Attachment to Views and the First Three Fetters

The first of four stages of enlightenment outlined by the Buddha is usually called “stream entry”, as when one reaches it, one has entered a metaphorical stream that will inevtiably carry one to full enlightenment within at most seven more rebirths.  Stream entry should not be understood as gaining something, or adding something to what is already there, but rather a falling away of something–a falling away of some impediments that prevent us from practicing as best we can.  What falls away is an attachment to views.  The language used to describe this is that of the first three (of ten) fetters.  They tell us three ways attachment to views impacts our mind.  The Pāḷi for these is vickicchā, sīlabbataparāmasa, and sakkāyadiṭṭhi.  They are often translated as “doubt”, “attachment to rules and rituals”, and “identity-view”, but while “doubt” works to get across the sense of what that fetter is, the latter two fall short.  The bulk of this post will be attempting to describe those.

First off, what do we mean by views?  “Views” is a literal translation of diṭṭhi, and for the most part it means the same thing we mean by it in English:  Our opinions, our beliefs, our values, our outlook on the world.  The things we think are true about ourselves, about others, and about everything.  Views form the underpinning of our thoughts, our feelings, and our choices.  They structure our awareness itself.  What we notice and what we ignore is rooted to a large extent in our views, and what we notice and what we ignore will determine what we feel (or perhaps further fuel some feeling already there) and what actions we take.  Thus views are also intimately connected to our kamma.  The problem isn’t holding views…we quite simply can’t function without them.  The problem is holding onto those views, sticking to them, not budging from them, not even questioning them, and in the worst case can mean forcing those views on others.

So how does this clinging to views manifest as the three fetters?

First is simply doubt.  That one is fairly straightforward.  It does not mean a healthy, skeptical doubt.  It is countered by faith (saddha), but that does not mean blind faith or obedience.  This is a faith built through practice, a belief that the practice is good and that one can do it, reinforced when we do the practice and see that it helps us.  In its most complete form, it is faith that the Buddha was fully enlightened, the Dhamma he taught can bring us to enlightenment if we practice it, that we are fully capable of practicing that Dhamma, and that there is a community of people, the Sangha, who are capable of assisting us along the path.  This can’t just be an intellectual belief, but needs to be a conviction that goes to our very core and blossoms into a commitment to the practice.

“Attachment to rules and rituals” is often explained in the context of ancient India.  At the time of the Buddha, there were two major religious groups:  The brahmins and the ascetics.  The brahmins were priests of a religion that would eventually become Hinduism as we know it today.  They practiced rituals from the Vedas that they believed would ensure them a good life and purify their minds.  The ascetics comprised a wide variety of philosophical and religious positions, but all taught that certain practices–meditations, austerities, and so forth–would purify the mind and bring one to liberation.  So, in this context, breaking the fetter of “attachment to rules and rituals” means realizing that none of this will work.  But we can take it a deeper.  As the Ajahns of the Hillside Hermitage point out, very often we as Buddhists will follow the precepts, whether the five or eight, without really understanding why we’re doing it, or more specifically how following the precepts might result in liberation.  And even further, many of us think that if we meditate enough, or do enough renunciation or mettā practice, that will liberate us, as if we are getting Dhamma Points and if we collect enough we will become enlightened.  This is what the fetter is:  This very belief that if we just follow the right set of instructions from the right teacher we will reach awakening.  But there is no method, no technique, no system, and certainly no ritual, that will bring us to realization of the Unconditioned.  They certainly help, and are probably even indispensible.  After all, one of the conditions for stream entry is having encountered the Dhamma through the word of another!  And if nothing else, they have concrete benefits to the life and mind and are well worth doing for that alone.  But to make the actual breakthrough, simply following some set of rules won’t do it.

For sakkāyadiṭṭhi, I gave the translation “identity-view” above, but that does not really capture it that well, in my opinion.  Literally it is something like “the view that bodies are real”.  Some have chosen “personality-view” for it.  Bhante Sujato has recently decided to use “substantialist view”.  The Digitial Dictionary of Buddhism defines the Chinese equivalent, 有身見, as “reifying view; identity-view; view of the existence of independent entities”.  It includes views about oneself, one’s identity, one’s personality, one’s nature, any theory about what the self might be, but also those about anything else.  It is the view that any of these views is substantial, solid, real.  Breaking this fetter is the realization of emptiness.  This does not mean reifying the view of emptiness, either.  The view that all views are insubstantial is itself a view to which one should not cling.  Moreover, in any of these views we hold, there is a sense of self, and a reference to a self, albeit in most cases quite subtle.  It’s a sense that these are my views, my beliefs, and I am real, and my beliefs are real.

While some of the views we hold are ones we are aware of and can articulate, most of the views we hold that generate our thoughts and behaviors are hidden below the surface and cannot be directly seen, at least not without some work.  They can be found by mindful investigation of our experiences, though.  Our reactions, for example, can tell us a great deal about what views we are clinging to, and bring them into the light so we can see them and let them go.  Basically, anywhere our mind says ouch is where we should look for what views we’re clinging to.

And that’s where the practices and techniques we learn as we train in Dhamma come in.  Doing the practices themselves, in the sense of just executing the instructions by the letter, will not bring us to liberation.  But by doing them we can come to see the contours of these views and learn where we are clinging.  Before we can cut the first three fetters, we need to be able to actually see the first three fetters.  So, for someone whose primary affliction is desire for sensual pleasures, renunciation can reveal the attitudes and beliefs supporting desire, and how we construct our identities around desire.  Practice of the brahmavihāras can show us where we are aversive and hateful.  As we unearth the hidden views we can see how clinging to them keeps us trapped in our unwhwolesome habit-patterns.  We often define ourselves–consciously or not–in terms of what we want, what we like, what we hate, what we don’t like.  Meditation creates space for these things to emerge, and for us to regard them with impartiality so we might dismiss them.

This can be a terrifying process.  The realization that everything we think about ourselves are just thoughts–right down to the deepest, core level–can leave us without any kind of reference point, nothing to grab onto and say, “This is real, this is me, this is mine, I am this.”  But in doing so, something beautiful can unfold, and when we remove these obscurations hiding it and untangle these knots, the Dhamma can become truly alive in our hearts and minds.  And then it becomes a matter of simply allowing it to happen, and getting oneself out of the way.

Ryan Hastings

Scroll to Top