Abhidhamma Fourth Lecture


The Abhidhamma

by Ven. Namgyal Rinpoche
Edited by Cecilie Kwiat

Introduction to the Abhidhamma
August – September 1977
4th of 16 Lectures


Beings identify their consciousness with the verbalization process, and if there’s no verbalization they probably don’t think they exist! I imagine that the Abhidhamma view would seem quite revolutionary to them. When approaching this study, careful consideration needs to be given to the definition of consciousness. For example, four functions are listed as manifestations of mind in the Doctrine of Mind Only. In fact, according to the teaching, seeing is a definite type of consciousness.

Have you been observing the senses, watching how they perform? Did you know that there is no such thing as seeing at the door of the eyes? Consciousness arises at the sense door involved, but the eyes alone do not see. A corpse doesn’t see. At night, in your sleep, do you see? Is there a type of seeing that is not physical; just seeing with consciousness? Is there a state where there is just the mind-door arising; seeing with just the mano-dvara? ‘Dvara’ means ‘door’. There are six doors: the panca-dvara – the five senses – and the mano-dvara which is the mind-door.

STUDENT: When talking about feelings, would it be appropriate to speak in terms of tones?

TEACHER: Yes. Consciousness is inseparable from vibration, which is inseparable from tone; from sequences and lengths of tones.

This study has much in common with ideas typical of zazen – literally ‘boring into’. Abhidhamma is a study of going into finer and finer detail, boring into with the mind. Through this process, one comes to an opening of consciousness. By using the mind to bore into your view of what is whole, a new understanding can arise. You find what is really there.

Much of what we define as objective is actually based on our personal preferences. It is easy to understand this when one examines how personal value systems influence meaning. For example, gold to a banker is money; to a miner it is a mineral. If you were to show it to someone else, it may represent a paycheque or a setting for a jewel. For a woman it might be an ornament, and for a man it might be a possession. To a chemist it would be a bit of chemistry. But it would be none of these to a Buddha. It would be a temporary form in such and such a frequency of vibration. Where puthujjana see minerals or solids, Buddhas see groupings and formings.

Something akin to this view is being explored in modern physics as the fourth state of matter; the plasmic state. Archetypal form is an action, not a fact. It is a connection. We may go so far as to say there is no such thing as iron. Iron is not. Yet obviously rational beings can construct dorjes from definite metals. What is the quality of being metallic? Is it a coding or a range? What makes a thing or a metal solid? The Buddhist orientation is that it is basically a grouping, a forming – very temporary – and it could transmute or recombine.

The Abhidhamma is very strange. It deals with the chemistry of the mind. In this study, you can look into this mind-chemistry and say “What are the atoms of the mind?” (By the way, the atoms of the mind are called the cetasikas.) You would do well to approach your studies with this type of view. When learning a new subject, proper orientation is often one of the most difficult things to achieve.

Also look for repetitive themes arising; see if you can identify them. Working in a laboratory would be excellent preparation for this type of study. Going in to take apart the mind through analysis is an attack on solidity, on the ego view. You tend to think of yourself as a separate and distinct being, but even the viewing is a state composed of qualities. There is no event called “you, viewing”. There are only the cetasikas. This is why you are asked to study the matrix. There is nothing in the universe apart from the matrix. It includes the whole universe of experience. All things necessary to know for your awakening are included in that.

The matrix is used for the entire of the Abhidhamma, but particularly for the two major books, the Dhamma-Sangani and the Patthana. It is also very involved with the Vibhanga. So now we will begin to look at the first of the seven books, the Dhamma-Sangani. The title of this book is translated as ‘Enumeration of Phenomena’. The book is divided into four sections. The first section deals with consciousness and its concomitants or things associated with it. The second deals with corporeality apart from the body; not material, but molecular. Third is a summary. Fourth is a synopsis, a distillation.

First we shall look at the title itself. The word ‘Dhamma’ is used in many ways. It can mean doctrine, law, truth, declaration of truth, and the doctrine that was taught by the Buddha. But one of the main meanings is ‘phenomena’, things, happenings. In this teaching, one is concerned with the structure of truth. The essential structure of breathing in oxygen and nitrogen is something that concerns you, but the teaching is more concerned with the experience of the movements of breathing. You could say that the physical ingredients of breathing are themselves a dharma, because dharma is not only meant to suggest what you are experiencing. As an example, consider a cup of regular coffee; is it a cup of coffee or a cup of milk? What is the air content? If these phenomena are studied from the standpoint of dharma, then when I drink it, the components of coffee are dharma, the drinking itself is dharma, and – if you see me drinking – there is also the dharma of that!

This is an illustration of enumeration of phenomena. Say that you want to describe oxygen, and you also want to understand the experience of breathing. The Dhamma-Sangani includes both. Perhaps it would be more aptly translated as a description of phenomenalizing rather than as an enumeration of phenomena because it is concerned with the experience, with or without limits. It includes the observer as part of the phenomena as well.

You are familiar with a word similar to Sangani; ‘sangha’ which means ‘community’. ‘Sangani’ also has a sense of ‘going’, ‘description’, and ‘occurrence’. These are the possible associations; all these meanings are involved in this word. So, we have something akin to community, togetherness – but really, this word is a bit nearer to ‘sam’, to the sum of things. There is also association with ‘san’ – the interior; and ‘ga’ – going, near to the area. So ‘Sangani’ would be a description of occurrences which would help you to go to a unified, total view of the ‘dha’. In other words, this indicates the enumerating of phenomena in such a way that you un-create so you can be carried away, unfolded to the total, unified seeing. This is the difference between the academic and the real Academy.

