The Ten Fetters

By the Wanderling

In Buddhist lore, prior to his Enlightenment, while sitting under the Bodhi Tree, Siddhārtha Gautama was confronted by Mara, the Evil One, who sent ten temptors in an effort to stop him from reaching Enlightenment. As it has come down to us the temptors have been presented as manifested personifications, angels, or spiritual entities and given names as any person might. However, over time the names of each so named have come to represent the temptations to be overcome for any who may so choose to follow the Buddhist path to Enlightenment. Originally The Ten Chief Sins in their personifications, they are, or least their names and the temptations so endowed, are now represented in The Ten Fetters.

The following is an exploration of The Ten Fetters claimed by the Buddha specifically and Buddhism generally as standing in the way of Enlightenment:

 1. Sakkaya-ditthi is translated as “personality belief.” This is the belief that we are solid beings, which leads to the illusion of a separate self, egoism, or individuality. This is a major obstacle to spiritual progress. Not only are we attached to the idea of self, we even glorify it. Conceit, arrogance, pride, self-abasement. Attachment to idea of “I” is fundamental to all problems; we defend the idea of I, we seek to cherish I, make a fuss of it. It is difficult to be entirely free from idea of self (Anatta), but at least do not take the five aggregates as self.

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. Vicikiccha is typically listed as the fifth of The Five Hindrances. 

3. Silabbata Paramasa means “adherence to wrongful rites, rituals and ceremonies”…in the mistaken belief that purification can be achieved simply by their performance. Examples are the extreme ascetic practices condemned by the Buddha. Also at that time, the Brahmins had developed very complicated rituals which only they could carry out and which meant that the rest of the population had to ask the Brahmins for perform all the religious ceremonies on their behalf. “Oneself is one’s own master. Who else can be the master?” (Dhp. v. 160).

The Buddha said that neither the repetition of holy scriptures, nor self-torture, nor sleeping on the ground, nor the repetition of prayers, penances, hymns, charms, mantras, incantations and invocations can bring us the real happiness of Nirvana. Instead the Buddha emphasized the importance of making individual effort in order to achieve our spiritual goals. He likened 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.
The Buddha was talking to one of his prominent lay-disciples, called Anathapindika and said, “There are, O householder, five desirable, pleasant and agreeable things which are rare in the world. What are those five? They are long life, beauty, happiness, fame and rebirth in the heavens. But of these five things, O householder, I do not teach that they are to be obtained by prayer or by vows. If one could obtain them by prayer or vows, who would not do it?

“For a noble disciple who wishes to have long life, it is not befitting that he should pray for long life or take delight in so doing. He should rather follow a path of life that is conducive to longevity.” (Anguttara Nikaya V, 43) He goes on to recommend the same course of action in respect of the other four desirable things.

4. Kama-raga, also kamacchandra, means “sensual desire.” This is one of the roots of Tanha which is at the heart of all our problems with Dukkha. After we experience Dukkha we latch onto something. But what we latch on to has nothing to do with the Dukkha. What comes up is called in Sanskrit Samudaya. Desire, as Tanha, is a “Daughter of Mara,” one of the first three temptors unleashed by Mara, The Personification of Evil, to entice the future Buddha into abandoning his quest for Enlightenemnt. Also considered one of The Three Poisons and the first of The Five Hindrances

Equally as significant this same hindrance is Number One at the top of the list of the Patimokka, the 227 Rules to be observed by members of the Buddhist Order. Out of the 227 rules it is one of ONLY four, called the Parajikas, that if breached incurs explusion from the order for life. If you think Buddhism takes it lightly take some time to read Parajikas. Buddhism might not be your cup of tea.

5. Patigha, also vyapada, The literal meaning of this term is “to hit against,” but it is often translated into English as “ill-will or hatred.” This is the cause of conflict both on an individual basis, and between nations as well. As Arati, aversion, another of the “Three Daughters of Mara” initally unleashed by Mara. Hatred is one of The Three Poisons as well as the second of The Five Hindrances.

6. Rupa-raga is “attachment to the form realms.” It is a fetter when it continues to bind one to the Samsaric world. When overcome it is similar to Patanjali’s samprajnata samadhi. Samprajnata-samadhi incorporates the first four of the Eight Jhana States within its scope, which when overcome, often through entry level Access Concentration, can lead to the eradication of The Five Hindrances, a major step toward liberation. As lust, Raga is also considered one of “Three Daughters of Mara” originally unleashed.

7. Arupa-raga is “attachment to the formless realms.” It remains a fetter impeding liberation if the attachment is not breached. When breached it is similar to Patanjali’s asamprajnata samadhi. Asamprajnata-samadhi incorporates the last four Jhanas within its scope. Asamprajnata-samadhi is sometimes known in Vedanta circles as Nirvikalpa-samadhi. The Buddha surpassed this fetter under the Bodhi Tree on the night of his Enlightenment through Insight (Vipassana Meditation).

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.” (Dhammasangani 429). 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. Last of of The Three Poisons.

The first five Fetters are known as Lower Fetters (orambhagiya-samyojana) because they bind us to the sensuous world. The second five Fetters are known as Higher Fetters (uddhambhagiya-samyojana) because they bind us to the rupa and arupa worlds (see #6 and 7 above).

These Fetters can be eradicated in four stages, what we call The Four Stages of Sainthood. 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, Stream Enterer. 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 of sainthood is a Sakadagami, Once Returner, 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 Anãgãmi, Non Returner.

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. Remember:

The Arahat creates no new Karma; he has gone beyond both good and evil, but he must still live with the Karmic effects of his previous actions.

But when the life in the body eventually passes away the Arahat has to die just like anyone else. One can summarize this state by saying that it is freedom of suffering, it is the destruction or Death of the Ego and the eradication of greed, hatred and delusion.

In the Ratana Sutta is says: “Their past is dead, the new no more arises, Mind to future becoming is unattached, The germ has died. They have no more desire for growth. Those wise (and steadfast ones) go out as died this lamp.” (Sutta Nipata, 14)

To summarize: Although Nirvana may be defined as the end of craving, it is NOT a conditioned state, it is not the result of anything. The direct nature of the Buddha’s teaching is focused solely on the cessation of dukkha. The eradication of the Ten Fetters leads through The Four Stages of Sainthood to the ultimate goal of all Buddhist practice, which is the realization of Nirvana and thus then Sunyata. The way which leads to this realization is called the Eightfold Noble Path.

The eradication of the Ten Fetters or the mind being ripe sets the stage for total transformation. All of it can be a long drawn out process or it can transpire in an instant — or a combination of the two. Re: the Buddha at Vulture Peak holding up the flower and the Venerable Mahakashyapa’s Attainment thereof via a “Transmission” of sort. Enlightenment occured for Mahakashyapa through a sudden flash of insight and not through a gradual process of reasoning.



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