Ajahn Brahm stressed that the most important immediate goal for Buddhists is to overcome the delusion of the “Self”, the first fetter, because nobody is safe from the bondage of samsara until one become a stream-enterer. But if all three lower fetters are broken at the same time for the stream-enterer, breaking the 2nd and 3rd fetter must be as important as the 1st fetter.
What does the third lower fetter (sīlabbata-parāmāsa) really refer to? What is the power of this fetter that ranks it as equally problematic as grasping on the “deluded view about the Self” and “Doubt”?
One of the translations of sīlabbata-parāmāsa is “attachment to rites and rituals.” This would mean Buddhists should give up religious rites and rituals. This makes sense since there is no mention of rites or rituals in the Eightfold Path, the only way to liberation. Rites and rituals are irrelevant to liberation from rebirths. Bhikkhu Bodhi said it is not an accurate translation. He translated it as “the distorted grasp of rules and vows”. But what rules? What vows?
Others have translated it as “grasping/clinging to precepts and vows, or precepts & practices, or works & rites.”
Buddhists observe precepts. Monks and nuns observe many more precepts than lay followers. Are there precepts that should be abandoned? What are the kind of work to relinquish? Should one refrain from any religious vows?
Kukkuravatika Sutta (MN-57) is often cited to explain the 3rd fetter. The ox-duty ascetic and the dog-duty-ascetic vows and practices are used as examples. But how many people, not to mention reasonable Buddhists, would vow and practice such extreme behaviors? Mahayana followers make “Bodhisattva vows” and also the “Four Great Vows”. But Mahayana followers had forsaken Buddha’s Four Noble Truths. They do not regard liberation from samsara and cessation of dukkha as their spiritual goal. They have a much grander ideal: “Buddhahood” and salvation of all sentient beings (one of the Four Great Vows). There are some “Buddhists” who follow practices such as dedicated meditation and vow not to sleep lying down, while others do prostrations while going on miles of long pilgrimage. Some lay Buddhists vow to be vegetarians. Are they examples of the 3rd fetter?
To understand the ten fetters, one could start with the Four Noble Truths. The 2nd Noble Truth pointed out craving and ignorance are the cause of dukkha, the bonds that trap sentient beings in samsara. The ten fetters, which are milestones along the way to liberation, is thus another way to understand the 2nd Noble Truth. Of the ten fetters, the 3rd fetter seems unique. The ten fetters included 4 of the 5 hindrances (which are nutriment to delusion or ignorance according to AN 10.61), fetters # 2,4,5,9. Delusion is related to fetters # 1,8,10. Fetters # 6,7 are cravings for existence. Is fetter #3 mainly about making religious vows, a form of desire for some attainment? Or is it a delusion about what spiritual pursuit is all about?