It sounds like cheese, but it isn’t. So, what is a fetter? They are typically defined as intrapsychic phenomena. Intra- indicates internal, psychic refers to psychological processes. Fetters then refer to structures that are embedded within the mental and emotional faculties of an individual. Another way to consider them is as binding elements that bind us to the cyclical nature of habitual states of being and experiencing. Phenomenologically, it might be better to define them as psycho-emotional patterns embedded, or centred, around a phantom-I supported by fictional narratives. In either case, they are expressed through habitual behaviour, thought patterns, feelings, beliefs and assumptions both visible and buried, hidden under layers of conditioned senses. There is of course a clear relationship between our inner me-making and the social norms that affirm the I as existing and that support its maintenance.
Our whole social reality is based on creating subjects, consistent persons that interact through reliable identities that are shaped from birth to adulthood. One of the limits of Buddhism is that it fails to appreciate the collective dimension of me-making and therefore is likely unable to provide sufficient means for breaking through our embeddedness in the collective me-making of our society, culture, generation, historical phase, etc. Because it inadequately performs in the collective me-making field, it can only watch passively, or offer a Buddhist identity as an alternative means for navigating such terrain. Both are insufficient. This probably helps to explain why those genuinely invested in self-knowledge often end up in therapy, or simply leave Buddhism behind.
The self can be understood as a story that we tell ourselves: we refine, change trivial elements but basically maintain what is familiar. Since we do not really have a single accurate definition of what mind is and considering that Buddhist definitions are both contradictory and at times clearly wrong, it is hard, at least for me, to define these fetters as truths that exist within the structure of the brain, or within consciousness. At this point recourse to a phenomenological exploration of these fetters and how they might be experienced by an average individual is the most logical option if we want to take this model into consideration, because ontological arguments will likely lead us in the wrong direction as far as the purpose of this essay is concerned. A map is a map after all, it is not the geographical features it attempts to record. I shall take Bas Van Fraassen’s conclusions regarding Constructive Empiricism and take the Four Path stages as the most workable option I have for now for attempting to get at the thing, rather than an accurate representation of the truth of the stages of the path. Taking a phenomenological approach, the question that arises is how do these phenomena get experienced by a person and how do we define those experiences in human terms?
First Stage: stream entry
Taking nirvana as implying freedom from, the four stages can be defined in terms of what we progressively get free of. The three fetters are given as the following at the first stage;
1. Identity view/self-identity (seeing through the self-making compulsion)
2. Sceptical doubt (specifically regarding; the truth of non-self, impermanence and its implications, the root causes of the suffering-self)
3. Clinging to rites and rituals (gaining sobriety on the nature of external form & its relationship to actual, direct experience/addressing dissonance) + (losing enamoredness for solely symbolic forms, or the stabilisers of identity)
The first fetter is concerned with how we actively view the self, or the I. We might simply state that the first fetter involves the illusion of a fixed and permanent self-existing I that is apart from the world, connected yes, but separate somehow. Gaining freedom from this fetter then would imply that we free ourselves of this illusion and begin to see how the self as we thought it to exist is empty of any solid, fixed features: it is basically hollow. As an intrapsychic phenomenon, that is as a psycho-emotional structure, gaining freedom from this fetter would imply more than mere visual perception. We recognise ourselves as embodied through our senses and through our thoughts. Phenomenologically speaking it needs to be experienced in the body and through tangible sensations and not only understood intellectually, so that awakening from the illusion of a solid, separate self and perception into its mechanisms of support comes about through a unification of the sense fields, otherwise known as synaesthesia. It is as if we need to be convinced in as complete a sense as possible so that mere perception is insufficient. This fetter is really the most important of all. Not only does it represent the key Buddhist insight, but it opens the possibility of us viewing others, experience and phenomena as also being devoid of a permanent fixed self or nature. It is funny really, because this in itself is not such a big deal. We know objectively through the sciences, but also through western philosophy dating back to Hume that nothing is fixed and eternal. To know it firsthand and to experience it override the delusion of an atomistic I pushes against so much of what constitutes our sense of self that it is easier said than done though. That does not mean it is not possible however, or something that needs to be relegated to future lifetimes or decades from now.
