June 14, 2014

Do we Level Up in Buddhism?

Row of Buddhas

A friend recently said to me, “You leveled up,” in regard to my Buddhist practice.

My first response was, “There is no level up in Buddhism.”

But then I thought about it…

So first, what does it mean to level up? Some people reading this might not yet know.

I’m going to sound like a giant nerd here—prepare yourself. I’ll probably sound like a giant nerd also when I admit that I did research to find out how many times to use the letter L in “leveled.”

This is gamer terminology. In role playing games and video games, level up is a term that is often used. It’s used when your character in a game advances to a new level of powers and abilities. Alternatively, it could be called advancing or gaining a level.

It’s a term that has sneaked into regular usage in a few ways. I’ve heard someone refer to advancement in their career as leveling up. I’ve also heard someone refer to consuming illegal drugs as leveling up.

I set out to write an article called, “There is no leveling up in Buddhism.”

But I’m not so sure that’s true. Although referring to it as leveling up may sound inappropriate to some people.

I’m going to describe the stages of attainment, as defined by the Buddha. There are many different versions of “maps to Enlightenment” and I considered discussing several of them here, but I was concerned that might get confusing. So I will save the Ch’an and Zen versions of this for later because I will want to go into a lot of detail.

It’s important to note that we don’t self-identify on maps of attainment, though. It’s generally thought that a teacher of some path or another is the one tracking your levels, not you. There can be a big tendency for individuals to say, “Hey, I’m Enlightened!” And that might not be good. It should also be noted that some branches of Buddhism think that maps of the path aren’t useful and they don’t use them at all.

The Buddha talked about levels of attainment.

He described the path in terms of four levels. Really, it could be said that there are five. The first level is the ordinary person who has not entered the stream. The ordinary person would simply be someone who has not decided to start following the Eightfold Path.

The four levels of attainment are:


The Stream Enterer has grasped an intuitive understanding of Buddhist doctrine and has confidence in the Three Jewels, the Buddha, dharma and sangha. The Stream Enterer is said to have “opened the eye of the Dharma.”

Stream entry begins when a person learns about the teachings of the Buddha and decides to try to pursue the Eightfold Path. At this level there is an understanding of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path; there is some contemplation and quieting of the mind. And refuge is usually taken in an official way. 

A Stream Enterer has had a glimpse of their true nature. They have had an experience of selflessness that has given them insight. For a Stream Enterer the path isn’t something they’ve learned about or feel an interest in. It’s something they are doing. Self doubt about success on the path has faded away and slowly delusions disappear. Because the Stream Enterer has had an experience, they have motivation to follow a spiritual path to awakening.


The Once-Returner has had great success at weakening the strength of the three poisons: greed, aversion and delusion. These poisons are still present, but to a great degree each has been weakened and this is relatively obvious. They have gained an ability to really start noticing the parts of their life that are the most marked by the three poisons. Their concentrations and insights are stronger. They will have a few other, possibly stronger, experiences of recognizing their true nature. Emotions like hatred and greed begin softening, becoming replaced with lesser versions like irritation and preference.


The Non-Returner experiences the dropping away of attachment and aversion. There has been a significant reduction in their experience of these emotions. Although dissatisfaction remains on some level, this person seems very content and peaceful a majority of the time and it is noticeable. They have had several experiences of recognizing their true nature and bring a little back with them each time.


The Arhat dwells in inner peace. They are free of clinging and hatred. They are also free of restlessness and anxiety. This person radiates compassion and inner peace everywhere they go. This person recognizes their true nature in an ongoing way on an intuitive level. This person is love.

When the Buddha became Enlightened he looked up at the sky and saw a star twinkling. And he thought to himself, “I am twinkling.”

That’s what we’re talking about here.

I guess we can think of these as leveling up.



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Editor: Travis May

Photo: Damien Kwok/ Pixoto

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