Classic and Contemporary Buddhist Works

Abhidhamma Studies - Selections

Buddhist Explorations of Consciousness and Time

Chapter 1: The Abhidhamma Philosophy: Its Estimation in the Past, Its Value for the Present

The High Esteem for the Abhidhamma in Buddhist Tradition

The Abhidhamma Piṭaka, or the Philosophical Collection, forms the third great section of the Buddhist Pāli Canon (Tipiṭaka). In its most characteristic parts it is a system of classifications, analytical enumerations, and definitions, with no discursive treatment of the subject matter. In particular its two most important books, the Dhammasaṅgaṇī and the Paṭṭhāna, have the appearance of huge collections of systematically arranged tabulations, accompanied by definitions of the terms used in the tables. This, one would expect, is a type of literature scarcely likely to gain much popular appreciation. Yet the fact remains that the Abhidhamma has always been highly esteemed and even venerated in the countries of Theravāda Buddhism.

Two examples taken from the chronicles of Sri Lanka illustrate this high regard for the Abhidhamma. In the tenth century C.E., on the order of King Kassapa V, the whole Abhidhamma Piṭaka was inscribed on gold plates, and the first of these books, the Dhammasaṅgaṇī, was set with jewels. When the work was completed, the precious manuscripts were taken in a huge procession to a beautiful monastery and deposited there. Another king of Lanka, Vijayabāhu (eleventh century), used to study the Dhammasaṅgaṇī in the early morning before he took up his royal duties, and he prepared a translation of it into Sinhala, which however has not been preserved.

What were the reasons for such an extraordinary esteem for material that appears at first glance to consist of no more than dry and unattractive textbooks? And what actual importance do the two basic works of the Abhidhamma in particular, the Dhammasaṅgaṇī and the Paṭṭhāna, still have today? These are the questions that we shall attempt to answer here.

In considering the reasons for this high esteem and regard for the Abhidhamma, we may leave aside any manifestation of faith, more or less unquestioning, that evokes in the devotee a certain awe owing to the very abstruseness and bulk of these books. That apart, we may find a first explanation in the immediate impression on susceptible minds that they are faced here by a gigantic edifice of penetrative insight, which in its foundations and its layout cannot well be ascribed to a lesser mind than that of a Buddha; and this first impression will find growing confirmation in the gradual process of comprehending these teachings.

According to the Theravāda tradition the Abhidhamma is the domain proper of the Buddhas (buddhavisaya), and its initial conception in the Master’s mind (manasā desanā) is traced to the time immediately after the Great Enlightenment. It was in the fourth of the seven weeks spent by the Master in the vicinity of the Bodhi Tree that the Abhidhamma was conceived. These seven days were called by the teachers of old “the Week of the House of Gems” (ratanaghara-sattāha). “The House of Gems” is indeed a very befitting expression for the crystal-clear edifice of Abhidhamma thought in which the Buddha dwelt during that period.

The Abhidhamma as System and Method

Those who have an eye for the ingenious and the significant in the architecture of great edifices of thought will probably be impressed first by the Abhidhamma’s structural qualities, its wide compass, its inner consistency, and its far-reaching implications. The Abhidhamma offers an impressive systematization of the whole of reality as far as it is of concern to the final goal of the Buddha’s teaching—liberation from craving and suffering; for it deals with actuality from an exclusively ethical and psychological viewpoint and with a definite practical purpose.

 A strikingly impressive feature of the Abhidhamma is its analysis of the entire realm of consciousness. The Abhidhamma is the first historical attempt to map the possibilities of the human mind in a thorough and realistic way, without admixture of metaphysics and mythology. This system provides a method by which the enormous welter of facts included or implied in it can be subordinated to, and be utilized by, the liberating function of knowledge, which in the Buddha’s teaching is the essential task and the greatest value of true understanding. This organizing and mustering of knowledge for such a purpose cannot fail to appeal to the practical thinker.

The Abhidhamma may also be regarded as a systematization of the doctrines contained, or implicit, in the Sutta Piṭaka, the Collection of Discourses. It formulates these doctrines in strictly philosophical (paramattha) or truly realistic (yathābhūta) language that as far as possible employs terms descriptive of functions and processes without any of the conventional (vohāra) and unrealistic concepts that assume a personality, an agent (as different from the act), a soul, or a substance.

