In Buddhism, a mental fetter, chain or bond (Pāli: samyojana, saŋyojana, saññojana) shackles a sentient being to saṃsāra, the cycle of lives with dukkha. By cutting through all fetters, one attains nibbāna (Pali; Skt.: nirvāṇa).
Fetter of suffering
Throughout the Pali canon, the word "fetter" is used to describe an intrapsychic phenomenon that ties one to suffering. For instance, in the Khuddaka Nikaya's Itivuttaka 1.15, the Buddha states:
- "Monks, I don't envision even one other fetter — fettered by which beings conjoined go wandering & transmigrating on for a long, long time — like the fetter of craving. Fettered with the fetter of craving, beings conjoined go wandering & transmigrating on for a long, long time."
Elsewhere, the suffering caused by a fetter is implied as in this more technical discourse from SN 35.232, where Ven. Sariputta converses with Ven. Kotthita:
- Ven. Kotthita: "How is it, friend Sariputta, is ... the ear the fetter of sounds or are sounds the fetter of the ear?..."
- Ven. Sariputta: "Friend Kotthita, the ... ear is not the fetter of sounds nor are sounds the fetter of the ear, but rather the desire and lust that arise there in dependence on both: that is the fetter there...."
Lists of fetters
Supra-mundane stages, fetters and rebirths
1. identity view
up to seven more times as
once more as
4. sensual desire
once more in
6. material-rebirth lust
Source: Ñāṇamoli & Bodhi (2001), Middle-Length Discourses, pp. 41-43.
The fetters are enumerated in different ways in the Pali canon's Sutta Pitaka and Abhidhamma Pitaka.
Sutta Pitaka's list of ten fetters
The Pali canon's Sutta Pitaka identifies ten "fetters of becoming":
- belief in a self (Pali: sakkāya-diṭṭhi )
- doubt or uncertainty, especially about the teachings (vicikicchā )
- attachment to rites and rituals (sīlabbata-parāmāso )
- sensual desire (kāmacchando )
- ill will (vyāpādo or byāpādo )
- lust for material existence, lust for material rebirth (rūparāgo )
- lust for immaterial existence, lust for rebirth in a formless realm (arūparāgo )
- conceit (māna )
- restlessness (uddhacca )
- ignorance (avijjā )
As indicated in the table to the right, throughout the Sutta Pitaka, the first five fetters are referred to as "lower fetters" (orambhāgiyāni saṃyojanāni) and are eradicated upon becoming a non-returner; and, the last five fetters are referred to as "higher fetters" (uddhambhāgiyāni saṃyojanāni), eradicated by an arahant.
Both the Saṅgīti Sutta (DN 33) and the Dhammasaṅgaṇi (Dhs. 1002-1006) refer to the "three fetters" as the first three in the aforementioned Sutta Pitaka list of ten:
- belief in a self (sakkāya-diṭṭhi )
- doubt (vicikicchā )
- attachment to rites and rituals (sīlabbata-parāmāso )
According to the Canon, these three fetters are eradicated by stream-enterers and once-returners.
Abhidhamma Pitaka's list of ten fetters
The Abhidhamma Pitaka's Dhamma Sangani (Dhs. 1113-34) provides an alternate list of ten fetters, also found in the Khuddaka Nikaya's Culla Niddesa (Nd2 656, 1463) and in post-canonical commentaries. This enumeration is:
- sensual lust (Pali: kāma-rāga )
- anger (paṭigha )
- conceit (māna )
- views (diṭṭhi )
- doubt (vicikicchā )
- attachment to rites and rituals (sīlabbata-parāmāsa )
- lust for existence (bhava-rāga )
- jealousy (issā )
- greed (macchariya )
- ignorance (avijjā ).
The commentary mentions that views, doubt, attachment to rites and rituals, jealousy and greed are thrown off at the first stage of Awakening (sotāpatti); gross sensual lust and anger by the second stage (sakadāgāmitā) and even subtle forms of the same by the third stage (anāgāmitā); and conceit, lust for existence and ignorance by the fourth and final stage (arahatta).
Uniquely, the Sutta Pitaka's "Householder Potaliya Sutta (MN 54), identifies eight fetters (including three of the Five Precepts) whose abandonment "[[lead[s] to the cutting off of affairs]]" (vohāra-samucchedāya saṃvattanti):
(1) destroying life (pāṇātipāto);
(2) stealing (adinnādānaṃ);
(3) false speech (musāvādo);
(4) slandering (pisunā);
(5) coveting and greed (giddhilobho);
(6) aversion (nindāroso);
(7) anger and malice (kodhūpāyāso); and,
(8) conceit (atimāno).
The following fetters are the first three mentioned in the aforementioned Sutta Pitaka list of ten fetters, and the Saṅgīti Sutta's and the Abhidhamma Pitaka's list of "three fetters" (DN 33, Dhs. 1002 ff.). As indicated below, eradication of these three fetters is a canonical indicator of one's being irreversibly established on the path to Enlightenment.
