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In Buddhism, a mental fetter or "chain" or "bond" (Pāli: samyojana, saŋyojana, saññojana) shackles a person to samsara, the cycle of endless suffering. By completely cutting through all fetters, one attains Nibbana (Pali; Skt.: Nirvana).

Fetter of suffering

Throughout the Pali canon, the word "fetter" is used to describe an intrapsychic phenomenon that ties one to suffering. For instance, in the Khuddaka Nikaya's Itivuttaka 1.15, the Buddha states:

"Monks, I don't envision even one other fetter — fettered by which beings conjoined go wandering & transmigrating on for a long, long time — like the fetter of craving. Fettered with the fetter of craving, beings conjoined go wandering & transmigrating on for a long, long time."[1]

Elsewhere, the suffering caused by a fetter is implied as in this more technical discourse from SN 35.232, where Ven. Sariputta converses with Ven. Kotthita:

Ven. Kotthita: "How is it, friend Sariputta, is ... the ear the fetter of sounds or are sounds the fetter of the ear?..."
Ven. Sariputta: "Friend Kotthita, the ... ear is not the fetter of sounds nor are sounds the fetter of the ear, but rather the desire and lust that arise there in dependence on both: that is the fetter there...."[2]

Lists of fetters

The two best known lists are enumerations of ten fetters, one found in the Sutta Pitaka and the other associated with the Abhidhamma Pitaka. Variations on these exist as well.

Sutta Pitaka enumerations

The Pali canon identifies ten fetters:[3]

  1. belief in an individual self (Pali: sakkāya-diṭṭhi)[4]
  2. doubt or uncertainty, especially about the teachings (vicikicchā)[5]
  3. attachment to rites and rituals (sīlabbata-parāmāso)[6]
  4. sensual desire (kāmacchando)[7]
  5. ill will (vyāpādo or byāpādo)[8]
  6. lust for material existence, lust for material rebirth (rūparāgo)[9]
  7. lust for immaterial existence (arūparāgo)
  8. pride in self, conceit, arrogance (māno)[10]
  9. restlessness, distraction (uddhaccaŋ)[11]
  10. ignorance (avijjā)[12]

Uniquely, MN 54, the "Householder Potaliya" Sutta,[13] identifies eight fetters (which include three of the Five Precepts) as:

  1. destroying life (pāṇātipāto)
  2. stealing (adinnādānaṃ)
  3. false speech (musāvādo)
  4. slandering (pisunā)
  5. coveting and greed (giddhilobho)
  6. aversion (nindāroso)
  7. anger and malice (kodhūpāyāso)
  8. conceit (atimāno).

Abhidhamma Pitaka enumerations

The Abhidhamma Pitaka's Dhamma Sangani (Dhs. 1113-34) provides an alternate list of ten fetters, also found in the Khuddaka Nikaya's Culla Niddesa (Nd2 656, 1463) and in post-canonical commentaries. This enumeration is:[14]

  1. sensual lust (Pali: kāma-rāga) - similar to kāmacchando
  2. anger (paṭigha) - perhaps similar to vyāpādo
  3. pride in self (māna)
  4. views (diṭṭhi) - presumably similar to sakkāya-diṭṭhi
  5. doubt (vicikicchā)
  6. rites and rituals (sīlabbataparāmāsa)
  7. lust for existence (bhavarāga) - perhaps including both rūparāgo and arūparāgo
  8. jealousy (issā)
  9. greed (macchariya)
  10. ignorance (avijjā).

The Dhamma Sangani (Dhs. 1002-1006) also refers to the "three Fetters" as the first three in the aforementioned Sutta Pitaka list of ten:

  1. belief in an individual self (sakkāya-diṭṭhi)
  2. doubt (vicikicchā)
  3. attachment to rites and rituals (sīlabbata-parāmāso)[15]

Individual fetters

The following fetters are the first three mentioned in the aforementioned Sutta Pitaka list of ten fetters and those mentioned in the Abhidhamma Pitaka's list of "three fetters" (Dhs. 1002 ff.). As indicated below, eradication of these three fetters is a canonical indicator of one's being irreversibly established on the path to Enlightenment.

Identity view (sakkāya-diṭṭhi)

Etymologically, kāya means "body," sakkāya means "existing body," and diṭṭhi means "view" (often implying a wrong view, in Buddhism, as exemplified by the views in the table below).

