Why I chose to not ordain

This answer to this question is complex and difficult to explain. This posting is personal and will not cover all the issues that are relevant to all people. I write from the perspective of a middle-aged male raised in Australia.

I received a couple of queries about this question and this prompted me to write this posting as a response. I suppose I set the question up in the earlier version of the “about me” paragraph under my photo [I must update that photo one day…].  This posting took over a week of writing and editing and I’m still not happy with the quality.  It is my longest posting by far, with over 4000 words. I was going to write a short version, a sort of executive summary and a long version for those interested in more detail but then merged the two into what appears here. I’ll move on to other topics for future postings now. I have a few draft posts on Dhamma topics waiting for my attention. I’ll try to post one a week but don’t count on it.

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From late 1981 until the end of 2009 I practiced vipassana meditation as taught in the Mahasi Sayadaw tradition. It was the early insights from this meditation that convinced me in 1982 to become Buddhist and to ordain as a monk in Thailand. After I disrobed in 1984, I continued to practice vipassana meditation as a lay man though I didn’t do any more retreats until November 2005. That seven day retreat led by Ven. Sayadaw U Lakkhana was intense and reinvigorated my practice once again. I knew I had to keep practicing. At that time I didn’t have much confidence in myself as a meditator and imagined that it would take many lifetimes to make a breakthrough to stream-entry (sotapanna).

In December 2006 – January 2007 I did a 6 week retreat in Yangon with Ven. Saydaw U Janaka (Chanmyay Sayadaw) and once again went up the insight knowledges (vipassana ~naa.na). I reached a difficult stage and left the retreat one week early. I still didn’t have much confidence in my practice. From 2005 onwards I was also beginning to read more Dhamma books and delved into the excellent translations of the Suttas by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi and Ven. Thanissaro Bhikkhu. This sutta study and continued practice at home further strengthened my confidence in the Dhamma (saddha) and increased my sense of spiritual urgency (sa.mvega).

By mid 2008, I had decided that conventional lay life in a couple relationship was a hindrance to spiritual development but still wasn’t sure if I should ordain as a monk. At that time I was confident I could live the celibate life so ordaining was a possibility once more. My family situation left me free to choose to ordain or not. So I began preparing for a trip to Asia to go back to Yangon and to visit Thailand where I had been a monk before. I thought that before possibly ordaining I needed to focus on making a breakthrough by doing longer more intensive retreats. This is more important than robes or rules of conduct.

I thought about the 2006-07 retreat at Chanmyay Yeithka in Yangon that I broke off early due to reaching a difficult stage. My own assessment (not confirmed by anyone else) is that I may have reached number 10 (of 16) – Knowledge of reflection (patisa.nkhaa~naa.na). I was determined that I would persevere next time and not give up the retreat so early. In fact whereas I only did a six week retreat in 2006-07, in March-June 2009 (16 weeks) at Saddhammaransi Yeithka, I reached this same stage after the first four weeks and seemed to stay there for the remaining 12 weeks. It was very frustrating. I was restless the whole time and wanted to leave. I struggled very much. Some of my wish to leave was due to uncomfortable environmental factors which I have outlined later in this blog. I believe that most of the restlessness and mental pain was an effect of the insight knowledge itself.

I finally gave up and transferred to Mahasi Sasana Yeithka, also in Yangon, where I continued meditating but not so intensively. There I talked with and helped other resident foreigners. I seemed to stay in the same insight knowledge but with less apparent stress. Maybe it was an immature number 11 (of 16), knowledge of equanimity towards formations (sa.nkhaar’upekkhaa~naa.na)? Again the environment was not ideal for me to meditate. Some Burmese Dhamma friends have criticised me for being weak and not persevering. They said I may have made a breakthrough had I stayed longer and they even encouraged me to ordain despite the obstacles.

I wrote above that I had only practiced insight meditation in the tradition of Mahasi Sayadaw. Prior to leaving Australia for this trip I had been studying suttas and reading about deep concentration meditation (samatha) and meditative absorptions (jhaana). This was attractive to me for many reasons and not least because from what I was reading in the suttas, it was the way that the Blessed One and the Sangha at that time practiced. I believe I had some weaknesses in my spiritual development that may have hindered progress.

