Abhidhamma Sixteenth Lecture


The Abhidhamma

by Ven. Namgyal Rinpoche
Edited by Cecilie Kwiat

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


In the light of what we’ve been studying, I’d like to refer back to the state of absorption. The first jhana arises accompanied by vitakka; a very focussed tacking on or boring into the object of meditation. Vicara, the second component of jhana, indicates movement: ‘vi’ + ‘cara’ – a moving chariot. It involves moving the mind continuously to the meditation object. The first of these is usually translated as ‘initial application’, and the second as ‘sustained application’. Also present in first jhana are samadhi, piti, and sukha or joy. The experience of piti ranges from the smallest experience of bodily energy right through to one’s whole body being suffused with bliss. The peak of that is sukha; joy.

First one establishes vitakka, tacking onto the object, and then there is a scanning process – vicara. So what is the difference between these two, between initial application where one zeros in on an object and sustained application where there is on-going scanning of that object? Here we come to the Abhidhamma term ‘parikamma’, which implies that there is work to do to get back to higher union. The work undertaken to attain absorption is vicara; continuously moving the mind to union with the meditation object.

In a way, one could define entropy as a force moving to union. From that point of view, it’s a unionizing universe, trying to find its origin. If this is the progression that is naturally occurring, all separateness is working toward union. You are simply inhabitants dwelling in the times of eternity. One shouldn’t speak of time but rather of times. Do you see that this is so? There is no such thing as time; there are only measurements of the immeasurable. If there is a time, it is eternity.

In another way, one might say that, through entropy and having gone through the big bang, the universe is not in a state of question. It is simply codings. The next universe to come into being may be on the other side; something like O + – O – + O. Or perhaps the shape of the universe – if one were to symbolize it – approximates a siva/lingum; an open-ended universe with creation forming the walls of space.

Unending creation is always present, although that doesn’t imply a constant-state universe. Something that disappears here appears there; whatever is withdrawn from this universe arises in an anti-universe. When something occurs here, another universe is emptying. This is you O + – and this is I – + O . Together they are O + – O – + O. Your entropy is someone else’s creation. Entropy is more than a principle of run-down; it’s an occurrence of emptying – Nirvana-ing. We are all emptyings of space.

In mysticism the principle of God is referred to as ‘The Holy Other’. Leaving out timing and spacing, with that definition of Holy Other, God is a reference to the anti-mind or the diametric opposite. A patterned universe, because it lacks other, is Maya. The mind-movement of ‘vi’ is the universe. ‘Vi’ means ‘polar direction’, which is implied by the walls of space in the analogy of a siva/lingum. We can speak of time as the winds of eternity; anything that vibrates can be understood as time.

Time really doesn’t exist in the way you understand it: spacings exist. For you to be present, spacings exist – not space. Sunyata is. You are the emptyings of space, of sunyata – or even the emptyings of the emptyings of space. (This is what the ancients referred to as ‘ether’. The whole ground of being was called ether.) Nothing moves through space; space itself divides/forms very rapidly.

There is a Zen koan concerning this realization: “What is lacking?” There is no object, time, or space; there is a timing realization that moves through spaces. When one experiences this dharma in insight meditation, a different motif of transport and transformation opens. The universe is continuously empting and forming. Black holes are inevitable. Who is to say that the other is not a white hole, and you are a black hole?

When you come to understand the shape and matter of the universe, it will not be thought of so much as bubbles; it is more like caving, bowing, vortexing and spiralling. I think the first level of initiation in wongkur is the vase initiation because it reflects back on the continuous play between forming and emptying. A crystal vase recalls dim memories of mysterious remnants of a profound teaching. The long neck of the vase is a funnel adorned with streamers, coloured ribbons – auric vibrations. The vase symbolizes the creative universe; the outpourings of creation. The five groups of existence are five waterspouts all playing together in one ocean. They are of one nature.

Now let’s return to our study. Today we will investigate the meaning of ‘ayatana’, the second division of the Vibhanga.

