Abhidhamma Sixth Lecture


The Abhidhamma

by Ven. Namgyal Rinpoche
Edited by Cecilie Kwiat

Introduction to the Abhidhamma
August – September 1977
6th of 16 Lectures

There is a commentary on the Dhamma-Sangani entitled the Atthasalini which tells the story of the Buddha first giving the Abhidhamma teachings in the Tavatimsa heaven – the realm where his mother had taken rebirth. The book tells how this took place during a rain retreat season, a period of time when the order did not “wander for the benefit of the many” but stayed in one place. Each year, for the three months of the rains, the sangha restricted their movement through the countryside, allowing new crops to become established. During one of these retreat times, the Buddha visited this heavenly realm to give these teachings and would return to this plane to nourish his body. As well as attending to his physical needs he would pass the teaching on to Sariputra.

The Atthasalini also describes the profound unfoldment of consciousness experienced by the Buddha after his enlightenment. It states that, having moved a short distance north-west of the Bodhi Tree, he entered into a Celestial Mansion (ratanaghara – sometimes translated as ‘jewelled house’) and turned his mind to contemplation of the dharma as it is expounded in the Abhidhamma.

The text says that when “…he began to contemplate the twenty-four universal conditional relations of root, object, and so on, his omniscience certainly found its opportunity therein. … Rays of six colours – indigo, golden, red, white, tawny, and dazzling – issued from the Teacher’s body as he was contemplating the subtle and abstruse Dhamma by his omniscience which had found such opportunity.”

When the Buddha was contemplating the material covered by the first six books of the Abhidhamma Pitaka his body did not radiate these six colours, but when he turned to the subject of conditional relations covered in the Patthana, his aura extended fully.

In formal studies one would likely begin with the Abhidhammattha Sangaha and – after having examined that – then move to the Atthasalini. When a reasonable orientation has been established through exposure to these two, one would then turn to the Dhamma-Sangani itself. After receiving ordination into some orders of Buddhism, novices are asked to memorize three things: the rules of the order or modes of behaviour enumerated in the Vinaya Pitaka, then something from the Sutta Pitaka (perhaps the Dhammapada, which is written in easily memorized verses) and then – before receiving higher ordination – you would memorize the Abhidhammattha Sangaha. Having completed these three assignments, you might further your studies by learning the bead game which may have entailed being sent from one temple to another.

In some temples, the floors are divided into small squares with beads or pebbles set on them. Students move through and around these pebbles, learning their positions on the grid. The first lesson to master is to see how the beads – which represent the cetasikas – group themselves. Once you become familiar with that process, you would move to the Atthasalini and then to the Dhamma-Sangani. Eventually you would get to the Patthana. This is taught quite differently when you are instructed by masters. The pebbles are reduced to dots, and you see these as pulsations, movements – dissolvings of groupings. When these are analyzed very accurately, eventually you can sense the movements of mind.

In the Western Mystery tradition, there are two components which have a similar feeling to this Buddhist exploration of movements of mind. One is the game of chess, and the other is the enactment of mystery plays. The chequerboard is used in both of these. In some mystery initiations, masked figures are moved through black and white squares to personify line-ups of principles and emotions. Something similar is happening with the language employed in the Abhidhammattha Sangaha. The language is entirely constructed of beads – representing seed syllables – which have many meanings behind them.

Take for example the word ‘kusala’, which is usually translated as ‘wholesome’. ‘Ku’ plus ‘sala’: a bird cooing in a room. ‘Ku’ is very close to the syllable ‘ka’, which means ‘spirit’ in some languages. To me, the meaning of the word has more to do with a contented space or room, but it is generally employed as ‘wholesome’, which is a meaning I don’t particularly associate with it. The opposite of this is ‘akusala’ – usually translated as ‘unwholesome’, but it is more indicative of a break in a good space, a disruption. This is a feeling. ‘Sa’, by the way, is dissolution, and the seed syllable ‘la’ when repeated (lalala) produces a sense of joy. ‘Ku’ is ‘flight’; ‘ka’, birds flown to their roosts. So each word is a seeding in one’s being. Don’t try to get the right translation; you need to get a feeling for the vibration produced by any word.