These remarks about the systematizing import of the Abhidhamma may perhaps create the impression in the reader that the Abhidhamma is no more than “a mere method with only a formalistic function.” Leaving aside the fact that this is not so, as we shall see later, let us first quote, against this somewhat belittling attitude, a word of Friedrich Nietzsche, himself certainly no friend of rigid systematization: “Scientific spirit rests upon insight into the method.”

For the preeminently practical needs of the Buddhist the Abhidhamma fulfills the requirements stated by Bertrand Russell: “A complete description of the existing world would require not only a catalogue of the things, but also a mention of all their qualities and relations.” A systematic “catalogue of things” together with their qualities, or better “functions,” is given in the first book of the Abhidhamma, the Dhammasaṅgaṇī, a title that could well be rendered “A Catalogue (or Compendium) of Things”; and the relations, or the conditionality, of these things are treated in the Paṭṭhāna.

Some who consider themselves “strong-minded” have called systems “a refuge of feeble minds.” While it must be admitted that the conceptual labels supplied by systems (including the Abhidhamma) have often been misused as a surrogate for correct comprehension of reality, this does not mean that the fault lies in systematic thought itself. The fault lies, rather, in the attitude with which a system is developed and the use to which it is put. If systematic thought is cautiously and critically applied, it can fulfill a valuable function, providing “weapons of defense” against the overwhelming assault of innumerable internal and external impressions on the human mind. This unceasing influx of impressions, by sheer weight of number and diversity alone, can be either overpowering and fascinating or else confusing, intimidating, distracting, even dissolving. The only means by which the human mind can assimilate this vast world of plurality (papañca), at least partly, is with the aid of systematic and methodical thought. But systems may also be “aggressive weapons” when wielded by a mind that through its power of understanding tries to control and master the numerous experiences, actions, and reactions occurring in our inner and outer world, subordinating them to its own purposes.

The Abhidhamma system, however, is not concerned with an artificial, abstract world of “objects in themselves.” Insofar as it deals with external facts at all, the respective concepts relate those “external facts” to the bondage or liberation of the human mind; or they are terms auxiliary to the tasks of the understanding and mental training connected with the work of liberation.

The basically dynamic character of the Abhidhamma system, and of the concepts it employs, goes far in preventing both rigidity and any artificial simplification of a complex and ever-changing world—the faults that those inimical to them find in all “systems.” System and method bring order, coherence, and meaning into what often appears to be a world of isolated facts, which becomes amenable to our purposes only by a methodical approach. This holds true for the system of the Abhidhamma, too, in regard to the highest purpose: mind’s liberation from ignorance and suffering.

Clarification of Terms

Many thinkers of all times and cultures have insisted that a clarification of concepts and terms is a necessary basis for realistic and effective thought and action; indeed, Confucius says it is even a condition for proper governance. But throughout history the widespread confusion of ideas that has steered human destiny shows that such conceptual clarification has been neglected in nearly all branches of life and thought—a fact responsible for much misery and destruction.

It is another evidence of the scientific spirit of the Abhidhamma that the definition of its terms and of their range of application occupies a very prominent place. In particular, the Dhammasaṅgaṇī is essentially a book of classifications and definitions, while the sixth book of the Abhidhamma, the Yamaka, develops a very elaborate and cautious delimitation of terms that might appear even too labored and elaborate for our sensibility.

Since the suttas principally serve as a source of guidance for the actual daily life of the disciple, they are generally expressed in terms of conventional language (vohāra-vacana), making reference to persons and personal attributes. In the Abhidhamma, however, this sutta terminology is replaced by a more philosophically precise terminology, which accords with the egoless or “impersonal” and ever-changing nature of actuality. The Abhidhamma texts use this terminology, true in the strict or “highest sense” (paramattha), to explain in detail the main tenets of the Dhamma.

While vague definitions and loosely used terms are like blunt tools unfit to do the work they are meant for, and while concepts based on wrong notions will necessarily beg the question to be scrutinized and will thus prejudice the issue, the use of appropriate and carefully tempered conceptual tools is an indispensable condition for success in the quest for liberating knowledge. Hence the fact that Abhidhamma literature is a rich source of exact terminology is a feature not to be underestimated.

