What is Abhidhamma ?
enerable K. Sri Dhammananda Maha Thera
The Abhidhamma Pitaka contains the profound moral psychology and philosophy of the Buddha’s teaching, in contrast to the simpler discourses in the Sutta Pitaka.
The knowledge gained from the sutta can certainly help us in overcoming our difficulties, as well as in developing our moral conduct and training the mind. Having such knowledge will enable one to lead a life which is peaceful, respectable, harmless and noble. By listening to the discourses, we develop understanding of the Dhamma and can mould our daily lives accordingly. The concepts behind certain words and terms used in the Sutta Pitaka are, however, subject to changes and should be interpreted within the context of the social environment prevailing at the Buddha’s time. The concepts used in the sutta are like the conventional words and terms lay people use to express scientific subjects. While concepts in the sutta are to be understood in the conventional sense, those used in the Abhidhamma must be understood in the ultimate sense. The concepts expressed in the Abhidhamma are like the precise scientific words and terms used by scientists to prevent misinterpretations.
It is only in the Abhidhamma that explanations are given on how and at which mental beats a person can create good and bad karmic thoughts, according to his desires and other mental states. Clear explanations of the nature of the different mental faculties and precise analytical interpretations of the elements can be found in this important collection of discourses.
Understanding the Dhamma through the knowledge gained from the sutta is like the knowledge acquired from studying the prescriptions for different types of sicknesses. Such knowledge when applied can certainly help to cure certain types of sicknesses. On the other hand, a qualified physician, with his precise knowledge, can diagnose a wider range of sicknesses and discover their causes. This specialized knowledge puts him in a better position to prescribe more effective remedies. Similarly, a person who has studied the Abhidhamma can better understand the nature of the mind and analyse the mental attitudes which cause a human being to commit mistakes and develop the will to avoid evil.
The Abhidhamma teaches that the egoistic beliefs and other concepts such as ‘I’, “you”, ‘man‘ and ‘the world‘, which we use in daily conversation, do not adequately describe the real nature of existence. The conventional concepts do not reflect the fleeting nature of pleasures, uncertainties, impermanence of every component thing, and the conflict among the elements and energies intrinsic in all animate or inanimate things. The Abhidhamma doctrine gives a clear exposition of the ultimate nature of man and brings the analysis of the human condition further than other studies known to man.
The Abhidhamma deals with realities existing in the ultimate sense, or paramattha dhamma in Pali. There are four such realities:
1- Citta, mind or consciousness, defined as ‘that which knows or experiences’ an object. Citta occurs as distinct momentary states of consciousness.
2- Cetasika, the mental factors that arise and occur along with the citta.
3- Rupa, physical phenomenon or material form.
4- Nibbana, the unconditioned state of bliss which is the final goal.
Citta, the cetasika, and rupa are conditioned realities. They arise because of conditions sustaining them cease to continue to do so. They are impermanent states. Nibbana, on the other hand, is an unconditioned reality. It does not arise and, therefore, does not fall away. These four realities can be experienced regardless of the names we may choose to give them. Other than these realities, everything — be it within ourselves or without, whether in the past, present or future, whether coarse or subtle, low or lofty, far or near — is a concept and not an ultimate reality.
Citta, cetasika, and Nibbana are also called nama. Nibbana is an unconditioned nama. The two conditioned nama, that is, cita and cetasika, together with rupa (form), make up psychophysical organisms, including human beings. Both mind and matter, or nama-rupa, are analysed in Abhidhamma as though under a microscope. Events connected with the process of birth and death are explained in detail. The Abhidhamma clarifies intricate points of the Dhamma and enables the arising of an understanding of reality, thereby setting forth in clear terms the Path of Emancipation. The realization we gain from the Abhidhamma with regard to our lives and the world is not in a conventional sense, but absolute reality.
The clear exposition of thought processes in Abhidhamma cannot be found in any other psychological treatise either in the east or west. Consciousness is defined, while thoughts are analysed and classified mainly from an ethical standpoint. The composition of each type of consciousness is set forth in detail. The fact that consciousness flows like a steam, a view propounded by psychologists like William James, becomes extremely clear to one who understands the Abhidhamma. In addition, a student of Abhidhamma can fully comprehend the Anatta (No-soul) doctrine, which is important both from a philosophical and ethical standpoint.