Identity view (sakkāya-diṭṭhi)
Etymologically, kāya means "body," sakkāya means "existing body," and diṭṭhi means "view (Buddhist view" (here implying a wrong view, as exemplified by the views in the table below).
In general, "belief in an individual self" or, more simply, "self view" refers to a "belief that in one or other of the khandhas there is a permanent entity, an attā."
Similarly, in MN2, the Sabbasava Sutta, the Buddha describes "a fetter of views" in the following manner:
The Views of Six Samana in the Pali Canon
(based on the Sāmaññaphala Sutta)
|Question: "Is it possible to point out the fruit of the|
contemplative life, visible in the here and now?"1
|Amoralism: denies any reward or|
punishment for either good or bad deeds.
|Fatalism: we are powerless;|
suffering is pre-destined.
with death, all is annihilated.
|Eternalism: Matter, pleasure, pain and|
the soul are eternal and do not interact.
|Restraint: be endowed with, cleansed by|
and suffused with the avoidance of all evil.2
|Agnosticism: "I don't think so. I don't think in|
that way or otherwise. I don't think not or not not."
|Notes:||1. DN 2 (Thanissaro, 1997; Walshe, 1995, pp. 91-109).|
2. DN-a Ñāṇamoli & Bodhi, 1995, pp. 1258-59, n. 585).
- "This is how [a person of wrong view) attends inappropriately: 'Was I in the past? ... Shall I be in the future? ... Am I? Am I not? What am I? ...'
- "As he attends inappropriately in this way, one of six kinds of view arises in him: ...
- "This is called a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views. Bound by a fetter of views, the uninstructed ... is not freed, I tell you, from suffering & stress."
In general, "doubt" (vicikicchā) refers to doubt about the Buddha's teachings, the Dhamma. (Alternate contemporaneous teachings are represented in the table to the right.)
More specifically, in SN 22.84, the Tissa Sutta, the Buddha explicitly cautions against uncertainty regarding the Noble Eightfold Path, which is described as the right path to Nibbana, leading one past ignorance, sensual desire, anger and despair.
Attachment to rites and rituals (sīlabbata-parāmāso)
Śīla refers to "moral conduct", vata (or bata) to "religious duty, observance, rite, practice, custom," and parāmāsa to "being attached to" or "a contagion" and has the connotation of "mishandling" the Dhamma. Altogether, sīlabbata-parāmāso has been translated as "the contagion of mere rule and ritual, the infatuation of good works, the delusion that they suffice" or, more simply, "fall[ing] back on attachment to precepts and rules."
While the fetter of doubt can be seen as pertaining to the teachings of competing samana during the times of the Buddha, this fetter regarding rites and rituals likely refers to some practices of contemporary brahmanic authorities.
Cutting through the fetters
with the fetters
"Here, O bhikkhus, a bhikkhu understands the eye and material forms and the fetter that arises dependent on both (eye and forms); he understands how the arising of the non-arisen fetter comes to be; he understands how the abandoning of the arisen fetter comes to be; and he understands how the non-arising in the future of the abandoned fetter comes to be. [And thus] he understands the ear and sounds .... the organ of smell and odors .... the organ of taste and flavors .... the organ of touch and tactual objects .... [and] consciousness and mental objects ...."
– Satipatthana Sutta (MN 10)
In MN 64, the "Greater Discourse to Mālunkyāputta," the Buddha states that the path to abandoning the five lower fetters (that is, the first five of the aforementioned "ten fetters") is through using jhana attainment and vipassana insights in tandem. In SN 35.54, "Abandoning the Fetters," the Buddha states that one abandons the fetters "when one knows and sees ... as impermanent" (Pali: anicca) the twelve sense bases (āyatana), the associated six sense-consciousness (viññaṇa), and the resultant contact (phassa) and sensations (vedanā). Similarly, in SN 35.55, "Uprooting the Fetters," the Buddha states that one uproots the fetters "when one knows and sees ... as nonself" (anatta) the sense bases, sense consciousness, contact and sensations.
The Pali canon traditionally describes cutting through the fetters in four stages:
- one cuts the first three fetters (Pali: tīṇi saŋyojanāni) to be a "stream enterer" (sotapanna);
- one cuts the first three fetters and significantly weakens the next two fetters to be a "once returner" (sakadagami);
- one cuts the first five fetters (orambhāgiyāni samyojanāni) to be a "non-returner" (anagami);
- one cuts all ten fetters to be an arahant.
Relationship to other core concepts
Similar Buddhist concepts found throughout the Pali Canon include the five hindrances (nīvaraṇāni) and the ten defilements (kilesā). Comparatively speaking, in the Theravada tradition, fetters span multiple lifetimes and are difficult to remove, while hindrances are transitory obstacles. Defilements encompass all mental defilements including both fetters and hindrances.