Introduction to the Abhidhamma
August – September 1977
2nd of 16 Lectures
SECOND LECTURE: AIN OKTOR, TUNISIA
I would like to quote from a Wheel Publication entitled GUIDE THROUGH THE ABHIDHAMMA-PITAKA, written by the Venerable Nyanatiloka and published by the Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, Ceylon. This quote is from the foreword, written by Cassius A. Pereira in 1938.
“But the Abhidhamma is not a tale told to fools, and few worldlings ever come to revel in its deeps.
A soaring royal swan spied a lowland crane paddling in a mud pool. Of compassion he descended and told this inglorious feathered kinsman of the Himalayan heights of cool mountain streams, the translucent crystal waters and their shining jewels.
“But I live on mudfish. Are there any mudfish there?” asked the crane.
“No. There are no mudfish there, nor mud.” replied the swan.
“Then I don’t want your mountains and your jewels.” said the crane.
And the Abhidhamma does not mention mudfish. Here we find no gods, no men, no devils, no trees, no stones, and so forth. All these are mere appearances, and we find that an “individual” has no real existence.”
Today I wish to give an overall introduction, a background to this subject, so we shall reverse the story of the crane and the mudfish and concern ourselves with historical mudfish. But first we might raise two questions: What is the Abhidhamma? Why are you here? I don’t think that you are here to study a course in order to become academic stars, nor to suffer any course apart from awakening. That is why we are all here. The study may seem academic to some of you, but that presentation is simply for the purpose of delivering information for the cessation of human suffering.
The Buddha said that any teaching that didn’t take into account the truth of suffering was not Buddha dharma. He didn’t say that any teaching that had jewels or Rinpoches was Buddha dharma, only that true dharma includes an awareness of suffering. So here on the mudfish level we have the problem of human suffering and how to gain deliverance from that. Therefore, if the Abhidhamma doesn’t fulfill that criterion, it’s useless.
This study must show a way for beings to awaken to what is left over after suffering has ceased; awaken to life. Past all the worldly considerations, the neuroses and the hatreds and the crude states of being, we need to be involved with the path to enlightenment. To this end we are concerned first of all with why this is called the Abhidhamma; which is not only a title – it’s also a clue.
The Abhidhamma is the practice of dhamma or dharma which produces an ‘abhi’, or higher, further understanding. It is not a subject like philosophy or psychology that one studies to pass an examination; it is something which you do. And you can’t partake of this study without eliminating that which produces suffering in your being. So before you get around to asking what is Nirvana or what is Nirodha – all those precious things that are found in totality – you need to concern yourself with the mudfish. In a way, you must reverse the order of the story just quoted. If this study is to be valid for you, it must be a way to deeper realization. ‘Abhi’ also means ‘deeper’. So this is the first point I wish to address.
Abhidhamma is already at work in your being. You will find this idea brought forward in the study of Mahamudra. In that discipline there is no talk about the state of enlightenment as being over there somewhere and you here, trying to reach it. They say that the factors of emergence are already present in your being, factors of exactly the same nature as the awakened consciousness. It only remains for you to identify these streamings.
The Abhidhamma is already present. Your work is to eliminate the unwholesome; to aid the going out of the unwholesome. Nirvana simply means going out – but you don’t go out; the unwholesome states of mind cease. In fact, if you are here in a reasonably wholesome state of mind, it can be said that you have Nirvana dhatu present – however much it may or may not be conjoined with other states.
So we are only concerned with the cessation of suffering: Nirvana. We are not concerned with the going out of the wholesome states, or of objects, or even of consciousness, but with that state where suffering ceases. When all the garbage has been burned thoroughly and the flames have gone out because there is no more fuel, then in a sense you have post-nirvana. But really one doesn’t need to talk about the going out of the garbage – you just put it out!
Beyond Nirvana is an experience of something called Dharmadhatu, which is a state of pure being; the ground of being which neither arises nor ceases. A suffering state is obviously not pure. It is a particular – and peculiar – way of viewing which is subject to change. Suppose last year you had a problem, say in mathematics, which you solved after much struggle. In a way one could say that at the moment of solution you experienced a taste of Nirvana, or you could say that you removed a neurotic block. That brief experience of opening is a restitution of the state of the original being.
STUDENT: If the original mind is not subject to trash, how does the trash arise?
TEACHER: The original being is not subject to trash. That question has been asked many, many times. The Abhidhamma says that there is only illusion, appearance, but that’s getting into swan territory. Today is really for mudfish stuff, so I will take notice of your question and leave it for the moment. First I would like to cover more of the background material.
