In the classical Buddhist teachings, there are four gradations or stages of enlightenment that are described over and over again.
The first level is called ‘stream-entry’. This represents an irreversible breakthrough into a quality of psychological integration or self-actualization or ‘emotional intelligence’ that will necessarily result, eventually, in the ‘unshakeable well-being’ of full enlightenment.
This means that the mind can only be deluded to a limited degree a certain number of times; the mind can only get so lost. This quality of stream-entry is something that the Buddha praised as a realizable goal, not just for monastics but for lay people as well. The Buddha referred to those who had reached this level of realization as ‘noble people’, people who had seen the nature of ultimate reality, who had ‘glimpsed the Deathless’ to use another classical expression.
Many thousands of lay people in the Buddha’s own time, as well as monastics, reached this level of stream-entry, and many have realized the same level since then. Stream-entry is a very realistic and realizable goal, as well as being an attractive one.
The Buddha once reached down and scraped the ground in front of him and asked, ‘Do you see the dirt under my fingernail? What do you think is greater, the amount of dirt under my fingernail or the size of the great earth, the planet itself?’ One of those present answered, ‘Venerable Sir, the quantity of earth under your fingernail is small but the great earth is very large indeed.’ The Buddha responded, ‘Similarly, the amount of future suffering you can expect to experience if you reach stream-entry is comparable to the dirt under my fingernail; while the amount of suffering ahead for those who have not reached stream-entry is comparable to the great earth’ (S 13.1). I think that one simile is enough to give you the idea of the appeal of realizing this level of psychological maturity.
The element of ‘irreversibility’ associated with stream-entry is hugely significant. It means that once that level of insight has been reached then – irrespective of health, IQ, wealth or social position, or whether you have got tenure or not – you’re fine. A quality of profound ease, of deep psychological well-being manifests and it is independent of circumstances.
In addition, the Buddha declared that once stream-entry has been reached, full enlightenment is guaranteed within a minimum of seven lifetimes. For those of you who don’t like the idea of past and future lives, you can validly read that, I feel, as saying you can really blow it, i.e. get totally distracted and lost, no more than seven times. You can get utterly wrapped up, confused and angry, compulsive and depressed, but you can’t get totally lost more than seven times. Furthermore, each time, it is going to get harder to be so carried away.
Although that may sound somewhat heretical with respect to some conservative approaches to Buddhist teachings, I feel that it is a perfectly valid way of understanding the Buddha’s guarantee here.
This reflection by Ajahn Amaro is from the talk, Unshakeable Well-being, (pdf) pp. 3-4.