Abhidhamma Fourteenth Lecture

Namgyal Rinpoche with HH the Dalai Lama from the Namgyal Archives www.namgyal.ca

The Abhidhamma

by Ven. Namgyal Rinpoche
Edited by Cecilie Kwiat

Introduction to the Abhidhamma
August – September 1977
14th of 16 Lectures


Three characteristics of existence were proclaimed by the Buddha. The first is “Sabbe sankhara anicca”: anything that appears conditionally is impermanent. It is in the process of changing or vanishing because its appearance is dependent on changing conditions. Because it is impermanent it is dissatisfactory, so the second characteristic is “Sabbe sankhara dukkha”: all formations are not separate from suffering. “Sabbe dhamma anatta”: all dharma (dhamma in Pali) are devoid of a fixed identity. This last truth brings one to the realization of nirvana – the going out of self-grasping.

The dharma is selfing and thinging, and yet it is also unselfing and unthinging. The universe is, but it can’t be said to have a fixed identity: there is only the quality of thinging. Dharma is and Dharmadhatu is, but there is no permanent ego. Creation is not a permanently abiding experience. Although the universe doesn’t have a permanent identity, it can be said to be permanently impermanent. Dharmadhatu is the play of anicca; impermanence.

“Sabbe sankhara anicca.” Sankhara means formations. Sankhara are not visible because they are continuously in flux. They are continuously and eternally abiding in flux. Some people might hold the idea of a constant state universe, but this existence is actually in constant flux. Like a blob moving this way and then that, it advances and retreats. The state of flux is permanent, and within this state there is the constant contention of emptying and forming going on. This flow between emptying and forming is unending. Strangely enough, when you come to understanding the Dharmadhatu, you could say that all formations are anicca, but some thing is not formed. Forming itself is constant, and thus there is the unformed, the unmanifest. So, too, with dukkha: all formations are suffering, but some thing is not subject to that – the non-separateness state of being is not subject to suffering.

We live in a universe of constantly abiding flux, beyond dimension. The flux is permanent. In addition to flux, the contention of emptying and forming is constant; the play between these two never ends. Dharmadhatu is permanent. So how can experience of this be said to be sukha? The key is in the constancy: it is sukha simply because contention, flux, is constant. Just as a seed will die by falling to the earth, and from that will come new life, so there is a constant play of novelty in which things do not end. They change, flow, transmute, and flux. Because this is so, a fully open experience to this is said to be happy; sukha. There is infinity of change and eternity of constancy.

The third characteristic, “Sabbe dhamma anatta” includes that which doesn’t form. This unending creation contains all and every reference, therefore it can’t be said to have a fixed identity, a differentiated ego apart from creation. God and the universe are one. One can’t speak of God as having an ego, as being distinctive, because there is both distinction and non-distinction in a totality state of existence. “Sabbe dhamma anatta” – all formations will empty themselves of ego-grasping.

I would like you to add an hour and a half of vipassana practice to your daily Abhidhamma studies. At this point you should be beginning to develop an Abhidhamma vocabulary; gaining some familiarity with words like ‘alayatana’ and ‘dhatu’. The meditation will bring this intellectual understanding into an experiential mode. When the breath slows down while watching and noting the rise and fall of the abdomen, a gap will appear at the end of the rising and again at the end of the falling. One could understand the rising breath as linked to formation, and the falling as linked to cessation. When the gap appears at the peak of the rising breath, mentally note “mind”. That will open to an exploration of alayatana, to the spheres of consciousness. The substratum from which the breath rises and falls is linked to bhavanga-citta, which is not usually conscious.

So you will do an hour of sitting practice and a half hour of walking meditation. The ratio between time spent sitting and walking is generally 2:1; twice the length of time spent sitting to walking. In the walking practice there is also a rise and fall, but walking is particularly useful for understanding dhatu. Watching the moving breath can lead one to insight into the sankhara, the weave.

Watch the rising and falling; see what occurs. You might notice the mind going into patches and curves. That has nothing to do with the breathing; it’s the coming and going of existence – the rise and fall of the universe. It is not isolated to you as a breathing corpus! Nothing arises nor ceases – there is only movement. Wherever there is beginning, middle, and end one will find anicca, dukkha, and anatta. Because something begins it is only a continuum of – and subject to – dukkha. Anything apart from that is Dharmadhatu. Imagine a vast, calm ocean – and a fish jumps out. Simply because it appears in form, it must cease. The fish has an origin, the ocean does not. The ocean of Dharmadhatu is the basis of all the thingingness of the universe.

Vipassana is multidimensional seeing. ‘Passati’ means ‘passing’. It is also indicative of seeing the fathering of individual moments. When there is vipassana, one is really seeing; seeing deeply into phenomena. The word ‘insight’ can be misleading, because ‘vipassana’ implies seeing the movements in detail but also in different directions; many-aspected seeing. Insight is actually the experience of breaking through dualistic thinking, not a practice. With the experience of insight one practices many-aspected seeing, which provides definitive experiences.