I shall provide some doctrine before continuing this theme.

There are five controlling faculties (panc’indriya) which include:

  • confidence (saddha)
  • energy (viriya)
  • mindfulness (sati)
  • concentration (samaadhi)
  • wisdom (pa~n~naa)

These must be well-balanced to make good progress in meditation and achieve a breakthrough. I self-assessed myself as being relatively weak in mindfulness and concentration. From what I was reading in the suttas, it seemed that a period of intense deep concentration meditation (samatha) perhaps up to the level of developing mental absorptions would increase mindfulness and concentration. With these two important factors strengthened, all the five controlling faculties would balance and a breakthrough may occur. At least this was the theory as interpreted by myself.

In secondary materials such as popular books on meditation and audio lectures by Buddhist teachers, even Theravada Buddhist teachers, there is a lot of talk about developing the ten perfections (paramis). These are not in the suttas or the commentary literature (A.t.thakathaa) at all. The doctrine of perfections only appear in the sub-commentary literature (Tiika) and later than that. The Theravada tradition adopted the doctrine of perfections from the Mahayana tradition more than 1000 years after the Blessed One attained Nibbaana without remainder (about 500 BC). The ten perfections are often referenced by modern teachers as a way to measure progress on the spiritual path. They may say “the perfections are not sufficiently mature, be patient and keep practicing. Maybe next life-time …” and so on. I believe a more appropriate reference is the five controlling faculties.

Ok, now back to the theme. I left Yangon and went to Bangkok where for about two weeks I did little meditation while relaxing and meeting with old friends. I ate lots of food and talked with friends about my plans to find a suitable meditation centre or monastery to practice samatha meditation. However, soon after meeting Pi Yai, she persuaded me to try insight meditation in the tradition of Mahasi Sayadaw one more time at Section 5, Wat Mahadhatu. She arranged everything and I stayed there for 2 weeks and then 8 weeks. These two retreats were interrupted by a week when I travelled to Laos to renew my visa for Thailand for 3 months. The 8 week retreat at Wat Mahadhatu was the best. I had a few environmental difficulties but persevered. Pi Yai was a great meditation coach and a fantastic Dhamma teacher. Once again I reached that difficult insight knowledge, number 10 and maybe flipped over into number 11 sometimes, I’m not sure. It was not so uncomfortable this time though. Even so I gave up again after 8 weeks. I missed talking about the Dhamma and sometimes thought of my plans to try samatha meditation. I stayed in Bangkok another 4 weeks helping Pi Yai teach drop-in travellers who went to Wat Mahadhatu to learn meditation and get an introduction to Buddhism. It was fun and quite rewarding.

I then went to India for a month to do the pilgrimage of Buddhist sacred sites. This was very important to me. I wrote a lot about this in the December 2009 postings. Then I went to Sri Lanka to Na Uyana Aranya with the specific purpose of beginning samatha practice and hoping to possibly attain one or more of the four mental absorptions (jhaana). The plan was to use the jhaana as a base to then do insight meditation in the manner outlined in the suttas.

There were more obstacles at Na Uyana Aranya and I didn’t attain jhaana. Even so, my time there was very useful and productive. I learned a lot about samatha practice, Sri Lanka, Buddhism as practiced in Sri Lanka as well as having many interesting and penetrating Dhamma conversations.

The journey was primarily about doing retreats aiming for a spiritual break through. Evaluating monasteries as possible places to ordain was very much secondary. All the time, I knew that ordination was a possibility but not certain and not a goal in itself. The goal was to make a spiritual breakthrough regardless of worldly status or livelihood.

The only place that came close to being suitable for me to ordain is Na Uyana Aranya. I did not visit all possible venues for ordination. As I passed through each place I decided, ‘this place doesn’t suit me’ until I reached Na Uyana Aranya. It was the best of all the places I’d been and the only place I seriously considered ordaining. In the first two months I even told Ven. Ariyaananda twice of my intention to ordain. Then in the second two months the average temperature and humidity increased. I was unable to do regular walking meditation between sitting sessions because either there was no shade or there were too many insects.