The second fetter regards sceptical doubt. Typically this is worded as sceptical doubt regarding Buddhist teachings. Now, shorn of Buddhism as a social construct, how does such a thing exist and dissolve for a person who is not a Buddhist. That is to say if a non-Buddhist gains freedom from this fetter, how does he or she experience it and know it to be so? If sceptical doubt traditionally refers to the Buddha’s teachings, which teachings should we assume are confirmed by this process? Do we include moral injunctions to avoid oral sex for example? A crude example I admit, but the point should be clear, doubt in this case has to be towards phenomena that are not restricted to Buddhism. Sceptical doubt then ought only to refer to phenomena that are directly visible and knowable in the world we inhabit. Direct insight into impermanence, the absence of separate selves, the nature of the suffering-self/selves and the need for some form of ethical behaviour if we are to avoid creating unnecessary suffering are the best candidates and none are the property, real of otherwise, of Buddhism.
The third fetter is the most unusual, that is to say it clearly relates to forms of behaviour and belief and in its wording appears to imply religious or spiritual activity. I have always found this an odd occurrence to take place at the initial stage of awakening. Buddhism is abound with both rites and rituals so my initial thought was why would this be the case. In attempting to tease this model from the hands of Buddhism, I began to think about it differently. If the self is a narrative that is sustained by habits, both in feelings, actions, thoughts and ideas, then what we have immediately is a sense of how to proceed. We are by nature ritual creatures, and rites might be redefined, not as exclusively religious or spiritual behaviour, but as the acts that we carry out to affirm the feelings, conclusions, sensations, thoughts and beliefs that make up the scaffolding that surrounds the phantom-self. We engage in rituals collectively too that have the same function of maintaining agreed upon ideas regarding identity and the range of experiences we can have, emotions we can feel, thoughts we can explore. We might not define them in such terms but any sociologist will tell you that society and relationships are ritualistic by nature. Seeing through such forms may actually then lend itself to a radical liberation from the ideological prisons that make up our self-structure, absorbed and adopted from the society, familial circumstances and education that we were moulded by. I don’t know about you, but that starts to sound a lot more interesting, and a lot more radical and potentially game changing than talk of how many lifetimes are left before the samsaric prison break.
Stream entry as metaphor may then be understood in a new light. The stream may actually be thought of as the continuous and uninterrupted flow of being. What takes place within that is a continuous meeting between the infinite (emptiness, meaninglessness if you prefer) and our limited concept juggling conventional-self. Phenomenologically we may experience a flow of ever widening perception into the illusion of the self and the selves and be met with, for want of a better term, the remarkableness of being. What emerges is increasing room to respond creatively to ongoing circumstances and an openness and curiosity to boot. This becomes possible once we discard the suffocating nature of self-obsession and the compulsion of atomistic self-referential behaviour. Along with this there is an immense reduction in the types of suffering categorised under the term dukkha and this brings us into line with the main promise of Buddhism.
Stage Two: once returner
At the second stage new fetters are not dissolved, but the individual makes a breakthrough in weakening their relationship to desire and ill will, the next two fetters on the list, which are definitively discarded at the third stage. It should come as no surprise that both desire – to be defined below – and ill will might require considerable effort to address as they are representative of the underlying forces of attraction and repulsion which drive all impulsive behaviour.
