In early Buddhism, a common metaphor for the spiritual journey was crossing a river from the near shore to the far shore. The successful practitioner was said to “cross over the flood” and became one who has “reached the far shore” (Kāma Sutta, Sn 4.1, PTS Sn 766–771).
Crossing a river begins with the first step into the water. One who has taken this step was called a “stream-enterer” (Pali sotāpanna, Sanskrit śrotāpanna).
Stream-entry was later defined more analytically as the elimination of three fetters: belief in a self, clinging to rites and rituals, and doubt. Clinging to rites and ritual refers specifically to the brāhmaṇa religion of the Buddha’s time; doubt refers specifically to doubts about Buddhism; but the one universal element is the elimination of belief in a separate self. If you have been graced with the elimination of belief in a solid and separate self, then you are a stream-enterer.
As the name suggests, stream-entry marks not the end of the spiritual life but its beginning. There remains the work of dealing with the habitual tendencies that continue to characterize mental activity. In classical Buddhism, these tendencies are the remaining seven fetters. In other traditions, the tendencies are variously known as vāsanā-s, kilesa-s (Pali), or kleśa-s (Sanskrit). Without vigilance, they tend to coalesce into a new, post-awakening ego.
In Pali Buddhism, a collection of suttas related to stream-entry (the “Stream-Entry Collection”) forms the fifty-fifth book in the Samyutta Nikaya, which is the third major grouping of writings in the Sutta Pitaka. In the Stream-Entry Collection, there are two distinction definitions of stream-entry. One definition assesses the practitioner in terms of the progressive elimination of the ten fetters. The other definition uses four factors, viz., faith in the Buddha, faith in the Dhamma, faith in the Sangha, and personal virtues. The fetter definition relies on practical characteristics of the practitioner. The four praiseworthy factors, repeatedly given as an alternative, are formulaic and religious. We conclude that the fetter definition of stream-entry is the earlier, taught during the period before Buddhism had become an organized religion.
There are a couple of interesting points in the Stream-Entry Collection for students of comparative religion. In the Veḷudvāreyya Sutta (SN 55.7), the people of the village of Veḷudvāra approach the Buddha and ask for a teaching. The Buddha teaches that everyone wants to be happy, and so one should treat others as one would wish to be treated oneself (“the golden rule”). Also, in the Dutiya Sarakāni Sakka Sutta (SN 55.25), the conditions leading to stream-entry are contrasted with their opposites. This situation is compared with sowing a seed on either good ground or bad ground, a striking parallel with the Parable of the Sower (Mark 4:3–8).
In The Slacker’s Guide to Stream-Entry: A Journey of Christian Meditation and Awakening to No-Self, a journey from the Pacific to the Rockies provides the backdrop for an exploration of Christian Meditation, culminating in a realization of no-self. The book is available from Amazon U.S., Amazon Canada, and Amazon UK.