Abandoning the ten fetters

Fetters: introduction

There are five lower fetters (orambhāgiyāni saṃyojanāni) the first three of which are abandoned (pahīyanti) at stream-entry (M.1.9). The five higher fetters (uddhambhāgiyāni saṃyojanāni) fetter everyone except arahants. These fetters are said to be realised (abhiññāya), fully understood (pariññāya), utterly destroyed (parikkhayāya), and abandoned (pahānāya) by the practice of the eightfold path (e.g. see S.5.54-62).

The lower fetters are these (translations to be discussed):

  • sakkāyadiṭṭhi: false seeing of Selfhood
  • vicikicchā: uncertainty
  • sīlabbataparāmāso: blind grasping of rituals and ascetic practices
  • kāmacchando: sensual desire
  • vyāpādo:ill will (S.5.61)

The higher fetters are these:

  • rūparāgo: attachment to material states
  • arūparāgo: attachment to formless states
  • māno: presumption of a ‘me’
  • uddhaccaṃ: perturbation
  • avijjā: Dhamma blindness (S.5.61)

More significant than the ten fetters themselves is the tendency to them, and one is not really free of the fetters until one is also free of the tendency to them (sānusayo pahīyati) (M.1.434; S.5.60). The Buddha explained this using the simile of the infant. A young infant does not have the notion

  • ‘selfhood’ (sakkāyo’tipi na hoti) so how could the false seeing of Selfhood arise in him? Yet the tendency to it lies within him.
  • ‘Dhamma’ (dhammā’tipi na hoti) so how could uncertainty about Dhamma arise in him? Yet the tendency to it lies within him.
  • ‘rituals’ (sīlā’tipi na hoti) so how could blind grasping of rituals and ascetic practices arise in him? Yet the tendency to it lies within him.
  • ‘sexual pleasure’ (kāmā’tipi na hoti) so how could desire for sexual pleasure arise in him? Yet the tendency to it lies within him.
  • ‘beings’ (sattā’tipi na hoti) so how could ill-will towards beings arise in him? Yet the tendency to it lies within him (M.1.433).

It would better reflect this, if the fetters were called:

  • the tendency to the false seeing of Selfhood sakkāyadiṭṭhi
  • the tendency to uncertainty vicikicchā
  • the tendency to blind grasping of rituals and ascetic practices sīlabbataparāmāso
  • the tendency to sensual desire kāmacchando
  • the tendency to ill will vyāpādo (S.5.61)
  • the tendency to attach to material states rūparāgo
  • the tendency to attach to formless states arūparāgo
  • the tendency to the presumption of a ‘me’ māno
  • the tendency to perturbation uddhaccaṃ
  • the tendency to Dhamma blindness avijjā (S.5.61)

Curiously, the Buddha says that the fetters only fetter when they are powerful and unsubdued (thāmagatā appaṭivinītā) (M.1.434). This slightly suggests that in noble disciples the fetters maybe linger in a weak and subdued form.

Seeing a Self and presuming a Self: sakkāyadiṭṭhi and māno

These two fetters are similar, even though they are abandoned at very different stages: sakkāyadiṭṭhi at stream-entry, māno at arahantship. Abandoning sakkāyadiṭṭhi means the khandhas are seen as ‘not me’. Nonetheless, the presumption of a ‘me’ lingers till arahantship. Venerable Khemaka said that if the disciple keeps examining the rise and fall of the five aggregates (udayabbayānupassī viharati) then that presumption is uprooted, just as the smell that remains in cloth that has been washed with cowdung would eventually vanish if the cloth was left in a sweet-scented casket. I further discuss these two fetters in Appendix 26.

