How is it that I’ve been meditating for so long and read so many books about Buddhism and meditation and I’m just coming to hear about ‘fetters’? I’m sure if I could do a search among all of the past literature I’ve read, I’d find the word sprinkled here and there – but I’ve never come across a discussion using this term that really impacted my way of thinking or practice… until lately, when I’m seeing it everywhere*.
So, what is a ‘fetter’ and why do I care? Well, a fetter in english generally means something like “leg irons”. It is certainly something that weighs you down, keeps you stuck, or prevents you from being free. Right there, it is obvious enough that something considered a ‘fetter’ is a hinderance. Considering the term from a buddhist perspective, it sounds an awful lot like “attachment”, which is the very thing that keeps us bound up in Samsara, or rooted in the world with it’s suffering. “Attachment leads to suffering” is a basic buddhist tenant, but it needs to be understood conceptually and isn’t immediately intuitive. “Fetters keep us bound” may seem more intuitive, more readily graspable by the mind as it tries to sort out what buddhist practice is all about.
So how do the fetters, which keep us bound, arise?
Ven. Sariputta in the Saayutta Nikaya compares the fetters to a yoke between two oxen, holding them fast to one another. He notes that the one ox is not the fetter of the other, nor the other way around, but it is the yoke between them that is the fetter, then states, “In the same way, the eye is not the fetter of forms, nor are forms the fetter of the eye. Whatever desire-passion arises in dependence on the two of them: That is the fetter there.” Now, this is some pretty subtle stuff. In practice, with concentration, one starts to see experience arising in it’s parts, instead of all mixed up together.. so one may notice a sight or sound, the perception of that sight or sound and a feeling associated with that sight or sound arising in succession — yet distinctly. In this same way, seeing a sight, one may be at once conscious of seeing, conscious of what is seen and conscious of the arising or presence of a desire or craving for what is seen. The craving is dependent both on the seeing and the thing – it’s the yoke between the two — it’s the fetter! Seeing the craving, the clinging arise in moment to moment experience is working at the level of practice instead of at a theoretical level about the concepts of ‘clinging’ and ‘attachment’.
Noticing the fetters – the clinging to experience – is an excellent step towards becoming free of them. I’ve begun to see them in daily experience – though mostly with regards to plain old desire – wanting stuff. There are many other levels in which these fetters keep us attached to Samsara. There are 10 classical fetters in Buddhism.
It is said: “There are these ten fetters. Which ten? Five lower fetters & five higher fetters. And which are the five lower fetters? Self-identity views, uncertainty, grasping at precepts & practices, sensual desire, & ill will. These are the five lower fetters. And which are the five higher fetters? Passion for form, passion for what is formless, conceit, restlessness, & ignorance. These are the five higher fetters. And these are the ten fetters.”**
Now, this business of classifying lower and higher fetters gives one the impression that there is a whole system in identifying them and freeing ourselves from them — and that’s true! It’s a major topic within old school Buddhism.
I’m also fascinated by the connection to the term ‘sankhara’ as Goenka uses it in his vipassana retreats. They seem mighty close to the fetters to me. Stored up energy that arises with experience and is either fed by clinging and aversion or abandoned by equanimity and dispassion.
All for now. Keep reading. Keep sitting. Keep being mindful of experience as it arises and staying in the present moment. Be with what is and … watch out for those fetters!
*Everywhere = all of the Theravada literature I’ve been reading lately.
**”Sanyojana Sutta: Fetters” (AN 10.13), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight, 4 July 2010,http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an10/an10.013.than.html . Retrieved on 18 March 2013.