Abhidhamma Third Lecture


The Abhidhamma

by Ven. Namgyal Rinpoche
Edited by Cecilie Kwiat

Introduction to the Abhidhamma
August – September 1977
3rd of 16 Lectures


After his introductory remarks, the Venerable Nyanatiloka begins his guide with what is called ‘matika’ in Pali. The author has translated this term as ‘matrix’. I will ask you to copy and study this matrix thoroughly. Although it is sometimes incorporated as part of the Dhamma-Sangani the matrix actually comes before that chapter. It is the mould for the entire of the Abhidhamma, but in particular for the Dhamma-Sangani, the Vibhanga, and the Patthana. Tomorrow I will be speaking on the Dhamma-Sangani itself, but today I’d like to give an introduction; try to explain it more fully.

You may recall from reading the foreword to this guide that Pereira quotes Carl Jung as saying he considered Buddhism to be the most perfect religion ever to arise in this world. Jung was very impressed by the goals of the teaching and in particular by the doctrines of karma and rebirth. He had only had the opportunity to study some of the Sutta Pitika, and never approached the Abhidhamma, yet even so he thought that it was marvellous. But he parted company with Buddhist thought when he developed his view of a being as an island in a sea of the collective unconscious.

The view of the teaching put forward by Pereira is that insofar as there is a personality to be found, it is certainly not an island. It’s probably more like an octopus, living under the surface of the sea and reaching out with its tentacles at passing goodies. All that passes is grist for its mill. If you’ve never seen an octopus with its eight spokes, perhaps you might not appreciate that analogy. The Buddhist view of personality is that this single-minded reaching out to the environment is definitely submerged and very much lacking in overview.

Had Jung been aware of Abhidhamma, he would likely have been even more impressed by the teaching of Buddhism. There is a vast gulf between Jung’s view and the Buddha’s view of what is happening, but the Buddha’s view is impossible to teach because it is basically experiential. What is taught is a collection of definite hints which one can apply in two ways. One of these ways is to consider that Pali – the language used in these texts – is technical; suited for transmission of information. The other way is to see the language as suited for transmission of experience. The second assumes that words have power to orientate the mind toward final realization, and that the Pali language is very craftily constructed to achieve that end. But you will discover how realistic that is only by going into each word thoroughly.

A clue to this second way is to be found in the language used by the Buddha in his discourses. Words like ‘puthujjana’, which literally means a lump of dough, a sticky lump of dough, are used to describe worldlings. Basically there’s nothing wrong with dough, and the nature of it is sticky. Eventually it may be put into a fire to make bread, which can be used to nourish beings. But in the texts this word is used to indicate that, generally speaking, the whole aim of beings is to get things together, become more and more solid, more substantive and definite. The Abhidhamma view is the exact opposite. Where before there was solidity, the great work is to see energy fields – to unlump. Abhidhamma is dissection through analysis. The lump is supposed to examine the lump, and to ask what it is that is examining the lump. It could take a long time to understand this.

When teaching, generally you start with an error, an artificial distinction. Beings are embedded in erroneous view, in blocks of solid view, and so one has to begin to teach at that level. So the first task of a teacher is often to loosen error by error, to introduce views that can cut through views. The whole basis of this work is realization of sunyata or anatta. Therefore the work of the Bodhisattva is to aid beings in coming to an understanding of sunyata. Sunyata or anatta is not at the end, but at the beginning; it is the first practice. For you to honour that, when you sit down to practice meditation you should first establish awareness of the hollow body.

One could say that the Abhidhamma is a way of doing hollow body practice. Because you think of yourself as a substantial being, you believe you have come here for the purpose of studying substantial work, prepared to make substantial lists which you are sure – when you get them all together – will make your substantial self become even more solid, and then you will really understand. But understanding is not to be – or to not be! So to really get it together, begin with the hollow body practice. That is how you can start the work of emptying. Then, having let go of the assumption of solidity, see what is happening. Having explored the spaces within, now explore the flows. Analyze them. And when you do you will find that, again, this is a loosening process.

