Lower Fetter – Adherence to Rules and Observances (Sa.myojana Siilabattapaaramaasa)

There are ten sa.myojana – fetters binding beings to sa.msaara – the round of rebirths. The first stage of bodhi-enlightenment is sotapanna-stream entry. This stage is marked by the elimination of the first three fetters with one of these being siilabattapaaramaasa – the fetter of clinging to rules and observances. The other two lower fetters are sakkaaya di.t.thi-identity view and vicikicchaa-doubt (about the Dhamma). I can cover these two in another blog article, though I will state here that these three fetters have in common the theme of establishing sammaadi.tthi-right view.  Right view is essential for liberation.

Many people misunderstand Sa.myojana Siilabattapaaramaasa – the fetter of clinging to rules and observences. Some might quickly read the phrase in English without thinking more deeply and discussing it with others and then think they understand what it means. I encountered people who claimed this fetter  means that the Blessed One allows ‘advanced followers’ to not hold the five precepts or to break the laws of various countries whenever it suits them.  Others interpret this to mean that we shouldn’t bow to pagodas, offer incense and flowers etc. to Buddha images and so on. These ‘clever people’ claim that these are rituals that can be abandoned before we want to attain Nibbaana. They cite the simile of the raft to support their view.  

It is very important to keep the five precepts.  Siila (good moral conduct) is the foundation for developing Samaadhi (concentration) and Pa~n~na (wisdom). Making offerings and paying respect to pagodas and Buddha images helps us to develop kusala (wholesome/skilful) mental states. We can develop the indriya (controlling faculties) of saddhaa (faith/confidence) and samaadhi (concentration) by paying respects mindfully and with clear comprehension (sati sampaja~n~na).  Keeping precepts, making offerings and paying respects to pagodas etc. need to be done with the right attitude and keeping samaa di.t.thi (right view) in mind. If we keep precepts and make offerings with wrong view then there is very little benefit and probably some harm as a result.

I selected some quotes from the suttas that might help us to deepen our understanding of this fetter and eventually to utterly destroy it.


Note that the quotations from the Majjhimanikaaya below are all from Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation, though I’ve pasted the links to the ATI website, translated by Ven. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, or Metta.lk translated by Sister Upalavanna, for your convenience in obtaining an on-line English translation.  I’ve interspersed some interpretive notes in black font between the quotes. Maybe readers might read the quotes in purple font as a series several times before reading my interpretive notes which can be treated a bit like footnotes or endnotes in a text book. 

Sa.myuttanikaaya translated by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi
S45.178 Lower Fetters
“Bhikkhus, there are these five lower fetters. What five? Identity view, doubt, the distorted grasp of rules and vows, sensual desire, ill will. These are the five lower fetters. This Noble Eightfold Path is to be developed for direct knowledge of these five lower fetters, for the full understanding of them, for their utter destruction, for their abandoning.”


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[Forgive this diversion. – In relation to the last part of the sutta above please refer also to the Majjhimanikaaya, M43 Mahaavedalla Sutta, Ven. Saariputta tells Ven. Kohita (both were arahats at the time of the conversation) …
M43.12 … the purpose of wisdom is direct knowledge, its purpose is full understanding, its purpose is abandoning…
That is to say, direct knowledge, full understanding and abandoning are three aspects of paññaa-wisdom. Direct knowledge (abhiññaa) is direct experience, here and now. It is not theoretical knowledge.  Fully understanding (pariññaa) is understanding phenomena with the three characteristics of dukkha, annicaa and anattaa (sufffering, impermanence and not-self), again this is not theroetical, it is to be experienced directly, here and now.  Abandoning (pahaana) is not a volitional action, it does not create kamma. It is what happens when wisdom is mature. There is nothing worth clinging to. All phenomena arising and passing are abandoned automatically. When this happens, it is not a choice or a preference of an individual.

Mundane right view is theoretical and supramundane right view is direct experience. Supramundane right view is associated with right knowledge (sammaa ñaana) and right liberation (sammaa vimutti).

