Fetters that bind us to cycle of samsara

The Buddha taught that the ‘self-view’ is but the best form of self-referent belief we have. Once this mental construct has been seen through, a great deal of work still remains. The Buddha's clearest description of what we initially see through and what remains is the formulation of the Ten Fetters. The fetters provide us with a vivid description of the self-referent obstacles in our path, and thus the very nature of the path and goal.

A fetter is a shackle for the ankles or feet of a prisoner for restricting movement. A fetter limits the freedom of movement and an obstruction or a hindrance to progress. In Buddhism, a fetter (samyojana) is a restriction or limitation, in the sense that binds one to samsara (the cycle of rebirth).

Pali Canon lists ten fetters:(1) self-illusion/belief in a permanent self (sakkaya-ditti), (2) skeptical doubt (vicikicca), (3) erroneous rights and ceremonies/obsession with rules and rituals (silabbata paramasa), (4) sensuous craving (kama raga),(5) hatred and ill-will (viyapada), (6) craving for Form Realm (rupa raga), (7) craving for Formless Realm (arupa raga), (8)conceit (mana), (9) restlessness (udhdhachcha), and(10) ignorance (avijja) respectively.

Of these the first five are known as 'lower fetters', as these binds one to rebirth in the Desire Realm (kama loka/kama dhaatu). The remaining five are known as the 'higher fetters' since these binds one to rebirth in the Form and Formless Realms.

1. Sakkaya-ditthi is translated as "personality belief." It is the delusion of self. This concept is explained in the Suttas as the misconceived belief that the five aggregates which constitutes the individual, namely rupa, vedana, sanna, sankhara, and vinnana ( form, feeling, perception, mental factors and consciousness respectively.) taken separately or as a whole contain an unchanging entity that migrates from birth to birth. This is a major obstacle to spiritual progress. Not only are we attached to the idea of self, we even glorify it.

2. Vicikiccha means "skeptical doubt." In particular, doubt about (a) the Buddha, (b) the Dhamma, (c) the Sangha, (d) the disciplinary rules, (e) the past (for example, "What have I been in the past?"), (f) the future (for example, "What shall I be in the future?"), (g) both the past and the future (for example, "From what state to what state shall I change in the future?", "Who am I?", "What am I?", "How am I?", etc.), (h) the doctrine of dependent origination. The Buddha said that this kind of doubt is like being lost in a desert without a map.

3. Silabbata Paramasa

Adherence to (heretical) rites and ceremonies. 'Sila' means nature or habit. Vata means a religious observance or rite.'Silavata' or Silabbata in heretical religions were ascetic practices performed with fervent devotion hoping through them to realize the Supreme Bliss according to each religion. This Fetter is the belief that by performing such ascetic practices one could achieve moral purity and realize the Supreme Bliss of Nibbana. Performance of rituals for any mundane purpose would not fall within this description.

Instead the Buddha emphasized the importance of making individual effort in order to achieve our spiritual goals. He compared it to a man wanting to cross a river; sitting down and praying will not suffice, but he must make the effort to build a raft or a bridge.

4. Kama-raga,

Lust for Sense Desires. The word Kama literally means 'desire' and subjectively mean 'sense desire' It is used in two related meanings: (i) Desire for sense objects (ii) Desire for sense gratification senses. The word raga means passion; accordingly, kama raga means sense passion. It is the most formidable of the obstacles to moral and spiritual perfection. It is the unwise attention (ayoniso manasikara) directed towards objects of sense desire that causes Kama-raga, taking things impermanent as permanent, painful as pleasurable and unsubstantial as substantial

5. Vyapada,

Ill will or malevolence. The word 'vyapada' is derived from the meaning 'to do harm. Hence 'vyapada' means to harm or injure another will or malevolence which is normally accompanied by hatred and produced by a notion of selfishness. Pursuing a malevolent quest the worldly indulges in wrong conduct in deed, word and thought. It is a root cause of unwholesome action. (akusala hetu)

6/7. Rupa/Arupa Raga

Attachment to material and formless states are fetters. It is likely that these two terms refer to subtle attachments to meditation states, because although sakrdagamins practise samadhi moderately when they become anagamis they practise samadhi in full. This may lead them to indulge in such practices, and fetter them to the extent that it even affects their re-birth. This meditation can lead to powerful states of equanimity. If monks relish and treasure this equanimity, they inevitably become attached to it, and this prevents their final liberation. They are therefore reborn in the Pure Abodes and get enlightened there. This happens because they are attached to the sphere of neither perception nor non-perception, which is the highest attachment. This attachment could be called ‘attachment to formless states’ (i.e. arūpa-rāga).

If people are extensively involved with samadhi practices, however, they get attached to those states instead. Such people are reborn, and get enlightened, in destinations other than the Pure Abodes.

8. Mana literally this means "measuring" and is often translated as "conceit, arrogance, self-assertion or pride," but measuring is a better term because it means all forms of evaluation. Feeling oneself to be superior to others (the superiority complex) is indeed a form a conceit. But mana also includes measuring in the sense of judging oneself to be inferior to others (the inferiority complex) and also equal to others. Even in spiritual matters, e.g. how many do you observe precepts? how long do you sit for meditation? Certainly, we are all different, but it is not helpful to engage in comparisons between oneself and others.

9. Uddhacca means "restlessness." It is the confused, distracted, restless state of mind, in which there is no tranquillity or peace. It has been defined as, "the excitement of mind which is disturbance, agitation of the heart, turmoil of mind." It is the opposite of one-pointedness. Number four of The Five Hindrances.

10. Avijja is translated as "ignorance," but this is ignorance in a special sense. It does not mean ignorance as it is used in the everyday sense, but it means specifically ignorance of the Four Noble Truths and the delusion which prevents us from seeing the real nature of impermanence and Dukkha.

When a Fetter has been eradicated, this is permanent, it does not come back again. One who has eradicated the first three Fetters is a Sotapanna. He has had a glimpse of Nirvana, like someone walking in the foothills of a mountain has a glimpse of the top of the mountain through the clouds. He has entered the stream that leads to Nirvana. He has complete confidence in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, and perfect moral conduct.

The next stage is a Sakadagami, which is marked by the reduction of the next two Fetters. They are not yet eradicated, but are suppressed. When these two Fetters are completely eradicated, then the third stage has been reached. This is a Anagami.

The last stage is the Arahat, and is marked by the eradication of the last five Fetters. This state is not restricted by age, sex or social status. It is open to lay people as well as ordained monks. The Arahant will continue to live for his body's natural span, but he has eradicated all craving which binds ordinary people to the process of rebirth.


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