In the second two months, my lower back ache was bothering me. Climbing the steep hill every day was a hassle in the humid weather. There were other minor issues that all accumulated to the point when I finally decided not to ordain at Na Uyana Aranya. By that time, my funds were low and I had to return to Perth to earn money. If I had more money then I might have looked around Sri Lanka at other monasteries or maybe travelled back to Thailand to look around there. I might have gone back to India to visit pilgrimage sites. I might have gone to other places in the world to meet with Buddhist teachers and get more advice about practice and Dhamma.

Some readers may wonder if there are some issues that I have not covered in this posting that may be relevant to my decision not to ordain. Although I have written rather a lot for a blog posting, I have not covered every detail. Even so, I would like to briefly outline those issues that are not relevant to my personal decision not to ordain: lust, anger, insanity, criminality, fatal or disfiguring diseases (not including ageing), non-human being, drug addiction, physical disability, physical deformity, indebtedness, obligation for military or government service, incomplete masculinity (for men wishing to ordain as a bhikkhu), family dependents and so forth. Most of these issues are identified in the Vinaaya as obstacles to ordination.

Though still capable of lust, anger and delusion, these conditions are not strong enough to prevent me form ordaining. For example, some people might not have the ability to live a celibate life – they need a sexual outlet. Experienced meditators learn to manage lust and anger. Samatha (concentration) meditation is particularly suitable for temporarily purifying mental states. This is why it is a good idea to spend some time (at least six months) as a lay person on eight precepts to learn how to manage lust and anger and also to sample monastic life. The Blessed One recommended meditation on the body, particularly parts of the body and various decaying corpses in order to reduce the impact of lustful mental states. He also recommended loving-kindness meditation for reducing the impact of angry mental states. I personally verified the effectiveness of these techniques and routinely applied them for short periods each day.

The following section indicates places I stayed during my trip and provides some indication of why I chose not to ordain at each place or stay longer even as a lay man.

Saddhammaransi Yeithka, Yangon, Myanmar (March 2009 – June 2009)

Good: Sayadaw U Kundala is the abbot is an inspiring presence despite not being available for teaching due to old age and poor health. Good room with ensuite. City conveniences such as Internet, hospitals, shops, embassies and international airport. Dr Than Than is an excellent translator and teacher.

Bad: Very noisy city monastery in a noisy neighbourhood. Extremely crowded with 80 per cent women. Oily food. Diarrhea every week or second week. Resident monastics are mostly late-in-life ordinations (retirees). Monastics depend largely on savings acquired in their own previous lay life and regular stipends earned by chanting. Monastics have bank accounts and use money. Many temporary ordinations coming and going with little knowledge of Buddhism. Slack management of lay men doing ten day, one month and 3 month resident retreats. Strict routine of taking 8 precepts every morning and listening to Dhamma talks every afternoon.

Saddhammaransi Yeithka has a branch monastery located outside Yangon in a rural area that is reputed to be less crowded and much quieter. I heard that foreigners have ordained as monks and nuns and stayed there for years to practice successfully. I requested the opportunity to go there but the lay officials at Saddhammaransi Yeithka discouraged me. If anyone were to consider Saddhammaransi Yeithka, they should insist from the start that they wish to go to the rural branch monastery. It is also important to consider whether a competent translator is available.

Mahasi Sasana Yeithka, Yangon, Myanmar (June – July 2009)

Good: Large grounds with many trees close to the centre of Yangon. Mahasi Sayadaw museum and mausoleum. Good room with ensuite. City conveniences such as Internet, hospitals, shops, embassies and international airport.

Bad: Monastics and lay people constantly spitting on the walking paths. Oily food. Diarrhea every week or second week. Poor quality teachers. Slack vinaaya – even the senior teachers use money. Many temporary ordinations coming and going with little knowledge of Buddhism. Corrupt senior lay management request bribes for facilitating foreign meditators’ visas (regardless of being monastic or lay person).