In general, "belief in an individual self" or, more simply, "self view" refers to a "belief that in one or other of the khandhas there is a permanent entity, an attā."[16]

Similarly, in MN 2, the Sabbasava Sutta, the Buddha describes "a fetter of views" in the following manner:

The Views of Six Samana in the Pali Canon
(based on the Sāmaññaphala Sutta1)
Question: "Is it possible to point out the fruit of the
contemplative life, visible in the here and now?"1
samaṇa view (diṭṭhi)
Amoralism: denies any reward or
punishment for either good or bad deeds.
Fatalism: we are powerless;
suffering is pre-destined.
with death, all is annihilated.
Eternalism: Matter, pleasure, pain and
the soul are eternal and do not interact.
Restraint: be endowed with, cleansed by
and suffused with the avoidance of all evil.2
Agnosticism: "I don't think so. I don't think in
that way or otherwise. I don't think not or not not."
Notes: 1. DN 2 (Thanissaro, 1997; Walshe, 1995, pp. 91-109).
2. DN-a (Ñāṇamoli & Bodhi, 1995, pp. 1258-59, n. 585).
"This is how [a person of wrong view] attends inappropriately: 'Was I in the past? ... Shall I be in the future? ... Am I? Am I not? What am I? ...'
"As he attends inappropriately in this way, one of six kinds of view arises in him: ...
  • 'I have a self...'
  • 'I have no self...'
  • 'It is precisely by means of self that I perceive self...'
  • 'It is precisely by means of self that I perceive not-self...'
  • 'It is precisely by means of not-self that I perceive self...'
  • 'This very self of mine ... is the self of mine that is constant...'
"This is called a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views. Bound by a fetter of views, the uninstructed ... is not freed, I tell you, from suffering & stress."[17]

Doubt (vicikicchā)

In general, "doubt" refers to doubt about the Buddha's teachings, the Dhamma. (Alternate contemporaneous teachings are represented in the table to the right.)

More specifically, in SN 22.84, the Tissa Sutta,[18] the Buddha explicitly cautions against uncertainty regarding the Noble Eightfold Path, which is described as the right path to Nibbana, leading one past ignorance, sensual desire, anger and despair.

Attachment to rites and rituals (sīlabbata-parāmāso)

Sīla refers to "moral conduct", vata (or bata) to "religious duty, observance, rite, practice, custom,"[19] and parāmāsa to "being attached to" or "a contagion" and has the connotation of "mishandling" the Dhamma.[20] Altogether, sīlabbata-parāmāso has been translated as "the contagion of mere rule and ritual, the infatuation of good works, the delusion that they suffice"[21] or, more simply, "fall[ing] back on attachment to precepts and rules."[22]

While the fetter of doubt can be seen as pertaining to the teachings of competing samana during the times of the Buddha, this fetter regarding rites and rituals likely refers to some practices of contemporary brahmanic authorities.[23]

Cutting through the fetters

with the fetters

"Here, O bhikkhus, a bhikkhu understands the eye and material forms and the fetter that arises dependent on both (eye and forms); he understands how the arising of the non-arisen fetter comes to be; he understands how the abandoning of the arisen fetter comes to be; and he understands how the non-arising in the future of the abandoned fetter comes to be. [And thus] he understands the ear and sounds .... the organ of smell and odors .... the organ of taste and flavors .... the organ of touch and tactual objects .... [and] consciousness and mental objects ...."

Satipatthana Sutta (MN 10)[24]

In MN 64, the "Greater Discourse to Mālunkyāputta," the Buddha states that the path to abandoning the five lower fetters (that is, the first five of the aforementioned "ten fetters") is through using jhana attainment and vipassana insights in tandem.[25] In SN 35.54, "Abandoning the Fetters," the Buddha states that one abandons the fetters "when one knows and sees ... as impermanent" (Pali: anicca) the twelve sense bases (āyatana), the associated six sense-consciousness (viññaṇa), and the resultant contact (phassa) and sensations (vedanā).[26] Similarly, in SN 35.55, "Uprooting the Fetters," the Buddha states that one uproots the fetters "when one knows and sees ... as nonself" (anatta) the sense bases, sense consciousness, contact and sensations.[27]

The Pali canon traditionally describes cutting through the fetters in four stages:

Relationship to other core concepts

Similar Buddhist concepts found throughout the Pali Canon include the five hindrances (nīvaraāni) and the ten defilements (kilesā). Comparatively speaking, in the Theravada tradition, fetters span multiple lifetimes and are difficult to remove, while hindrances are transitory obstacles. Defilements encompass all mental defilements including both fetters and hindrances.[28]

See also

  • Anatta, regarding the first fetter (sakkāya-diṭṭhi)
  • Four stages of enlightenment, regarding cutting the fetters
  • Five hindrances, also involving the fourth (kamacchanda), fifth (vyapada), ninth (uddhacca) and second (vicikiccha) fetters
  • Upadana (Clinging), where the traditional four types of clinging are clinging to sense-pleasure (kamupadana), wrong views (ditthupadana), rites and rituals (silabbatupadana) and self-doctrine (attavadupadana).


