Abhidhamma with Ven. Dhammadipa
The following is, as the Venerable Dhammadipa calls it “a summary of a summary” of the Abhidhamma according to the Abhidhammattha Sangaha, tanslated by Bhikkhu Bodhi and according to the living tradition and Abhidhamma meditation practice of the Pa Auk Sayadaw’s training method. The following is the first day of one month of teachings.
We have defined Abhidhamma as a special Dhamma (truth), special in the sense that it is not an ordinary Dhamma. It is the Dhamma of those who have amala pragia, spotless wisdom, and sa annucara, its accompaniment. The accompaniment of the spotless wisdom is nothing else than the 5 khandas of the liberated mind. The 5 khandas of the liberated mind are just beside the normal 5 khandas, which the liberated mind also has. The 5 khandas of the liberated mind are: perfect sila, perfect samadhi, perfect wisdom, perfect liberation, and perfect knowledge of liberation. This is the nature of the liberated mind. Abhidhamma is utamannana, the peerless knowledge of this mind, which is explained together with the object of this peerless knowledge.
We will be discussing the attha (self- nature) in the coming weeks on the basis of the Abhidhammattha Sangaha, The Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma. The literal meaning is, “The manual of the meaning of Abhidhamma.” The “meaning” has 2 definitions, “the meaning” and also “the object”. The prefix abhi- has another meaning besides “the special.” It belongs to the special man, the enlightened man, but it also has the meaning of “the detailed.” While the Sutta in the exposition is sangkepatu, condensed, the prefix implies that the exposition is detailed and also special.
So, it explains the knowledge of the liberated mind, its objects and its meanings. We have also mentioned that the Buddha himself explicated the 7 books of Abhidhamma as preserved in the Theravada tradition. That means “Dhamma, Sangha mi Vibhanga.” The dhatu (elements), then ‘Puggalapannati’, then ‘Katthavatu,’ the ‘Yamakka’ and ‘Patanna’. Of course, with the exception of ‘Katthavatu’, which is also attributed indirectly to the Buddha, all seven books are attributed directly or indirectly, in the Theravada traditions, to the words of the Buddha himself.
I don’t know if this is a Buddhist tradition or an Indian tradition, but the Buddha first taught Abhidhamma to his mother in the Tavatimsa (pure abodes) heaven. Then, what he taught to his mother, he always repeated on the Earth, and his first disciple was Sariputra. So, the tradition of Abhidhamma is linked directly to Sariputra. In all traditions, even in the Sarvastivada, Sariputra is the father of Abhidhamma after Buddha. The Buddha always praises Sariputra as being the wisest and as being his son, atmaja (born from himself, born from Dhamma), because the self of the Buddha is nothing but Dhamma. As the Suttas say: One who sees the Dhamma, sees the Buddha, and one who sees the Buddha, sees the Dhamma.
The Northern tradition of Abhidhamma is based on the Vaibhasika, or orthodox Sarvastivada. In the Sarvastivada tradition – and even the Mahayana Abhidhamma, which is a work not of the disciples but of the Bodhisattvas – the Vaibhasika Abhidhamma is the base for Abhidhamma study. In a way, we can say that the Mayahana, or Northern, Abhidhamma is directly related to the subject matters and to the methodology discussed in the Vaibhasika Abhidhamma. The most popular compilation in the Northern tradition is the Abhidhammakosa, which is attributed to Vasubandu, but it does not mean that in the Northern tradition we only have Abhidhammakosa as a summary or the comprehensive manual of Abhidhamma. There are many others, but the Abhidhammakosa became the most popular. So popular that it is said that in Nalanda, because the monks were so diligent in studying, no matter what tradition, even the parrots in the trees were repeating the stanzas of Abhidhammakosa.
Now, we have a little similar situation in the Theravada tradition, which we take as the base for our exposition in the tradition, because the subject matter and meaning of these 7 books is the whole complex of learning. This is not easy to approach for the non-initiated. The study is started with summaries, and the most popular summary of the content of the 7 books of the Abhidhamma, in the Theravada tradition, is what you have now in hand. I hope what you have is the Abhidhammattha Sangaha and, similarly, Abhidhammakosa in the Northern tradition. Even today, in the institutes, all students start study of Abhidhamma by learning this book, and the traditional way to learn is to memorize it first, and only then is it explicated by the teacher.
