Chapter 1: The Abhidhamma Philosophy: Its Estimation in the Past, Its Value for the Present
The High Esteem for the Abhidhamma in Buddhist Tradition
The Abhidhamma Pitaka, or the Philosophical Collection, forms the third great section of the Buddhist Pali Canon (Tipitaka). In its most characteristic parts it is a system of classifications, analytical enumerations, and definitions, with no discursive treatment of the subject matter. In particular its two most important books, the Dhammasangani and the Patthana, have the appearance of huge collections of systematically arranged tabulations, accompanied by definitions of the terms used in the tables. This, one would expect, is a type of literature scarcely likely to gain much popular appreciation. Yet the fact remains that the Abhidhamma has always been highly esteemed and even venerated in the countries of Theravada Buddhism.
Two examples taken from the chronicles of Sri Lanka illustrate this high regard for the Abhidhamma. In the tenth century C.E., on the order of King Kassapa V, the whole Abhidhamma Pitaka was inscribed on gold plates, and the first of these books, the Dhammasangani, was set with jewels. When the work was completed, the precious manuscripts were taken in a huge procession to a beautiful monastery and deposited there. Another king of Lanka, Vijayabahu (eleventh century), used to study the Dhammasangani in the early morning before he took up his royal duties, and he prepared a translation of it into Sinhala, which however has not been preserved.
What were the reasons for such an extraordinary esteem for material that appears at first glance to consist of no more than dry and unattractive textbooks? And what actual importance do the two basic works of the Abhidhamma in particular, the Dhammasangani and the Patthana, still have today? These are the questions that we shall attempt to answer here.
In considering the reasons for this high esteem and regard for the Abhidhamma, we may leave aside any manifestation of faith, more or less unquestioning, that evokes in the devotee a certain awe owing to the very abstruseness and bulk of these books. That apart, we may find a first explanation in the immediate impression on susceptible minds that they are faced here by a gigantic edifice of penetrative insight, which in its foundations and its layout cannot well be ascribed to a lesser mind than that of a Buddha; and this first impression will find growing confirmation in the gradual process of comprehending these teachings.
According to the Theravada tradition the Abhidhamma is the domain proper of the Buddhas (buddhavisaya), and its initial conception in the Master's mind (manasa desana) is traced to the time immediately after the Great Enlightenment. It was in the fourth of the seven weeks spent by the Master in the vicinity of the Bodhi Tree that the Abhidhamma was conceived. These seven days were called by the teachers of old "the Week of the House of Gems" (ratanaghara-sattaha). "The House of Gems" is indeed a very befitting expression for the crystal-clear edifice of Abhidhamma thought in which the Buddha dwelt during that period.
The Abhidhamma as System and Method
Those who have an eye for the ingenious and the significant in the architecture of great edifices of thought will probably be impressed first by the Abhidhamma's structural qualities, its wide compass, its inner consistency, and its far-reaching implications. The Abhidhamma offers an impressive systematization of the whole of reality as far as it is of concern to the final goal of the Buddha's teaching--liberation from craving and suffering; for it deals with actuality from an exclusively ethical and psychological viewpoint and with a definite practical purpose.
A strikingly impressive feature of the Abhidhamma is its analysis of the entire realm of consciousness. The Abhidhamma is the first historical attempt to map the possibilities of the human mind in a thorough and realistic way, without admixture of metaphysics and mythology. This system provides a method by which the enormous welter of facts included or implied in it can be subordinated to, and be utilized by, the liberating function of knowledge, which in the Buddha's teaching is the essential task and the greatest value of true understanding. This organizing and mustering of knowledge for such a purpose cannot fail to appeal to the practical thinker.
The Abhidhamma may also be regarded as a systematization of the doctrines contained, or implicit, in the Sutta Pitaka, the Collection of Discourses. It formulates these doctrines in strictly philosophical (paramattha) or truly realistic (yathabhuta) language that as far as possible employs terms descriptive of functions and processes without any of the conventional (vohara) and unrealistic concepts that assume a personality, an agent (as different from the act), a soul, or a substance.
These remarks about the systematizing import of the Abhidhamma may perhaps create the impression in the reader that the Abhidhamma is no more than "a mere method with only a formalistic function." Leaving aside the fact that this is not so, as we shall see later, let us first quote, against this somewhat belittling attitude, a word of Friedrich Nietzsche, himself certainly no friend of rigid systematization: "Scientific spirit rests upon insight into the method."
For the preeminently practical needs of the Buddhist the Abhidhamma fulfills the requirements stated by Bertrand Russell: "A complete description of the existing world would require not only a catalogue of the things, but also a mention of all their qualities and relations." A systematic "catalogue of things" together with their qualities, or better "functions," is given in the first book of the Abhidhamma, the Dhammasangani, a title that could well be rendered "A Catalogue (or Compendium) of Things"; and the relations, or the conditionality, of these things are treated in the Patthana.
Some who consider themselves "strong-minded" have called systems "a refuge of feeble minds." While it must be admitted that the conceptual labels supplied by systems (including the Abhidhamma) have often been misused as a surrogate for correct comprehension of reality, this does not mean that the fault lies in systematic thought itself. The fault lies, rather, in the attitude with which a system is developed and the use to which it is put. If systematic thought is cautiously and critically applied, it can fulfill a valuable function, providing "weapons of defense" against the overwhelming assault of innumerable internal and external impressions on the human mind. This unceasing influx of impressions, by sheer weight of number and diversity alone, can be either overpowering and fascinating or else confusing, intimidating, distracting, even dissolving. The only means by which the human mind can assimilate this vast world of plurality (papanca), at least partly, is with the aid of systematic and methodical thought. But systems may also be "aggressive weapons" when wielded by a mind that through its power of understanding tries to control and master the numerous experiences, actions, and reactions occurring in our inner and outer world, subordinating them to its own purposes.
The Abhidhamma system, however, is not concerned with an artificial, abstract world of "objects in themselves." Insofar as it deals with external facts at all, the respective concepts relate those "external facts" to the bondage or liberation of the human mind; or they are terms auxiliary to the tasks of the understanding and mental training connected with the work of liberation.
The basically dynamic character of the Abhidhamma system, and of the concepts it employs, goes far in preventing both rigidity and any artificial simplification of a complex and ever-changing world--the faults that those inimical to them find in all "systems." System and method bring order, coherence, and meaning into what often appears to be a world of isolated facts, which becomes amenable to our purposes only by a methodical approach. This holds true for the system of the Abhidhamma, too, in regard to the highest purpose: mind's liberation from ignorance and suffering.