Analysis of Consciousness

One of the Abhidhamma’s chief contributions to human thought is, as we have already intimated, the analysis and classification of consciousness, a project undertaken in the first part of the Dhammasaṅgaṇī. Here, for the first time in history, the human mind, so evanescent and elusive, has been subjected to a comprehensive, thorough, and unprejudiced scrutiny. The approach taken is one of a rigorous phenomenology that disposes of the notion that any kind of static unity or underlying substance can be traced in the mind. However, the basic ethical layout and soteriological purpose of this psychology effectively prevents its realistic, unmetaphysical analysis of the mind from implying conclusions of ethical materialism or theoretical and practical amoralism.

The method of investigation applied in the Abhidhamma is inductive, being based exclusively on an unprejudiced and subtle introspective observation of mental processes. The procedure used in the Dhammasaṅgaṇī for the analysis of consciousness is precisely that postulated by Whitehead: “It is impossible to over-emphasize the point that the key to the process of induction, as used either in science or in our ordinary life, is to be found in the right understanding of the immediate occasion of knowledge in its full concreteness…. In any occasion of cognition, that which is known is an actual occasion of experience, as diversified by reference to a realm of entities which transcend that immediate occasion in that they have analogous or different connections with other occasions of experience.”

Whitehead’s term “occasion” corresponds to the Abhidhammic concept samaya (time, occasion, conjunction of circumstances), which occurs in all principal paragraphs of the Dhammasaṅgaṇī, and there denotes the starting point of the analysis. The term receives a detailed and very instructive treatment in its commentary, the Atthasālinī.

The Buddha succeeded in reducing this “immediate occasion” of an act of cognition to a single moment of consciousness, which, however, in its subtlety and evanescence cannot be observed, directly and separately, by a mind untrained in introspective meditation. Just as the minute living beings in the microcosm of a drop of water become visible only through a microscope, so too the exceedingly short-lived processes in the world of the mind become cognizable only with the help of a very subtle instrument of mental scrutiny— a mind sharpened by methodical meditative training. None but the kind of introspective mindfulness or attention (sati ) that has acquired, in meditative absorption, a high degree of inner equipoise, purity, and firmness (upekkhā-sati-pārisuddhi ), will possess the keenness, subtlety, and speed of cognitive response required for such delicate mental microscopy. Without such meditative preparation the only means of research open to the investigator will be inference from comparisons between various complete or fragmentary series of thought-moments. But if cautious and intelligent use is made of one’s own introspective observations and of the treatment of meditative experience found in the suttas and Abhidhamma, even this approach, though far from infallible, may well lead to important and reliable conclusions.

The Anupada Sutta (MN No. 111) reports that the Venerable Sāriputta, after rising from meditative absorption (jhāna), was able to analyze each meditative attainment into its constituent mental factors. This may be regarded as a precursor of the more detailed analysis given in the Dhammasaṅgaṇī.

The Milindapañha (“The Questions of King Milinda”), too, with fitting similes, emphasizes the difficulty of analyzing the mental process and the greatness of the Buddha’s achievement in making such an analysis:

“A difficult feat indeed was accomplished, great king, by the Exalted One.”

“Which is that difficult feat, Venerable Nāgasena?”

“The Exalted One, great king, has accomplished a difficult task when he analyzed a mental process having a single object, as consisting of consciousness with its concomitants, as follows: ‘This is sense-contact, this is feeling, perception, volition, consciousness.’”

“Give an illustration of it, venerable sir.”

“Suppose, great king, a man has gone to the sea by boat and takes with the hollow of his hand a little sea water and tastes it. Will this man know, ‘This is water from the Ganges, this is water from such other rivers as the Yamunā, the Aciravatī, etc.’?”

“He can hardly know that.”

“But a still more difficult task, great king, was accomplished by the Exalted One when he analyzed a mental process having a single object, as consisting of consciousness with its concomitants.”

The rather terse and abstract form in which the Dhammasaṅgaṇī presents its analysis of the mind should not mislead us into supposing that it is a product of late scholastic thought. When, in the course of closer study, we notice the admirable inner consistency of the system, and gradually become aware of many of its subtle conceptions and far-reaching implications, we will be convinced that at least the fundamental outlines and the key notes of Abhidhamma psychology must be the result of a profound intuition gained through direct and penetrative introspection. It will appear increasingly unlikely that the essential framework of the Abhidhamma could be the product of a cumbersome process of discursive thinking and artificial thought construction. This impression of the essentially intuitive origin of the Abhidhamma’s mind-doctrine will also strengthen our conviction that the basic structural principles of the Dhammasaṅgaṇī and the Paṭṭhāna must be ascribed to the Buddha himself and his great disciples. What is called “scholastic thought”—which has its merit in its own sphere and does not deserve wholesale condemnation—may have had its share later in formulating, elaborating, and codifying the teachings originally sprung from intuitive insight.