When I was studying in Nalanda, I myself started learning the Abhidhamma with a Burmese teacher, Ujagara, and he being versed in this tradition, he first asked me to memorize verse-by-verse. Then, only after I had memorized it verse-by-verse, he explained. We can say that Burma is for the Southern tradition what Tibet is for the Northern traditions, the place where the tradition was best preserved, where the learning was best preserved.
This continuity of learning is due to the isolation of these countries. And nowadays, as opposed to the Northern tradition, in the Southern tradition the Abhidhamma learning is connected with the meditative tradition, which was preserved up to the present day. The Pa Auk Sayadaw, who visited this place and with whom I was fortunate to study, is one of the outstanding living representatives of this tradition of Abhidhamma. So, these things that are discussed in the Abhidhamma, in particular the Abhidhammattha Sangaha, are not just meant to be studied. There is also the possibility to see all these things in meditation. Because of this unique tradition, I will also try to discuss the contents of this book, The Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma, to make some connections to the living tradition as it is preserved in Burma.
So, in Burma, as Bhikkhi Bodhi mentions in the preface to this book, beside this Abhidhammattha Sangaha there are 9 other manuals trying to make a comprehensive survey of the most important subject matter, of the Abhidhamma. Three of these manuals – the Abhidhammattha Sangaha, the Namarupapariccadya and Paramattha Vinccaya – are also attributed to our author, Anaruddha Accariya.
Of the other manuals, the second most popular manual of comprehensive meaning of Abhidhamma is the Abhidhammavatara by Buddhadata. There is a story that Buddhadata was a teacher in some way or another to our author, but actually, nobody knows when Anaruddha Accariya lived. This was an old tradition in India – the people, especially those who are greatly accomplished, leave their works behind without even writing their names. And time in Buddhism is counted in kalpas. How long is one kalpa? Very difficult to measure. Not possible to measure in years, months or days. So, with this spirit, of course, it was very common. As opposed to China or Europe – where people are very much conscious of time and history – it is a tradition in India, not only in Buddhism.
Nobody really knows when some of the most important books of spiritual lore were written or who was the author. Nobody really bothered – even though Anaruddha Accariya was very important – to record his real name, real family or where he was born. We just do not know. The fact is, the first commentary to Abhidhamattha Sangaha was written sometimes in the Purlannaruya period of time called Purlanatika. It is dated by scholars to the 11th or12th century, and the most important to the Abhidhamma Sanghaha was the Vibhavanitikita. The author of the Vibhavanitikita was a Sumangala swami. He was a disciple of the very famous Kassapa Swami, who is the main personality behind the compilation Tikas to Atthatakkas of the Tipitaka in the Purlannaruya period.
Then, after that, we have several other Tikas, which are used, but are not so prominent. In modern times, the most prominent Tika was written by Ledi Sayadaw, but several scholars have criticized him. The other manuals include the Saccasankhepa, which is attributed to Dharmapala, the commentator of the Vissudhi Magga. And then there is Cholakassapa from India who wrote the Mohaviccadani. There is also the famous Burmese Sadam Macutipala who also wrote and came to Sri Lanka in the Kota period. He also wrote a commentary to the Manual of the whole Abhidhamma. Then there is this Khema Pakarnana written by Khema, but later from the Purlannaruya period.
Learning of Abhidhamma was very vivid in Sri Lanka up to the Kota period. Then, it was transferred to Burma, where this learning was preserved. Now, we come to our book which we started discussing yesterday. It starts with the worship of the triple gems, as usual, and then the next words are:
Tattha vutt’ abhidhammattha
Cittam cetasikam rupam
Nibbanam iti sabbatha.
(The things contained in the Abhidhamma, spoken of therein, are altogether four-fold from the standpoint of ultimate reality: consciousness, mental factors, matter and Nibbana.)
What does this mean? There are four supreme meanings or objects. These supreme meanings or objects are the summary of all that one has to learn. Their meaning, their mutual relationship, is the purification of mind connected with their understanding and the bondage of mind connected with their non-understanding. All this is the subject matter that follows.
Briefly, in the absolute sense, in the highest sense, all that we can learn in this world are these four supreme meanings or objects. Everything that there is, in the supreme sense, are these four objects or meanings. So, by understanding these four supreme meanings or objects, as far as the supreme Dhamma is concerned, as far as the supreme truth is concerned, there is nothing more to learn.
