To Reach Stream-Entry, All You Need to Break are These Three Fetters

by | Apr 2, 2024 | Buddhism for All

The most technical definition of stream-entry is the total abandonment of the first three lower fetters: identity view, doubt, and the distorted grasp of rules and vows.

The first fetter, identity view[1], means identifying the self with any of the five aggregates (form, sensation, perception, volitional formations, and consciousness).  Happily for us, the Buddha offered a very precise technical definition for identity view.  There are four possible views on each of the aggregates that relate to the self.  Using the example of form, the four views are:

  1. Self is form
  2. Self owns form
  3. Self is contained within form
  4. Form is contained within self

If you apply these four views to all five aggregates, you end up with twenty views, since 4 x 5 = 20.  For those who would like them all spelled out, the twenty views are:

  • Self is form; self owns form; self is contained within form; form is contained within self.
  • Self is sensation; self owns sensation; self is contained within sensation; sensation is contained within self.
  • Self is perception; self owns perception; self is contained within perception; perception is contained within self.
  • Self is volitional formations; self owns volitional formations; self is contained within volitional formations; volitional formations are contained within self.
  • Self is consciousness; self owns consciousness; self is contained within consciousness; consciousness is contained within self.

The fetter of identity view means holding at least one of the twenty views.  Therefore, the abandoning of identity view is the abandoning of all twenty views above.[2]

Soryu often defines the five aggregates as the five ways identity can be assumed.  I think his definition beautifully summarizes the fetter of identity view.

The second fetter, doubt[3], traditionally refers to a lack of confidence in the teachings of the Buddha.  Specifically, it refers to the type of doubt that undermines practice.  There are two types of doubt in relation to the teaching: healthy doubt and unhealthy doubt.  The type of doubt that leads one to question and investigate the teaching in order to understand it more deeply is healthy, it is not a fetter.  In contrast, the type of doubt that leads us away from investigation and prevents us from following through on the practice is unhealthy, and it constitutes a fetter.

To illustrate, let’s consider the case of physical fitness.  Suppose you want to be physically healthy and fit, and suppose you read in magazines that, according to scientists, exercise can lead to physical health and fitness.  If you have healthy doubt, you first ask yourself, “Is that true?”  You then read the scientific literature to investigate.  As part of your investigation, you also try to understand how exercise works (for example, that running increases your VO2max, your maximum lung capacity for oxygen, and that resistance training builds up your muscles).  But that is not enough, you actually try exercising to see for yourself if the claims in the literature are true.  In a few weeks, you find yourself more physically healthy and fit, and you find that your initial skepticism and the effort you put into understanding exercise actually helps and motivates you in your training.  That is healthy doubt. 

In contrast, let’s say you are close-minded, and let’s say you hold this attitude that, “all scientists are wrong.”  So, you decide that if scientists say exercise can lead to physical fitness, it must be wrong.  You do not take the time to investigate their claims.  Worse still, you do not even take the time to think about your original assumption that “all scientists are wrong.”  Therefore, you do not exercise, and so you do not gain physical health or fitness.  That is an example of unhealthy doubt, the type of doubt that leads you away from the practice.

In Pali, at least two words are translated into English as “doubt”: kankhā and vicikicchā.  Kankhā includes both healthy and unhealthy doubt[4], while vicikicchā refers only to unhealthy doubt.  Only vicikicchā is the fetter. 

The third fetter is “distorted grasp of rules and vows”[5].  There are, however, many other translations.  For example, I’ve seen it translated as “attachments to rites and rituals”, “attachment to precepts and practices”, and “indulgence in wrongful rites and ceremonies”.  This fetter refers to the belief that merely performing certain rituals or obeying certain rules and vows is by itself sufficient to liberate one from suffering.  Shinzen Young explains it quite brilliantly as: the belief that rules and regulations can provide more spiritual support than they really can.  Soryu puts it in a more amusing way: it is like expecting rituals and rules to do all your spiritual work for you.

The fetter is probably easier to understand in the cultural context of the Buddha’s time and place, where many people performed daily religious rituals (for example, repeating certain words, burning certain items in front of certain idols, or taking a bath in a holy river) in the belief that doing that alone will liberate them from all suffering.

The Buddha taught, instead, that suffering arises from mental factors such as greed, hatred and delusion, and therefore, the only way to gain liberation from all suffering is to completely abandon the mental factors that lead to suffering.  Rites, rituals, rules, habits and vows provide us important support for the practice towards abandoning those mental factors, but they are also merely supporting factors, not the main active ingredient.  The failure to recognize that is the fetter.

