A6.56 Phagguna Sutta [Piya Tan’s translation as a PDF] paraphrased by MK from The Book of the Gradual Sayings (Anguttara Nikaaya) vol. 4, translated by F.L. Woodward [translation by Sister Upalavanna] [ผัคคุณสูตร]
Ven. Phagguna is very sick and is visited by the Blessed One and Ven. Aananda. The sutta says that Ven. Phagguna was already a stream enterer (sotapanna) or once returner (sakadagaami) and while the Blessed One talks with him, he attains anaagaami. On dying he attains arahat. It is significant that Ven. Phagguna who is in great physical pain throughout the conversation with the Blessed One and yet is able to focus on the Dhamma talk and attain anaagaami. The sutta also doesn’t mention whether Ven. Phagguna had previously attained any jhaana (mental absorption). In the sutta he graphically describes his pains thus:
Violent pains are crushing my head as if a strong man were tightening a strong leather strap around my head as a headband. I cannot bear it, venerable sir;
Violent winds are rending my belly as if a skilled butcher or his apprentice were to carve up a cow’s belly with a sharp butcher’s knife. I cannot bear it, venerable sir;
Violent pains are burning up my body as if two strong men were to seize a weaker man by both arms, and burn and roast him over a pit of burning coal. I cannot bear it, venerable sir;
I am unable to keep going, and my pains are not subsiding, but rising; their rising is evident, not their subsiding.
These phrases are familiar and used in other suttas where sick people are describing their pains. I slightly modified Piya Tan’s translation in the above excerpt. We don’t know the precise nature of Ven. Phagguna’s illness, only that it is grave and shortly leads to his death. Perhaps, if a person were in a modern hospital in Australia suffering in such a manner they would be given strong anesthesia such as morphine and perhaps encouraged to sleep until passing away (assuming the case was untreatable).
The sutta does not record precisely what the Blessed One said to Ven. Phagguna only that he taught him and then left. Piya Tan’s excellent notes to his translation explain this well, I encourage you to read his entire translation and notes.
All this is background and provides an interesting context for the main teaching which are six general principles for timely hearing or thinking on the Dhamma that go way beyond Ven. Phagguna’s particular case. Four principles cover timely hearing of the Dhamma and two principles cover timely thinking on the Dhamma.
I have summarised these principles as follows:
A. sakadagaami attains anaagaami by:
1. hearing the Dhamma from the Tathaagata
2. hearing the Dhamma from a disciple of the Tathaagata
3. continues to reflect in mind on Dhamma s heard, as learned, ponders and investigates it.
B. anaagaami attains arahat by the same three methods.
These principles show that it is possible for Noble Disciples hearing the Dhamma to attain higher paths and fruitions (magga and phala) even when in great pain (as in Ven. Phagguna’s case) without necessarily requiring jhaana. If jhaana were a requirement, then it would be mentioned.
If Ven. Phaguna were able to enter jhaana while in pain, he may be able to experience exclusively mental pleasure or exclusively equanimity and not feel physical pain. Either he is incapable of entering jhaana or he prefers to investigate the dhammas arising and passing as they are. In other words he may prefer to use his last moments to do vipassana meditation. Or, following the cases in the sutta itself, he prefers to listen to the Dhamma expounded by the Blessed One (so fortunate to have this opportunity) and then think over, ponder over and turn over in his mind the Dhamma as he has heard it…, thus attaining either another level of enlightenment or final Nibbaana.
Piya Tan’s translation of the A.3 case above he writes: “On account of his thinking over, pondering over, turning over in his mind, the Dhamma as he has heard it, as he has learned it, his mind is freed through the supreme destruction of acquisitions.” It seems that not only by listening to the Dhamma can there be a breakthrough, but also by “thinking it over, pondering over, turning over in his mind…” This is significant because most meditation teachers these days discourage thinking. I refer here to teachers of vipassana (insight) and samatha (calm) meditation and claim that only by meditation can there be enlightenment. I quite agree with those meditation teachers that vipassana and samatha meditation are beneficial and strongly encouraged by the Blessed One and that they both can lead to enlightenment. I also want to open readers minds to the possibility that “thinking it over, pondering over, turning over in his mind…”is also a valid way for attaining Nibbaana.