If we turn from the Abhidhamma to the highest contemporary achievements of non-Buddhist Indian thought in the field of mind and “soul,” i.e., the early Upanishads and Sāṃkhya, we would find that apart from single great intuitions, they teem with concepts derived from mythology, ritual, and abstract speculation. In comparison the realistic, sober, and scientific spirit of the Abhidhamma psychology (as well as its nucleus found in the suttas) stands out very strongly. For those who could appreciate the significance of this contrast, the Abhidhamma would have inspired especially high esteem and admiration. But even if the Abhidhamma psychology is compared with later psychological teachings of the East and the West, its distance from almost all of them remains fundamentally the same; for only the Buddha’s teaching on mind keeps entirely free from the notions of self, ego, soul, or any other permanent entity in or behind the mind.

The Doctrine of Non-Self

It is on this very doctrine of non-self, or anattā, that all Abhidhamma thought converges, and this is where it culminates. The elaborate and thorough treatment of anattā is also the most important practical contribution that the Abhidhamma makes to the progress of the Buddhist disciple toward liberation. The Abhidhamma provides ample material for meditation in the field of insight (vipassanā ) concerning impermanence and selflessness, and this material has been analyzed down to the subtlest point and is couched in strictly philosophical language.

There will certainly be many for whom the degree of analytical detail found in the Sutta Piṭaka will be enough to understand anattā, and to serve as a guideline in meditative practice. But there are also minds that require repeated and varied demonstration and illustration of a truth before they are entirely satisfied and convinced. There are also others who wish to push their analysis to the greatest detail possible and to extend it to the very smallest unit accessible, in order to make quite sure that even the realm of the infinitesimal, of the material and psychical “atoms,” does not hide any self or abiding substance. To such minds the Abhidhamma will be of great value. But also those who are generally satisfied with the expositions in the suttas may sometimes wish to investigate more closely a particular point that has roused their interest or that presents difficulties. To them too the Abhidhamma will prove helpful.

Besides helping such individual cases, study of the Abhidhamma will more broadly assist in the slow, difficult change of outlook from the viewpoint of “self ” to that of “non-self.” Once one has grasped intellectually the doctrine of non-self, one can certainly succeed in applying it to theoretical and practical issues if only one remembers it in time and deliberately directs one’s thoughts and volitions accordingly. But except for such deliberate directing of thought, which in most cases will be relatively rare, the mind will continue to move in the old-accustomed ruts of “I” and “mine,” “self ” and “substance,” which are deeply ingrained in our daily language and our modes of thinking; and our actions too will still continue to be frequently governed by our ancient egocentric impulses. An occasional intellectual assent to the true outlook of anattā will not effect great changes in that situation. The only remedy is for bad or wrong habits of action, speech, and thought to be gradually replaced by good and correct habits until the latter become as spontaneous as the former are now. It is therefore necessary that right thinking, that is, thinking in terms of anattā, be made the subject of regular and systematic mental training until the power of wrong habits of thought is reduced and finally broken. The Abhidhamma in general, and in particular the various triads and dyads of terms as listed in the mātikā, the “matrix” of the Abhidhamma Piṭaka, provide ample material for such “fluency exercises” of right thinking. Familiarity with the application of the “impersonal” viewpoint of the Abhidhamma and with the terminology by which it is expressed will exercise a considerable formative influence on the mind.

Abhidhamma and Meditation

A fertile soil for the origin and persistence of beliefs and ideas about a self, soul, God, or any other form of an absolute entity, is misinterpreted meditative experience occurring in devotional rapture or mystical trance. Such experience is generally interpreted by the mystic or theologian as the revelation of a God, or union with some divine principle, or the manifestation of our true and eternal self. Such interpretations are conceived and accepted all the more readily since such meditative experience so greatly transcends the average level of consciousness that the contemplative is readily tempted to connect it with a deity or some other eternal principle. The overwhelming impact of such meditative experience on the mind will produce a strong conviction of its reality and superiority; and this strong feeling of assurance will be extended to the theological or speculative interpretation too. In that way these interpretations will obtain a strong hold on the mind; for they are imagined to correspond with actual, irrefutable experience, when in fact they are only superimpositions on the latter.