The Buddha did not specifically elaborate on this fetter, but his teachings on at least three occasions illustrate it.  The first involves bathing in a holy river.  Once, the Buddha was giving a lecture when a man named Sundarika Bhāradvāja was in the audience.  Sundarika believed that bathing in a holy river can “give liberation, give merit, wash away one’s evil action”,[6] so he asked the Buddha if that was true.  The Buddha was like, no dude, it doesn’t work that way.  The Buddha then taught him the practice of “inner bathing” as the means for liberation, which means cultivating qualities including virtue, inner peace, inner joy, meditative concentration, kindness and compassion.

There is a funny but apocryphal story often told by Buddhist teachers: The Buddha was taking a walk one day and he saw a group of holy men bathing in a holy river.  He asked them why they were doing it, and they told him that by submerging themselves in the holy river, liberation can be gained.  The Buddha told them, if one can really gain liberation by submerging in a holy river, then the ones most liberated would not be you, the holy men, it would be the fish and prawns in this river.

Buddhist monk and author Nyanatiloka Mahāthera has a very nice paraphrase of the Buddha’s teaching on this topic:

The man enmeshed in delusion will never be purified through the mere study of holy books, or sacrifices to gods, or through fasts, or sleeping on the ground, or difficult and strenuous vigils, or the repetition of prayers. Neither gifts to priests, nor self-castigation, nor performance of rites and ceremonies can work purification in him who is filled with craving.[7] 

The context of the Buddha’s teaching on the third occasion was shocking to me.  Here, two ascetics came to see him, a naked “ox-duty ascetic” and a naked “dog-duty ascetic”.[8]  What are they?  The ox-duty ascetic wore horns on his head, tied a tail to his backside, and went about eating grass together with the cows.  Similarly, the dog-duty ascetic performed all the actions typical of a dog.  And they were naked.  Yeah, wow.  They both did that in the belief that doing so would lead them to liberation.  Fortunately for them, they respected the Buddha enough to come talk to him. 

The ox-duty ascetic asked the Buddha what would be “the destination” for the other guy, the dog-duty ascetic?  The dog-duty ascetic similarly asked what would happen to that other guy, the ox-duty ascetic?  First, the Buddha shocked them by telling them that the ox-duty ascetic, in the best case, after he died, would be reborn as an ox, and in the worst case, would be taking up residence in the hell realm, and similarly with the dog-duty ascetic.  They both started crying.  The Buddha then taught them that ultimately, liberation arises from intentions and actions.  At the end of this discourse, both ascetics abandoned their animal practices and became disciples of the Buddha.

If you go around naked wearing horns on your head and a tail on your backside and live like a cow believing that doing so would bring you to nirvana, that’s not going to happen.  And that, my friends, is no bull.


  • Reflect on this post with Angela:
    • I remember a teaching by Buddhist teacher, Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, where she held up a mala (prayer beads), using it as an analogy for self and karma. As the self (analogy of the thread holding the beads together) creates karma (the analogy of the beads), we go round and round continuously experiencing pain and pleasure.  Once the fetter of “self”, ego, or “I-view” is thoroughly broken, the whole prayer beads of karma break apart. Until one is enlightened, one will have these three fetters: self-view, doubts, attachments to rites and rituals. Examine and contemplate how these three fetters show up in your life. 


[1] In Pali: sakkāya-diṭṭhi.  It literally means “view of existing in or owning the body” (sa means own, kāya means body and diṭṭhi means view), which is why it is sometimes translated as “embodiment view”.  Despite its literal meaning, identity view goes beyond the body.  See: Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli: The Life of the Buddha: According to the Pali Canon. Pariyatti Publishing, 2003.

[2] Saṃyutta Nikāya 22.82, Majjhima Nikāya 44, and Majjhima Nikāya 109.

[3] In Pali: vicikicchā.

[4] Nyanatiloka Mahāthera, Buddhist Dictionary. Buddhist Publication Society (1980).

[5] Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation. In Pali: sīlabbata-parāmāsa.

[6] Majjhima Nikāya 7.

[7] Nyanatiloka Mahāthera, Fundamentals of Buddhism.  Wheel Publication no. 394/396.  Buddhist Publication Society (1994).  This quote is very likely based on Sutta Nipāta 2.2.11.

[8] Majjhima Nikāya 57.

Artwork by Colin Goh.

Chade-Meng Tan

Meng is an award-winning engineer, international bestselling author, movie producer and philanthropist. His work has been nominated eight times for the Nobel Peace Prize. (Read Meng's story)

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