However, this sutta is a teaching for Noble Disciples (ariyasaavaka) and may not be so effective for those disciples who have not yet attained at least the path of stream-entry (sotapanna). A stream-enterer is one who has “opened the Dhamma eye”, has right view, has confirmed confidence in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha, has unbroken ethical conduct and so on.The stream-enterer has also eliminated the three gross fetters (sa.myojana) that bind one to sa.msaara (the round of existence) for more than seven further existences or to a future unfortunate existence in hell, as a peta (ghost) or animal. These three fetters are (1) identity view, (2) doubt about the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, the laws of kamma or the efficacy of the Four Noble Truths, and (3) attachment to rites and rituals as a way to attain enlightenment. If you haven’t heard of these fetters, I recommend you study them.
Even so, there are two famous cases of Ven. Saariputta and Ven. Mahaamoggallana who both attained Sotapanna by hearing a short verse. Neither appears to have been in jhaana before realising this attainment. Later Ven. Saariputta attained arahat phala while listening to the Dighanaka Sutta. Ven. Mahaamoggallana seems to have attained arahat phala through meditation. There are many other cases in the suttas where lay people and monastics attained sotapanna or sakadaagaami simply by listening attentively to a Dhamma discourse given by the Buddha or a disciple.
There are also instances in the Tipitaka where members of the audience hearing a Dhamma talk may not be able to realise path and fruitions. A famous case in point is in the Sama~n~naphala Sutta [สามัญญผลสูตร] where King Ajatasattu, a paricide (killed his father), is unable to make a breakthrough to stream-entry on account of his previous crime. Killing either of one’s parents will form an insurmountable barrier to noble attainment in the existence in which the crime is committed though in future existences noble attainment becomes possible once again. This was despite King Ajatasattu having all other perfections ready for noble attainment.
Here is a quote from the second last paragraph in Bhikkhu Thanissaro’s translation of the Sama~n~naphala Sutta.
So King Ajatasattu, delighting and rejoicing in the Blessed One’s words, rose from his seat, bowed down to him, and — after circumambulating him — left. Not long after King Ajatasattu had left, the Blessed One addressed the monks: “The king is wounded, monks. The king is incapacitated. Had he not killed his father — that righteous man, that righteous king — the dustless, stainless Dhamma eye would have arisen to him as he sat in this very seat.”
The “stainless Dhamma eye” is another way of saying “sotapanna”. So what ever you do, take good care of your parents!
Theravada tradition holds that after spending a long time in the hell realm, Ajatasattu will return to the human realm and then attain Nibbaana as a Pacekkhabuddha.
(the Thai translation of this section below is from http://www.84000.org//)
 เมื่อพระผู้มีพระภาคตรัสอย่างนี้แล้ว ท้าวเธอได้กราบทูลลาว่า ข้าแต่พระองค์
ผู้เจริญ ถ้าเช่นนั้นหม่อมฉันขอทูลลาไปในบัดนี้ หม่อมฉันมีกิจมาก มีกรณียะมาก พระผู้มีพระภาค
ตรัสว่า ขอมหาบพิตรทรงสำคัญเวลา ณ บัดนี้เถิด. ครั้งนั้นแล พระเจ้าแผ่นดินมคธพระนามว่า
อชาตศัตรู เวเทหีบุตร ทรงเพลิดเพลินยินดีภาษิตของพระผู้มีพระภาคแล้ว เสด็จลุกจากอาสนะ
ถวายบังคมพระผู้มีพระภาค ทรงกระทำประทักษิณแล้วเสด็จไป. เมื่อท้าวเธอเสด็จไปไม่นาน
พระผู้มีพระภาคตรัสกะภิกษุทั้งหลายว่า ดูกรภิกษุทั้งหลาย พระราชาพระองค์นี้ถูกขุดเสียแล้ว
พระราชาพระองค์นี้ถูกขจัดเสียแล้ว หากท้าวเธอจักไม่ปลงพระชนมชีพพระบิดาผู้ดำรงธรรม เป็น
พระราชาโดยธรรมไซร้ ธรรมจักษุ ปราศจากธุลี ปราศจากมลทิน จักเกิดขึ้นแก่ท้าวเธอ ณ ที่
ประทับนี้ทีเดียว. พระผู้มีพระภาคได้ตรัสคำเป็นไวยากรณ์นี้แล้ว. ภิกษุเหล่านั้นชื่นชมยินดีภาษิต