The first supreme meaning or object to learn is citta. Before we come to citta, we want to emphasize and especially explain the Abhidhamma approach – as opposed to the Suttanta or Vinaya approach – is explaining the Dhammas in the sense of truth, as true object of perception, or true object of mind. Dhammas are that which have sabhava, or salakkhana, a very intriguing and complex word. It is, in a way, the understanding of what is sabhava, the self-nature. It is the root of all interpretation of the sabhava. Understanding sabhava is the root of all the different approaches we have in Buddhism as to the understanding of Dhamma and the way to liberation.
In the Hinayana school, or lesser vehicle school, as it is considered to be by the Mahayana scholars, the vehicle is the Arahant as opposed to the Mahayana where the vehicle is the Buddha. The criticism of the Mahayana – and in a way the whole structure of Mahayana – is based on the criticism of this concept of sabhava. But many Mahayana scholars criticize but have never studied Theravada, and thus, have a very serious misunderstanding of the Theravada Abhidhamma. They consider all the so-called Hinayana schools the same as Vaibhasika. The Mahayana scholars consider the idea of sabhava, the self-nature of entities, the same no matter whether it is from the Theravada or Sarvastivada school. In fact, there are some very important differences in the interpretation of how the sabhava is understood in the Theravada and in the Sarvastivada, or Vaibhasika, traditions. We will not go into detail on that.
What remains important to point out is that the paramatthas are the 4 supreme meanings or objects – Nibbana, citta, cetasika, and rupa. This, of course, is problematic, because there can be only one supreme meaning or object. It is very difficult to have many supremes. The relationship between the supreme of Nibbana and the supremes of citta, cetasika and rupa is not explained. Supreme object or meaning is understood in an ontological and epistemological sense, but what exactly the relation between the 4 different supremes and how we can have 4 different supremes is not mentioned.
What is understood is that when we understand these 4 supreme meanings and the 4 supreme objects, we can attain liberation. Some very important scholars have pointed out that the Abhidhamma approach, in a way, is a pluralistic approach. The Abhidhamma is linked to the Samkya philosophy, which is a similar approach. In Samkya, by understanding 25 tatvas (realities) we understand everything. In Abhidhamma, by understanding the 4 supreme objects or meanings we also understand everything.
We speak of two Nibbanas, one with the 5 aggregates of existence still remaining and one without the 5 aggregates of existence. But, Nibbana is only one. But, as we will see, the one citta (state of consciousness) becomes 89 or 121 cittas. This is the clarity of the Theravada Abhidhamma approach. Detailed analysis of the citta is based on very detailed analysis of the mind processes, of the cittavithis. This division of one citta into many cittas is not problematic, because a citta has only 1 characteristic differentiating the object, vijanati, so all these 81 or 121 cittas, states of consciousness, have only one characteristic of differentiating the object. But, when we come to the cetasikas (mental factors) we have 52 Dhammas, each with a different characteristic. A particularity of Theravada Abhidhamma, as opposed to the Sarvastivada Abhidhamma, is that all these Dhammas are not only discussed from the point of view of their own lakkhana (characeristic), but must also be understood from the view of rasa.
Rasa is a word very difficult to translated into English. This book translates it as function, but it means much more than just function. Literally, rasa means taste. And those who study Indian culture know the different types of music, medicine and experiences are classified into different rasas, different tastes. The function actually means the taste of the object, how one actually experiences it. This part of the analysis is also there in the Sarvastivada and Vaibhasika tradition. Even in the Yogacara tradition they discuss the Dhammas in the sense of lakkhana and rasa, characteristic and function, respectively.
What is particular about the Theravada approach is that this is not considered to be sufficient. There also has to be (proximate cause). Sorry, first I should say paccupatthana (manifestation), or how these Dhammas actually appear, how they establish themselves in our perception. Then, all of these Dhammas are everything that exists in the world, and everything only exists in interdependent origination. So, these salakkhanas, self-characteristics, according to the Theravada tradition, also only arise in interdependent origination, as opposed to the Sarvastivada tradition. The book is very emphatic on that fact. There are Theravadans who would agree salakkhanas are empty of interdependent nature, yet nevertheless, they have a lasting characteristic. Whether today, in the future, or in the past, the characteristic of earth remains hardness.