By visualizing the spaciousness or hollowness of the physical body, the hollow body of the mind appears. At that point a phenomena reorientation of mind can occur, an understanding that there is no one viewing. There is anatta – simply happenings. There is no permanently existing self whatsoever. If you just look with an unbiased mind, this is obvious. But somehow beings are afraid of the experience of no-inherent self, of no soul to be saved, so they don’t see that there is only happening. And only by the examination of happening is liberation possible; only by unbiased examination is there deliverance of a being that can’t be saved because he is not there in the first place! The great teaching of emptiness is not nihilistic; it does not hit out at what is there. The whole point of your study is to discover that what you think of as solid is really this or that emptying. Thingings are there; things coming together in continuous change.

The matrix is a list of all the thingings you can find in the universe named from an experiential level. It’s a detailed mould of everything that will follow in the remainder of the Abhidhamma. The Buddha said that you must pay attention to detail if you wish to gain liberation. Do you suppose that he meant you should become obsessive? No. There should be no obsessionalists in this teaching. There are repetitive patterns and the matrix classifies these patterns and their components.

You have solidity – solid view – but in the teaching there is no one having this, that, or the other. There’s not even ‘he’ or ‘she’. We are concerned with the whole truth, concerned with ‘paramattha’; ‘ultimates’. One of the axioms of Buddhism is that to hold a definite view that there is a fixed inherent self or being is conducive to suffering. Only the pure are free from that. There is no flexibility in the views of most beings.

It is said that there are three ego views or conceits: I am superior, I am inferior, and I am equal. These ways of thinking are all self-referencing egotism. There may in fact be patterns repeating in what you call a person, but there is not such a thing as a permanent person abiding in a permanent state. This is really good news, because it indicates that you aren’t stuck! It would be impossible to exchange unwholesome patterns for wholesome ones if there were an unchangeable identity involved. In a way, that’s why you study Abhidhamma. Liberation in the Abhidhamma is concerned with total seeing, and so it is used to break rigid views. If you only see someone as neurotic, then liberation is impossible. A lump of dough can’t liberate a lump of dough! But within each being there are numerous arisings – improbable arisings of wholesome, unwholesome, and neutral states of consciousness. There is no ‘John Doe’; there is just happening.

Beings are trapped in permanent views. They carry them from childhood, from the praise and blame of their elders. “You always make a mess, don’t you?” “Can’t you do anything right?” But if those voices were all there were to say of you, you couldn’t exist! There is so much more to your being than a sticky, rigid view. In the west, psychiatrists sometimes say, “He’s neurotic and he must be cured”, but they rarely say that the neurosis is cured by the wholesome in one’s being. If we were only a solid package of neurosis, no Buddha, doctor, or God could heal the being. A piece of shit is a piece of shit. Wasn’t it Jesus who said that you can’t, by taking thought, make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear? But in fact a sow’s ear is composed of many elements which could be transformed.

The Buddha raised this question long ago. If there is set karmic patterning, then how is liberation possible? But we don’t have set karmic patterning; we have the arising and dissolution of fluctuating energies. The idea of karma is not like a square package; it is the arising and coursing of energy. It is a person manifesting the totality expression of the energy of that one life, the arising and coursing of that being – which includes many seeings, hearings, tastings; that is karma. In the cosmic view, it is the experiential interplay and not ‘that’s my karma’ as most of you consider it to be. It is not a ten ton weight above your head, about to drop on you!

You are part and parcel of karma; you are karma. There is no being apart from karma. So. Because you like that sort of thing, I have given you a block definition. You don’t get liberated from karma, but karma liberates. And you can’t possibly “pay off” karma. That is an immature, even infantile way, of referring to such a vast concept. You do not pay off anything. What you have is a dynamic of all happenings, and what you can have is patterns which cease to be operative. The best advice you can get from a teacher is to dry up. Life doesn’t run lineally. These are some aspects for you to consider.

So let’s turn again to the matrix. The Abhidhamma matrix is divided into the tika-matika and the duka-matika; triad and dyad verses. You probably know that in geology a matrix is not the gemstone but the mould in which gems are cast. These verses are the mould in which the diamond realization outlined by the Abhidhamma is cast. The 122 verses that make up this work are an important component of the Dhamma Sangani. It would be useful for you to read this through once a day; use it as a springboard for question and as an aid to deepening your orientation. The language is designed to help you think in a certain way.

