Eight Noble Beings

Eight Noble Beings

This division is associated with the ten ‘fetters’ (saṁyojana), which are abandoned at different levels of awakening, and with the development of the threefold training (sikkhā) of moral conduct, concentration and wisdom. The ten fetters are those defilements that bind beings to suffering in the round of rebirth, similar to yokes that bind an animal to a wagon:1

A. Five lower fetters (orambhāgiya-saṁyojana):

1. Sakkāya-diṭṭhi: self-view; the firm belief in a ‘self’; the inability to see that beings are simply a collection of assorted aggregates. This view creates a coarse form of selfishness, as well as conflict and suffering.2

2. Vicikicchā: doubt; hesitation; distrust. Doubts, for example, regarding the Buddha, the Dhamma, the Sangha, the training, the direction of one’s life, and Dependent Origination. This doubt generates a lack of confidence, courage and discernment in walking the Noble Path.

3. Sīlabbata-parāmāsa: attachment to moral precepts and religious practices. Attachment to form and ceremony. The mistaken understanding that one will be purified and liberated merely by the act of keeping moral precepts, rules, traditions, and practices. The belief that these rules and practices are sacred in themselves. One follows them with the desire for reward or acquisition. Missing the true purpose of moral precepts and religious observances, one ends up astray or in an extreme form of practice (say of practising extreme asceticism—tapa), not on the Noble Path.3

4. Kāma-rāga: sensual lust; desire for pleasurable sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile objects.

5. Paṭigha: animosity; irritation; indignation.

B. Five higher fetters (uddhambhāgiya-saṁyojana):

6. Rūpa-rāga: attachment to fine-material form, e.g., attachment to the four ‘jhānas’ of the fine-material sphere; delighting in the bliss and peace of these jhānas; desiring the fine-material sphere (rūpa-bhava).

7. Arūpa-rāga: attachment to immateriality, e.g., attachment to the four immaterial jhānas; desire for the formless sphere (arūpa-bhava).

8. Māna: conceit; the view of oneself as superior, equal or inferior to others.

9. Uddhacca: restlessness; mental disturbance; agitation.

10. Avijjā: ignorance; not knowing the truth; not knowing the law of cause and effect; not knowing the Four Noble Truths.

The eight dakkhiṇeyya-puggala or ariya-puggala can be classified into four types or stages, which are related to the fetters in the following way:4

A. Sekha (‘learners’) or sa-upādisesa-puggala (‘those who still have grasping’):

1. Sotāpanna: ‘stream-enterers’; those who walk the noble path truly and correctly.5 They have perfect moral conduct and an adequate level of concentration and wisdom. They have abandoned the first three fetters of sakkāya-diṭṭhi, vicikicchā and sīlabbata-parāmāsa.6

2. Sakadāgāmī: ‘once-returners’; those who will return to this world one more time and eliminate all suffering. They have perfect moral conduct and an adequate level of concentration and wisdom. Apart from abandoning the first three fetters, they have attenuated greed, hatred and delusion to a greater degree than stream-enterers.7

3. Anāgāmī: ‘non-returners’; they reach final enlightenment from the realm where they appear after death—they do not return to this world. They have perfect moral conduct and concentration, and an adequate level of wisdom. They have abandoned two more fetters, of kāma-rāga and paṭigha, thus abandoning the first five fetters.

B. Asekha (‘those who have finished training’) or anupādisesa-puggala (‘those with no grasping’):

4. Arahant: ‘worthy ones’; those worthy of offerings and respect; those who have broken the spokes of the wheel of saṁsāra; those free from mental taints (āsava). They have perfect moral conduct, concentration and wisdom. They have abandoned the remaining five fetters, thus abandoning all ten fetters.

Sekha, translated as ‘learners’ or ‘trainees,’ must apply themselves to sever the fetters and realize the gradual stages up to arahantship. Asekha, the arahants, are adepts; they have gone beyond training. They have finished their spiritual work and eradicated all defilements. They have reached the greatest good; there is no higher spiritual realization for which to strive.

Sa-upādisesa-puggala are equivalent to the first three dakkhiṇeyya-puggala above. They still have upādi (‘fuel’), that is, they still have upādāna (‘grasping’)—they still have mental impurities. Anupādisesa-puggala, the arahants, are free from grasping and impurity. Note that upādi here is translated as synonymous with upādāna (‘grasping’).8 This differs from the upādi in sa-upādisesa-nibbāna and anupādisesa-nibbāna, which translates as ‘that which is grasped,’ i.e., the five aggregates. The equating of upādi with upādāna corresponds with the Buddha’s teachings on essential spiritual factors, for example the Four Foundations of Mindfulness (sati-paṭṭhāna), the Four Ways of Success (iddhi-pāda), and the Five Faculties (indriya), which often end with the encouragement that one can expect one of two results from cultivating these factors: either arahantship in this very life, or if there is a residue of clinging, the state of non-returning.9 The term upādi in these contexts refers to upādāna or generally to mental defilement (kilesa).