The name of this stage indicates that an individual here will be born just once more. If we are to deny the possibility of interpreting this model in terms of reincarnation, then not only do we have to leave aside talk of how many lives are required before we reach the final lap, but we also have, more importantly, to get at what this all means within a view in which we are confined to this earth for the rest of our days with no promise of heavenly realms to come after. That is not to say that they might not exist, but rather that, returning to Van Fraassesn’s insights into models and truth, we actually do not know what will be discovered at a later date and rather than hold out and hope that talk of heavenly happy after is real, we should really focus our attention on what we can know and that alas always brings us back to this life, this earth and the limits and wonders of both. The implication is then that we do actually have to participate in this life, this world, this moment in history. We cannot stand on the fence. Not only does this free us up from concerning ourselves with what comes next, it acts as a motivator for participating in the events we have in front of us instead of indulging in dreams of eventual escape. This world of matter and material and the social reality in which we exist actually has immense need of us and a full commitment to this world is often lacking amongst those who invest in the idea of impending salvation, or a better afterlife. Participation does not imply all pervasive mindfulness of the kind encouraged by Thich Nhat Hanh either, where immense devotion to washing dishes, changing bed sheets and drinking tea is basically construed as the primary practice of a good Buddhist. To cease to be distracted, to be lost in day dreams and wishful thinking is of course a prerequisite to attentive engagement with the world, but often it stops there and present state awareness is reified and romanticised when really it ought to be considered as simply providing the basis for meaningful engagement and acts.
The one Buddhist truth that is consequential outside of our personal sphere of existence is suffering. If we care enough to participate in this world, then addressing the causes of suffering is a must; a moral obligation not driven by external ethical demands, but by the acknowledgement that there is nowhere else to go and that we are literally all in this together. If we take dukkha as that umbrella term for suffering, dissatisfaction, confusion, incompleteness, separation then we can have a sense of how we might help individuals, but we can also, hopefully, realise that these expressions of suffering are not separate from the wider social factors that give rise to them and that action is required in order to make a difference. Once we recognise that there is no elsewhere to go, then showing up has to become the basis of what it means to engage in both meditative techniques and the ongoing refinement of our relationships with others and the physical spaces we inhabit and that to reduce suffering in the world will require us to get our hands dirty.
Participation is ideally driven by the consequences of embracing the truth of impending death and of the uncertainty of when it will occur. Now, in traditional Buddhist literature meditating on death is often aimed at developing an appreciation of the preciousness of this life, and the need to practice diligently due to the rare occasion that a person is born in human form. In Tibetan Buddhism, it is often expressed as a panic of sorts: practice, or you will end up being born in a hell realm, or as a slug next time round! Appreciation is a thoroughly useful sentiment, but these other commands are antiquated at best and rather theatrical. A consequence that is perhaps more immediate on a daily level is that grasping the real significance of the uncertainty and reality of death robs us of the adolescent delusion that we will live forever and leads us to appreciate that this day counts, this experience, this still moving moment counts. Again, this does not means we have to become obsessed with living each moment fully a la Thich Nhat Han, which comes across as solipsistic. Instead it forces us to be vigilant to any tendency to drift off and not participate in the days and events of our lives, and to move beyond the paranoia that may initially be inspired by deeply considering death, to conceiving of this state of affairs as fact: after romance, hopefully comes sobriety.
Please note, I am deliberately using the term moving with moment, hopefully for obvious reasons. The idea of ‘this moment’ and the ‘here-and-now’ are in part deluded and likely contribute to the false notion that the present moment is fixed somewhere and the here-and-now can be grasped at. These concepts only make sense if they become dynamic and capture the real sense of a moving inhabited reality that is in constant flux. The present moment may actually be a distorting concept because the moment is nowhere out there. This may be obvious to many of you, but to others such pop dharma phrases may give the impression that stillness is to be sought somewhere, and that refuge from external movement and chaos is the goal. The present is really only an applied label that works to contain a given experiential possibility. The present is constant, not fixed and is certainly not frozen time. As we compartmentalise ourselves and our relationships, so we compartmentalise days, hours, minutes and experiences into sections. Constant flux, shift and change, both subtle and gross are the norm and our ability to be awake to our circumstances is in part based on our ability to appreciate this and further our commitment to deconstructing such compartmentalising tendencies in every arena, including meditation practice.