The twelve ayatana are usually called the twelve bases. ‘Aya’ means ‘arrival’, ‘comings’, ‘income’, ‘revenue’, ‘profit’, ‘gain’, and sometimes ‘formula’. It could be an augmenting formula – a creative formula ‘with ‘coming’ and ‘arrival’ as background ideas. ‘Aya’ basically means to come near. ‘Ayatigavan’ is somewhat like waiting until the cows come home. ‘A’ is ‘space’; ‘opening’. ‘Ayatana’ refers to the sense doors and organs throughout the universe. ‘Ya’ is ‘you’; implying relationship. Relative spacings or openings provide incoming data and giving. So ‘ayatana’ is ‘relative-opening-incoming-data-gain’. ‘Ta’ is related to ‘tam’, which means ‘decoration’. ‘Ta’ is ‘tail’, ‘breast’, ‘womb’, and sometimes ‘jewel’. ‘Tamta’ is ‘to pour out’, ‘to move’.

So we have the idea of some kind of opening, plus income, plus decoration, plus outpouring or giving. ‘Na’ is a particle which implies a negation of previous statements. When you are poured out, you lose what was before – total loss. A YA TA NA. All the organs of sense can be considered decorations; women specializations.

Because there is intake the consciousness builds up organs. Associated with ‘ta’ is the word ‘tara’, which has links to ‘breast’, ‘womb’, ‘feeding’, ‘build-up’, and ‘tail of the jackal’ – trailing your happenings behind you; something that devours and feeds the happenings behind you. Here we again have an understanding of you spacing. ‘Ta’ is an affirmation, even in English: ‘ta ta’ – an affirmative outpouring. ‘Na’ closes off the word, ends the feeding. When there is a new spacing, there is a new enclosure – a new incorporation. So, there is a new you and a new I. Notice that the letter ‘u’ is shaped like a bowl, and ‘I’ is upright. When you experience the transcendent, it will probably shape like an upright ‘I’ within the ‘U’. Then you will have your ‘I’ right in there!

The idea of decoration shows how the senses are an asset of formation. Beings are able to build organs to attract and also to work specifically for protective purposes. In some way, ayatana is the result of intake. Through the process of incorporation, an organ gradually develops which allows control of intake. However, senses could be reduced and life would still go on, so in a way they are almost superfluous. We could continue to exist with limited sense capacity, but awareness of life would become very stilted. By the same token, were you to develop more subtle sensing, awareness of life would increase tremendously. It is worthwhile to explore how to channel data through central headquarters in more refined ways. That would make you the ‘a’ of ‘ayatana’ – ‘a’ both as ‘space’ and as ‘affirmation’.

‘Tan’ – with a dot under the ‘n’ – when used as a seed syllable means ‘to cut off’. The Tara mantra is for cutting off things like fear and illness. Associated words have the meaning of ‘rushing along’, so the idea of awareness of what is rushing along is introduced. The ayatana are for extracting specific data from the rushing stream. There are philosophical connotations of sensing in the word itself. Exploration of this dharma should involve questioning what one’s senses are on about, and why. Though ayatana are of the same nature as the rest of one’s physical form, they further extend the build-up of life. They are a decoration that promotes a further cross-referencing of the intuitive function.

‘Ayatana’ has some relationship to another word – ‘alaya’ – which originally meant ‘roosting place’, ‘hovering place’, ‘perching’, ‘housing’, ‘hanging’, and ‘clinging’. One of the characteristics of ayatana is that it can provide the data for the nasty habit of clinging. Because of the nature of specialization there is selection, definition, from which clinging can arise. So clinging can definitely leave you hanging on in a negative way. But the original meaning was more to do with a roosting place; with perching, hovering, and settling. Once you have an organ, it settles down to do certain things. In a way, it is stagnant – and hence comes the third meaning: ‘pretence’. So we have three meanings: roosting place, hanging on, and pretence.

One can think of an organ as something that specializes, and because of that selectivity ultimately there is pretence. An eye doesn’t see the full image of a book; it only operates on certain information, such as light and dark and so forth. This same understanding can be extended to how all the five sense doors function. Your ears are the roosting place of hearing. Emotional clinging is centred in the sense base; that’s their nature. Ears are clinging to hearing, to pretence – a magical show. Each of the sense doors are caught up in illusion because they specialize.

Did you know that the name ‘Earth’ is said to have come from the sound made by this planet? Ancient mythologies say that the shape of an ear is dependent on the sound of the environment and by listening to this environment – listening in depth to the listening – the sound ‘urrr’ will be heard. In Buddhist practice of mantra, the recitation may start with an outer sounding but it should gradually sink into an inner experience. Mantra will move from intellectual discernment to a deeper level where it interacts with the depth sounding of one’s nervous system. Using mantra to alter the vibration of your puthujjana existence can be very worthwhile. Don’t try to understand mantra; feel it. All sounds are soundless, in a sense. It could be that there is only one mind, one big no-thing that incorporates all taste, smell, touch, sound. It could be that there is one mind with all these roosting places so now there is a universal hearing of all words; one mind with all these specialized clingings.