  1. Thanissaro (2001).
  2. Bodhi (2000), p. 1230. Tangentially, in discussing the use of the concept of "the fetter" in the Satipatthana Sutta (regarding mindfulness of the six sense bases), Bodhi (2005) references this sutta (SN 35.232) as explaining what is meant by "the fetter," that is, "desire and lust" (chanda-raga). (While providing this exegesis, Bodhi, 2005, also comments that the Satipatthana Sutta commentary associates the term "fetter" in that sutta as referring to all ten fetters.)
  3. These fetters are enumerated, for instance, in SN 45.179 and 45.180 (Bodhi, 2000, pp. 1565-66). This article's Pali words and English translations for the ten fetters are based on Rhys Davids & Stede (1921-25), p. 656, "Saŋyojana" entry (retrieved 2008-04-09).
  4. Rhys Davids & Stede (1921-25), pp. 660-1, "Sakkāya" entry (retrieved 2008-04-09).
  5. Ibid., p. 615, "Vicikicchā" entry (retrieved 2008-04-09).
  6. See, for instance, Ibid., p. 713, "Sīla" entry (retrieved 2008-04-09), regarding the similar concept of sīlabbatupādāna (= sīlabbata-upādāna), "grasping after works and rites."
  7. Ibid., pp. 203-4, "Kāma" entry, and 274, "Chanda" entry (retrieved 2008-04-09).
  8. Ibid., p. 654, "Vyāpāda" entry (retrieved 2008-04-09).
  9. Ibid., pp. 574-5, "Rūpa" entry (retrieved 2008-04-09).
  10. Ibid., p. 528, "Māna" entry (retrieved 2008-04-09).
  11. Ibid., p. 136, "Uddhacca" entry (retrieved 2008-04-09).
  12. Ibid., p. 85, "Avijjā" entry (retrieved 2008-04-09).
  13. See Upalavanna (undated) for an English translation; and, SLTP (undated) for a Romanized Pali transliteration.
  14. Rhys Davids & Stede (1921-25), p. 656, "Saŋyojana" entry references Cula Niddesa 657, 1463, and Dhamma Sangani 1113. In fact, an entire chapter of the Dhamma Sangani is devoted to the fetters (book III, ch. V, Dhs. 1113-34), see also Rhys Davids (1900), pp. 297-303. In post-canonical texts, this list can also be found in Buddhaghosa's commentary (in the Papañcasudani) to the Satipatthana Sutta's section regarding the six sense bases and the fetters (Soma, 1998).
  15. Rhys Davids (1900), pp. 256-61; also see, Rhys Davids & Stede (1921-25), p. 656, entry for "Saŋyojana" (retrieved 2008-04-09), regarding the i saŋyojanāni.
  16. Rhys Davids & Stede (1921-25), pp. 660-1, "Sakkāya" entry (retrieved 2008-04-09). See also, anatta.
  17. Thanissaro (1997a).
  18. Thanissaro (2005)
  19. Rhys Davids & Stede (1921-25), p. 597, "Vata (2)" entry (retrieved 2008-04-09).
  20. Ibid., p. 421, "Parāmāsa" entry (retrieved 2008-04-09).
  21. Ibid., p. 713, "Sīla" entry regarding the suffix "bbata" (retrieved 2008-04-09).
  22. Thanissaro (1997b).
  23. For instance, see Gethin (1998), pp. 10-13, for a discussion of the Buddha in the context of the sramanic and brahmanic traditions.
  24. Soma, 1998, section on "The Six Internal and the Six External Sense-bases." It is worth underlining that only the fetter is abandoned, not the sense organs or sense objects.
  25. Ñāṇamoli & Bodhi (2001), pp. 537-41.
  26. Bodhi (2000), p. 1148.
  27. Bodhi (2000), p. 1148. Note that the referenced suttas (MN 64, SN 35.54 and SN 35.55) can be seen as overlapping and consistent if one, for instance, infers that one needs to use jhanic attainment and vipassana insight in order to "know and see" the impermanence and selfless nature of the sense bases, consciousness, contact and sensations. For a correspondence between impermanence and nonself, see Three marks of existence.
  28. Gunaratana (2003), dhamma talk entitled "Dhamma [Satipatthana] - Ten Fetters."


  • Gethin, Rupert (1998). The Foundations of Buddhism. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-289223-1.
  • Ñāṇamoli, Bhikkhu & Bhikkhu Bodhi (2001). The Middle Length Discourse of the Buddha: A Translation of the Majjhima Nikāya. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-072-X.
  • Rhys Davids, C.A.F. ([1900], 2003). Buddhist Manual of Psychological Ethics, of the Fourth Century B.C., Being a Translation, now made for the First Time, from the Original Pāli, of the First Book of the Abhidhamma-Piṭaka, entitled Dhamma-Sangaṇi (Compendium of States or Phenomena). Kessinger Publishing. ISBN 0-7661-4702-9.
  • Rhys Davids, T.W. & William Stede (eds.) (1921-5). The Pali Text Society’s Pali–English dictionary. Chipstead: Pali Text Society. A general on-line search engine for the PED is available at
  • Walshe, Maurice O'Connell (trans.) (1995). The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Dīgha Nikāya. Somerville: Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-103-3.