Abhidhamma Studies - Preface

Buddhist Explorations of Consciousness and Time


176 pages, 6 x 9 inches


ISBN 9780861711352

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These studies originated when the author was engaged in translating into German the Dhammasaṅgaṇī (“Compendium of Phenomena”) and its commentary, the Atthasālinī. These two books are the staring point and the main subject of the following pages that, in part, may serve as a kind of fragmentary subcommentary to them.

The content of these studies is rather varied: they include philosophical and psychological investigations, references to the practical application of the teachings concerned, pointers to neglected or unnoticed aspects of the Abhidhamma, textual research, etc. This variety of contents serves to show that wherever we dig deep enough into that inexhaustible mine, the Abhidhamma literature, we shall meet with valuable contributions to the theoretical understanding and practical realization of Buddhist doctrine. So the main purpose of these pages is to stimulate further research in the field of Abhidhamma to a much wider and deeper extent than was possible in this modest attempt.

There is no reason why the Abhidhamma philosophy of the Southern or Theravāda tradition should stagnate today or why its further development should not be resumed. In fact, through many centuries there has been a living growth of Abhidhamma thought, and even in our own days there are original contributions to it from Burma, for example, by that remarkable monk-philosopher, the Venerable Ledi Sayadaw. There are a vast number of subjects in the canonical and commentarial Abhidhamma literature that deserve and require closer investigation and new presentation in the language of our time. There are many lines of thought, only briefly sketched in Abhidhamma tradition, that merit detailed treatment in connection with parallel tendencies in modern thought. Finally, in some important subjects of Abhidhamma doctrine we must deplore the partial loss of ancient tradition, a fact that is clearly indicated by the appearance of technical terms nowhere explained.

Here a careful and conscientious restoration in conformity with the spirit of the Theravāda tradition is required unless we would relegate those parts of the Abhidhamma to the status of venerable but fragmentary museum pieces.

Abhidhamma is meant for inquiring and searching spirits who are not satisfied by monotonously and uncritically repeating readymade terms, even if these are Abhidhamma terms. Abhidhamma is for imaginative minds who are able to fill in, as it were, the columns of the tabulations, for which the canonical Abhidhamma books have furnished the concise headings. The Abhidhamma is not for those timid souls who are not content that a philosophical thought should not actually contradict Buddhist tradition, but demand that it must be expressly, even literally, supported by canonical or commentarial authority. Such an attitude is contrary to the letter and the spirit of the Buddha-Dhamma. It would mean that the Abhidhamma philosophy must remain within the limits of whatever has been preserved of the traditional exegetical literature and hence will cease to be a living and growing organism. This would certainly be deplorable for many reasons.

We are convinced that the Abhidhamma, if suitably presented, could also enrich modern non-Buddhist thought, in philosophy as well as psychology. To state parallels with modern Western thought or the historical precedence of Buddhist versions is not so important in itself. It is more important that the Buddhist way of presenting and solving the respective problems should show modern independent thinkers new vistas and open new avenues of thought, which in turn might revive Buddhist philosophy in the East. We are convinced that from such a philosophical exchange there would arise a glorious vindication of those eternal and fundamental truths, at once simple and profound, that the greatest genius of humankind, the Buddha, proclaimed.

Nyanaponika Thera


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© Buddhist Publication Society, Abhidhamma Studies (Wisdom Publications, 1998)

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