An intelligent man knows we can only experience hardness when we know softness, and without knowing hardness we cannot know softness. Similarly, heat being the self-characteristic of fire, every intelligent mans knows that we can only know heat when we know coolness. I know this book to be cool because my hand is warm. If I don’t know the hand being warm, I cannot know the coolness of this book. So, obviously, these salakkhanas (self-characteristics), the sabhavas (self-natures) of these Dhammas are not meant as something existing independently in the three times, but only as it is understood in the Vaibhasika tradition, and as it is criticized by the Mahayana scholars. The Theravada tradition never committed itself to such an idea. So, as the Vissudhi Magga clearly explains, interdependent origination, their interdependent nature, is emptiness. In the ultimate sense, these Dhammas, even in the Theravada tradition, are considered empty, yet nevertheless have a real characteristic or self-nature, which is lasting.
To the students of Mahayana, the structure of these self-existing Dhammas, or self-existing characteristics, was smashed completely over hundreds of years and many endless disputes about which Dhamma has real characteristic and which does not, which is just a Dhamma of convenience and which really exists. This was a subject matter of endless discussion in the history of Dhamma. Each school of Buddhism had its own version of what was the real existing Dhamma and what was only a Dhamma of convenience.
Nagarjuna criticized and logically demolished the possibility of sabhava, self-existing nature. Logically, in the Buddhist sense, it is not tenable. In Mahayana Buddhism, there appeared disciples of Nagarjuna, like Chandrakirti and the Prasandrikas, who claimed that Dhammas have no nature whatsoever, that the nature of Dhammas is the nature of others, and whatever exists exists in the virtue of existence of others. So, this is the meaning of emptiness.
Some scholars, as you know, liked sabhava for convenience, merely for the sake of argument. Then, from the Yogacara school comes a very different interpretation: outer things have no nature at all, but that which has real nature is the mind and its mental factors. All that we understand in this world is just a manifestation of this mind.
Now, in the Theravada tradition we come to a middle position. The Theravada Abhidhamma is based on the analysis of these sabhavas, real or existing or self natures, but these self-natures are definitely existing only in interdependence and cannot arise without the existence of other entities. So, this is an approach which is followed in our analysis, and with this understanding we come to the first supreme object or meaning in the world, citta.
According to the Pali or Sanskrit language, the citta, or mind, has many different synonyms. The most important ones are mano, manas, and vinnana. In the commentaries of the Abhidhamma, manas, vinnana and cittam are considered to only be synonyms. Also in the Vissudhi Magga. Their difference is only in discussing different aspects of the subject matter.
Citta is defined as, “Alambanam cintaeti iti cittam,” that which cognizes the object. That is the mind. When we speak of mana, what is emphasized is that which is thinking. “Yena minnyatae tat manas.” So, the mind is considered as an instrument of thinking, as the action of thinking, cettana, and also as that which thinks about the object. Then, we have the vinnana, from vi- janati: that which differentiates. So, the mind is also that which differentiates the objects.
All of these meanings are there, and they are synonyms for the same thing. In the Theravada tradition, all are synonyms for the same phenomena, mind. What is most important is that the mind is understood as cetana, just thinking. What it means is that there is no possibility of what is common in European philosophy, “Cogito ergo su,” or “I cognize, therefore I am.”
In Buddhism, there is only, “Cogito er cognatio es,” or “I think therefore there is cognition.”
Cognition. There is nothing else to the mind. That mind, which is cognition, is also the instrument of cognition, and it is that by which the object is cognized.
Students of the Northern tradition know that these synonyms came to represent three different meanings, three different functions and three different types of consciousness later in the development of Buddhism. This happened because the citta is understood not only as “Alambanam cintaeti iti cittam,” that which cognizes the object, but “Alambana” literally means that which one hangs the mind on – a-lam.
The mind does not function without being hung on the object. When we hang the mind on the object, then it starts functioning. There is another very important aspect of mind crucial for the understanding of mind. This citta is also interpreted as cinotti, from the root cit, which means to gather that which gathers the kamma, gathers our experience, gathers the traces or seeds of the kamma.
So, this citta, this very mind as it appears in samsara, is the interdependent entity that arises due to kamma, due to sankhara (mental formation). Kamma is nothing else than the accumulation of sanhkara. Due to accumulation of sankhara, there is worldly mind, and due to worldly mind there appears again. The worldly mind appears due to kamma, and due to worldly mind again appears kamma. So this is an endless turning of samsara.
This process of differentiating, of thinking, appears due to previous accumulation of kamma, and again due to this process of thinking, differentiating, the new kamma is being accumulated. It is very important to understand this process. The mind is key. It comes first. In the Abhidhmma, all the Dhammas are discussed as lakkhana, and the lakkhana of the mind is vijanana; the differentiating. The function of mind or the taste of mind is pubhangama, the coming as the forerunner.
