Fetters of Samsāra


1. Fetter

In Buddhism, a mental Fetter, chain or bond (saṁyojana) shackles a sentient being to Saṁsāra, the cycle of lives with dukkha.

By cutting through all Fetters, one attains Nibbāna (Nirvāṇa).

2. Fetter of suffering

Throughout the Pāḷi Canon, the word Fetter is used to describe an intra-psychic phenomenon that ties one to suffering.

For instance, in the Khuddaka Nikāya’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. Sāriputta converses with Ven. Koṭṭhita:

Ven. Koṭṭhita:

How is it, friend Sāriputta, is ... the ear the Fetter of sounds or are sounds the Fetter of the ear?...

Ven. Sāriputta:

Friend Koṭṭhita, 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....

3. Lists of Fetters

The Fetters are enumerated in different ways in the Pāḷi Canon's Sutta Piṭaka and Abhidhamma Piṭaka.

Sutta Piṭaka's list of 10 Fetters

The Pāḷi Canon's Sutta Piṭaka identifies 10 Fetters of becoming: These fetters are enumerated, for instance, in SN 45:

  1. belief in a self (sakkāya-diṭṭhi)
  2. doubt or uncertainty, especially about the Buddha's Enlightenment and 9 super-mundane consciousnesses (vicikicchā)
  3. attachment to rites and rituals (sīlabbata-parāmāsa)
  4. sensual desire (kāmacchanda)
  5. ill will (vyāpāda)
  6. lust for material existence, lust for material rebirth (rūpa-rāga)
  7. lust for immaterial existence, lust for rebirth in a formless realm (arūpa-rāga)
  8. conceit (māna)
  9. restlessness (uddhacca)
  10. ignorance (avijjā)

Throughout the Sutta Piṭaka, the 1-5 Fetters are referred to as Lower Fetters (orambhāgiyāni saṁyojanāni); and are eradicated upon becoming a Non-Returner;

Fetters 1-3 are eradicated by becoming Stream-Enterer & Once-Returner,

Fetters 4-5 are eradicated by becoming a Non-Returner,

and, the last five 6-10 Fetters are referred to as Higher Fetters (uddhambhāgiyāni saṁyojanāni), eradicated by an Arahant.

3 Fetters

Both the Saṅgīti Sutta (DN 33) and the Dhamma-saṅgaṇi (Dhs. 1002-1006) refer to the 3 Fetters as the 1-3 in the aforementioned Sutta Piṭaka list of 10:

  1. belief in a self (sakkāya-diṭṭhi)
  2. doubt (vicikicchā)
  3. attachment to rites and rituals (sīlabbata-parāmāsa)

According to the Canon, these 3 Fetters are eradicated by Stream-Enterers and Once-Returners.

Abhidhamma Piṭaka's list of 10 Fetters

The Abhidhamma Piṭaka's Dhamma-Saṅgaṇi (Dhs. 1113-34) provides an alternate list of 10 Fetters, also found in the Khuddaka Nikāya’s Culla Niddesa (Nd2 656, 1463) and in post-Canonical commentaries.

This enumeration is:

  1. sensual lust (kāma-rāga)
  2. anger (paṭigha)
  3. conceit (māna)
  4. views (diṭṭhi)
  5. doubt (vicikicchā)
  6. attachment to rites and rituals (sīlabbata-parāmāsa)
  7. lust for existence (bhāva-rāga)
  8. jealousy (issā)
  9. greed (macchariya)
  10. ignorance (avijjā).

The commentary mentions that views, doubt, attachment to rites and rituals, jealousy and greed are thrown off at the 1st stage of Awakening (sotāpatti);

gross sensual lust and anger by the 2nd stage (sakadāgāmitā) and even subtle forms of the same by the 3rd stage (anāgāmitā);

and conceit, lust for existence and ignorance by the 4th and final stage (Arahatta).

Fetters related to householder affairs

Uniquely, the Sutta Piṭaka's Householder Pāṭaliya Sutta (MN 54), identifies 8 Fetters (including 3 of the Five Precepts) whose abandonment leads to the cutting off of affairs:

  1. destroying life (pāṇātipāto)
  2. stealing (adinnādāna)
  3. false speech (musāvādo)
  4. slandering (pisunā)
  5. coveting and greed (giddhilobho)
  6. aversion (nindāroso)
  7. anger and malice (kodhūpāyāso)
  8. conceit (atimāno)

4. Individual Fetters

The following Fetters are the 1-3 mentioned in the Sutta Piṭaka's list of 10 Fetters, as well as the Saṅgīti Sutta and Abhidhamma Piṭaka's list of 3 Fetters (DN 33, Dhs. 1002 ff.).

Eradication of these 3 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 (here implying a wrong view).

In general, belief in an individual self or, more simply, self-view refers to a belief that in one or other of the khaṇḍas there is a permanent entity, an attā (Ātma).

Similarly, in MN 2, the Sabbasava Sutta, the Buddha describes a Fetter of views in the following manner:

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 one attends inappropriately in this way, one of 6 kinds of view arises: ...

  1. I have a self...
  2. I have no self...
  3. It is precisely by means of self that I perceive self...
  4. It is precisely by means of self that I perceive not-self...
  5. It is precisely by means of not-self that I perceive self...
  6. This very self of mine ... is the self of mine that is constant...

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.

Doubt (vicikicchā)

In general, doubt (vicikicchā) refers to doubt about the Buddha's teachings, the Dhamma.

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 Nibbāna, leading past ignorance, sensual desire, anger and despair.

Attachment to rites and rituals

Śīla refers to moral conduct, 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-parāmāsa has been translated as:

The contagion of mere rule and ritual, the infatuation of good works, the delusion that they suffice or, more simply, falling back on attachment to precepts and rules.

While the Fetter of doubt can be seen as pertaining to the teachings of competing Śramaṇa during the times of the Buddha,

this Fetter regarding rites and rituals likely refers to some practices of contemporary Brāhmaṇic authorities.

5. Cutting through the Fetters

In MN 64, the Greater Discourse to Māluṅkyāputta, the Buddha states that the path to abandoning the 5 Lower Fetters (that is, the 1-5 of the aforementioned 10 Fetters) is through using Jhāna 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 (anicca) the 12 sense bases (āyatana), the associated 6 sense-consciousness (viññāṇa), 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 Non-Self (anatta) the sense bases, sense consciousness, contact and sensations.

The Pāḷi Canon traditionally describes cutting through the Fetters in 4 stages:

1) one cuts the 1-3 Fetters to be a Stream Enterer (Sotāpanna);

2) one cuts the 1-3 Fetters and significantly weakens the next 4-5 Fetters to be a Once Returner (sakadāgāmi);

3) one cuts the 1-5 Fetters to be a Non-Returner (anāgāmi);

4) one cuts all 10 Fetters to be an Arahant.

In Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta (MN 10) Buddha Śākyamuni says about 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 Odours .... the organ of taste and flavours .... the organ of Touch and tactual objects .... [and] consciousness and mental objects ....

6. Relationship to other core concepts

Similar Buddhist concepts found throughout the Pāḷi Canon include the 5 hindrances (nīvaraṇāni) and the 10 defilements (kilesa).

Comparatively speaking, in the Theravāda 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