The first three fetters

Following on from the previous post, the first of the ten fetters is sakkayadhitti or self-view. In some ways this is considered by many to be the big one. It’s certainly at the root of a lot of spititual teachings. To ‘break’ this fetter is to see that there is no separate self, enabling the realisation of non-duality. Sounds simple when you say it quickly but that’s not to denigrate the often long and wearisome path that many follow, only to arrive back at the beginning and let go, finally to see that this truth they always sought is already here, was always here, was never otherwise.

We may be so used to having a perspective that there must be a ‘self’ that at first it doesn’t seem to make much sense to consider it may be otherwise. But really when we look more deeply, when we investigate this fully we can realise that this belief in a self is nothing more than a paradigm. It might even be said self-view is a ‘mode of consciousness’ but ultimately the thought that there is a separate ‘self’ is not pointing to a real thing, it’s just a thought.

As difficult as it might be to grasp for those firmly in the grip of it, self-view arises in the thinking mind as a thought, tacked on to other thoughts or perceptions. Awakening to this realisation and seeing it clearly really changes nothing in terms of the nature of reality, of the way it is. However, from the perspective of this human experience, awakening from self-view changes everything.

We spend so much of our time trying to benefit or improve our ‘self’; to gain more, to become more, to reach higher status or standing, to achieve financial independence, emotional security, perfect health, total happiness. Our inherently insecure sense of self drives us to try and gain these things, and if we can for a moment achieve any of them, we want to hold onto them and never let them go.

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But on some level we start to realise that it can’t be so. We can’t have all these things and keep them for all time. Life is constantly changing and our experience is that sometimes we seem to be gaining and other times we seem to be losing. With the loss of each thing we cling to comes pain. As much as we try to strategise a perfect and trouble-free course through life, we can’t avoid every difficulty that might come our way. Old age, sickness and death are inescapable, as the Buddha observed.

The ‘path’ or journey to seeing through self-view begins and ends with mindfulness and investigation, or looking at how it really is in the moment. When we start to see through the allure of possessions, the glamour of the new; when we develop contentment and stop striving for a better car, better job, better relationship; when we realise we can’t sustain happiness or health or beauty or youth; and finally when we give up seeking some state of enlightenment or spiritual bliss; then, at some point we experience that for which there is no name but which we might describe as a shift in consciousness, and it is realised that all is really one and that this separate or illusory self never existed beyond the thought that it was real.

For some this awakening can lead to a period of readjustment. Whereas before a life lived to improve and benefit the self gave us our motivation, now with that illusion dispelled we can feel little or no motivation for the things that once drove us and ruled our world. Old habits may drop away; the things we once treasured may now seem ordinary, and at times we can even feel we don’t quite fit into our old lives.

In some ways this realisation, whether it comes on gradually or whether there is a sudden ‘awakening’ has the potential to bring with it the release from a lot of our suffering. Where we had to be mindful before to remember ‘things don’t last’, ‘life changes’, ‘whatever arises passes away’, now the reality of the changing moment is seen more clearly; the truth of the constancy of change is more fully realised and increasingly becomes part of consciousness.

Really, all that’s happened is that an illusion – that of there being a separate, permanent self – has been seen through. In other ways, our lives roll on and ‘we’ are created within them in each moment of acting interactively, as we go about our day to day business; our usual routines.

This reabsorbing into the everyday roles we once felt to be absolutely real can lead to doubt arising. Some even feel themselves to be ‘back in the self’. In fact it’s perfectly normal for this to be so, and it can take time for the realisation of no-self or non-duality to become more present and form the basis for experience. So the second fetter, doubt, arises here in this space: ‘Am I free from self? Is this the right path? Are the teachings I followed true? Does my teacher really know? Am I awakened? Ami I enlightened?’… and on and on. The thinking mind seeks for certainty, when in reality the only certainty is in the ever changing moment. Beyond control and without self, that which arises is seen to be perpetually in motion – at times a beautiful dance, at others a maelstrom, but never still.

The third fetter is that of clinging to ritual forms and practices. Now, we don’t need to throw away our meditation cushion or refrain from chanting, yoga and such like. This isn’t about trying to dispose of all forms associated with practice, it’s really about not being attached to these.

This fetter has the potential to more greatly affect those who have come from a formal religious background and those who have a strong connection with a particular teacher or school of teachings. It can be felt that awakening occurred because of this or that thing we did, this or that teachers influence. In reality awakening can never be given as a gift. We can give it to no other and none gave it to us. Each awaken as a result of their own seeing in the moment.

Encouragements and insights gained along the way only support us when they arrive at a time where that realisation was already present but perhaps not fully consciously. But still attachment to teachers, schools of thought, religious forms can still be present and it can take time to shift our attention from believing that seeing comes as a result of these, to the realisation that seeing comes as a result of looking.

So without rejecting, throwing out or disposing of any of the former, our relationship to them changes to one of association rather than attachment.

In summary then; having reached a point where the illusion of separation is seen through, where doubt no longer holds us back and where we have no attachment to any outer form associated with practice, we may be regarded within the Buddhist tradition as a stream enterer or sotapanna. This is in many ways held to be the first stage of awakening.

Of course the Ten Fetters, along with other aspects of Buddhism, as with other teachings are there to act as a guide; as a way of looking at or regarding life. If we hold these in consideration as a way of gaining a new and different perspective then they can support us to gain fresh insights into some aspects of experience. One of these perspectives is in noting that whilst realising non-duality marks a shift in awareness, it’s not the end of anything. Although perhaps in some ways it really marks a new beginning.

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