M43.13 … there are two conditions for the arising of right view. The voice of another and wise attention.
M43.14 … right view is assisted by five factors when it has deliverance of mind for its fruit and benefit… Right view is assisted by … (i) virtue, (ii) learning, (iii) discussion, (iv) serenity, and (v) insight… 

I urge you to develop these five factors in daily life. When there is mature right view there will be the attainment of sotapanna – stream entry and no more unfortunate rebirths.]
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M2 Sabbaasava Sutta – All the Taints

M2.11  “He attends wisely: ‘This is suffering’; he attends wisely: ‘This is the origin of suffering’; he attends wisely: ‘This is the cessation of suffering’; he attends wisely: ‘This is the way leading to the cessation of suffering.’  When he attends wisely in this way, three fetters [sa.myojana] are abandoned in him: personality view, doubt, and adherence to rules and observances. These are called the taints that should be abandoned by seeing.


[Readers will probably recognise the Four Noble Truths in the above passage and again in the following passage.  The last sentence refers to “taints to be abandoned by seeing”. Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi noted that “seeing” here is a code for the path of sotapanna-stream entry. You can figure it out for yourself when you realise that the three “taints” in that passage are exactly the same as the three fetters that are destroyed by the attainment of sotapanna. The verb “seeing” is also referring to the direct experience of right view as it shifts from mundane to supramundane.]

M9 Sammaadi.t.thi Sutta – Right View
M9.34  And what is clinging, what is the origin of clinging, what is the cessation of clinging, what is the way leading to the cessation of clinging? There are these four kinds of clinging: clinging to sensual pleasures, clinging to views, clinging to rules and observances, and clinging to a doctrine of self. With the arising of craving there is the arising of clinging. With the cessation of craving there is the cessation of clinging. The way leading to the cessation of clinging is just this Noble Eightfold Path; that is right view … right concentration.


[Only the later three of these four kinds of clinging are destroyed by the attainment of sotapanna. The first of them: clinging to sensual pleasures, is only eliminated by anaagaamimagga – the path of the non-returner. This is the third of four stages of enlightenment. In addition to eliminating the clinging to sensual pleasures, anaagaamimagga also destroys anger. The second stage of enlightenment – Sakadagaamimagga  – the path of the once returner, does not eliminate anything. It merely attenuates (weakens) lust and anger.  ]

M11 Cuu.lasihandaada Sutta – The Shorter Discourse on the Lion’s Roar
M11.10 “Though certain recluses and brahmins claim to propound the full understanding of all kinds of clinging, they do not completely describe the full understanding of all kinds of clinging. They describe the full understanding of clinging to sensual pleasures without describing the full understanding of clinging to views, clinging to rules and observances, and clinging to a doctrine of self. Why is that? Those good recluses and brahmins do not understand these three instances of clinging as they actually are …
M11.13 “Bhikkhus, in such a Dhamma and Discipline as that [propounded by those certain recluses and brahmins], it is plain that confidence in the teacher [again, this refers to those faulty teachers, rather than the Blessed One] is not rightly directed, that confidence in the

Dhamma is not rightly directed, that fulfilment of the precepts is not rightly directed, and that the affection among [non Buddhist] companions in the Dhamma is not rightly directed. Why is that? Because that is how it is when the Dhamma and Discipline is badly proclaimed and badly expounded, unemancipating, unconducive to peace, expounded by one who is not fully enlightened.
M11.14 “Bhikkhus, when a Tathagata, accomplished and fully enlightened, claims to propound the full understanding of clinging, he completely describes the full understanding of clinging to sensual pleasures, clinging to views, clinging to rules and observances, and clinging to a doctrine of self… 

[please open the link for M11 and read the whole sutta, especially from M11.9 to the end M11.17. It is very good.]

M64 Mahaamaalunkya Sutta –  The Greater Discourse to Maalunkyaaputta
M64.3 Maalunkhyaaputta, to whom do you remember me my having taught these five lower fetters [of the sensual world] in that way? Would not the wanderers of other sects confute you with the simile of the infant? For a young tender infant lying prone does not even have the notion ‘identity,’ so how could identity view arise in him? Yet the underlying tendency [anusaya] to identity view lies within him. A young tender infant lying prone does not even have the notion ‘teachings,’ so how could doubt about the teachings arise in him? Yet the underlying tendency to doubt lies within him. A young tender infant lying prone does not even have the notion ‘rules,’ so how could adherence to rules and observances arise in him? Yet the underlying tendency to adhere to rules and observances lies within him. A young tender infant lying prone does not even have the notion ‘sensual pleasures,’ so how could sensual desire arise in him? Yet the underlying tendency to sensual lust lies within him. A young tender infant lying prone does not even have the notion ‘beings,’ so how could ill will towards beings arise in him? Yet the underlying tendency to ill will lies within him. Would not the wanderers of other sects confute you with this simile of the infant?” … 

There are more references to ‘adherence to rules and observances’ in other paragraphs of this sutta. Please read the whole sutta. It will be for your benefit and well-being for a very long time.