Wat Mahadhatu, Section 5, Bangkok, Thailand (July 2009 – November 2009)

Good: Pi Yai is an excellent vipassana meditation teacher in the tradition of Mahasi Sayadaw. Meditators at all levels would benefit by talking with her. A good place for absolute beginners to get an introduction to Buddhism and Mahasi method meditation. Excellent food (though not vegetarian).

Bad: Extremely crowded, with noisy and inadequate facilities. Many lay women visiting and staying for short retreats. Noisy environment for meditation and sleeping. Many rats, cats and cockroaches. Many monastics smoke cigarettes in the accommodation areas. All monastics use money except a few visiting monks. Lots of chanting and rituals. Monastics depend largely on savings acquired in their own previous lay life and regular stipends earned by chanting. Monastics have bank accounts and use money. Many temporary ordinations. Ven. Raajasiddhimuni “Luang Por Jodok”, passed away about 10 years ago and there is no-one else of his quality. Most monasteries depend on a senior and venerable figurehead. Section 5 is missing one though some try hard to fit the role. As a lay woman, Pi Yai lacks worldly status and influence while ostentatious monastics flap and squawk.

Ven. Luang Por Jodok was my preceptor (upajjhaaya) when I ordained as a bhikkhu in 1982.  Ven. Ajahn Kao Titawano was the abbot and my principle teacher (aacariya) at that time too. He also passed away about 10-15 years ago.  I miss them and other monastic teachers from that time. It would be great if they were still alive and available for me to consult with.

Na Uyana Aranya, Pansiyagama, Sri Lanka (January 2010 – May 2010)

Good: Ven.Ariyadhamma. Ven. Ariyaananda is cool and an excellent teacher and leader. 500 hectares of forest. Many paths for hiking through the forest. Good accommodation with en-suites. Good vegetarian food with no tummy problems at all. Strong vinaaya. Support for various meditation traditions including Ven. Pa Auk Sayadaw and Ven. Mahasi Sayadaw. Excellent collection of books.

Bad: Few kutis have suitable walking paths for meditation. Many kutis are very hot. Many unpaved paths up steep hills. Deadly snakes and insects. Monkeys. Ants. Far from Internet and health facilities. Library room is hot and small. Centralised management. Ants cross the paths at random places each day and many mosquitos and other biting insects attack at night. My kuti was too small for walking inside.

Other yogis encouraged me to ask Ven. Ariyaananda for a bigger kuti but I didn’t want to bother him. He had given me that kuti to use and I didn’t want to be another grumpy, spoiled Westerner. I felt privileged to have a kuti to myself since all the Sri Lankan lay people had to live in dormitory buildings. Perhaps if I had stayed and ordained I could have upgraded to a larger kuti in a shady area with a short walking path inside. I was not so patient.

There were suggestions that at 50 years old and with minor health issues, I may be too old to ordain at Na Uyana. But this wasn’t a firm and final matter. I had confidence that were I to demonstrate determination and sincerity as a lay man for one or two years, there would be no problem ordaining. Some people suggested a way around this would be to ordain somewhere else and then return to Na Uyana to seek residence. That idea didn’t appeal to me. I prefer to be straight forward.

Finance: I started with a budget of about A$14,000. I spent it on living costs, travel and donations. By the time I was making my decision about whether to ordain at Na Uyana Aranya, I had little of those funds left (no debts though). I felt uncomfortable making that decision as though someone (mostly myself?) might criticise me for ordaining to escape poverty and work. This is complex but only one of many minor factors in the ordination decision.

Health: I have some minor health issues that are more conveniently addressed in layman’s life. I like to see doctors and other allied health specialists from time to time. As a monk I would be totally dependent on lay support for medical attention. As a lay man with employment and a reasonable income living in an economically prosperous country I can easily access high quality medical services. These provide a greater degree of physical comfort and possibly a longer life for Dhamma study and practice. I wouldn’t want to be too great a burden to other monastics or the local lay communities.