Words invoke a mind space. In Pali an ‘a’ or ‘an’ is placed in front of a word to denote that the space indicated by that word is broken. This is somewhat like the use of ‘un’ in English. For example, in the Dhamma-Sangani there are various lists: greed, hatred, delusion, non-greed, non-hatred, non-delusion. ‘Greed’ in Pali is ‘lobha’ but non-greed is not quite the feeling of alobha; it isn’t simply pointing to the absence of greed, it is indicating that greed has been broken. The ‘a’ is changing the space. So, too, with ‘dosa’ or hatred, and ‘adosa’. The indication is that there is some wisdom at work breaking up lobha, dosa, and moha. There is a very positive event occurring; non-avarice is making a flow. So to indicate that, we have to have ‘un’; we have to have something so we come to ‘un’.

In the study of consciousness and its concomitants, or citta and cetasika, as the subject matter progresses into finer and finer detail, phrases like ‘karmically wholesome’ appear. The feeling indicated by that is the sense of a good space; something roomy. Introducing boundaries into that space would make it into the opposite; ‘akusala kamma’ or a not wholesome space. Kamma, or karma in Sanskrit, doesn’t mean anything other than action. ‘Kar’ is ‘movement’; similar to the ‘char’ syllable in ‘acariya’, which translates as ‘chariot’ – that which takes one to a higher plane. So ‘kar’ is ‘activity’, and ‘ma’ is the giving, mothering principle. Karma, then, would mean activity that mothers or unfolds you. It can be kusala or akusala; a good or bad mothering. ‘Kusala karma’ indicates that when you are involved in roominess rather than in setting boundaries, the unfoldment is in accord with the principle of liberation. You are mothered by the principles of liberation, supported in the matrix of things. You have a breathing space. Then kusala can arise conjoined with discernment.

In Tibetan meditation practices, the seed syllable HRIH is used for coming into being and standing. SHUR is used for dissolving. Before something can come into being there must be dissolution: SHUR HRIH. Try saying it several times: HRIH HRIH – going out with the breath. SHUR is letting go; becoming heavy in a way. When one is visualizing moving from the heart to a space platform above the head, moving along the central channel out the top of the head to rest above the crown, this HRIH syllable can be used. The sound and tone of the seed syllables reflect the type of movement they employ.

So if you take the word ‘kusala’ and break it into seed syllables – KU SA LA A KU SA LA KAR MA, you will likely experience the feeling of their energy. The syllable ‘kar’ is related to causal reference – the definitive mind. ‘Ra’ is related to ‘ram’ – ‘fire’. Putting them together gives us ‘karma’. This is how the word came into being; from seed syllables. Each word is, in a way, a chord composed of various notes. It has an overall feeling and when it is pronounced meaningfully, sequences of movement occur. The idea behind studying the Dhamma-Sangani is to become more and more refined or sensitive to vibration, so it is necessary to get a feel for the effect of words. To do this will require you to make words and language more flowing, less static.

Most of the discourses given by the Buddha were in the language used by lay people, but the language used in the Abhidhamma is more formal; somewhat like Latin as compared to English. Each word has a meaning and that meaning is not necessarily the same as when the identical word is employed in the Sutta Pitika. Reciting the Abhidhammattha Sangaha in a meditative way is a full experience, quite beyond mere intellectual understanding. When chanted in this way, there can be an experience of coding, colours, forms, shapes, and sounds flowing through the being. So it is important to take key words and dissect them into syllables which you then repeat; rolling them on the tongue. Movements of the vocal chords can trigger unusual states of mind.

Each syllable in the Abhidhammattha Sangaha can be a meditative experience, capable of bringing about a particular state of mind. Even phrases like “thus it is” can bring profound results. By reciting this text in an aware state of mind, a flowing inner symphony of mental continuum will progress you very rapidly.