As stated in the Venerable Nyanatiloka’s Guide, the Abhidhamma is a collection of seven books. Depending on the view of the reader, each of these has varying degrees of historical validity. The Buddhist Tipitaka could be seen as an equivalent to the Christian Bible, in terms of its importance. The word ‘tipitaka’ translated literally means ‘three baskets’. The entire of the Tipitaka contains forty-four volumes which are divided into three sections or baskets; three distinct categories. One, called the Vinaya Pitaka, is a collection of rules for the ordained. This section actually contains the history and background for each rule, as well as documenting the early Buddhist lineage; it contains all that monkish information.
A second basket, called the Sutta Pitaka, contains more than thirty volumes of discourses which were given to the laity by the Buddha. The word ‘sutta’ (or ‘sutra’ in Sanskrit) comes from the root word ‘sota’, which means ‘to hear’. So this is the section covering discourses said to have been given by Sakyamuni Buddha on his travels through the land. Most of these talks begin with the words “Thus have I heard”, by which you know they were likely repeated by Ananda, a cousin and close disciple of the Buddha.
Shortly after the attainment of the Parinibbana of Sakyamuni, the monk Ananda was asked to repeat all the teaching he had heard from the Buddha. Ananda began repeating each discourse with those words, rather like saying “I was there. I was present.” But they also imply something not heard – the esoteric teachings. In those days monks were trained in memory, and Ananda was able to recite the entire range of discourses given in his presence by Sakyamuni.
The third basket is called the Abhidhamma Pitaka. It is traditionally believed that three of the books of the Abhidhamma Pitaka (the Dhamma-Sangani, the Vibhanga and the Patthana) were not given originally on this planet. They are a special teaching repeated by the Buddha when he was specifically requested to do so by Sariputra, one of his disciples renowned for his powers of insight. (A second disciple, Moggallana, was a master of magical powers. Ananda was the keeper of discourses. In the order, it is expected that members respect the gifts of each being. All beings are experts, each in their own way.)
The story goes that one day the master of insight noticed that the form of the Buddha shimmered for a moment, disappeared and then almost instantly returned. Being very sharp-minded, Sariputra asked “Where have you been?”
“Visiting another planet, another plane of consciousness.”
“What did you do there? What happened there?”
“I can’t tell you.”
“You can’t, or you won’t?”
“I can’t. In that place the beings have tremendous power of concentration so in a period of time equivalent to two hours here they can absorb volumes of data. They have a language that is composed of musical tones, which create chords of binary symbols. It would be incomprehensible. Therefore, I can’t repeat that teaching here.”
“What about giving an approximation?”
“It is no more possible to communicate that teaching on earth than it is to teach the serpent lines of energy to human consciousness. We have no language capable of transmitting those concepts.”
But Sariputra pressed harder to learn at least a shadow of what had been taught and so the Buddha finally said that perhaps he could give a crude feeling for what could be taught in the language of energy line realms, but he insisted that he could not truly teach the real Abhidhamma on this plane of existence. So that is one story of how the Abhidhamma we study is said to have come into being. In the foreword to the Guide Through the Abhidhamma-Pitika you will find a slightly different version.
In these classes you will be studying the guide, which is once removed from the Abhidhamma Pitaka – which, according to the Buddha, is at least once removed from the actual Abhidhamma. To study the actual Abhidhamma presumably one must enter a state equivalent to that of radiant beings, those who exist on other planes. Actually, the real Abhidhamma can’t be taught although it can be attained. What can be taught is the means by which a new mind can arise. But for now you will have to be satisfied with a mudfish talk.
The essence of the Abhidhamma Pitaka is meditative. By following its orientation, you come to a pure Dhamma reality – a radiant state of consciousness in which the act of seeing would be quite different than what you know now. Perhaps you wouldn’t see a flower in a vase; you might just see singings. I don’t mean that poetically, I am attempting to indicate that there can be a new way of communication and data processing. If you don’t get this point you will be left behind in the academic world, lost in a maze of charts while trying to navigate a sea which doesn’t exist. Never mind, many beings spend their whole lives discussing – or even constructing – ships to sail this illusory ocean. So many planks here and so many sails there; you can have long dialogues about the seaworthiness of various constructions. But unless you set out from the shore of theoretical understanding, how will you ever test any of these ideas? When you only work theoretically, the results are only theory. So please understand right away that this is something to be practiced, or you may find yourself sinking into academia, perhaps even falling right through the academic floor!
There are seven books laid out for you, seven ways to resolve problems or to develop orientation. The three oldest are the Dhamma Sangani, the Vibhanga, and the Patthana. The last is, in a way, the piece which overcomes all resistance. It is rather like a computer printout. These three books were probably recited at the Second Great Council of Arahants in exactly the same form as they are written today. The First Great Council was held almost immediately after the Buddha Sakyamuni passed into Maha Parinibbana. The Second Great Council was held at Vaisali 110 years after the Buddha’s death.