Teacher and local monastic community: As a newly ordained monastic it is good to have a teacher and appropriate community support for conduct, meditation and requisites. I have confidence that strict monastic conduct leads to deeper concentration and wisdom. There are many teachers who may have strict conduct themselves but live among a community that is slack. There are good meditation teachers who are not good at monastery management. Ideally communities would have a solid tradition and culture that is sustainable in the long term despite changes in abbots and teachers (due to death, sickness and travel). Successful monastic communities are dependent on devoted lay communities.

Vinaaya (rules of conduct for monastics): It is conceivable but not convenient for experienced monastics (maybe over 5 years in robes) to move around without money in these countries. Despite the vinaaya (rules of conduct for monastics) most monastics use money.

Location: There is greater support for monastics in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand and Laos than in Australia. This is due to the higher proportion of Buddhist lay supporters in the population and the higher number of monasteries. There is much less choice in Australia for a suitable place to ordain. The Ajahn Chah lineage monasteries have a strict age-limit policy for ordinations and would not ordain a man aged 50 plus. Most other Theravada monasteries in Australia would have smaller communities of monastics and may not have sufficient facilities for ordaining, accommodating and training new monks. I have not fully investigated the options though, so I may be wrong. Most of my research on Australian monasteries is via the Internet.

Having Thai language and cultural skills, I could find and settle at many monasteries in Thailand (and Laos). Myanmar and Sri Lanka have many English speakers and probably after 6 months of effort a newly ordained monk could learn enough local language to survive. Certainly within 2-3 years, I would expect to be literate in the local language. In my case, I’ve done that already with my experience ordaining in Thailand so doing it again in another country does not scare me. In Thailand, I’m not keen on the political structure and culture of the Sangha, the non-orthodox ideas (magic, Hinduism, crystals, astrology, money, status) that hinder access to true Dhamma. These are common problems in Laos, Myanmar and Sri Lanka though manifested in different ways. I expect that some monasteries in Australia may have these problems too.

Location is linked with access to climate, health and communication facilities. Asian countries tend to feel hotter and more humid than most places in Australia (north Queensland and northern Northern Territory excepted). I can live with that though I prefer a temperate climate.

Family, children: I have two children aged 18 and 16 who live with their mother (first wife) in Canberra. While I was traveling from March 2009 to May 2010 I was in intermittent contact with them. As a layman I could be more directly involved in their lives. They need support and guidance sometimes. Now that I’m back in Perth, my daughter is keen to come and live with me later this year.

Family, mother and siblings: My mother is in good health and well. She is always anxious when I’m travelling overseas and encourages me to return to Australia. Even when I lived in Canberra she invited me to live in Perth close to her. My siblings enjoy my company and the exotic flavour I add to the family blend (and meals) in Perth. I’m the only Buddhist in my family – everyone else are pragmatic agnostics (my label for them). Like the majority of Westerners, they seem to accept the common Western materialist paradigm. They don’t like philosophising and prefer me not to question their assumptions about life.

Age: There are guidelines for ordination in Australian monasteries that discourage or prohibit ordination for men aged 50 or over. I just missed out there. I could easily ordain in Myanmar, Thailand, Sri Lanka or Laos whatever my age. Though there are monasteries in Thailand and Sri Lanka that may not allow me to ordain because of my mature age. (More details in the Longer Response below.)

I turned 50 in early 2010. I regard this as middle-aged, the prime of life. However, some monasteries regard the age of 50 as being ‘too old’ to ordain. Nevertheless some of those monasteries with an age policy for ordinations seem to consider each case on its merits. It seems that they want to discourage monks from using the monastery as a retirement home. They would assess each case and judge whether the candidate was sincere and had a strong sense of spiritual urgency (sa.mvega). I gather that some monasteries have a very strict policy of not ordaining men aged 50 and over, regardless of their spiritual urgency.

What next?

Now I am open to the next stage. I retain the preference to be single, celibate and free. I shall get a job, save money and maybe travel again. Though I am less likely to consider ordination in future.