Uncertainty: vicikicchā

Vicikicchā: introduction

Vicikicchā, the fetter, uncertainty, is one of the three fetters abandoned at stream-entry (M.1.34). But vicikicchā, the hindrance, perplexity, is abandoned at arahantship (S.5.327) because the final escape from the ‘sting of perplexity and bewilderment’ (vicikicchā kathaṃkathāsallaṃ) comes with the uprooting the presumption of a ‘me’ (asmī’ti mānassa samugghāto) (D.3.249-250) at arahantship. The vicikicchās are two forms of doubt; their different meanings can be deduced from their useage in the suttas. Vicikicchā, the hindrance, is described in Appendix 29.

Vicikicchā, the fetter, in the suttas

Stream-enterers have abandoned four factors and attained four factors:

  • abandoned: lack of confidence (appasādena) in the Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha. Also abandoned is that immorality (dussīlyena) which leads to rebirths in bad destinations (S.5.362-3).
  • attained: unwavering faith (aveccappasāda) in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha. Also attained are virtues dear to the noble ones (S.5.343). These attained factors are called the 'four factors of stream-entry' (catusu sotāpattiyaṅgesu) (S.5.365).

When lack of confidence is abandoned, and faith attained, stream-enterers become certain about Dhamma:

  • they are certain (kaṅkhā pahīnā hoti i.e. uncertainty abandoned) that false insights (diṭṭhi: listed below) arise when there is clinging and adhering to the khandhas (e.g. rūpaṃ upādāya rūpaṃ abhinivissa) (S.3.203). Without clinging (anupādāya), such wrong insights would not arise.
  • they are certain (kaṅkhā pahīnā hoti) about the truth of pain (dukkhaṃ), its origin, cessation and the way to cessation (S.3.203).
  • they have clearly seen and thoroughly penetrated with wisdom (paññāya sudiṭṭho hoti suppaṭividdho) dependent co-origination (paṭiccasamuppāda) (S.2.69-70; S.2.57-8)
  • they understand as it really is (yathābhūtaṃ pajānāti) the rise, fall, gratification, danger and escape concerning the five faculties: saddhindriyaṃ viriyindriyaṃ satindriyaṃ samādhindriyaṃ paññindriyaṃ (S.5.193).
  • they understand as it really is (yathābhūtaṃ pajānāti) the rise, fall, gratification, danger and escape concerning five faculties: sukhindriyaṃ dukkhindriyaṃ somanassindriyaṃ domanassindriyaṃ upekkhindriyaṃ S.5.207)
  • they understand as it really is (yathābhūtaṃ pajānāti) the rise, fall, gratification, danger and escape concerning the the six senses: cakkhundriyaṃ sotindriyaṃ ghānindriyaṃ jivhindriyaṃ kāyindriyaṃ manindriyaṃ (S.5.205).
  • they know and see (jānāti passati) that the elements are: aniccaṃ viparināmī aññathābhāvi (S.3.225-228)
  • they have seen the five khandhas as they actually are with proper wisdom (yathābhūtaṃ sammappaññāya passati) as being not their personal autonomy (netaṃ mama, neso hamasmi, na meso attā’ti) (M.1.234-5).

Thus, at the parinibbana, when none of the five hundred monks took the opportunity to ask a last question, the Buddha said that this was because none of them were uncertain or doubtful (kaṅkhā vā vimati) about the Buddha, Dhamma or Sangha or about the Path or the practice (magge vā paṭipadāya vā) and that the least of them were stream-enterers (M.2.155).

Destruction of false insight: diṭṭhinirodhā

These false insights are destroyed at stream-entry (diṭṭhinirodhā: A.4.68-70). They concern both the ten unexplained matters (avyākatavatthusu) and also various metaphysical matters. (S.4.286-7; S.3.213-6):

  1. The universe is eternal
  2. The universe is not eternal
  3. The universe is finite
  4. The universe is infinite
  5. The soul and the body are the same
  6. The soul is one thing, the body another
  7. The Tathagata exists after death
  8. The Tathagata does not exist after death
  9. The Tathagata both exists and does not exist after death
  10. The Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist after death
  • The moon and sun do not rise or set but stand unmoving as a pillar.
  • After death I will endure for eternity.
  • Everyone, either foolish or wise, after death ceases to exist.
  • Neither in giving, taming oneself, restraint, nor in speaking truth, is there any merit.
  • There is no cause or condition for the staining of beings; beings are stained without cause or condition.
  • There is no cause or condition for the purification of beings; beings are purified without cause or condition.
  • Pleasure and pain are meted out; samsara’s limits are fixed; there is no way to shorten or extend it. It is like a ball of string of a fixed length that rolls away unwinding itself.

