AN2.36: bahiddhāsaṃyojano: external fetters

I’ve bumped into a rather peculiar sutta AN2.36, wherein Sariputta teaches about internal and external fetters. The Sangha receives his talk well, but several deities ask for the Buddha to intervene.

This is the only sutta that uses bahiddhāsaṃyojano (i.e., external fetters) and I had never heard this term before. As I read the sutta, I thought to myself, “ok, so there are internal and external fetters.” And I was happy and about to move on to the next sutta. But then I continued reading and saw that the deities asked the Buddha to intervene.

My question is…why did the deities ask the Buddha to intervene out of compassion? :thinking:

“Sir, Venerable Sāriputta is in the Eastern Monastery, the stilt longhouse of Migāra’s mother, where he is teaching the mendicants about a person with internal fetters and one with external fetters. The assembly is overjoyed! Sir, please go to Venerable Sāriputta out of compassion.” The Buddha consented in silence.


Good post.
I have never read this sutta. (not found in access to insight)
Google found this.
It is worthwhile further investigation.


  1. This state = the human realm. According to the Commentary, “interior” here means sensual levels of becoming; “exterior” means form and formless levels of becoming. Alternatively, it says that “interior” denotes the five lower fetters, whereas “exterior” denotes the five higher fetters. It illustrates the idea that a person interiorly fettered can sojourn in the higher levels of becoming before returning to this state with an analogy: a calf fettered by a tether to a post inside a corral but whose tether is long enough for it to lie down for a while outside of the corral. Similarly, a person externally fettered who is currently alive in this state is like a calf tethered to a post outside of a corral but who is currently lying down in the corral.


Ah! That is quite interesting, so rupajhana and arupajhana attachments remain and are external for the non-returner. Thanks! :pray:

And I also see this:

Then many devas with their minds in tune [samacitta]

Which Bhante @Sujato has translated as:

Then several peaceful-minded deities went up to the Buddha, bowed, stood to one side, and said to the Buddha:
Atha kho sambahulā samacittā devatā yena bhagavā tenupasaṅkamiṃsu; upasaṅkamitvā bhagavantaṃ abhivādetvā ekamantaṃ aṭṭhaṃsu. Ekamantaṃ ṭhitā kho tā devatā bhagavantaṃ etadavocuṃ:

For some reason, the phrase “Minds in tune” calls to mind the deva’s of the Brahma’s Host as per DN33:

There are sentient beings that are diverse in body and unified in perception, such as the gods reborn in Brahmā’s Host through the first absorption. This is the second plane of consciousness.

So I am inclined to think that the devas who went to the Buddha must have been of the Brahma’s Host or above, in other words, the ones associated with the rupa- and arupa-jhanas. These would be the once-returner and non-returner devas, not just any devas. And they unanimously wanted the Buddha to clarify that the practice for both once-returners and non-returners happens in this very human life, since those devas were speaking from personal experience.


1 Like

Well that is a most weird sutta indeed!

Out of curiosity I looked for parallels. It appears to have one parallel in Chinese which sadly hasn’t been translated into English… until now! Feast your eyes upon this new translation, courtesy of the Baidu Translation App :joy:


For what it’s worth, my read was a bit different.

I read it as Sariputta attempting, in his way, to refocus the monks on abandoning their fetters, and to not worry so much about the external form of the practice. For even if a monk has perfect behavior, they may still be fettered: either internally craving for things not allowed for the monks or externally attached to that very form. In this way, even perfect monastic discipline can be a fetter.

The Devas saw this as a dangerous teaching, in that it could be taken as carte blanche by future monks to not restrain their behavior at all. So the Buddha came and synthesized the two perspectives (of internal and external cultivation) thus: cultivate a peaceful mind, and offer that peace to those around you.

In this way, the Buddha agrees with Sariputta that developing the mind comes first and foremost, but he reframes that teaching in a way which doesn’t disparage the value of good conduct.


:rofl: made me choke @Khemarato.bhikkhu !!! too funny


Somehow that translation did not help my sutta study😉 @Khemarato.bhikkhu. I now sit, eating my lunch, pondering:
"Happy, cherish, in the current law can not be wise, life is bad, eat the sky, the rest of life. "


“Return to study. No desire, no desire. Because of learning no desire: no desire. No desire: rest, free of mind. Love has been enjoyed.

The Buddha said so.”



That’s a startlingly valid point! :pray:

I am left with a bit of perplexity about the purpose of the Buddha’s visit…

Sariputta clearly knows about the five higher fetters (uddhambhāgiyāni saṃyojanāni) since he discusses them in DN33. But in this sutta, he chooses to say “external fetters” (bahiddhāsaṃyojano), which would alter the meaning. Indeed, each of the higher fetters feels internal rather external. For example, it would be difficult to think of the higher fetter of conceit as “external” given that it revolves around “I am”. And although “rebirth in the realm of luminous form” would be external, the “desire for rebirth…” is internal.