The analytical method of the Abhidhamma gives immunity against such deceptive interpretations. In the Dhammasaṅgaṇī the consciousness of jhāna, meditative absorption, is subjected to the same sober analysis as the ordinary states of mind. It is shown that meditative consciousness, too, is a transitory combination of impermanent, conditioned, and impersonal mental factors, which differ from their counterparts accompanying ordinary consciousness only in their greater intensity and purity. They thus do not warrant any assumption of a divine manifestation or an eternal self. It has already been mentioned how the Venerable Sāriputta undertook such an analysis of his meditative experience.

It is characteristic of the spirit of the Buddha’s Teaching that the disciple is always advised to follow up his or her meditative absorption by an analytical retrospection (paccavekkhaṇa) on the mental states just experienced, comprehending them by insight (vipassanā) as impersonal and evanescent, and therefore not to be adhered to. By so doing, three main mental defilements (kilesa) are effectively warded off, which otherwise may easily arise as a consequence of the overwhelming impact that the meditative experience might make on the mind: (1) craving (taṇhā ) for these experiences, clinging to them, and longing for them for their own sake (jhāna-nikanti, “indulgence in jhāna”); (2) the false view (diṭṭhi ) that these meditative experiences imply a self or a deity; and (3) the conceit (māna) that may arise through having attained these exalted states.

These remarks refer to the division of Buddhist meditation called “development of tranquillity” (samatha-bhāvanā), aiming at the attainment of jhāna. Turning now to the “development of insight” (vipassanā-bhāvanā), the classificatory terms of the Abhidhamma mātikā, as explained in the Dhammasaṅgaṇī, etc., provide numerous possibilities for including in them the various particular subjects of insight. By such reference to the triads or dyads of terms in the mātikā a limited subject of insight can easily be connected with the entire world of actuality, thereby enriching its significance. Such a particular subject of insight may either be deliberately chosen from the traditional subjects of meditation or may consist in some incidental occurrence in life. The latter again may be either some deeply stirring inner or outer experience or even a quite ordinary happening of everyday life taken as an object of right mindfulness and clear comprehension (sati-sampajañña), as is often reported of meditating monks and nuns of old. If that event can at once be referred to one of the triads or dyads of Abhidhammic terms, which comprise the whole of actuality, the impulses it sets off can be more effectively channeled toward deep religious commotion (saṃvega) and insight. Thus a single act of penetrative understanding starting from a limited object may acquire such intensity, width, and depth as to either lead to, or effectively prepare for, liberating insight. This accords with what a great Buddhist thinker has said: “The understanding of one single thing means the understanding of all; the voidness of one single thing is the voidness of all.”

Abhidhamma and the Dhamma Teacher

We have seen how important a study of the Abhidhamma can be for clarity of thought, for correct understanding, and for personal spiritual development. Yet, while a detailed knowledge of Abhidhamma philosophy might well be optional for those devoted exclusively to meditation, it is different for those who wish to teach and explain the Dhamma to others. Here the Theravāda tradition considers familiarity with the Abhidhamma, even in its details, an indispensable qualification. We read (Asl 29): “Only monks who are proficient in Abhidhamma can be regarded as ‘preachers of Dhamma’ (dhammakathika). Others, even if they actually engage in preaching, cannot truly be so called. When giving a doctrinal exposition, they may, for instance, mix up the various kinds of kamma and kammic results or the various factors found when analyzing body and mind. But those proficient in Abhidhamma do not make such mistakes.”

Features that make the Abhidhamma so important for teachers of the Dhamma are especially these: its systematic organization of the doctrinal material contained in the Sutta Piṭaka; its use of orderly and methodical thinking; its precise definitions of technical terms and delimitation of their referents; its treatment of various subjects and life situations from the viewpoint of ultimate truth (paramattha); its mastery of doctrinal detail.

