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.
In the first noble truth Buddha explained that there is suffering running through our lives from birth through to death. In the second truth he told us about some of the causes of this suffering, namely the three poisons. In the fourth truth, he explained what path we can take to start the process of destroying the three poisons. This path is known as the eight-fold path.
This is how Buddha described the eight-fold path:
‘And what, monks, is the noble truth of the path of practice leading to the cessation of desire? Just this very eight-fold path: appropriate view, appropriate intention, appropriate speech, appropriate action, appropriate livelihood, appropriate effort, appropriate mindfulness and appropriate concentration.’
This path is not a religious path and doesn’t require rituals, prayers, ceremonies, or even for you to become a Buddhist. It can be looked upon
as a path that leads
to us living a responsible life and so anybody can practise
it. So, it isn’t a Buddhist practice, it is more of a lifestyle practice.
The eightfold path comprises of three aspects and I will take each aspect
individually and explore the appropriate ways to approach the path. The first aspect is seeing clearly, which includes
view and intention.
let’s start by looking at the view? The view refers to the understanding that
we cause most of our emotional suffering ourselves, the understanding that
everything is impermanent and the understanding that things happen due to
causes, which in turn lead to consequences. Here I will concentrate on the
understanding of cause and effect.
So, what do we
need to understand about cause and effect? It is important to understand that
our actions of body, speech and mind have consequences. You may think that, ‘I
understand that actions of body and speech have consequences, but how can our
thoughts?’ Before we do any action, it starts off as a thought – first we think
and then we act. This thought can be conscious or unconscious, but it is there
before any action. So, it is important to realise that our thoughts also have
Whatever we do
and say will become a cause for our future conditions. I am not talking about
future lives here; I am talking about this life. We are the architects of our
future. This is how we should be thinking. We should not be thinking that our
lives are conditioned by some system of reward and punishment meted out by an
outside force. This way of thinking is just shirking our responsibilities. Of
course, it is easier to blame someone else for our problems, we love doing
that, but this will not help us bring about a change for the better in our
simplistically, if we act in a kind, caring, helpful and compassionate way, we
will be helping to build a good future for ourselves. This is not some
metaphysical law; I am just stating the way life is. If we act in a bad way by
not caring for others, stealing, lying, cheating, killing and generally acting
in a harmful way, people are not going to want to be associated with us or help
us when we need it. This is the way of the world. Also, if we are a kind and
caring person our conscience will be clear, and this will also reduce our
emotional suffering and certainly help us during our meditation and mindful
There is no
scientific evidence for this, but just look at your own experiences and I am
sure you will see that your actions have consequences. If you kill someone you
will be caught and sent to prison or put to death. However, if you are not
caught, you will have to carry the torment, anguish and guilt around with you
for the rest of your life, fearful every time the doorbell rings. Either way
there are consequences for your act of killing.
Having said that,
I am not suggesting that if we act in a good way the whole of our life is going
to be rosy. Unfortunately, that isn’t going to happen, but it will reduce the
chances of bad things happening. It will also put us in a better frame of mind
to be able to cope with these unfavourable situations when they arise.
We don’t live in
a bubble, so the actions of others are also going to affect us. Other people’s
causes and effects overlap our causes and effects until there is a huge web of
interconnected causes and effects. So, we have to remember that when something
unpleasant befalls us it is the result of a large number of causes. This will
stop us adding anger and frustration to an already difficult situation. It will
also prevent us from struggling with something that is beyond our control. This
will at the very least reduce some of our emotional suffering.
When we have the
appropriate view regarding cause and effect,
it encourages us to live an honourable life. This is a life where we take
responsibility for our actions.
Some people find
it hard to get to grips with cause and effect, so I suggest you sit quietly and
reflect on it. That way, you will understand that things can only come into
existence due to a cause or causes and not randomly or magically. Every cause
will ultimately have an effect. So, all of our actions of body, speech and mind
are going to have consequences. This should encourage us to act in a skilful
The next element
of the path is intention. What I am talking about here is your motivation and
conditioning, as it is these forces that move us into doing actions with our
bodies, speech or minds.
element is divided into three sections and Buddha explained it this way:
‘And what, monks, is appropriate intention? intentions of letting go, Intentions of freedom from ill will, intentions of harmlessness. This, monks, is called appropriate intention.’