STUDENT: Do words have cardinal, fixed, and mutable phases?

TEACHER: Words are certainly very mutable. They also set off an inner working; the fixed statement – which is not a negation – and after having made the statement, where is it going?

The syllable ‘la’ is familiar to some of you as the seed syllable ‘LAM’. The inner meaning of ‘la’ is simply ‘to cut off’. ‘Lak’ is ‘to lick’, ‘taste’, ‘take in’, ‘intake’, ‘fruition’, and ‘an ear of corn’. Eventually it is part of the word ‘lava’; a powerful flow. ‘La’ also formed the basis for the word ‘laksh’, which was the name for money. ‘Laksh’ is related to ‘luck’, ‘sign’, ‘to get decoration’, ‘unfold’, ‘finer atonement’, ‘mark’, ‘sign’, ‘character’, ‘to aim at’, and ‘target’. So I have a question for you: when you make the sound ‘la’, how does it feel to your being?

The text talks about there being 12 bases but the phrase ‘ayatana-vibhanga’ gives no mention to a number, which leaves it wide open. It could be that there are vast numbers of ayatana-vibhanga; that to realize the full nature of the decorative refinements or adornments we call the senses you must go beyond 12. In a way, the ayatana are the opposite of the unified field theory that Einstein spent so much time searching for. When a being develops an organ for decoration, pretence, and opening, to highlight these qualities you darken others. So maya – the great illusion – exists throughout the sensing universe.

Wherever there is massing, in principle there is – undeveloped and in plasmic form – the impression of the senses. Taking this to be so, then one can raise the question macrocosmically: Do planets eat, drink, and make merry? Do they decorate; develop eyes? They would not have eyes or ears as we have, but do planets have the capacity to receive and sort incoming data? Does the earth have an embryonic surround? Perhaps that function is served by the atmosphere. It well may be that the sense of smell – and some way of transmitting information received by that – can be found universally. A universal truth is referred to as a paramattha in Pali. ‘Paramattha’ means ‘absolute’ or ‘ultimate’.

We live in a dual universe – relative and absolute – and one part is the ground of being. If you find a germ of reality in this universe of experience, be prepared to extend that principle beyond your immediate sphere; see if you may be able to find evidence that it exists throughout the universe. Everything is a kind of wave length, so – if moths can pick up smells from ten miles away – is the earth pouring out molecules that some other dog’s body far away is picking up and interacting with? Perhaps flowers are recording radio messages from the Pleiades. Do planets have egos and do they chat over the back fence? Be willing to raise questions that haven’t previously been asked.

Phenomena don’t come from nowhere. Almost all creatures on this earth have eyes, although some – through the process of evolution – have lost that sense because they inhabit caves without light so they have no use for visual sight. They develop other ways of sensing. Wherever there is need, one finds specialized sense organs: pretending for food, for examination – for whatever reason. Desire leads to pretence, which leads to ability. An organism may find more than one way to develop a particular sense, perhaps by using different wave lengths. From this one should understand that there may be thousands of ayatana.

Maybe each cell of your body has the capacity to develop an organ for sensing. Is that any more improbable than the fact that you are here, than the story that is happening to you? How did you get here in the first place? How did life even arise? We really do live in the best of all possible worlds – or perhaps the best of all probable worlds. Perhaps your purpose here is to raise dust with the chariot of your progression.

The third division of Vibhanga is dedicated to the study of dhatu. The word ‘dhatu’ means ‘layer’ or ‘stratum’. Sometimes ‘dhatu’ is used in reference to the five organs of sense. The weaving, compacting relationship of sensing eventually creates layers. Any happening whatsoever is a kind of layering. I particularly like the description of ‘dhatu’ as ‘cellular lining’ as a basis for something working. From its core, the earth is composed of various layers, one of which supports vegetation. This planet has developed finer and finer layerings of the four dhatu or elements, which extend into the atmosphere.

We, like the earth, are layered walls of intestines and so forth; finer and finer layers, each with movements – a layered receptacle of atonement. An organ is in the form of a spiral, which is a kind of layering. All sensing is performed by layers of tissue, so we speak of the ear dhatu, eye dhatu, and so forth.

