We live in a world where we’re often persuaded that to be of any value something has to be new. If it’s not this year’s model, innovative or the latest thing then we’re missing out. So perhaps it’s no surprise that when it comes to spiritual development or awakening, Buddhism can be seen by some as too formalised and out of keeping with our era. It’s an ‘ism’ after all, and for those who have long ago rejected formal religion in favour of finding their own path, why should they turn to this one? It can seem hard to access both because of its use of Pali terms and its structure which includes a number of lists.
This is ironic really because the Buddha, having spent six or seven years on the road seeking truth tried to frame his teachings in everyday language. Nibbana after all was used to describe the cooling of rice in one context. We don’t really know how the Buddha taught when he was alive but for those who came after him the question they faced was: how can you preserve the essence of 45 years of teachings in an oral tradition with no written script? If it’s to be passed on and memorised for the benefit of others it has to be structured so the teachings don’t change over time and with further dispersal.
And so we have a number of lists and formalised suttas. These structures might seem unfamiliar to us when we first read the suttas but it can be well worth the effort. With a little application we can see these aspects of the teachings as enabling us to take a number of perspectives from which to regard this human experience.
When we ground ourselves in the basics we can look at the Buddha’s teachings in terms of the parts we feel we have a clear perspective on, and the things that still present a challenge or that we just don’t get; a bit like finding ourselves on a map.
Many of the well known aspects of Buddhism have been covered in detail by a range of authors and teachers but one list hasn’t received very much attention at all: the ten fetters. The aim of these posts is to shed some light on these from the perspective of engaging with them so we can find how they fit with us and gain some pointers as to what might lie ahead.
A fetter is a bond, something that attaches to us or holds us back. In the context of Buddhism these are the things that bring us back again and again to experience this human existence. The implication is that freedom from these ten fetters is freedom from anything that could cause another human rebirth.
But what do we mean by freedom? Well, there is a difference between agreeing with something intellectually, as in accepting something might be so, and fully realising it. It may not be easy to define and we’ll look at it more depth later, but thinking we’re free of something and actual freedom are not necessarily the same thing. The only judge of this is us, but generally speaking freedom is beyond doubt. If there’s any uncertainty then it may be that we’re not quite there yet.
The ten fetters outlined by the Buddha are: self view; sceptical doubt; clinging to rituals and practices; sense desire; ill will; desire for physical rebirth; desire for non-physical rebirth; conceit; restlessness and ignorance.
These fetters are linked with the four stages of awakening: stream entry; once returner; non-returner and arahant. One of the reasons this is worth mentioning is that in the West there is a small but increasing number of people who have, through various paths, seen through self view and realised no-self.
When this realisation happens and the first fetter is shaken off it can seem as though this is it, the final and ultimate realisation. But then it is noticed that anger still arises, desire still arises, and people start to ask, why.
The Buddha had a number of followers at all stages of enlightenment or awakening and so there is a canon of teachings available to help reflect on aspects of this human experience both before the first fetter has been released and even when we have become free of the first few. Rather than take an academic approach to this, these posts will be very much from the perspective of being engaged with the practice of looking to see clearly; to see how it is in this moment, also referred to as realising Dhamma.
The next post will cover the first three fetters leading to what’s known as stream entry. It all begins with the full realisation that there isn’t, never was and never will be any separate ‘self’. Realising this is not the end of the path, but it is the beginning of the stream.