Maybe in a couple of years I can find a cottage in a remote area with convenient access to food where I can quietly do a retreat on my own. This is relatively cheap in Sri Lanka. I believe it maybe possible in Thailand or Laos too. This would be a longer retreat – maybe 3-4 months or longer. I’d like to try continue doing samatha meditation – namely mindfulness of breathing (aanaapaanasati) and see how far it can go.

This could be a model for the future. Work for a while, save money, go on a long retreat for a few months, return to Australia, work for a while, save money, go on a long retreat…. and so on. I am aware that life happens despite our plans.

I shall continue studying Dhamma. I have a fantasy about learning Paali and possibly Sinhala languages. I’m not sure if I can retain the discipline to do so. I’ll probably keep posting on this blog too.

Advantages of hearing the Dhamma or thinking on the Dhamma even when suffering great pain

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 winds are cutting through my head like a strong man cleaving it open with a sharp sword. I cannot bear it, venerable sir;
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//) 

[๑๔๐] 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
ของพระผู้มีพระภาคแล้วแล.
[สามัญญผลสูตร]

Resilience

Yogis on retreats sometimes note pleasant feelings or painful feelings. Early in the retreat, the yogi may have relatively weak controlling faculties indriya [1. confidence saddha 2. wisdom/discernment panna 3. mindfulness sati 4. concentration samaadhi and 5. energy viriya] and not be very well developed or resilient. The yogi may be distracted by the various feelings and feel compelled to move the body or to speak. Some yogis even give up the retreat.

For those yogis who persevere, the controlling faculties will gradually strengthen and stay in balance with each other. The yogi will be able to note feelings without allowing them to weaken the factors for enlightenment bojjha.nga and other wholesome mental conditions [1. mindfulness sati 2. investigation dhammavicaya 3. energy viriya 4. joy/rapture piiti 5. tranquillity passadhi 6. concentration samaadhi and 7. equanimity upekkhaa]. The body also becomes more resilient though not in a tense way. The body becomes suffused with delight and tranquil.

Majjhima Nikaya MN.36.9. Mahaasaccaka Sutta: The Greater Discourse to Saccaka. (มหาสัจจกสูตร)

“And how, Aggivessana, is one developed in body and developed in mind?

Here, Aggivessana, pleasant feeling arises in a well-taught noble disciple. Touched by that pleasant feeling, he does not lust after pleasure or continue to lust after pleasure. That pleasant feeling of his ceases. With the cessation of the pleasant feeling, painful feeling arises. Touched by that painful feeling, he does not sorrow, grieve, and lament, he does not weep beating his breast and become distraught. When that pleasant feeling has arisen in him, it does not invade his mind and remain because body is developed. And when that painful feeling has arisen in him, it does not invade his mind and remain because mind is developed.

Anyone in whom, in this double manner, arisen pleasant feeling does not invade his mind and remain because body is developed, and arisen painful feeling does not invade his mind and remain because mind is developed, is thus developed in body and developed in mind.

Majjhima Nikaya MN.37. Cuu.lata.nhaasankhaya Sutta: The Shorter Discourse on the Destruction of Craving (จูฬตัณหาสังขยสูตร)

2. Then Sakka, ruler of gods, went to the Blessed One, and after paying homage to him, he stood at one side and asked: “Venerable sir, how in brief is a bhikkhu liberated in the destruction of craving, one who has reached the ultimate holy life, the ultimate goal, one who is foremost among gods and humans?”

3. “Here, ruler of gods, a bhikkhu has heard that nothing is worth adhering to, he directly knows everything having directly known everything, he fully understands everything; having fully understood everything, whatever feeling he feels, whether pleasant or painful or neither-painful-nor-pleasant, he abides contemplating impermanence in those feelings, contemplating fading away, contemplating cessation, contemplating relinquishment. Contemplating thus, he does not cling to anything in the world. When he does not cling, he is not agitated. When he is not agitated, he personally attains Nibbaana.

He understands: ‘Birth is destroyed, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more coming to any state of being.’ Briefly, it is in this way, ruler of gods, that a bhikkhu is liberated in the destruction of craving, one who has reached the ultimate end, the ultimate security from bondage, the ultimate holy life, the ultimate goal, one who is foremost among gods and humans.”