The Abhidhamma explains the process of rebirth in various planes after the occurrence of death without anything to pass from one life to another. This explanation provides support to the doctrine of Kamma and Rebirth. It also gives a wealth of details about the mind, as well as the units of mental and material forces, properties of matter, sources of matter, relationship of mind and matter.
In the Abhidhamattha Sangaha, a manual of Abhidhamma, there is a brief exposition of the ‘Law of Dependent Origination”, followed by a descriptive account of the Causal Relations which finds no parallel in any other study of the human condition anywhere else in the world. Because of its analytics and profound expositions, the Abhidhamma is not a subject of fleeting interest designed for the superficial reader.
To what extent can we compare modern psychology with the analysis provided in the Abhidhamma? Modern psychology, limited as it is, comes within the scope of Abhidhamma in so far as it deals with the mind — with thoughts, thought processes, and mental states. The difference lies in the fact that Abhidhamma does not accept the concept of a psyche or a soul.
The analysis of the nature of the mind given in the Abhidhamma is not available through any other source.. Even modern psychologists are very much in the dark with regards to subjects like mental impulses or mental beats (Javana Citta) as discussed in the Abhidhamma. Dr. Graham Howe, an eminent Harley Street psychologist, wrote in his book, the Invisible Anatomy:
‘In the course of their work many psychologists have found, as the pioneer work of C.G. Jung has shown, that we are near to [the] Buddha. To read a little Buddhism is to realize that the Buddhists knew two thousand five hundred years ago far more about our modern problems of psychology than they have yet been given credit for. They studied these problems long ago, and found the answers too. We are now rediscovering the Ancient Wisdom of the East.’
Some scholars assert that the Abhidhamma is not the teaching of the Buddha, but it grew out of the commentaries on the basic teachings of the Buddha. These commentaries are said to be the work of great scholar monks. Tradition, however, attributes the nucleus of the Abhidhamma to the Buddha Himself.
Commentators state that the Buddha, as a mark of gratitude to His mother who was born as a deva in a celestial plane, preached the Abhidhamma to His mother together with other devas continuously for three months. The principal topics (matika) of the advanced teaching, such as moral states (kusala dhamma) and immoral states (akusala dhamma), were then repeated by the Buddha to Venerable Sariputta Thera, who subsequently elaborated them and later compiled them into six books.
From ancient times there were controversies as to whether the Abhidhamma was really taught by the Buddha. While this discussion may be interesting for academic purposes, what is important is for us to experience and understand the realities described in the Abhidhamma. One will realize for oneself that such profound and consistently verifiable truths can only emanate from a supremely enlightened source — from a Buddha. Much of what is contained in the Abhidhamma is also found in the Sutta Pitaka. Such a statement, of course, cannot be supported by evidence.
According to the Theravada tradition, the essence, fundamentals and framework of the Abhidhamma are ascribed to the Buddha, although the tabulations and classifications may have been the work of later disciples. What is important is the essence. It is this that we would try to experience for ourselves. The Buddha Himself clearly took this stand of using the knowledge of the Abhidhamma to clarify many existing psychological, metaphysical and philosophical problems. Mere intellectual quibbling about whether the Buddha taught the Abhidhamma or not will not help us to understand reality.
The question is also raised whether the Abhidhamma is essential for Dhamma practice. The answer to this will depend on the individual who undertakes the practice. People vary in their levels of understanding, their temperaments and spiritual development. Ideally, all the different spiritual faculties should be harmonized, but some people are quite contented with devotional practices based on faith, while others are keen on developing penetrative insight. The Abhidhamma is most useful to those who want to understand the Dhamma in greater depth and detail. It aids the development of insight into the three characteristics of existence — impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and non-self. It is useful not only for the periods devoted to formal meditation, but also during the rest of the day when we are engaged in various mundane chores. We derive great benefit from the study of the Abhidhamma when we experience absolute reality. In addition, a comprehensive knowledge of the Abhidhamma is useful for those engaged in teaching and explaining the Dhamma. In fact the real meaning of the most important Buddhist terminologies such as Dhamma, Kamma, Samsara, Sankhara, Paticca Samuppada and Nibbana cannot be understood without a knowledge of Abhidhamma. Courtesy: www. budsas. org/