Sariputta doesn’t explicitly enumerate the external fetters in the sutta, yet he does define the person restrictively:

Who is a person fettered externally?
It’s a mendicant who is ethical, restrained in the monastic code, conducting themselves well and seeking alms in suitable places. Seeing danger in the slightest fault, they keep the rules they’ve undertaken.

This would support your thesis.

However, the Buddha, doesn’t say “keep minding the rules” on his visit to Sariputta. Nor does he quibble about internal or external fetters. Instead, the Buddha says something quite tangentially odd about devas on a pin:

Those deities, though they number ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, or sixty, can stand on the point of a needle without bumping up against each other.

Even living arahants can’t stand together on the point of a needle. Their bodies would get in the way. So perhaps the body is an external fetter. Indeed, everything discernible as “This is not mine, I am not this, this is not my self” would be…external to self and therefore an external fetter.

And, curiously, practicing “This is not mine, I am not this, this is not my self” does indeed lead to the peace directly mentioned in the wisdom unique to this sutta:

So you should train like this:
‘We shall have peaceful faculties and peaceful minds."

I’m still gnawing on that neutral feeling. :laughing:

1 Like

Yeah that struck me as out of place too! Though I was amused to see such an ancient version of the trope.

1 Like

I am inclined to read the sutta this way: Although the sutta teaching seems to distinguish between internally and externally fettered practitioners, on closer reading, it seems to be more precisely understood as a distinction between practitioners who are bound by both internal and external fetters and those who are bound by external fetters only.

Sariputta’s initial teaching seems to suggest that the highest form of spiritual practice is based on deep peaceful absorption, a state of mind that approximates the practice of the devas in formless spiritual realms. For a person who has cultivated such a state, the fetters are only external. Thus when their bodies break up, such persons’ last fetters with the world of form are severed. They proceed into a refined spiritual realm, and never return to a world of form. But the person who still has internal fetters will eventually return to the world of form.

So far so good, and Sariputta never tells the assembly to neglect the bodily practices. But the teaching carries the implicit suggestion that the bodily practices are only a stepping stone to the higher practices, and once one has achieved peaceful spiritual absorption the bodily practices are no longer important. It also suggests that the refined state of mind of the formless deva realms is cultivated in the formless deva realms, and so to the extent that one can access formless realms here, one can practice the highest practice, as the devas do, and develop only from there.

But the devas of the formless realms know that, lacking bodies, they are unable to share the gift of peace with others who cannot see them or sense them, and that their exalted states of mind were cultivated here on earth, through a combined bodily-meditative practice whose two sides somehow reinforce each other. Perhaps it is even suggested that the kammic benefits of being able to give a gift of peace to beings in the sensory realms exceed the benefits of any gifts the formless devas can give. So that, I take it, is why they ask the Buddha to remind Sariputta about the importance of the human realm and the value of practices available to humans.


That makes sense.

And upon reading more closely, I retract my post above about externally fettered being distinguished by:

It’s a mendicant who is ethical, restrained in the monastic code, conducting themselves well and seeking alms in suitable places. Seeing danger in the slightest fault, they keep the rules they’ve undertaken.

In fact internally fettered mendicants are exactly the same, both in the Pali and the English text:

It’s a mendicant who is ethical, restrained in the monastic code, conducting themselves well and seeking alms in suitable places. Seeing danger in the slightest fault, they keep the rules they’ve undertaken.

This means that the distinction between internal and external fetters is…not defined anywhere. We are reduced to speculation. :see_no_evil:

Make sense. Because Sariputta can’t see them but the Buddha can.


Reading this I can’t see any difference between higher-lower fetters and external-internal fetters. They seems to affect the monks involved in exactly the same way. Maybe what they were called was a bit fluid early on in the dispensation.

Buddha’s response to the deva’s complaint is one I see in the NHS a lot. Often complaints are with secondary gain motives, and not because the Sariputta has said something wrong. The Buddha makes him aware of the sensitivities of the listeners and asks him to keep doing what he is doing!


Now that’s a take I hadn’t thought of! :sunglasses: Cool beans.

1 Like

Just to clarify, basically your read is:

Sariputta was admonishing the monks not to get attached to the bliss of peace because that would lead to rebirth in those awful deva-realms, to which the devas said “hey! :angry:” So the Buddha reminded Sariputta that there might be many devas listening at any time, and then said a few words to smooth things over…

:thinking: I can buy that

I don’t think so. He was just stating what’s been said elsewhere - become a noble disciple and most likely you will be born in a heavenly realm and will also (eventually) become an arahanth there. In this case it is even more pronounced as if we take this to mean the same higher and lower fetters, then it is the difference between virtuous unattained monks and non-returner monks, which have been categorised as the sukkha magga-dukkha magga elsewhere, or monks using jhana as the main vehicle and wisdom or insight as the main vehicle- that however is not to say that they both don’t have right view and have achieved the stream.

1 Like