If these views are seen with right wisdom (yathābhūtaṃ sammappaññā passato) as:

This is not part of a 'me' (netaṃ mama).
This is not what I am (nesohamasmi).
This is not my personal autonomy (na meso attā’ti)

then the views are abandoned (evametāsaṃ diṭṭhīnaṃ pahānaṃ hoti evametāsaṃ diṭṭhīnaṃ paṭinissaggo hoti) (M.1.40).

Blind grasping of rituals and ascetic practices: sīlabbataparāmāso

Rituals and ascetic practices are discarded by disciples when they first take refuge in the Buddha, and see that these practices are unhelpful to spiritual progress. Various examples illustrate this:


When Kassapa of Uruvela and his group of matted hair ascetic disciples decided to take ordination under the Buddha, they flung into the river their hair, braids, bundles on carrying poles, and fire-worshipping implements (Vin.1.32-3).


A brahman brought hundreds of bulls, goats and sheep to the sacrificial post for slaughter and burning, then asked the Buddha how to perform the sacrifice so it would be of the greatest benefit. The Buddha replied that even in preparing for such a sacrifice, thinking to make merit, one makes demerit; thinking to do good, one does evil; thinking one is pursuing happiness, one is pursuing pain. Then the Buddha explained that greed, hatred and delusion are three fires that should be shunned. He said that three fires should be venerated instead:

  • one’s parents
  • one’s family and employees
  • ascetics and brahmans

The brahman was so inspired by this explanation, that he asked to be a lay disciple for the rest of his life, and set free the animals for slaughter: “I give them life. Let them eat green grass, let them drink cool water; let the fresh breeze blow upon them (A.4.44)

River cleansing

The brahman Sundarika Bharadvaja asked the Buddha if he ever went to the Bahuka River to bathe? "For in the Bahuka River many people wash away the evil deeds they have done.” The Buddha replied that a “fool may bathe there forever, yet will not purify his black deeds”. He said that someone who is pure in heart and who does good deeds is ever cleansed, and advised the brahman to bathe in this way, to make himself a refuge for all beings, and to keep the moral precepts. This so inspired the brahman Sundarika Bharadvaja that he requested ordination (M.1.39; tr. Bhikkhu Bodhi, CDB).

River cleansing

A brahman said to the bhikkhuni Punnika: “Whoever, young or old, does evil kamma, is, through water ablution, from evil kamma set free”. Punnika replied: “ In that case, they’d all go to heaven: all the frogs, turtles, serpents, crocodiles, and anything else that lives in the water". She said that if these rivers could carry off evil kamma, they’d carry off merit as well. She advised the brahman to stop doing whatever it was that made him always need cleansing, and added "Don’t let the cold hurt your skin.” The Brahman said “I’ve been following the miserable path, good lady, and now you’ve brought me back to the noble” (Thi.p146; tr. Thanissaro).