The Blessed One may have identified adherence to rules and observances as a fetter as part of his critique of the prevailing Brahmin culture in his day. Brahmins taught rules and observances as a way to higher states and even to union with the Brahma deity.  For example, some ancient Brahmin teachers advocated bathing in rivers as a way to eliminate the consequences of evil deeds while other Brahmin teachers preferred to teach the worship of fire or to tend fires to win the favour of one or more deities and thereby gain a fortunate rebirth.  This is a fetter or hindrance in Buddhism because it is micchaadi.t.thi – wrong view, not least because such views misunderstand the law of kamma and place faith in deities that do not have such powers as those Brahmins believe.

The Blessed One taught the way to union with the great Brahma deity and the way to fortunate rebirth among deities is possible by good moral conduct, donations to worthy people and meditation. For example, the way to be with the great Brahma deity is to practice loving kindness (metta) meditation and attain mental absorption – jhaana. By maintaining the capability to attain jhaana until the end of this life, a person would likely attain a fortunate rebirth in the retinue of the great Brahma deity.  But the Blessed One warned this is inferior because it is not permanent and at the end of a long life as a brahma deity, a being may be reborn in an unfortunate realm and suffer for many life times due to the ripening of older kamma.  Attachment to any form of becoming and rebirth is inherently suffering. The wish to be reborn in any existence is inevitably tainted (with craving) and this is the second noble truth – the cause of suffering.

The Blessed One taught the way to liberation from this round of rebirths. Overcoming the fetter of adherence to rules and observances is one of three important fetters to be permanently eliminated before attaining sotapanna – stream entry which is the first stage of enlightenment. Once attained to this stage it is guaranteed there will be no further unfortunate rebirths and there will be at most seven more life times before attaining full enlightenment – arahat.

May you dear reader develop the Noble Eightfold Path, realise the Four Noble Truths and attain Nibbaana.

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Venerable Ñāṇavīra, Notes on the Dhamma

While I was in Sri Lanka and browsing bookshelves at the Buddhist Publication Society and the Buddhist Cultural Centre I found some books by Venerable Ñāṇavīra.  He was mentioned during online discussions back in the early 1990s. I didn’t know much about him or his writings at that time. I did notice that some people seemed to admire him very much while others seemed to criticise his writings in very strong terms. Some people have fixed views about Sotapanna samapati (stream entry attainment), suicide and or attakatha (commentaries) and may reject Ven. Ñāṇavīra’s writing based on his reputation without reading his work.

In the early 1990s I read some excerpts of Ven. Ñāṇavīra’s writings available on the Internet but don’t recall forming a view one way or the other. I bought Clearing the Path Notes on the Dhamma and Clearing the Path Letters (1960-65) and read them both soon after returning to Perth a few months ago.  I encourage you to read Notes on the Dhamma at least. I also found the letters from Ven. Ñāṇavīra to various people very interesting. Ven. Ñāṇavīra probably never thought they might be published as a book. I shall return to both books in future and may read them carefully several times while checking sutta references and so forth.

Further reading on this topic includes:

  • Path Press might be a good place to find related material as well as possibly the  best place to buy Ven. Ñāṇavīra’s books online. 
  • The main website with all the writings in HTML as well as writings by others who have been influenced by Ven. Ñāṇavīra:  http://nanavira.xtreemhost.com 
  • Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi A Critical Examination of Ñāṇavīra Thera’s ‘A Note on Paṭiccasamuppāda’. Pa.ticcasamuppaada may be translated as “dependent origination” or “dependent arising”.  A PDF version of Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi’s paper may also be downloaded from one of the Path Press websites by clicking on the PDF icon on this page.
  • Ven. Bhikkhu H. Ñāṇasuci’s excellent short article about Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi’s paper and Ven.  Ñāṇavīra’s writings. 
  • The Akalika Forum (discussions about Ven. Ñāṇavīra) http://nanavira.top-talk.net/