These are the show notes for the latest episode of the Imperfect Buddha Podcast. If you want to know more about the specific thinking and beliefs that allow people to belong to cults and stay in them when scandals occur, then you would do well to read this text on critical thinking at the Post-traditional Buddhism site.
- A device, usually one of a pair of rings connected to a chain that is attached to the ankles or feet to restrict movement.
- Something that serves to restrict; a restraint: the fetters of tyranny.
tr.v. fet·tered, fet·ter·ing, fet·ters
- To put fetters on; shackle.
- To restrict or restrain: thinking that is fettered by prejudice
Within Buddhism, fetters are primarily discussed in the earlier schools of Buddhism and the term is typically translated from the Pali term samyojana into English as chain or bond. There are a number of ways of conceiving of them;
- Intrapsychic phenomena that tie us to cyclical, habitual states of being and experiencing
- Structures embedded within the mental and emotional layers of an individual bound to a cyclical, atomistic self
- Collective psychological and emotional planes which we are submerged in from birth
Phenomenologically, it might be better to define them as psycho-emotional patterns centred on the phantom I that are maintained through interwoven fictional narratives that are personal and historical, collective and ideological.
In any of the descriptions above, they are expressed or lived through habitual behaviour, thought patterns, feelings, belief patterns and assumptions visible and implicit, all entwined in conditioned sensory habits of perception. In the Pali canon ten fetters are identified[i];
- Belief in a self (Pali: sakkāya-diṭṭhi)
- Doubt or uncertainty, especially about the teachings (vicikicchā)
- Attachment to rites and rituals (sīlabbata-parāmāsa)[
- 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)
These fetters will be discussed in conjunction with the awakening stage they are part of below.
It is interesting that fetters were originally considered not only very difficult to remove but to span lifetimes. This brings up a question regarding the ontological nature of emotion as many of the fetters are connected to feeling. What are emotions exactly? At a very basic level they are a form of energy that moves through the body. The primary emotions are shared amongst all humans and animals alike and since we are not in possession of them, it would seem that they represent a shared spectrum of energy movement. From a non-dual perspective, emotions do not exist as independent objects to be afflicted with or as forces to be controlled: they are simply part of the fluctuation of human experience. The collective nature of fetter formation needs to be highlighted as it is very often downplayed in Buddhist teachings.
Our social reality is based on creating subjects, consistent persons that interact through reliable identities shaped from birth to adulthood. Identities that adhere to social norms in order to reproduce and sustain the dominant ideology, which is not a single fixed form out there somewhere, but more akin to a map that we are situated in and which we confuse for reality.
Due to Buddhism’s limited elaboration of the collective dimension of me-making, it is unable to provide sufficient means for breaking through our embeddedness in the collective me-making of our society, culture, generation, historical phase, etc. Because it cannot provide sufficient tools for addressing our collective self, it can only watch passively, or offer a Buddhist identity as an alternative means for navigating such terrain.
Finally, since we do not have a single conclusive definition of what mind is and considering that Buddhist definitions can be contradictory, we cannot objectively posit the fetters as truly existing within the structure of the brain or within consciousness. At this point, recourse to a phenomenological exploration of the fetters and how they are typically experienced by an average individual is the logical option if we want to take this model into consideration. A map is a map after all; it is not the geographical features it attempts to record. Taking a phenomenological approach, the question that arises is how are these phenomena experienced by people and how do we define those experiences in strictly human terms?
Stage one: stream entry
Taking nirvana as freedom from, the four stages can be defined in terms of what we progressively free ourselves of. In each case, the four stages signify a break from identification with a number of fetters. I will stray further from traditional descriptions in an attempt to establish a phenomenological reading.
The three fetters dismantled during the first stage are;
- Identity view/self-identity (personal, direct perceiving of the emptiness at the root of the phantom I and experiencing a profound destabilising shift as a result)
- Sceptical doubt (specifically regarding the truth of non-self, impermanence and its implications and the root causes of the suffering-self)
- Clinging to rites and rituals (recognising the role of the symbolic, disidentification from dominant symbols, losing enamoredness for solely symbolic forms, or the stabilisers of identity; usually accompanied by an appreciation for the role of direct experience over theory)
The first fetter is concerned with how we actively view the self. At a more instinctive or primitive level it is simply how we state ‘I’ and how that resonates with an assembly of interwoven narratives which solidify a sense of uniqueness that is special, separate from the world somehow and very much ‘me’. This illusion of a fixed, permanent self that exists apart from the world is connected but somehow separate.
This is the most important fetter to break with as it forms the foundation for all the other fetters. Gaining freedom from it requires that we free ourselves of this illusion and see clearly how the self as we thought it to exist is empty of any solid, fixed features, it is hollow and beset by spaciousness. The first fetter is an intrapsychic phenomenon and a form of psycho-emotional entrapment, as such gaining freedom from it would imply a major break from the nucleus of self-identity.