The Evaluation and Authenticity of Abhidhamma

Even in the ancient past opinions about the Abhidhamma Piṭaka ranged between the extremes of unquestioning veneration and wholesale rejection. Very soon after the Abhidhamma became ascendant, there were teachers who questioned the claim that the Abhidhamma Piṭaka could be regarded as the genuine word of the Buddha. The early sect of the Sautrāntikas, as their name indicates, regarded only the Sutta and Vinaya Piṭakas as canonical but not the Abhidhamma.

It may have been a follower of that sect who is depicted criticizing the Abhidhamma lecture of a monk thus (Asl 28):

“You have quoted, O preacher, a long sutta that seems to girdle Mount Meru. What is the name of it?”

“It is an Abhidhamma sutta.”

“But why did you quote an Abhidhamma sutta? Is it not befitting to cite a sutta that has been proclaimed by the Buddha?”

“And by whom do you think the Abhidhamma was proclaimed?”

“It was not proclaimed by the Buddha.”

Thereupon that monk is severely rebuked by the preacher, and after that the text continues (Asl 29):

One who excludes the Abhidhamma (from the BuddhaWord) damages the Conqueror’s Wheel of Dhamma (jinacakkaṃ pahāraṃ deti ). He excludes thereby the omniscience of the Tathāgata and impoverishes the grounds of the Master’s knowledge of self-confidence (vesārajja-ñāṇa, to which omniscience belongs); he deceives an audience anxious to learn; he obstructs (progress to) the noble paths of holiness; he makes all the eighteen causes of discord appear at once. By so doing he deserves the disciplinary punishment of temporary segregation, or the reproof of the assembly of monks.

This very severe attitude seems somewhat extreme, but it may be explained as a defensive reaction against sectarian tendencies at that period.

The main arguments of Theravāda against those who deny the authenticity of the Abhidhamma are stated in the Atthasālinī as follows:

1. The Buddha has to be regarded as the first Abhidhammika, because, “he had already penetrated the Abhidhamma when sitting under the Bodhi Tree” (Asl 17).

2. “The Abhidhamma, the ultimate doctrine, is the domain of omniscient Buddhas only, not the domain of others…. These profound teachings are unmistakably the property of an enlightened being, a Buddha. To deny this is as senseless as stealing the horse of a World Ruler, unique in its excellence, or any other possession of his, and showing oneself in public with it. And why? Because they obviously belong to and befit a king” (Asl 29–30).

Even to non-Buddhists, who do not regard the Buddha as an omniscient one but simply as a great and profound thinker, it would seem improbable that he would have remained unaware of the philosophical and psychological implications of his teachings, even if he did not speak of them at the very start and to all his followers. Considering the undeniable profundity of the Abhidhamma, the worldwide horizons of that gigantic system, and the inexhaustible impulses to thought that it offers—in view of all this it seems much more probable that at least the basic teachings of the Abhidhamma derive from that highest intuition that the Buddha calls sammā sambodhi, perfect enlightenment. It appears therefore quite plausible when the old Theravāda tradition ascribes the framework and fundamental intuitions of the Abhidhamma— and no more than that—to the Master himself. A quite different question, of course, is the origin of the codified Abhidhamma literature as we have it at present. But this problem cannot be dealt with here, and in any case the sources and facts at our disposal do not allow definite conclusions to be drawn.

The Theravāda tradition holds that the Buddha first preached the Abhidhamma in the Tāvatiṃsa heaven to the gods who had assembled from ten thousand world systems. The preaching continued for the three-month period of the rains retreat. Each day, when he returned to the human world for his meal, he conveyed the bare method to the elder Sāriputta. Whatever one may think about this tradition— whether, like the devout Asian Buddhist, one regards it as a historical account, or whether one takes it as a significant legend—one fact emerges from it fairly clearly: the originators of this very early tradition did not think the Abhidhamma texts had been literally expounded by the Buddha to human beings in the same way that he expounded the suttas. If one wishes to give a psychological interpretation to the traditional account, one might say that the sojourn in the world of the gods refers to periods of intense contemplation transcending the reaches of an earthbound mentality; and that from the heights of such contemplation the Master brought the fundamental teachings back to the world of normal human consciousness and transmitted them to philosophically gifted disciples like Sāriputta.