From the famous and most important book of Buddhism, the Dhammapada:
Manasa ce padutthena
Bhasati va karoti va
Tato nam dukkhamanveti
Cakkamva vahato padam.
The mind is forerunner of all things. The Abhidhamma often labels the mind “the forerunner,” patisandhi, the mind that links us to rebirth. But we cannot understand it only in this restrictive sense. The mind appears together with its objects and its mental factors, which give it content. Without the mental factors, the mind would have no content. This is also very important to understand.
That is why in the Buddhism literature, not only in Mahayana but also in the Suttanta, we find the so-called Agamas, the mind is called: anidasana ananta sabhato pabba param. Everything that we experience, we can only experience through mind, and mind has no form of its own. Its form is defined by its object and by its mental factors In this sense we can take it as pubhagama, it arises in interdependent origination and it is the main condition of everything we experience.
That is why the pacupatthana, the manifestation, of mind is sandhana,putting things together. Where there is mind, there is putting things together. With no mind, there is no putting things together. This is subject, this is object. This is grasping, this is to be grasped. All of this is due to differentiation. Without differentiation, there is nothing to be grasped and nothing grasping.
That is why the nature of mind, vijanana (differentiating), is clearly only the nature of mind caught up in interdependent origination. Caught up in the truth of suffering. Interdependent origination is nothing else then the truth of suffering. That is why we speak of padatthana, the most important cause among many, many causes. That which arises in interdependent origination cannot arise from one cause.
The difference between Buddhism and theistic philosophies is that one who understands Buddhism cannot believe in one cause. It is not possible. Yet, even though Buddhists don’t believe in one cause, there is still the primary cause of the arising of entities.
And the primary cause of the arising of mind is nama and rupa, the differentiation between corporeality and mind with its mental factors. Nama means not just mind. It means mind together with mental factors, because only when mind is together with mental factors can it go to the object. If no mental factors are there, where will it go?
So as discussed in the Agamas, the Mahavidanasutta and so, the namarupa is the main cause of mind, and the mind again is the main cause of namarupa. Without namarupa there is no mind, and so everything we can experience in this world is nothing but this namarupa conditioning mind and the mind again conditioning namarupa. All we can differentiate, think, conceive and contemplate in this world is just mind contemplating namarupa and namarupa conditioning mind.
Because our time is coming to and end, we will stop here. Tomorrow we will continue with how this one mind, one vijanana, one congition, one differentiation of the object, one thinking, becomes many minds. I have started mentioning that in the Yogacara tradition citta, mana and vinnana, these three synonyms become three different functions of mind.
The citta, in the sense of, “cinotti iti cittam,” in the sense that it accumulates the seeds of all the kammas and all that we can understand in the world, we can only understand through the mind. It is said, “cittam evasam smasaram,” the mind is samsara. Due to mind we are purified, and due to mind we are defiled. And that mind, citta – which is the base of everything, then becomes, in the Mahayana tradition, the base of the alaya vijnana (8 consciousnesses) – is that which appropriates this body in the world. That is how “cinotti” is understood.
So, that which thinks about this mind, which appropriates the body in the world, and which contains all the seeds of our experience (which are nothing else but the experience of our mind), that which thinks about it and contemplates it as being self, that is mana. This is thinking, and thinking is nothing else but the thinking about the mind, which appropriates the body in the world, which arises due to the kammas accumulated in it. And then, this thinking about the mind is the base for the differentiation of vijnana, 6 types of consciousness which differentiate and which correspond, in a way, to our definition of mind as vijnana.
Tomorrow we will explaining the different divisions within this mind, first with its supreme object and meaning, the understanding of which is the necessary condition for enlightenment. Nobody has ever become enlightened without understanding mind. Understanding of mind is the condition of enlightenment. So, the mind comes first, desana kamma.
The Buddha explained entities according to desana kamma, the best way for the sake of teaching, or according to upatikamma, how they arise. The mind cannot arise without the object, without the rupa, and without the mentality. Even so, the mind is put in the first place, because it arises first and is most important for enlightenment.
What are these important divisions within this mind, and how are they seen in the living Abhidhamma tradition? We will discuss tomorrow
- Thich Nhat Hanh Talk (public)
- Thich Nhat Hanh Talk (private)
- Pa Auk Sayadaw (coming soon)
- Abhidhamma with Ven. Dhammadipa