We recognise ourselves as selves that are embodied through the habitual flavours, moods and acts of our senses, thoughts, physical sensations and relational habits to events, spaces, objects and people. We play out stilted roles that are infused with gaps. Seeing through the first fetter must occur holistically for an uncoupling from all this to occur. Phenomenologically speaking it is to be experienced in the body through sensations, through the senses as clear perception, and piercing clarity of mind.
This fetter is the most important of all and represents the foundational break from an illusory I. Not only does it represent the key Buddhist insight of emptiness, but it opens up the ability to view others, experience and phenomena as also being devoid of a permanent, fixed self nature.
It is funny really, because this in itself is not such a big deal. We know objectively through the sciences, but also through western philosophy dating back to Hume, that nothing is fixed and eternal. To know it firsthand and to experience an override of the delusion of an atomistic ‘I’ pushes against so much of what constitutes our sense of self that it is easier said than done. That does not mean it is not possible, however, or a task that needs to be relegated to future lifetimes or decades from now.
The second fetter is sceptical doubt. Typically this is worded as sceptical doubt regarding Buddhist teachings. Shorn of Buddhism as a social construct, how does such a thing exist and dissolve for a person who is not a Buddhist. That is to say, if a non-Buddhist gains freedom from this fetter, how does he or she experience it and know it to be so? If sceptical doubt traditionally refers to the Buddha’s teachings, which teachings should we assume are confirmed by this process? Do we include moral injunctions to avoid oral sex for example? A crude example I admit, but the point should be clear, doubt in this case has to be towards phenomena that are not restricted to Buddhism. Sceptical doubt then ought only to refer to phenomena that are directly visible and knowable in the world we inhabit. Direct insight into impermanence, the absence of atomistic selves, the nature of the suffering-self and the need for some form of ethical behaviour if we are to avoid creating unnecessary suffering are the best candidates and none are the property, real of otherwise, of Buddhism.
The opposite of doubt is faith. Scepticism on the other hand points to critical engagement. We must keep in mind that the fetters are psycho-emotional phenomena and are not restricted to intelligence and the rational mind. There are different forms of faith. Blind faith is a form of ignorance based on grasping at certainties and immaturity. I usually think of it as needing mummy or daddy to take care of you. Faith in its most basic meaning implies confidence and trust. Faith in the foundational truths of Buddhism can emerge through witnessing them at play within and without. This naturally flows from direct, experiential perception of the vacuous nature of our own form.
Clinging to rites and rituals
The third fetter is the most unusual, that is to say it clearly relates to forms of behaviour and belief and in its wording appears to imply religious or spiritual activity. I have always found this an odd occurrence to take place at the initial stage of awakening. Buddhism is abound with both rites and rituals so my initial thought was why would this be the case. In attempting to tease this model from the hands of Buddhism, I began to think about it differently. If the self is a narrative that is sustained by habits, in feelings, actions, thoughts and relationships, then what we have immediately is a sense of how to proceed. We are by nature ritualistic creatures, and rites might be redefined, not as exclusively religious or spiritual, but as the acts that we carry out to affirm and solidify the feelings, conclusions, sensations, thoughts and beliefs that make up the scaffolding that surrounds the phantom I. We engage in rituals collectively that have the same function of maintaining agreed upon ideas regarding identity and the range of experiences we can have, emotions we can feel, thoughts we can explore. We might not define them in such terms but any decent sociologist will tell you that society and relationships are ritualistic by nature. Seeing through such forms may lend itself to a radical liberation from the ideological prisons that make up our self-structure, absorbed and adopted from the society, familial circumstances and education that we were moulded by. This begins to sound a lot more radical than talk of how many lifetimes are left before the samsaric prison break. This view may explain why retreat is the preferred method for inciting the movement into stream entry, considering that such an environment requires a solid break from our everyday lives and isolation not just from distractions, but also the networks of interbeing that sustain our particular form of self.
Stream entry as metaphor may be understood thus. The stream may be thought of as the continuous and uninterrupted flow or emergence of being with the loss of these fetters leading to three distinct changes in self-identification:
- Self-referential conditioned & habitual being relaxes, and increasingly dissolves into an open sensorial merging with what is immediate.
- Confidence in this openness, in groundlessness and ongoing emergent being builds and undermines the returning echoes of the self structure that was previously inhabited.
- We lose faith in the ritualistic formalities of our existence, relationships and habits of self and can no longer maintain the status quo. Ideological allegiance becomes forced, difficult to sustain. Ideas of ideological purity fall apart and an open expanse becomes visible, filled with the projects of man.
What takes place within all this is an emerging and ongoing meeting between the infinite (emptiness, space, meaninglessness if you prefer) and the remains of our limited conventional-self. Phenomenologically, in achieving stream entry, we experience a flow of ever widening perception into the illusion of the self and selves, and are met with, for want of a better term, the remarkableness and open-endedness of being and inter-being. What emerges is increasing room to respond creatively to ongoing circumstances. This becomes possible once we have discarded the suffocating nature of self-referentialness and the obsessions and compulsions of the atomistic self. Along with all this, there is an immense reduction in the types of suffering categorised under the term dukkha and this brings us into line with the main promise of Buddhism.