‘Dha’ is ‘putting’, ‘placing’, ‘bestowing’, ‘having’, ‘causing,’ and various words along the same line. ‘Dhaka’ is ‘a receptacle’, ‘a bowl for food’. ‘Dhata’ is ‘an ingredient’. ‘Dhatu’ is sometimes used on its own to mean organ. There is not necessarily a distinction made between the ear and sound because sound has built the ear. As an ear receives finer sound, it develops the ability to hear in a more refined way, so the line between the two is blurred. Sensing is a dynamic, an overall happening of the universe. With ‘dha’ – long ‘a’ – one has the idea of direction; ‘fixing the mind’, ‘focus’, ‘scan’, ‘location’, ‘to put’, ‘to place’, and ‘to set’. So this brings in the ability to focus an organ on this instead of that, rather like focussing a ship’s radar to read data at different distances. The idea behind ‘dhatu’ is not fixity of material but fixity of attention, of focus.

When used as ‘sarira dhatu’, it refers to the relics that remain after cremation of a body – the left-over essence particularly of a Buddha’s body. In a slower way, your organs do this; they extract and fix or isolate things. They may very well move a body through feverish fire to coalesce; create relics. The cells of your body make summations to fix and extract essential data.

Other meanings are: ‘to take pleasure and delight in discovery’, ‘focus’, ‘scan’, ‘delight’. You can see how limiting it would be to accept the translation of this word as just ‘element’. The main idea is really ‘data’, combined with producing a specialized organ. Defining ‘dhatu’ simply as the four major elements is not broad enough to encompass all the nuances. Maybe the occupation of space, cohesion, temperature, and vibration of the mysterious substance has all this happening – an atom with a volcano shimmering, occupying space, and so forth – but in the process of all this there is also the attempt to fix things. Dhatu has its own stability, and then it tries to fix things. There is an ordering mechanism, a movement to create order out of chaos.

The whole idea behind ‘dhatu’ involves order. The whole thrust of creation is to fix things – anti-entropy. With this word there is the idea of a share/exchange of information but above all it signifies a movement to fit, place, put in order, set, and sometimes the layering of stock. ‘Dhatu’ is near to the foundation for the word ‘dharma’ so again there is the idea of order, but ‘dhatu’ – with a long ‘a’ – is going somewhere and ‘dharma’ is fixed; it is law. The law of gravity is a dharma, but the factors or effects of that law would be dhatu. And they are orderly. You might miss this subtlety when the translation of the word is simply ‘element’.

‘Tu’ is ‘to have authority’, ‘to be strong’, ‘certainty’. ‘Tu’ is never found at the beginning of a sentence; it is at the end. It is associated with very masculine types of words: tuk – boy, tuka – man, tukari – horse. These are authoritative words, definitive statements. The whole idea of incoming data is to get to dhatu; order. And the whole point of analysis is to obtain a double set of understandings; one for your own being and one for out there, for utilization. So dhatu should be really applied to major sources of data. The inner meaning brings one to the naga receptacle. It also indicates ‘to make firm’; to get vision, to get view. The first enlightenment is through primary manifestation of dhatu.

English is an extension of Pali, so why can’t Pali be an extension of English? English has taken words from everywhere and incorporated them into our modern language. We use the word for a Bengali hut and happily move into a suburban bungalow. So Pali is not really so foreign a language as one might at first think. Use the Pali, study it until you get a feel for it as a dynamic rather than as static. ‘Dhatu’ is an open-ended fixity: it functions to open and then to fix again.

So now we have covered the three major subject matters: khanda, ayatana, and dhatu. These three comprise the bulk of the Abhidhamma. If you don’t develop some understanding of the meanings of these, how will you grasp the meaning of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path? Your path comes from nowhere and goes nowhere, and you won’t understand it unless you understand khanda, ayatana, and dhatu. There is no ‘you’ apart from the happening of these three. What is thought of as ‘you’ is an ever-increasing infinity of these three interrelating.

Maybe tomorrow we will talk about sunyata. It’s all very simple. I have drawn it on the board for you. O + – O – + O The central O is sunyata. Are you quite sure that the central one is the middle one? Are they on a ring, going round and round? The three O’s are the three loka: past, present, and future.

Did you know that teachers are yawning mouths of intake, and the more you give to them the more they will spit out? Give everything: time, space, effort, money.

Photo of Dancing Namgyal blowing the thigh-bone trumpet – thangka from the Namgyal Shrine at Sakya Thubten Namgyal Ling used by permission from www.namgyal.ca archive.