Teachings were transmitted orally in those times. Even today the Buddhist order has maintained the custom of memorizing great volumes of material so they can be repeated by request. Teachers who are Tipitaka Acariya can recite from memory instructions which they themselves received from their teachers, who recited what they had heard from their teachers, and so on. This lineage of knowledge goes back for hundreds of years. In our time we say that someone is well-read, but in those days people were well-heard – or even much-heard! If you were a pundit you had the ability to receive and transmit all kinds of stories; tales involving folklore, medical advice, and any number of subjects. Even though this is an age of printed material there are still a few beings following that hearing tradition.
Historically the next books to appear were the Dhatu-Katha, the Puggala-Pannarri, and the Yamaka. The beginnings of these date from before the time of King Asoka, who was the greatest emperor of India – whether because of or in spite of the fact that he was a devoutly practicing Buddhist. (It is said that he became a Buddhist after being overcome by remorse when viewing the carnage that resulted from his aggressive take-over of most of the Indian countryside. His era was the most creative and peaceful period in India up to, and including the present time.) It is most probable that these three books were incorporated into the canon at the Third Great Council, which was held during King Asoka’s reign. This indicates that the attained beings who attended the council accepted these books as being representative of the Buddha’s teaching.
The Kathavatthu is definitely Third Council stuff, compiled at the time of King Asoka. Kathavatthu is usually translated into English as Points of Controversy. It was presented by the head of the Third Council, the Arahant Thera Moggaliputta Tissa, who composed it in an attempt to return to the fundamentals of dharma. The points in this text answer many questions. Some parts of this are very beautifully stated, as you will see when we come to look at it later.
So, although the Dhatu-Katha, Puggala-Pannarri, and Yamaka were likely finalized before the Third Great Council, they were not accepted until then. None of the seven books came into existence later than around 250 B.C. It is clear that they have not been changed since that time; no scholarly or higher criticism has changed a word since then. By examining the background material, you can see for yourself that they date from that time. By looking at the references to historical figures and the language used in the text, it is possible to extrapolate when the material was first produced. This is referred to as higher criticism. Although any amount of editing could have gone on before 250 B.C., through higher criticism it can be shown that what we have today was finalized by the third council. You are not required to believe that simply because you are told it is true. For that matter, you are not required to believe anything just because it is included in this teaching. The instruction given is to see for oneself; to test the validity of any teaching for oneself. Here we will study what in 250 B.C. was considered to be important for liberation.
It is only fair to note that there are differences in versions of the Abhidhamma Pitaka available from the various schools that have arisen in Buddhism. In the Chinese and the Sarvastivadan schools there are the seven books also found in Theravadan sects, but they are in a different order. However, the subject matter covered in each is relatively the same. We will be studying the most ancient text.
STUDENT: Is there a Tibetan Abhidhamma?
TEACHER: The Tibetans have equivalent teachings. The various schools have been subject to different influences, which can sometimes cause confusion for students. When something is put out as the teaching, and then beings find out that there can be more than one interpretation of what was previously thought to be the accepted standard, it can sometimes cause difficulties. So you should know that this problem may come up, right from the beginning. You should also know it is resolved that the Abhidhamma is the way to the higher, and it is possible for there to be many Abhidhamma translations. Tomorrow we will look at two main approaches, but that’s tomorrow.
Don’t forget that the Buddha has already hinted that it is impossible to teach this subject. It becomes a question of language. There are language planes; an over-all language mind. Language actually fashions mind. It is very interesting to me that beings make a distinction between such relatively unimportant things as the colour of someone’s skin, and don’t even begin to understand the great differences that result due to use of language.
Language fashions spatially, sensually, in every way. Words have the power to do that. A well-read person or a person who does a lot of speaking has quite a different patterning of mind than someone who does not. There is a change both in quantity and quality of imaging. Words are transmitters, through sound as well as through meaning. If you want to study Tibetan culture, then study that language. Being able to focus on the visualizations involved in Tibetan meditations is not that difficult, but to develop a deeper understanding it is wise to go to the language, immerse yourself in a different language. It will change your whole orientation, add a new dimension to what you actually taste, smell, and so forth.
Is the language you now use sufficient to achieve the level of involvement you seek? Certainly for this study it may be necessary for you to learn some of the Pali language. In one way you could say that Pali is actually your ancient language gone astray: it is the base of many Indo-European root words. It has a close association to Latin and the Romantic and Teutonic languages. For example, in Pali ‘ti’ is ‘three’, ‘mano’ is ‘mind’ and also one of the words for ‘man’, ‘namo’ is ‘name’. To aid you in hearing the similarity, consider this language to be the root from which many words have grown; there are a multitude of close connections. You have the mind to understand not only emotionally but also spatially. Approach it in this way. Lay the emphasis of your study on the language. Hear it so that in fact you hear it as you now hear English.