The first section
is sometimes talked about as renunciation, giving something up, rejecting or
abandoning, but I think a better way to describe this is the act of letting go.
What we are trying to let go of is attachment to, or craving for, sensual
believe renunciation is never going to work. The more we try to renounce
something, the more we get ourselves entangled in it. If you are fighting
something, you are giving it power. So, in that way, for me, renunciation will
not work. This is why I say let it go, because by doing that you are giving it
no power and it will begin to disappear on its own. What I mean by letting
things go is that we don’t get ourselves ensnared by over thinking, judging,
comparing or criticising, we don’t engage the desire, we allow it to arise, we
acknowledge it, let it pass and we move on. Of course, that is easier said than
done but this is where our mindfulness practices help a lot. If we are present
with our thoughts, we will catch the desire as it arises. This gives us the
opportunity to follow the desire or let it go.
desires is one of the origins of our emotional suffering, but when we try to
let things go, a strong feeling inside stops us from succeeding. This happens
because we are so attached to our desires. It is never easy to suddenly just
let them go, but it certainly is not impossible.
If we believe
sensual objects are going to give us true happiness, we will start clinging to
them and this will in turn shape our thoughts and actions. We will become
attached and our emotional suffering will begin.
It takes time to
change our perceptions and it is not going to be easy. We have to slowly start
chipping away at our clinging attachment to sensual objects, whether it is to
people or belongings. Step by step we reduce their hold on us.
How do we let our
clinging desires go? There are several ways, but I believe the best one is to
contemplate impermanence. By doing
thisyou begin to realise the
impermanence of things, you understand that everything is temporary and there
is nothing solid to get attached to. So, when a clinging desire arises you do
not have to hold on to it, you can let it go. Just keep reminding yourself
that, ‘This is temporary and will pass.’
Freedom from ill-will
This is when we
do not have any thoughts of causing others harm.
from clinging to our ego and can arise when we are unhappy with someone,
jealous, have too much pride, anger, have an aversion towards someone and so
on. For example, when someone, such as our friend, partner or family member has
hurt us, and we start wishing bad things to happen to them. Ill-will is often
an emotional reaction. It doesn’t necessarily follow that we will act upon our
ill-will, but as our actions are driven by our thoughts, the potential is
always there to do so.
The best way to
liberate ourselves from ill-will is to foster the thought that other people,
just like us, are fighting against the physical and emotional suffering running
through their lives. They also want to be free of this emotional suffering and
want only peace of mind. If we think like this, it will cause goodwill to arise
within us. So, caring for others’ feelings and showing them genuine warmth
replaces ill-will with a sense of compassion and kindness.
Now when I talk
about caring for others, I am not talking about sympathy or pity, but real
empathy. This is when we put ourselves in other people’s shoes and truly
understand that they wish to be treated kindly and with warmth. They too are
struggling to make sense of their lives.
These days, we
tend to ration our kindness to people we are friendly with. This way of acting
can be selfish and goes part of the way to explain why there is so much
ill-will in the world today. You need look no further than the vile comments
people post on social media or how some politicians talk about each other to
see an all too common manifestation of ill-will.
So, how do we go
beyond ill-will and build a feeling of goodwill towards others? One way is to
do the following practice, which is a reflection on kindness and is split into
three parts, which embraces three types of people we encounter in life: those
we are friendly with, those we are not friendly with and the biggest group by
far, those we do not care about one way or another. The point of this practice
is to open our minds and build friendliness towards all three types of people.
Start by sitting comfortably and lightly
closing your eyes. Focus your awareness on the breath flowing in and out of
your nose. Don’t change the breath in any way, just let it flow naturally.
Now, start reflecting on your friends. This is
the easiest way to begin because you already have a certain amount of warmth
towards them. Think of a close friend and start to reflect on their positive
qualities and their acts of kindness. A note of caution here: try not to use
someone you are sexually attracted to because kindness could quite easily turn
into lust. It is also recommended that you do not use the same person each time
or else you may get attached to them.