I will try to give you the physical feeling for this. Work with the words until you get a sense of flow, which is in fact a sequence of experiences of the seed syllables. This is closely related to meditations on the cakras, which are especially used in Tibetan practices. CAK RAM – CAK KAKARAM: that’s the sound of the bleeding heart opening and pouring drops of blood; the Guru Rinpoche initiation.

In ancient times there was the description ‘bahusutta’ – ‘well heard’. This was an indication that someone had received the transmission of wisdom by sound. There is a level of oral transmission where the consciousness is actually humming and rumming. The purpose of this study of words is not merely to employ one’s intellect by drawing up lists, although that’s where to begin. Then you go on from that to moving beads around: do you want a big bead or a small bead? They can be as large as mountains or as small as mustard seeds. You need to see the mind with the mind if you want to see what is actually occurring.

STUDENT: Is the English language formed from seed syllables in the same way as the language in the Abhidhamma?

TEACHER: One could say that – in terms of how it is used today – the English language is dead, because it is so fixed in subject orientation. In Thai, for example, there are many ways to express the concept of an I, because ‘I’ is not static; it refers to a changing being. When a Thai student is speaking to a teacher, the word for the being who is in that student-teacher dialogue is different than the word used in, say, a child-parent relationship, and there is yet another word to indicate the relationship between friends. This indicates the different types of energy exchanged in each of these relationships. I am moulded by you. The ‘I’ is a sequence of different relationships. But those who generally speak English as their native tongue go through life with one concept of an ‘I’, regardless of the dynamic of relationship – which is, in fact, erroneous.

There are many different ways in which language can be employed to move the mind through an orderly progression. In a way, words are shapes. Freemasons use meditation on geometric shapes to program beings to move rapidly through different mind states, although in that discipline the idea of varying the order or sequence hasn’t particularly been raised. If one employed shapes in a set sequence, it would result in new understanding, new form, and new being. This is a very interesting topic.

How many rupas are in a hydrogen atom? How many forms? There is not one shape; there is a permutation of form. It is stupa-fying! A stupa is shaped to produce a particular state of mind just by the observer meditating on the sequence of geometries. If you start at the base and mentally incorporate each shape rapidly to the top, there you enter the comet state; you go right up. Then things get more involved, because matter is held in shapes or forms: circles versus triangles versus squares. If you were to attempt to computerize and compact those different shapes, you’d get very strange lines indeed. Perhaps you’d get straight lines changing into wide undulating lines.

The human figure is a computation of so many circles, triangles, bowl-shaped crescents and so forth. The same thing could be said of sound. Simply through the repetition of a word such as ‘kusala’, you can be lead to the experience. This is particularly so when the word is said with awareness and in a wholesome state of consciousness.

STUDENT: How does the mind state relate to the cetasikas?

TEACHER: Cetasikas are the key, and citta is the chord. The notes can be taken from very different symphonies. You don’t have a symphony written in one key; rather the mind plays one key at a time but with chords taken from different symphonies. The inner sound of the instruments also influences the vibration. The notation of the various notes is a series of bindus.

You know that music is written in arrows, wings, and bindus don’t you? And that there are five lines – for the five senses, or perhaps the five main cakras. When Tibetan music is written, it is done in a script called deva nagari; recorded radiant emanations and contractions; outgoing and incoming radiance. Imagine trumpeting sequences soaring and fading, and then transpose a visual concept of rainbow serpents dancing in space into that composition. Try that with OM MANI PADME HUM.

What is the correct way to do mantra? If you have it down in terms of time, that’s a beginning. But how far have you progressed in space? You could do virtually anything, if only you knew what you were doing!

There are millions of permutations of mantra. Beings, however, are anabhidhamma. They ask me: “Will you tell me the right way?” So I answer: “All ways are right.” If they aren’t right, at least they are an interesting exploration – which is all right! Talking in a new language opens to quite a different mind space. ‘Kusala’ becomes ‘sala’; the waiting room. So, enter the waiting room where you will explore finer and finer detail and eventually reveal what is occurring.