Shall we continue with our studies from the Abhidhamma literature? We have been looking at the five groups of existence which appear as the first of three main subjects that are explored in the Vibhanga. Previously we examined rupa, vedana, and sanna, so today we will look at sankhara – with a dot above the ‘n’. A little dot here or there – whether it’s the root or the crown – determines whether to use more or less breath, which could be compared to using higher or lower consciousness.

Broken into syllables, we have san + kha + ra. The ‘san’ is related to ‘sva’, ‘sam’, and ‘sen’, meaning ‘one and the same’, ‘similar in meaning’, and ‘at one with’. You will find this syllable in English as well; for example, in the word ‘resemble’ the ‘sem’ comes from the same base. ‘Sampa’ means ‘near by’. ‘Sa’ is ‘by oneself’, usually used as a prefix when referring to the self-liberated ones; liberated by the very nature of one’s being – ‘Sammasambuddha’. Also ‘sa’ is ‘self-originated’, ‘interior’, ‘having the same as’, and ‘having the same origin’.

Previously there were areas of weaving which became a cell. This cut and disturbed space. Next there were islands of bending and weaving, and now we have ‘sam’ – a holding together. The force that involves cutting space could be viewed as gravity.

Eventually the word ‘sankhara’ will mean ‘formations’, but the first meaning is ‘that which resumes its own nature’, ‘identity’, ‘inner mechanics’. ‘Na’ is a negation. ‘Ka’ is ‘movements’ – inner movements. And ‘ra’ is ‘fire’ – energy exchange. These five words – rupa, vedana, sanna, sankhara, and vinnana – describe the working of one mind. With ‘sankhara’ one sees a boundary establishing tenuous identity; a movement toward exchange of energy. Pulsations and formations are identical with the exchange of energy and eventually that process forms boundaries. At that point the bounded energy exchanger has inner stability.

‘Khara’ is ‘edge’, ‘rough’, ‘hard’, ‘sharp’, and hence ‘painful’, ‘withering’, ‘boundary’ – a crudity. All boundaries require a great deal of maintenance. ‘Khara’ with a long ‘a’ means ‘to burn’. The long ‘a’ changes the rough edges to fire. The complete word – sankhara – implies a kind of torture; the dukkha of formations. The syllable ‘kha’ is also found in the word ‘dukkha’; burning with dissatisfaction. To be driven by the need to maintain the impermanent as permanent is suffering. The dukkha of entropy is a hard edge. ‘Ha’ is the heart of the matter; the core. ‘Kh’ is caving, expressing inner undulations. How could anything exist without hollowing? ‘Kha’ – the sun – is caving; energy is hollowing and also caving. That’s how energy goes to vortex.

We find the next aspect of ‘sankhara’ from the word ‘khut’, which means to clear the throat. The implication is that a caving will spit something out. Where there is a caving, a hollowing, matter will be caused to be sucked in and then spat out. The idea is that matter can be pulled into a vortex with such force that the pressure from being compacted will result in something being spat out. This word also has a sense of involvement with how things are divided, with the process of division. There are many possibilities to examine when approaching the meaning of ‘sankhara’. Words like ‘shining’ and ‘emission’ also come from ‘khut’. (Maybe God spitting in his own face is creation.) Associated meanings are ‘flying birds’, ‘vibration’, ‘spitting’, and ‘sun’.

Through the hollowing principle a particular type of displacement occurs which has a tendency to reproduce things of its own nature, to spit out formations with its own qualities. But it is more subtle than that. It is rather like two seeds which contain ‘a’ and ‘b’ within their totality. It very well may happen that ‘a’ will be contained and ‘b’ will be spat out, or that ‘a’ will be impotent and ‘b’ will not. The resulting off-shoot may not look like the parent, but there will eventually be an attempt to reincorporate that which was left behind; to move to oneness. All things tend to move to the one, to unite with the lacking principle. This is behind the attraction/repulsion motif that motivates mass.

Entropy will itself create. The very nature of things, the propulsion of creation, is to run down – to get back to the one. Creation has never actually left the one: it’s more like a rubber ball attached to an elastic string; attached to the elasticity of the universe. Any birth contains the archetypal blueprint, still has inherent within it the original coding. The coding can be seen in the spirals of the vertebrae and the heart, in the movement of blood in the veins. All the coding of human bodies is not separate from trilobites and other ancient creations trying to get back to the original word. This is a vast idea. Anything that forms then tries not only to unform but to get back to the archetype. A space divides, and then becomes multidimensional which draws back, and hence – entropy.

‘Na’ is ‘negation’, unforming. Through innumerable causes, something forms an O, but it was originally a square; consequently it is trying to get back to the original form. Imagine a house that still knows its origins are living trees: that idea still coded in the molecules, and the formation is trying to get back to the forest. From this understanding one can see that all beings, all forms, ultimately tend to enlightenment simply because they have new experiences. This is the return principle: not a return to the beginning, but to pure happening. This is a constant play. A universe of all-new principles can be said to be withholding and withdrawing.

One meaning of ‘kha’ is crystal. ‘Vibhanga’ is the pull to unbecome, and also a projection of each additional becoming.