This book, the Dhamma-Sangani, and the final one, the Patthana, constitute the quintessence of the Abhidhamma. They approach the study from two different directions, attacking the problem of awakening your being from two different standpoints. In the Dhamma-Sangani the meditation emphasis is more on aspects of sunyata and anatta. The method of working is indicated in the word ‘Sangani’, which is associated with meanings like ‘battle, fight’. Through fighting fire with fire comes liberation. You are a sticky lump of dough and through this study you lump together a collection of associations which, at the same time as they increase your stickiness, create a cleaving or loosening of the bondage.

I find it useful to have you study the meanings of the titles. Particularly in modern America there is a tendency to use one word for everything – probably due to laziness! But the use of this language goes in a very opposite direction from that philosophy. One word has many, many meanings within it so – when you study in depth – the one word becomes many. All the associations we discussed today are contained in the title ‘Dhamma-Sangani’. It does not just mean ‘Enumeration of Phenomena’; it means a battle, a joining together to loosen, an enumeration for liberation from clinging – to break the clinging.

Earlier I mentioned two ways of approach; what were they? First we have to consider the two basic teachings. On one side is the teaching of anatta, emptiness of ego reference or sunyata. On the other side is conditionality, ida-paccayata. The purpose behind the Dhamma-Sangani (as is indicated by the name) is simply enumeration of laws. In a sense, it is aimed at depersonalization, but not in the normal meaning of that word. Here we are more interested in penetrating or cutting through the personal view of the universe so we can proceed to austere purity of view. Ultimately this type of knowing is felt impersonally or objectively if you prefer. The Dhamma-Sangani approach attacks ego-referencing so that one may come through to the pure view, or to empty the belief in a separate identity. It is not concerned with whether or not you are, but whether or not you are sticky.

The Buddha was once asked by someone: “Do I exist or not?’ He didn’t answer; he kept silence. Not being such a holy guru as was he, I will give an answer to that question. The state of confusion must be removed. To accomplish this, you might ask, “What is it that is asking the question?” This is not a game; it’s a direct pointing to the mind. There are undoubtedly other answers one could give, but whether you exist or not, make the effort to see what is. Look and dissect. What you are attempting to do is empty all ego-references. Anatta is not experienced by wondering whether or not to get rid of the ego. Just remove the constant ego-referencing. Un-selfing of the being is sunyata. So you need to break through the sense of a concrete ‘you’, and then break through the sense of a concrete ‘that’. Then you will see what is actually occurring.

So the first book is a description of the process of transcending self-referencing seeing; the process of un-selfing or past-selfing. The last book is a method of synthesis. It is not concerned with analysis but with relationships; synthesis, the coming together. It shows the relationships between phenomena. Studying the Patthana brings one to consider all relationships that conjoin to produce dhamma; all that is relevant to the path.

For a moment, I’d like you to think about the evolution of one’s idea of being. At first, one holds the view that a being is a solid entity, and then gradually other possibilities arise in perception as one becomes aware of the process of build-up of dharmas. Finally there comes the view that being is anatta-ing. The first view is binding and the second is loosening.

When is a rose a rose? Take away the petals, and you are left with the stamens. Take them away; where is the rose? If you take a bit from here and a bit from here, you will be left with so many petals, so many stamen, perhaps a thorn, and if all the pieces are brought together again, you might call that the process of synthesis. Just as in the process of meditation practice there is a loosening of concrete views, the Abhidhamma takes a similar approach by loosening through examination. In this approach there is breakdown of component parts and then a build-up again. The breakdown is called the Dhamma-Sangani. It is involved in analysis of events. Eventually there isn’t anyone going in to analyze or take apart the observations. Through the process of you coming to an event and taking it apart again and again, changes occur. At first there seems to be a ‘me’, an ego doing that. Then eventually you come to the dharma where mountains are not mountains and streams are not streams. At the Path level of attainment, it is ‘not mountains and not streams’.

Do atoms have mountains? You don’t know. Do atoms stream?

I think that that’s as far as we can get for the moment in our approach to the subject matter of the Dhamma-Sangani. In a way, this book is a negative practice because it is actually beyond examination. It is only concerned with your liberation, with loosening and binding the being. For this to take place, it is necessary to break down conventional views. This requires boring into and then seeing things in depth; an unrelenting dedication to the winnowing process. In a non-emotional sense, your task is to come to a way of viewing what is. This path is summarized by the Pali expression “n’eta, n’eta”, “not this, not this”. It is a definite statement, with no result and no exemplification: the stripping of the mind through via negativa – the dance of the seven veils.

You think there is an ‘I’, but there is only an occurrence. And you are not removing an ‘I’ because there is no ‘I’ to remove. There is a manifestation of arisings, a manifested processing. Perhaps it is not correct to state this in the negative because we are not merely concerned with making a negation of an I-consciousness – which doesn’t exist – but with finding a way to transcend the senses. It may even be the case that through this process several senses will be created. But maybe not. You don’t fully use your eyes and ears now. You have very limited contact with your senses, but apart from them you don’t exist. It’s very nice that you think you are observing, tasting, and so forth, but do you realize that there’s no universe arising apart from your own mind?

Going back to these two books, we could perhaps make an analogy between the taking apart of a machine and the taking apart of the ego. Literally, you may be able to control matter if you could take it apart with your mind. Matter could be changed, transmuted into something quite different. Just as you could make a Chianti wine bottle into a lamp shade, you can turn any manifestation into something quite different. To do this you have to get to questions like: “How does sound influence matter?”

Putting things together is Creative Yoga, literally. But to get to that stage it is necessary to work from the limits. When you know the limits you can move to the unlimited. And then to limits again, to where once again mountains are mountains and streams are streams. You may come to know the range of your senses, your limits, and then transcend them. Then you can work with limits once more. When you arrive at that point of development, you can do weird little things; create new molecules. You can bind and open and close ideas. All sorts of things can be done when you know dharma. Carry on.