Sound fashions images, mental experiences, which have the power to influence belief. When these experiences are repeated, they create patterns which move the mental motivation into groupings. Whole streams of association can come from one word; one sound can trigger many different reactions. For example, the word ‘hell’ to some people brings to mind the image of a burning place. But in another part of the world hell might invoke the image of a frozen wasteland. Eskimos would have quite a different association to the image of a fiery place than beings who live in the tropics. I’m sure you could find many examples of this in your daily life.
The study of the Pali language is not really as difficult as you might think because many words from Pali made their way from the east to Europe, via the Indo-European languages. Pali was the dialect of the Aryans or the forest dwellers and so much of the imagery is concerned with trees, branches, rain of blessing, and so forth. But it has many basic similarities to European languages. There are many cultural parallels in temperate and tropical zones.
STUDENT: Do the seed syllables have the same meaning to all people, or do they provoke the same type of response?
TEACHER: Originally yes, but finally no. As man becomes more and more of a constructor, the seed syllables themselves vary. Seed syllables have to do with pitch and tone, so in tonal languages like Chinese or Thai one can have a greater range of meanings from a particular syllable. For example, in Thai the syllable ‘ka’ can be pronounced five different ways, creating five different meanings or nuances. It can be used as a short, long, rising, falling or emphatic sound. So one seed syllable can bring forth a demanding state or an invocative state, depending on which of the five ways is used. Don’t take seed syllables as unalterable mantra. Mantra is a device of mind, to be used as a dynamic tool.
There are many ‘OM’s’, but only one – the one that is uttered. Anything that is uttered always refashions. The principle behind mantra yoga is that any syllable you sound changes you. Mantra, whenever uttered, fashions your mind, but it particularly does so when accompanied by visualization and understanding. When you are not merely saying OM MANI PADME HUM, but also visualizing the jewels, the flower, and you are motivated to experience the compassionate mind, then all that links up and actually shapes you to a new state of being. I don’t know whether or not I’ve convinced you, but anyway now I’ve told you! There never was, nor is, a fixed mantra.
Both crane and swan arose out of mantra. Where is the seed syllable to be found? Really, any utterance that is fashioning is a seed syllable. Anything uttered sets off associations, streams. Every sound has an essence, energy. A sound in one language may even have the power to affect those who speak different languages. Did you know that ‘kaka’ means more or less the same in Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Hebrew? But there are two variables: it can be uttered different ways, and the cultural appreciation can be different. To you, shit is negative. To someone who is collecting yak dung for a fire, it might be a useful commodity.
Seed syllables are primary sounds, basically imitative. From that standpoint, the most important thing for you to do is to copy a teacher, a Rinpoche. I realize what a horrible thing that is to say to you. It’s against all your ideals of uniqueness! But you really are an imitator. Your uniqueness depends on the degree to which you’ve applied universal imitation. It’s a paradox. If you hadn’t attempted to imitate mommy and daddy, you wouldn’t be here; you would have had a very difficult time trying to exist. And don’t think you’ve stopped imitating just because you’ve left home, either. If you have, then you are a very dull being!
It is not possible to teach by any other method than imitation. When you look at others, you should see strands of all beings incorporated into their existence. Perhaps you aren’t conscious of this, but until you see the extent to which you have eaten your mother and father, and you hear them speaking through you and you wear that gracefully, you will find it difficult to experience totality. You are that transmission; that is their gift to you. You carry it on. This is applicable when you come to study the Abhidhamma because that is also a part of your legacy. It was translated here on earth, and learning how to appreciate it is part of the mudfish stuff you will need to swim through.
In Africa there are kinds of fish that are able to hibernate for long periods of time. They just hover in survival mode, waiting for better conditions to occur. You are a kind of mudfish who tends to hibernate, waiting. I think it is time for you to make some effort to see the mud, explore it a bit, and decide whether or not it can be made more flexible. And one aspect of Abhidhamma study is that it directs the mind in ways that will allow you to see some cracks in the mud, and even become aware of the being that is unaware, waiting for the opportunity to come out of hibernation.
I suggest that if you study the language with a view to accuracy, you will discover jewels. They will appear out of the mud. You realize, don’t you, that mud becomes carbon and carbon eventually becomes a diamond. So tomorrow we will go on to discuss the two different orientations to Abhidhamma. For now your study is a question of hearing, of immersion, and of gradual observation.