The eight noble beings are precisely these four ariya-puggala described above, but each level of awakening is subdivided as a pair:10

  1. Stream-enterer (one who has realized the fruit of stream-entry).
  2. One practising to realize stream-entry.
  3. Once-returner (one who has realized the fruit of once-returning).
  4. One practising to realize once-returning.
  5. Non-returner (one who has realized the fruit of non-returning).
  6. One practising to realize non-returning.
  7. Arahant (one who has realized the fruit of arahantship).
  8. One practising to realize arahantship.11

These four pairs of noble beings are known as the sāvaka-saṅgha, the disciples of the Buddha who are considered exemplary human beings and comprise one of the three ‘jewels’ (ratana) in Buddhism. The chant in praise of the Sangha includes: ‘The four pairs, the eight kinds of noble beings; these are the Blessed One’s disciples’ (yadidaṁ cattāri purisayugāni aṭṭha purisapuggalā esa bhagavato sāvaka-saṅgho).12

In the scriptures, these disciples of the Buddha are later referred to as the ‘noble saṅgha’ (ariya-saṅgha). In the older texts, the term ariya-saṅgha is used only once as a synonym for sāvaka-saṅgha, in a verse of the Aṅguttara-Nikāya.13 In the commentaries it is used frequently, especially in the Visuddhimagga.14 When the term ariya-saṅgha gained popularity over sāvaka-saṅgha, the term sammati-saṅgha was used to refer to the bhikkhu-saṅgha. Sammati-saṅgha means the agreed-upon or authorized sangha, referring to any gathering of more than three bhikkhus. These terms are often paired: sāvaka-saṅgha with bhikkhu-saṅgha, and ariya-saṅgha with sammati-saṅgha. In any case the terms ariya-saṅgha and sammati-saṅgha do not contradict the older terms and offer a valuable perspective on the meaning of the word ‘sangha.’


 1 E.g.: S. V. 61; A. V. 17; Vbh. 377; DA. I. 312. In the Pali Canon the fourth and fifth fetters are kāma-chanda and byāpāda respectively, except for A. I. 242, where one finds abhijjhā and byāpāda. The familiar pair of kāma-rāga and paṭigha comes from secondary texts and sub-commentaries, e.g.: Ps2. 94; Vism. 683; Comp.: Samuccayaparicchedo, Akusalasaṅgaho.

2 The stock definition is: One regards material form as self, or self as possessed of material form, or material form as in self, or self as in material form. One regards feeling as self…. One regards perception as self…. One regards volitional formations as self…. One regards consciousness as self … or self as in consciousness. See: M. I. 300; S. IV. 287; Dhs. 182-3; Vbh. 364.

3 See Appendix 1 on sīlabbata-parāmāsa.

4 The two dakkhiṇeyya of sekha and asekha: A. I. 63, 231-2. The four dakkhiṇeyya or ariya-puggala (in some places referred to by other names or by no name at all): e.g., D. I. 156; D. II. 251-2; D. III. 107, 132; M. III. 80-1; Pug. 63. At A. IV. 279-80 stream-enterers are divided into three types and non-returners into five types; combined with once-returners, this makes nine types of sa-upādisesa-puggala.

5 See S. V. 347-8.

6 A. III. 438 states that stream-enterers are also free from (acute) greed, hatred and delusion, which lead to states of woe (apāya).

7 Ps. II. 94-5 states that once-returners have abandoned the fetters of coarse lust and animosity, and that non-returners have abandoned subtle lust and animosity. The Visuddhimagga states that once-returners have reduced lust and aversion (676-7). All of these interpretations are complementary. 

8 This translation follows the commentarial interpretation, e.g. AA. IV. 40, 174.

9 Diṭṭheva dhamme aññā sati vā upādisese anāgāmitā. D. II. 314; M. I. 62, 481; S. V. 129, 237, 285; A. III. 81-2, 143; A. V. 108; It. 39; Sn. 140, 148. Explained in the commentaries: e.g. ItA. I. 169; SnA. II. 503.

10 D. III. 255; A. IV. 292. The Abhidhamma divides these eight into two groups: magga-samaṅgī, complete in the Path, and phala-samaṅgī, complete in the fruits of the Path (Pug. 73).

11 These days one finds the translation of these pairs as ‘fruition of stream-entry’ (sotāpatti-phala), ‘path of stream-entry’ (sotāpatti-magga), ‘fruition of once-returning’ (sakadāgāmi-phala), ‘path of once-returning’ (sakadāgāmi-magga), etc. This translation follows commentarial terminology: for maggaṭṭha & phalaṭṭha see Nd1A. II. 254; Nd2A. 15; KhA. 183; DhA. I. 334; VinṬ.: Pārājikakaṇḍaṃ, Bhikkhupadabhājanīya-vaṇṇanā; DA. II. 515 = AA. IV. 3 = PañcA. 191; MA. II. 120; UdA. 306. The terms sotāpatti-magga, sakadāgāmi-magga and anāgāmi-magga do not appear in the older texts of the Tipiṭaka; they first appear in the Niddesa, Paṭisambhidāmagga and the Abhidhamma. In the older texts, the term arahatta-magga is only found in the passages: arahā vā assasi arahattamaggaṁ vā samāpanno and arahanto vā arahattamaggaṁ vā samāpannā: Vin. I. 32, 39; D. I. 144; S. I. 78; A. II. 42; A. III. 391; Ud. 7, 65. In later texts, e.g., the Niddesa, Paṭisambhidāmagga and the Abhidhamma, it is extensively used.

12 E.g. M. I. 37; A. III. 286.

13 A. III. 373.

14 E.g. Vism. 218; VinṬ.: Paṭhamo Bhāgo, Ganthārambhakathā-vaṇṇanā.