Fetters and stages

“There are these ten fetters. Which ten? Five lower fetters & five higher fetters. And which are the five lower fetters?

  • self-identity views
  • uncertainty
  • grasping at precepts & practices
  • sensual desire, & ill will

These are the five lower fetters. And which are the five higher fetters?

  • passion for form
  • passion for what is formless
  • conceit
  • restlessness, & ignorance

These are the five higher fetters. And these are the ten fetters.”

“Sanyojana Sutta: Fetters” (AN 10.13), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight, 4 July 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an10/an10.013.than.html

There are four stages of Awakening: Stream-Entry, Once-Returning, Non-Returning and Fully Awakened. The Stream-Entrant is permanently free from the first 3 fetters. The Once-Returner is also free from the first 3 and, in addition, has weakened sensual desire and ill-will to some extent. The Non-Returner has completely cut off sensual desire and ill-will (in addition to the first 3 fetters). The Arahant (literally means “Worthy One”), who is fully Awake, is free from all 10 of these fetters.

It is possible to determine who is definitely not Awakened, but it is not possible to determine who definitely is Awakened.

For example, if a person doubts whether or not it is possible to reach Full Awakening, then you can be sure that they are not a Stream-Entrant because the second fetter (which Thanissaro Bhikkhu translated as “uncertainty”) refers to doubt/uncertainty about the validity of the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha.

Another example: if a person gets angry, then you can rule them out from being a Non-Returner or an Arahant because they are supposed to be free from ill-will.

However, you might come across someone who shows no signs of anger, lust, restlessness, doubt, etc. – yet they might not even be a Stream-Entrant. Why? Because it is possible to temporarily suppress these hindrances without permanently cutting off their root cause.

Outwardly, such a person may appear to act and speak as we might expect an Arahant would act and speak, yet, we cannot be sure.
(More at http://newbuddhist.com/discussion/11427)