Worshipping and serving

One early morning, the Buddha met a young brahman named Sigalaka, who, with clothes and hair still dripping from his ritual bath, and with joined palms, was worshipping (namassati) the six directions out of respectful obedience to his father’s dying request that he do so. The Buddha told Sigalaka that according to the noble discipline (ariyassa vinaye) this was not the way to worship the six directions, which Sigalaka then asked the Buddha to explain. In fact, the Buddha explained, not how to ‘worship’ the six directions, but how to ‘cover’ them (paṭicchādī), which he explained meant ‘serving’ the people in one’s life (paccupaṭṭhātabbā) because it is likely that ‘worshipping’ was a term that he felt should be used exclusively in relationship to the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha. He told Sigalaka how to properly serve six groups of people: one’s parents, teachers, spouses, friends, servants, and ascetics and brahmans, and how these can reciprocate by showing their tenderness (anukampanti) in return. The Buddha said that if one follows this advice, then each direction is made safe, free of fear (khemā appaṭibhayā). This is presumably because one is not cultivating danger and fear within any relationship. Instead, one is cultivating three qualities that might summarise the Buddha’s advice to Sigalaka: respect, kindness and dutifulness. Sigalaka was so impressed by this, that he took refuge in the Triple Gem, and asked to be a lay-follower (upāsakaṃ) who had taken refuge for life (D.3.180).

Purifying rites

Cunda was a silversmith whose purifying rites involved him touching the ground, cowdung or grass, worshipping fire or the sun, and bathing three times a day. The Buddha said that this was different from noble purification (ariyassa vinaye soceyyaṃ) which, at Cunda's request, he explained meant the four ways of right speech, the four ways of right conduct, and freedom from covetousness, ill-will and wrong views. These noble purifications result in someone who is indeed pure (suci yeva hoti) whether or not he practises touching the ground, worshipping fire and bathing three times a day, and they lead to happy rebirths, either celestial or human. Cunda was impressed with this explanation, and immediately took refuge in the Buddha for life (A.5.263-268).

Going upwards

There is a brahman practice called ‘going upwards’ (udayagāminiṃ nāma paṭipadaṃ) in which a disciple is told to get up early and walk facing east, and told not to avoid a pit, a precipice, a stump, a thorny place, a village pool, or a cesspool, and told to “expect death wherever you fall. Thus, good man, with the breakup of the body, after death, you will be reborn in heaven.” The Buddha said that this foolish practice does not lead to revulsion, dispassion, ending, peace, realisation, enlightenment or Nibbana. The practice called ‘going upwards’ in the Noble One’s Discipline (ariyassa vinaye udayagāminiṃ paṭipadaṃ paññāpemi) involves having unwavering faith in the Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha,and possession of the virtues dear to the noble ones. This leads to utter revulsion, to dispassion, to ending, to peace, to realisation, to enlightenment, to Nibbana” (S.5.361).

Gruelling asceticism

Before his enlightenment, the Buddha practised various ascetic practices. For instance, he rejected social conventions by practising nakedness; by remaining standing when eating, urinating and defaecating; by licking his hands clean instead of washing them. He tormented himself by standing continuously, rejecting seats; or by maintaining the squatting position; by using a bed of spikes; by bathing in cold water three times daily including the evening. He survived on very small amounts of food, and reached a state of extreme emaciation. Yet by such conduct and austerity he admitted that he did not attain any superhuman state of knowledge and vision that was truly noble, because he did not attain noble wisdom (ariyāya paññāya) which leads to the complete destruction of suffering (M.1.81). Later, he was to reflect: “I am indeed freed from that gruelling asceticism. It is good indeed that I am freed from that useless gruelling asceticism. It is good that, steady and mindful, I have attained enlightenment” (S.1.103; tr. Bodhi).

Sensual desire and ill-will: kāmacchando vyāpādo

The fourth and fifth fetters, like the first and second hindrances, are called sensual desire (kāmacchando) and ill will (vyāpādo). (S.5.64; S.5.105). But, unlike the hindrances, the fetters include the tendency to these two states, not just the states. These tendencies are gradually worn down, starting at stream-entry, because the stream-enterer is “not obsessed” (pariyuṭṭhito) by sensual lust (kāmarāga) or ill-will (byāpāda) (M.1.321-5); the once-returner has “attenuated” lust, hatred and delusion (rāgadosamohānaṃ tanuttā); the non-returner has “destroyed” the first five fetters (pañcannaṃ orambhāgiyānaṃ saṃyojanānaṃ parikkhayā) (M.1.34).

