Fetter (Buddhism)

In Buddhism, a mental fetter, chain or bond (Pāli: samyojana, Sanskrit: saṃyojana) shackles a sentient being to sasāra, the cycle of lives with dukkha. By cutting through all fetters, one attains nibbāna (Pali; Skt.: nirvāa).

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:

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?..."

The fetters are enumerated in different ways in the Pali canon's Sutta Pitaka and Abhidhamma Pitaka.

The Pali canon's Sutta Pitaka identifies ten "fetters of becoming":[6]

As indicated in the adjacent table, 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.[18]

Both the Sagīti 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:

According to the Canon, these three fetters are eradicated by stream-enterers and once-returners.[20]

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:[21]

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):

The following fetters are the first three mentioned in the aforementioned Sutta Pitaka list of ten fetters, and the Sagīti 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.

Etymologically, kāya means "body," sakkāya means "existing body," and diṭṭhi means "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."[23]

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 he attends inappropriately in this way, one of six kinds of view arises in him: ...

In general, "doubt" (vicikicchā) refers to doubt about the Buddha's teachings, the Dhamma. (Alternate contemporaneous teachings are represented in the adjacent table.)

More specifically, in SN 22.84, the Tissa Sutta,[25] 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.

Śīla refers to "moral conduct", vata (or bata) to "religious duty, observance, rite, practice, custom,"[26] and parāmāsa to "being attached to" or "a contagion" and has the connotation of "mishandling" the Dhamma.[27] Altogether, sīlabbata-parāmāso has been translated as "the contagion of mere rule and ritual, the infatuation of good works, the delusion that they suffice"[28] or, more simply, "fall[ing] back on attachment to precepts and rules."[29]

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.[30]

"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 ...."

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.[32] 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).[33] 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.[34]

The Pali canon traditionally describes cutting through the fetters in four stages:

Similar Buddhist concepts found throughout the Pali Canon include the five hindrances (nīvaraāni) 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.[36]