In a comparative evaluation of the Abhidhamma and the suttas, the fact is often overlooked—which, however, has been repeatedly stressed by the Venerable Nyanatiloka Mahāthera—that the Sutta Piṭaka too contains a considerable amount of pure Abhidhamma. This comprises all those numerous texts expounded from the ultimate standpoint (paramattha), which make use of strict philosophical terminology and explain experience in terms of selfless, conditioned processes; for example, those suttas dealing with the five aggregates, the eighteen elements, and the twelve sense bases (khandha, dhātu, āyatana).

One also frequently hears the question asked whether a knowledge of the Abhidhamma is necessary for a full understanding of the Dhamma or for final liberation. In this general form, the question is not quite adequately put. Even in the Sutta Piṭaka many different approaches and methods of practice are offered as “gates” to the understanding of the same Four Noble Truths. Not all of them are “necessary” for reaching the final goal, Nibbāna, nor are all suitable in their entirety for every individual disciple. Rather, the Buddha taught a variety of approaches and left it to the disciples to make their personal choices among them, according to their personal circumstances, inclination, and level of maturity.

The same holds true for the Abhidhamma both as a whole and in its single aspects and teachings. Perhaps the best explanation of the relationship between the Abhidhamma and the suttas is a pair of similes given in a conversation by the Venerable Pëlëne Vajirañāṇa Mahāthera, the founding prelate of the Vajirārāma Monastery in Colombo: “The Abhidhamma is like a powerful magnifying glass, but the understanding gained from the suttas is the eye itself, which performs the act of seeing. Or the Abhidhamma is like a medicine container with a label giving an exact analysis of the medicine; but the knowledge gained from the suttas is the medicine itself, which alone is able to cure the illness and its symptoms.”

Concluding Remarks and a Warning

Taking a middle path between overrating or underrating the Abhidhamma, we might say: The teachings in the Sutta Piṭaka with an Abhidhamma flavor—that is, those given in precise philosophical terminology—are certainly indispensable for the understanding and practice of the Dhamma; and the elaboration of these teachings in the Abhidhamma proper may prove very helpful, and in some cases even necessary, for both understanding and practice. As to the codified Abhidhamma Piṭaka, familiarity with all its details is certainly not compulsory; but if it is studied and applied in the way briefly indicated in these pages, this will surely nurture a true understanding of actuality and aid the work of practice aimed at liberation. Also, if suitably presented, the Abhidhamma can provide those with a philosophical bent a stimulating approach to the Dhamma that could prove fruitful, provided they take care to balance intellectual understanding with actual practice. Such an approach to the Dhamma should certainly not be blocked by the wholesale disparagement of Abhidhamma study sometimes found nowadays among Buddhists in the West, and even in Asia. Dangers of one-sided emphasis and development lurk not only in the Abhidhamma but also in other approaches to the Dhamma, and they cannot be entirely avoided until a very high level of harmonious integration of the spiritual faculties has been attained.

To be sure, without an earnest attempt to apply the Abhidhamma teachings in such ways as intimated above, they may easily become a rigid system of lifeless concepts. Like other philosophical systems, the Abhidhamma can lead to a dogmatic and superstitious belief in words, for example, to the opinion that one really knows something about a subject if one is skilled in navigating its conceptual system. The study of the Abhidhamma should therefore not be allowed to degenerate into a mere collecting, counting, and arranging of such conceptual labels. This would make of Abhidhamma study—though, of course, not of the Abhidhamma itself—just one more among the many intellectual “playthings” that serve as an escape from facing reality, or as a “respectable excuse” with which to evade the hard inner work needed for liberation. A merely abstract and conceptual approach to the Abhidhamma may also lead to that kind of intellectual pride that often goes together with specialized knowledge.

If these pitfalls are avoided, there is a good chance that the Abhidhamma may again become a living force that stimulates thought and aids the meditative endeavor for the mind’s liberation, the purpose for which the Abhidhamma is really meant. To achieve this, however, the Abhidhamma teachings must be not merely accepted and transmitted verbally but carefully examined and contemplated in their philosophical and practical implications. These teachings are often extremely condensed, and on many points of interest even the classical commentaries are silent. Thus to work out their implications will require the devoted effort of searching and imaginative minds. As they will have to work on neglected and difficult ground, they should not lack the courage to make initial mistakes, which can be rectified by discussion and constant reference to the teachings of the Sutta Piṭaka.


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

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This selection from Abhidhamma Studies by Nyanaponika Thera is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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