In Buddhism, the ten fetters are ten things that shackle us to a life of suffering. If we cut through these fetters, we will be able to start to alleviate our suffering.
I have mentioned various ways of reducing our suffering throughout this series on the Mangala Sutra, so now I want to discuss things that may stop us from reducing our suffering, namely, the ten fetters. These are ten things that shackle us to a life of suffering. If we cut through these fetters, we will be able to start reducing our suffering.
So, what are these ten fetters? Buddha stated this:
‘There are these ten fetters. Which ten? Five lower fetters and five higher fetters. And which are the five lower fetters? Self-illusion, doubt, grasping at rites and rituals, clinging desire, and resentfulness. These are the five lower fetters. And which are the five higher fetters? Passion for form, passion for formless, conceit, restlessness, and unawareness. These are the five higher fetters. And these are the ten fetters.’
The first of the ten fetters that shackle us to suffering is self-illusion. This is the belief that we are permanent, unchanging, and solid beings. This leads to the illusion of a separate self, which we get attached to, defend, cherish, and spend lots of money on glorifying. It makes us egotistic, arrogant, proud, and conceited. This is a major obstacle to reducing our suffering. I will discuss this fully in the next blog.
The second fetter is doubt. What we are talking about here is having doubts about Buddha’s teachings and practices. It is a state of mind where nothing we hear or see satisfies us. It’s when our expectations do not match our experiences. It may lead us to become perplexed and confused.
Now, doubt shouldn’t be looked upon as a bad thing, as it can encourage us to investigate deeper and help clear up our confusion. The problem comes when our doubts are not satisfactorily resolved, and at that point they become a hindrance.
If, after much questioning and investigating, you still have extremely strong doubts about Buddha’s teaching and practices, I would suggest it’s a good time to revaluate whether you are following the right path for you. When there is doubt in your practice that cannot be resolved, this can bring you up against a brick wall. It is better to walk away than to try and carry doubt into your practice.
The third fetter is grasping at rites and rituals. This isn’t saying we shouldn’t use various practices to help us reduce our suffering, such as meditation and mindfulness practice, because these are very helpful. What it is saying is that we shouldn’t get attached to rites and rituals, or have the wrong view about them, such as thinking they have some magical power.
Our attachment to rites and rituals is as problematic as our attachment to sense objects and people, or anything else for that matter. Rites and rituals are the coming together of causes and conditions, which makes them impermanent. So, by clinging to them, we are actually causing ourselves more suffering, not less.
We have to understand that by grasping at a certain rites or rituals we are not going to be miraculously transported to a better place or become a Buddha. That simply isn’t realistic. Purification does not come about by washing yourself in a holy river, paying monks to do prayers for you, or adopting some form of extreme abstinence. We actually have to do the practice for it to work. Think of it this way: you are sitting by the river, and you want to cross it, but there is no bridge or boat. However, there is wood, nails, hammer and so on laying on the ground, so you could make the effort and construct a boat to cross the river. Instead, you decide to sit there and pray—do you think you are going to get to the other side by reciting prayers? No, and neither did Buddha. Instead, he emphasised the importance of making individual effort to achieve our goals. He stated in the Ittha Sutra that if we want to attain things, we must follow the path of practice:
‘These five things are welcome, agreeable, pleasant, and hard to obtain in the world. Which five?
‘Long life, beauty, happiness, status, and rebirth are welcome, agreeable, pleasant, and hard to obtain in the world.
‘Now, I tell you, these five things are not to be obtained by reason of prayers or wishes. If they were to be obtained by reason of prayers or wishes, who here would lack them?
‘It’s not fitting for the disciple who desires happiness to pray for it or to delight in doing so. Instead, the disciple who desires these should follow the path of practice leading to happiness (the eightfold path). In so doing, he will attain happiness’.
(The same applies to desiring a long life, beauty, status, or rebirth.)
To free ourselves from the shackles of this fetter, we have to practice with diligence and make sure we do not get attached to any rites and rituals. We also need, once we have studied a teaching, to examine its purpose. This will ensure we do not wrongly grasp at its meaning, as this could bring us more harm and suffering. In the Alagaddupama Sutra, Buddha gave this advice to the monks:
‘There are here, monks, some foolish men who study the teaching; having studied it, they do not wisely examine the purpose of those teachings. To those who do not wisely examine the purpose, these teachings will not yield insight. They study the teaching only to use it for criticising or for refuting others in disputation. They do not experience the true purpose for which they ought to study the teaching. To them these teachings wrongly grasped, will bring harm and suffering for a long time. And why? Because of their wrong grasp of the teachings’.
Fetter four and five, which are cling desire and resentfulness, have both been mentioned several times in this series on the Mangala Sutra, so I won’t go into them again here.
Fetters number six and seven are concerned with becoming attached to form and formless realms, respectively. When we are attached to the form realm, we want to be reborn as a human; when we are attached to the formless realm, we wish to be reborn in another world system. The point is that any attachment, be it to this world or another world, is going to impede our progress along the path to reducing our suffering. Now, many of you may have suspended your belief in rebirth or other realms until there is some clear and demonstrable evidence. That is not a problem, in fact it’s a wise thing to do. But what we need to gain from these fetters is that attachment to anything is only going to set us up for more suffering.
The eighth fetter is conceit. This is where we think ourselves superior to others, we have a superiority complex. We also believe ourselves to be right. We may listen to others’ views, but as we know better, we are never swayed by them.
When I first came to India and did the rounds of Buddhist teachings, I was submerged into the world of the Dharma bums – this is what they were called then. They would sit around for hours and brag and boast about their practice and the high teachings they have had. They would say things like, ‘I’ve had hundreds of empowerments’, ‘I know so-and-so guru very well’, and ‘My meditation practice is secret, and I can’t talk about it’—even though they did. They were so conceited, it made it hard for me to even listen to them much of the time.
I understand that we are all different and we do different practices, but if we talk in a conceited way, it is going to hinder our practice. We will end up with more suffering. So, the answer is to be humble. If you ask someone something, do it out of curiosity and not pride. I find it difficult to be around people talking about how wonderful their practice is and how much better it is than anyone else’s.
Restlessness is the ninth fetter. This is an overexcited, distracted, confused, worried and uneasy state of mind. It is a mind that is not at peace or tranquil; it is the opposite of the one-pointed mind that we aim for in our meditation practice.
It is caused when we allow our mind to be worried about something in the past we cannot change or concerned about something in the future that hasn’t happened yet. So, of course, the antidote to this is being mindful and present in the moment.
It can also be caused by not fully understanding why you are doing a certain practice. Before you start any practice, ensure you know why you are doing it, what the benefits will be and how you will monitor your progress.
The final fetter is unawareness. It means not understanding that we are suffering, the causes of this suffering and the path out of this suffering. It also means not knowing that our actions have consequences, that things are impermanent and that there is no solid and lasting self. This fetter is very powerful as it makes us go through life seeing things in an unrealistic way.
All these fetters are things that shackle us to a life of suffering. If we are going to be able to reduce our suffering, we have to be aware of these fetters and apply the appropriate antidotes.
This blog is based on my book ‘Life’s Meandering Path’- available from Amazon and Kindle.