Although once-returners have attenuated lust, some lay people who attain this state maintain sexual relationships (A.5.137). Attachment to sexual pleasure means that states of greed, hatred and delusion (lobha, dosa, moha) can still invade the mind and remain (cittaṃ pariyādāya tiṭṭhanti) (S.5.369) even though one sees that sensuality (kāmā) is of full of sorrow and danger (M.1.91; S.5.369). These unwholesome states are only overcome when one attains the rapture and bliss (pītisukhaṃ) that is free of sensuality (aññatreva kāmehi) and unskilful states (akusalehi dhammehi) (M.1.91). At this stage, the once returner would presumably become a non-returner. This suggests that non-returners are free of the fourth and fifth fetters because they can easily attain jhana, whereas once-returners seem not to be able to do this.

The Madhupindika Sutta says that sensual desire and ill-will persist because one relishes, treasures, stores up one’s own illusions (papañcasaññāsaṅkhā). If there is nothing there to relish, to treasure, to store up (ettha ce natthi abhinanditabbaṃ abhivaditabbaṃ ajjhositabbaṃ), this is the end of the tendency to attachment (esevanto rāgānusayānaṃ) and the tendency to repugnance (esevanto paṭighānusayānaṃ). Thus these evil, unskilled states are destroyed without remainder (M.1.109).

Attachment to material and formless states: rūparāgo; arūparāgo

Attachment to material and formless states are fetters which bind non-returners. Outside of the ten fetters, they are never mentioned or explained in the suttas. In the list of the seven tendencies (satta anusayā) (S.5.60) their place is taken by the ‘tendency to attach to existence’ (bhavarāgānusayo), so perhaps bhavarāgānusayo somehow includes them both.

It is likely that the terms refer to subtle attachments to meditation states, because although once returners practise samadhi moderately (samādhismiṃ mattasokārī hoti) when they become non-returners they practise samadhi in full (samādhismiṃ paripūrakārī hoti) (A.1.232). This may lead them to indulge in such practices, and fetter them to the extent that it even affects their re-birth. Attachment to states of samadhio can be so powerful that it even leads monks to commit suicide if they fail to maintain these states (S.1.120-1). This latter case involved Venerable Godhika. Although by the moment of actual death, he had attained arahantship, his failing to maintain states of samadhi are suggestive of a once returner or stream-enterer.

At death, non-returners ‘arise spontaneously’ (opapātiko). Their destinations are varied, not just the Pure Abodes. It depends upon which meditation they have developed. Consider this reflective meditation:

  • If it were not, it would not be part of 'me'; it will be not, and part of 'me' it will be not. That which is, which has come to be, that I abandon.
    No cassa, no ca me siyā. Na bhavissati, na ca me bhavissati. Yadatthi yaṃ bhūtaṃ taṃ pajahāmīti (A.4.70).

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 (sa-upādāno ānanda bhikkhu na parinibbāyatī’ti) (M.2.265). They are therefore reborn in the Pure Abodes (suddhāvāsānaṃ devānaṃ sahavyataṃ upapajjati) (e.g. see A.2.128; A.4.70-74) and get enlightened there (tattha parinibbāyī). This happens because they are attached to the sphere of neither perception nor non-perception, which is the highest attachment (upādānaseṭṭhaṃ hetaṃ yadidaṃ nevasaññānāsaññāyatanaṃ). This attachment could be called ‘attachment to formless states’ (i.e. arūparāga).