In the flow of consciousness, just as you have a meditation object that can take you to first, second, or third jhana, and other meditation objects which will not, so too, some subjects can open the mind and others cannot. Undoubtedly you will ask, “Why not just explore the unlimited subjects right off?” It is pragmatic to consider limitations first. As a start, explore the boundaries of your being.

Kazantzakis said: “Praise God, the keeper of the double boundary.” Raise the question of limits. What are the ranges of your senses? How far do you think you can see? Can you see from one end of the room to the other? You can see stars. Can you see galaxies? What is your range? How much detail can you see? If a being is walking down the road four miles in front of you, a friend, can you identify him? Consider range and magnification.

Many of the Tibetan visualization practices say “… as big as mountains and as small as mustard seeds”. To make the mind flexible, raise the question of range. You might be able to count the branches of a tree from one mile away but without interest you will never know. Most beings have their minds so full of garbage, of trivia; they are so busy churning out a smoke screen that they don’t realize how their mental involvements stop them from seeing anything else in detail – if at all! All else but their ego consideration is completely lost.

What is the range of your vision, and what amount of detail can you see? Abandon clinging to conceptual thought, and the original mind is immediately revealed. When you think “I am solidly here, and I have these problems; my dinner took too long to be served”, this may be a conceptual truth but if it becomes your whole concern, then something else is not happening for you. Cut down on the number of times your awareness goes outside the present moment and gets trapped there. Mind can eventually come to affect that which is outer, but first you need to understand limits. This again is a pragmatic path. First raise the question of limitation. You are far too easily swayed by this or that event. Work on boundaries, and then you can move to boundless; from rupa to arupa.

When you are considering the matrix, see it as a screen to sort out the fundamental raw material of the Abhidhamma. Use it like you would a pan if you were panning for gold. It is an excellent tool for furthering analytical training. It will also help you to see relationships, to develop the mind that is capable of seeing patterns; incorporating and making linkups with dharma.

Part of this work entails being able to see connections between a series of dharmas, like dewdrop, river, cloud, and blood. There is a meditation practice of formal sequencing where you are encouraged to set the mind in the experience of light (an arupa experience), and then see a symbol, then return to the light, then a symbol, and so forth, until you have done this four times. At the end of the four, you then ask what connects them; what theme is running through the four images. Why is there emphasis placed on this type of practice? Because the very path of being able to see connections is the path to awakening. Through the study of relationships one can come to path experience.

You are a human being, and life is short. Think how often your mind is going nowhere – if not in promoting unwholesome states! Most of the time beings are sucked into repetitive whirlpools of thought and emotion. It could be that 90% of your energy in the course of a day is simply dead-ended and maybe .5% of your consciousness is moving toward awakening. This is actually true. You might even find that this is a conservative estimate were you to examine your daily mental activities for yourself.

Make the first effort: cut off the unwholesome. Bitching and complaining only serve to confine the focus of your mind; to keep you constantly checking your personal status. You could employ your mind in umpteen directions, but generally you end up with nothing really useful, just following repetitive patterns. I wonder if those of you who spend your time self-referencing realize that eventually those patterns may become a whirlpool that will suck you down. Is there not something you could do that might progress your involvement with life, or with your being? Suppose you put chilli peppers on your grapefruit one morning; would that create new perceptions? It isn’t even necessary to seek new experiences: if you have the same breakfast every day, is there something on the table that you could use for the reflective path? What is the sheen of the tablecloth? What dharma provides a manifestation of the unknown?

The Abhidhamma is considered to be one of the most royal teachings. Historically, in Ceylon, it was considered appropriate for royalty. Books of Abhidhamma were bound in gold, and jewels were used to decorate them. They were considered to be very precious. In the days around the time of King Asoka, rulers would settle their affairs and then retreat into some kind of special building, perhaps something like the Alhambra of Spain, and immerse themselves in study of Abhidhamma. They would let their minds go in any directions to seek out on-going connections. Using this same system, you will find that you can also explore in this way. Each item on the list of the matrix is a meditation in and of itself.

