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Buddhism teaches that one works toward liberation across many lives. One begins as an uninitiated layman, caught in the world's cycles of misery. As one learns the futility of this, however, one begins to turn inward, pursuing truth and higher reality. As one progresses, one passes through certain stages of development.

Stage Number of rebirths Overcome fetters
Streamwinner  Seven, human or higher Identity view, doubt, ritual attachment 
Once-returner Once more as a human Sensual desire, ill will (weakened)
Nonreturner Once more in the pure abodes Sensual desire, ill will (overcome)
Arahant None Form-based rebirth lust, formless rebirth lust, conceit, restlessness, ignorance

These stages have always fascinated me, and I have pondered them in many different ways over the years, for example in their relation to destiny.

People who attain one of the above stages are called Noble Ones. The root Sanskrit word is arya, meaning another name for them would be the Aryans.

Buddhists emphasize the importance of meeting and interacting with these people in one's life - as whatever they are doing, they have made progress, so they have figured out at least a few things right. These Noble Individuals are certainly great sources of support and camaraderie on the very difficult quest to enlightenment.

The question then arises, how do we see these people when they enter our lives? How does one discern the Noble Ones?

This is a question I have pondered, and I believe the ability to see them is a spiritual gift. So, similar to how certain abilities in Christianity are called spiritual gifts, I would label the capacity to see the Noble Ones in the same way, as a kind of "blessing from above."

It is a difficult art, as it relies on intuitions from one's inner nature. And those intuitions - while certainly the source of the highest truths in mystics - can also be misleading, so discernment is critical to maintain.

Here are some of the schema I use when trying to assess people's progress in the spiritual life.

Streamwinners

These days this is the hardest one for me. I need to be very well acquainted with the person. Critical to me about streamwinners is:

1. They have a belief in "something more" than what can be seen or felt. This can be expressed in different ways. The person may have contradictory beliefs, but that does not compromise streamwinning.

2. Streamwinners are able to instill mystic knowledge with the importance it deserves.

3. Streamwinners can distinguish between mystic knowledge and ordinary knowledge.

I would say that those three elements are the most essential, and they all go hand in hand. The belief in something higher means they have become "seekers." What are they seeking exactly? They may not know, but they know something is out there worth acquiring - that Pearl of Great Price.

The fact that they "seek" means they are developing the faculty of discernment, which is crucial for one on the spiritual path. Discernment lets one sort between mystic knowledge - knowledge that grants one progress toward liberation - and regular knowledge. Once this faculty becomes sufficiently strong, the streamwinner begins to amass this spiritual knowledge within himself.

Once-returner

Two major human fetters - sensuality and ill will - have been weakened. This person can never take human affairs seriously in the way an ordinary person can. They have already discovered something very great, like a great cosmic joke, though they may not understand fully what they've found out that is so clever.

While a streamwinner is a "seeker" in the absolute sense, a once-returner is already a "finder" in a relative sense.

Another thing I look for in once-returners is a major personal transformation. In my experience, this event seems to be universal. But, the person may not necessarily invest this event with particular significance. He could see it as something unique to him, and not as a part of his spiritual growth. Often, once-returners go through a kind of spiritual crisis, and come out on the other side with a very different view of themselves and the world.

Nonreturner

These people are very rare in the world. But I would say this is the class I am most comfortable with identifying. They are very interesting people, because they have a great amount of gravity beneath the surface.

A nonreturner has totally effaced the human fetters. This means he will not return to the human realm again. That is very profound.

Arahant

The supreme state of man spiritually. I look for the dark night of the soul, profound emotional and intellectual refinement, and the religious experience. These are extraordinary men, and in a given century there may only be a few. They will be revealed to you if you achieve a suitable level of attainment and search for them. Note they will almost certainly not be public figures.