If people are extensively involved (bahulavihārī) with samadhi practices and the brahmaviharas, however, they get attached to those states instead (tadadhimutto). Such people are reborn, and get enlightened, in destinations other than the Pure Abodes (tasmiṃyeva bhave parinibbāyati). The destinations are as follows:

  • first jhana: brahmakāyikānaṃ devānaṃ
  • second jhana: ābhassarānaṃ devānaṃ
  • third jhana: subhakiṇhānaṃ devānaṃ
  • fourth jhana: vehapphalānaṃ devānaṃ
  • sphere of infinite space: ākāsānañcāyatanūpagānaṃ devānaṃ
  • sphere of infinite consciousness: viññāṇañcāyatanūpagānaṃ devānaṃ
  • sphere of nothingness: ākiñcaññāyatanūpagānaṃ devānaṃ
  • mettā: brahmakāyikānaṃ devānaṃ
  • karuṇā: ābhassarānaṃ devānaṃ
  • muditā: ābhassarānaṃ devānaṃ
  • upekkhā: vehapphalānaṃ devānaṃ (A.1.267; A.2.126).

Perturbation: uddhaccaṃ

This is explained under the five hindrances.

Dhamma blindness: avijjā

Synonyms of avijjā are:

  • aññāṇaṃ, not knowing. For example, not knowing suffering (dukkhe aññāṇaṃ). This is cured by making an effort to know it (idaṃ dukkhan’ti yogo karaṇīyo) (M.1.54).
  • nappajānāti, not knowing. For example, not knowing form, its arising and ceasing rūpaṃ...rūpasamudayaṃ... rūpanirodhaṃ nappajānāti etc (S.3.162).

The opposite of avijjā is:

  • ñāṇaṃ knowledge. For example, knowing suffering (dukkhe ñāṇaṃ) (S.5.429)
  • jānato passato knowing and seeing. For example, knowing and seeing the impermanence of the eye, which destroys ignorance (cakkhuṃ aniccato jānato passato avijjā pahīyati) (S.4.31)
  • pajānāti knowing. For example, knowing form, its arising, its ceasing, and the path (rūpaṃ pajānāti, rūpasamudayaṃ pajānāti, rūpanirodhaṃ pajānāti, rupanirodhagāminiṃ paṭipadaṃ pajānāti)(S.3.163).
  • aniccasaññā: perception of impermanence, which when developed and cultivated eliminates all ignorance (sabbaṃ avijjaṃ pariyādiyati) (S.3.155).

Avijjā is usually translated as ‘ignorance’. But ignorance means a lack of theoretical knowledge; for instance, consider Venerable Channa who, the sutta tells us, had theoretical knowledge of Dhamma but did not really see it. He had to ask Venerable Ananda to teach him how to see it (me tathā dhammaṃ deseyya yathāhaṃ dhammaṃ passeyyan’ti) (S.3.132). This shows that attainment of insight is a kind of seeing, and not the attainment of theoretical knowledge. Thus, stream-entry is like being shown the way when one is lost, or having a lamp brought into a dark place, or attaining the pure and spotless Dhamma-eye (virajaṃ vītamalaṃ dhammacakkhuṃ udapādi) (D.1.110). Enlightenment is like darkness being banished, and light arising (M.1.248); this occurs when one knows and sees (evaṃ jānato evaṃ passato) the four noble truths as clearly as if one were looking at fish in a crystal clear pond (D.1.84).

The story of Channa also illustrates how Dhamma-blindness is abandoned at all stages of the Path, not just at arahantship. The Buddha confirms this: with each of the three knowledges leading to his own enlightenment, Dhamma blindness was destroyed (avijjā vihatā), and Dhamma vision arose (vijjā uppannā), not just at the final moment:

  • Recollecting past lives: avijjā vihatā vijjā uppannā
  • Seeing the death and rebirth of beings: avijjā vihatā vijjā uppannā
  • Destruction of the asavas: avijjā vihatā vijjā uppannā (M.1.247-9)

This model of gradually decaying Dhamma blindness is in accordance with the simile of the ocean. Just as the ocean gradually deepens, with no sudden precipice, so also in Dhamma and Discipline, the Buddha said there is a gradual progression (anupubbapaṭipadā), without a sudden penetration to final knowledge (na āyatakeneva aññāpaṭivedho) (Vin.2.238).

Other superhuman states


suttas.net     |     © 2008, Bhante Varado     |     Install the Gentium font