I wish I could give you a simple meditation for aligning each cell of your being so that you are brought totally to this level of consciousness. Then you would really be like the octopus! Instead of thinking that each category is just a category to develop your intellectual understanding, look for some of the mysteries continuously at work around you. When is a butterfly not a butterfly? If you are reaching out, you may see into the depths. Eventually you may even come to the surface and discover another dimension of viewings.

There is an order to this unfoldment. First, discern your question. Do you want to know what is unwholesome, what is sin? You have to be sure that there is sin! And if there is, you might consider whether it falls into the classification of relative truth or paramattha. It is possible that you have fixed views and a fixed ego. If so, then in answer to the question “is there sin?” your response would be “yes”. If someone comes to me to say: “I got involved with a married woman when she was living separately from her husband. We had an affair, and now her husband is accusing me of being an adulterer. But they weren’t living together. Am I an adulterer?” I can only answer: “Yes, you are an adulterer.”

Unless it is clear that the previous agreement included the possibility of not limiting involvement with another being, then you can see that – because there is a contractual agreement which is not being met – there is sin. Like this, the Abhidhamma level of viewing is quite clear on what is unwholesome. If you have broken a contract, is that an unwholesome level of consciousness? Probably yes. You can be sure that there are unwholesome states of mind present if you can’t stand the accusations of others.

One of the more important things to watch is worry. What is worry? Look at it. You are going to have a long list of definitions that you can use to label all those various mental states. Look at the dual state of mind: is there an interaction between worry and confusion? How many faces can you see in the forest? How many different types of consciousness can you identify? You know that worry has a different feeling than hatred, blankness, or greed. So I would like you to simply sit down and do some recall of past experiences. Without looking at a book, see if you can identify the different mental states or emotions involved in your inner experiences.

As an example, if a child were about to swallow something poisonous just as the mother entered the room, then mother love might manifest as a very loud, aggressive scream. Is that love or hate? The Buddhist answer would likely be that that is hate. The mother actually hates the idea of her child – the object of her love – being destroyed and so hate is the predominant factor at that moment. Compassion would have that same intensity of care, but without attachment. It is spacious, because self-interest is not the primary motive. The concern with compassion is to meet with others in a wholesome space.

A teacher may employ hate, wrathful compassion or compassionate hate for purposes of liberation. What is actually happening? How can you know unless you clearly identify these states in your own being? A mother’s love may not actually be primarily concerned with the child at all. It is not unlikely that a mother’s primary concern be for herself. In the example just given it is hatred that is present, and hatred is not love. In our culture these facts tend to be glossed over. Another example would be if you see someone who is injured, and your immediate reaction is to move toward them. But it is very likely that that reaction is based on aversion to seeing injury, not on actual compassion. Just as fear may precede hatred, aversion may precede compassion, but it is not the same thing as compassion.

To see the states clearly means you need to see the actual sequence of emotions arising, see the full experience. When you kill a mosquito there is hate present, regardless of what you consider your motivation to be. You hate something at that moment, and whether or not you hate to see a child possibly infected with malaria is not the Abhidhamma concern. I don’t mind what you do with mosquitoes whatsoever, as long as you see all the movements of consciousness. It is possible that you are not really here to study. Perhaps you are really wondering how you can keep everything. You may be here greeding, or perhaps in envy. But don’t continue to perfect your expertise in glossing things over! Analyze it clearly.

You may have come here with the wrong motivation. You want to study mind, but you are not even going to do that because you are a temporary binding of consciousness, rather like a laboratory slide with stains on it! That’s what your personality is, not a great ocean. The bit of icicle that’s drifting down to tropical waters – to death – is concerned with keeping itself together in your case. But the being who is concerned with truth is interested in the melting process. And therefore he is aware of motivation. What is the difference between wishing to study Abhidhamma and actually studying Abhidhamma? How does the thought of wanting enlightenment differ from the thought of “I want my breakfast brought to me more quickly!”?