional Buddhist trainings is that they are systematic and results are repeatable, therefore the phala experience can be achieved again and again, and if the yogi is trained in Samatha, even the initial experience can last long enough to make a very deep imprint on the psyche.
Another important advantage the Buddhist yogi has is in the nature of the conceptual formations by which s/he will understand and interpret his/her experience, due to the training that led up to it. S/He will be more inclined to focus on the emptiness of perceived phenomena rather than spending time reflecting and conceptualizing in search of the ‘absolute’ and the ‘ultimate’ within the experience; to reflect on the direct experience of the absence of any inherent sense of self, rather than projecting a new self-identification upon reflections of the experience; and to be mindful of the unsatisfactoriness and suffering of all conditioned states, rather than dwelling on the desirability of the bliss of Nibbana. I think this is essential for full Stream Entry as opposed to just dallying in the eddies at the edge of the Stream.
If I am correct in thinking that some of these experiences occurring outside of the Buddhist paradigm are in fact magga-phala, then it seems possible that magga-phala may not always result in achieving Stream Entry, or at least a Stream Entry that manifests in this lifetime. And if that is true, then it also raises the possibility that even some Buddhist practitioners may experience magga-phala, but without sufficient foundation and guidance for it to result in Stream Entry. Particularly vulnerable are yogis whose meditative skills are inadequate in terms of sustaining and repeating the experience of Fruition consciousness, or who lack the opportunity to practice phala samapatti subsequent to the initial experience.
So, having done with that digression, let’s now see what sorts of comments can be made with regard to how a magga-phala ‘event’ might be identified. This is not, unfortunately, something that has been often enough discussed. Of limited value are those often terse and archaic descriptions that have been translated from other languages, those descriptions that are rife with hyperbole and mystical nuance, and also those that are so laden with flowery language and poetic metaphor that they can’t possibly say the same thing to any two individuals, all of which are difficult to interpret in a particularly useful way! Although this is a topic that has become almost taboo to speak openly about, I strongly agree with you that there is a legitimate need to do so. Not uncommonly, some person will have an unusual and profoundly transforming experience that they think may have been magga-phala, but either do not have access to a teacher from whom they can seek guidance, or else their teacher lacks the right combination of knowledge and personal experience to able to help them. And anyone in the role of teacher who has a student who may have had a ‘real’ or ‘valid’ magga-phala experience would certainly like to be able to advise them and will welcome any additional information. In either case, whether it is our own or someone else’s experience, the situation is that we are trying to evaluate an experience based on a description of the indescribable. This description will inevitably be a reflection more than anything else of the words, concepts, views and expectations of the person who has had the experience, and we need to keep that in mind.
To begin with, we must be very sensitive to just how closely the description echoes those pre-existing expectations, because the closer they are, the better the fit with expectations, the more likely what has occurred is not magga-phala, but rather a projection by the ever-hopeful mind onto some other kind of strong psycho-emotional experience. In particular, if the basis for thinking that the experience might have been magga-phala is that it is ‘just like what I have read and heard about”, it probably is not. Far more likely it is that one will say “Despite what I have read and heard, it’s not at all what I was expecting”. A sense of awe and surprise, even consternation is appropriate, and especially some astonishment at the unexpected simplicity of what has been experienced.
But I suggest this only as sort of a guideline, not as a hard and fast rule. I am convinced, for reasons I won’t go into here, that there are individuals whose depth of Insight is so great and has become so well established in their intuitive understanding of themselves and the world that magga-phala is a ‘non-event’ for them. It is as though they have been peeking under the curtain for so long that when it is finally lifted, they are not at all surprised by what they find.
And then, also, there are those instances where an event that seems in retrospect to have been magga-phala does not register that strongly and clearly, leaving the yogi only with the vague and uncertain feeling that something very unusual has happened, but completely unable to say quite what it was.