Mahanama and Godha debate whether the Streamwinner has three essential features or four. They bring the debate to the Buddha for resolution.
Read the Sutta
Index of Available translations: [SN 5.55.23]
This is an interesting sutta for stretching intuitive vision. The debate between the two, though brought before the Buddha, is not resolved in so many words. Godha, who in the original debate speaks first, states that there are three essential features of stream-winning. Mahanama, who has heard face-to-face (in the previous sutta #22) that the Streamwinner has four essential features speaks second. Godha suggests they consult the Buddha for the resolution of the issue. After repeating to the Buddha the previous dialogue, Mahanama continues his side of the argument with a strong statement of his faith in the Buddha. At this the Buddha turns to Godha and asks him what he thinks about Mahanama now. Godha's response is non-commital. There ends the sutta.
What has happened?
Mahanama is saying with this declaration of faith:
"Not only am I a Streamwinner and know by that, but my faith in the Buddha is unshakable and I have heard, face-to-face with the Buddha the statement that the Streamwinner has these four attributes. I will hold this position against all commers based on this faith in the Buddha.
Godha is saying:
No argument that there are four, but a person who understands the Dhamma at a higher level understands that possesing any one of the four is the equivalent of possessing all four. Let us go to the Buddha himself and he will make this clear.
By not saying that the one is correct and the other is incorrect the Buddha confirms Godha in his view while giving Mahanama a path (the one we are using here to explain this sutta, that is, a paradox) to see in this way at some future point, and Godha goes along with the idea.
Bhk. Bodhi, in a footnote explains it this way:
"Though the argument has not been explicitly settled, the matter seems to be clinched through Mahanama's testimony to his faith. By expressing so intensely his confidence in the Buddha, Mahanama confirms his status as a noble disciple, and thus his viewpoint must be correct. Spk-p.t says that while one endowed with any one of these four qualities is a stream-enterer, one should explain in terms of possessing all four.
I would suggest only that this tends to imply (by the statement that the argument is 'clinched' and that his view is correct) that Godha's statement is incorrect and this is not the case. Both are correct. Mahanama's position is just not as broad in scope as Godha's. As for Spk-p.t, the Buddha himself teaches it both ways and other ways.
Woodward's footnote explaining Godha's statement is a quote from the commentary that implies that he is just avoiding having to say that Mahanama is ignorant. But there is no deprecation of Mahanama there. If there were, that would show a lack of understanding of what Gotama had done and the sutta would be undone.
I say avoid the commentaries for just such reasons as are shown in this case. Go to the sutta, read the translations, work out your own translation, and come to your own vision. Commentaries where they are written down and not given face-to-face from teacher to students, should be seen as essentially the working-out in mind for the sake of the commentator of the meaning of a sutta (and by doing so publicly, however well-intentioned, are probably a mistake if not mistaken). The suttas are meant to be studied and the meaning worked out in mind, to explain them prior to being asked is (except for the fact that they should not be blindly trusted) to deprive the reader of this work of mind. ... for this I apologize to my own readers for the implication that I believe them to be a bunch of flats without sufficient entheusiasm to do more than skim the texts. Not so! Should these commentaries be encountered first, as in the case of readers here, they should be seen as advertisements for the suttas, an invitation to examine the original for one's self. What should not be the case is that they be relied upon exclusive of examining the original suttas. I cannot emphasize this enough.