By reflecting on your friend’s good qualities
and kindness, positive feelings will arise. Once this has occurred, you should
move away from reflecting on your friend and concentrate on your feelings that
have arisen. These feelings should be your primary focus. They should be
feelings of warmth and empathy. Spend some time being aware of this warmth and
see how happy and peaceful it makes you feel.
Keeping the above feelings in mind, move on to
the next type of person, someone you dislike. Picture this person in your mind
and examine him or her closely. See the person’s pain, suffering, loneliness
and insecurity. See that all he or she really wants is to have a peaceful mind.
Now start to radiate the same feelings you had for your friend towards the
person you dislike. Project all the respect, warmth and kindness that you can
Finally, picture a person you pass by everyday
but do not care about one way or another. Again, feel this person’s pain and
see how all he or she is looking for is peace of mind. Radiate your warmth and
kindness towards this person and imagine how that makes him or her feel, and in
turn, how you feel.
This is a simple
way of cultivating respect and warmth for everybody, regardless of whether you
know them or not, whether you like them or not. Remember, though, that this is
not a reflective exercise that you do only in the privacy of your home. It
should be applied to your daily life so that you cultivate a friendly and open
attitude towards everyone without discrimination. That of course includes
yourself, so if you are feeling a bit low or your self-compassion needs a
boost, you can start this practice by radiating warmth and kindness towards
You should now
have started to have feelings of goodwill towards others. These feelings should
move you towards actions that are not harmful. Remember, our mind controls our
actions, so feelings of goodwill should lead to more skilful actions.
to be free of emotional suffering but are often gripped by discontentment,
anguish, unease, dissatisfaction and other kinds of suffering. People have
their own private suffering, but we should understand that we also play a part
in that suffering by not showing compassion for them, by not caring for their
well-being and by not seeing that, they, like us are trying to free themselves
from all forms of suffering and have peace of mind.
There are various
reflections that you can practice that will help you start developing
compassion for others.
reflections on the three types of people mentioned in the goodwill section.
However, this time choose people who you know are suffering, and radiate
compassion towards them.
Again, start your reflection on a friend who
you know is going through a rough time. Reflect on that person’s suffering
directly and then reflect on how, like yourself, your friend wants to be free
from pain. You should continue this reflection until a strong feeling of
compassion arises within you.
Remember, compassion is not pity or sympathy,
but is a form of empathy. Pity and sympathy stem from our own emotions, which
are not stable or reliable. Whereas empathy is where you put yourself into
another person’s shoes and feel what they are feeling. The beauty of this is
that you are not projecting your thoughts and prejudices but are actually seeing
things from another person’s point of view.
Once you start experiencing a strong feeling
of compassion for your friend, hold onto it and use it as a standard for the
same practice we will now do as we reflect on the two other types of people.
Think of a person you know who is suffering,
but whom you dislike, and then reflect on their suffering. See the world
through their eyes, try and understand what they are going through. Try to
genuinely feel their pain and suffering. Once you have achieved this, start
radiating the powerful feeling of compassion you felt before.
When you feel such strong compassion for a
person, it is difficult to dislike them anymore because you now understand that
they feel suffering, just like you.
Next, think of a person you really have no
feelings for one way or another. Start reflecting on how they also have causes
for pain, sorrow, anguish and dissatisfaction. Again, once you have truly felt
their pain, start radiating compassion towards them. This exercise helps you
realise that we are all prone to suffer in the same way, and there really are
no strangers in this world.
By doing these
reflections, you will slowly be able to open your mind and expand your
compassion towards more people in your world. You will start to see that all of
us are the same. By doing this reflection you are not necessarily going to be
able to directly ease another’s suffering, but you are going to be more open to
doing so, as your compassion for them grows.
This ends the ‘seeing clearly’ aspect of the eightfold path.
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When we do our meditation practice, mindfulness or a reflection/daily review, it will not always be plain sailing. There are five things that Gautama Buddha taught that will interfere with, obstruct and impede our progress. These are called the five hindrances and they are five negative mental states. (more…)