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Note: This is an extract from ‘Introduction to the Buddhist Scriptures’ due to be published in April 2019

Abhidhamma in the Scriptures

We read in the “Kindred Sayings” (Saḷāyatana Vagga, Kindred Sayings about Feeling, Book I, § 7, Sickness):

Once the Exalted One was staying near Vesālī, in Great Grove, at the Hall of the Peaked Gable.

Then the Exalted One at eventide rising from his solitude went to visit the sick-ward, and on reaching it sat down on a seat made ready. So seated the Exalted One addressed the monks, saying:—

``Monks, a monk should meet his end collected and composed 1. This is our instruction to you. And how, monks, is one collected?

Herein, monks, a monk dwells, contemplating the body in the body… feeling in the feeling… consciousness in consciousness… dhamma in dhamma, ardent, composed and thoughtful, having put away in this world the dejection arising from craving. Thus, monks, is a monk collected.

And how, monks, is a monk composed?

Herein, monks, in his going forth and in his returning a monk acts composedly. In looking in front and looking behind, he acts composedly. In bending or relaxing (his limbs) he acts composedly. In wearing his robe and bearing outer robe and bowl, in eating, drinking, chewing, and tasting he acts composedly. In easing himself, in going, standing, sitting, sleeping, waking, in speaking and keeping silence he acts composedly. Thus, monks, is a monk composed.

Monks, a monk should meet his end collected and composed. This is our instruction to you.

Now, monks, as that monk dwells collected, composed, earnest, ardent, strenuous, there arises in him feeling that is pleasant, and he thus understands: ‘There is arisen in me this pleasant feeling. Now that is owing to something, not without cause. Owing to what? Owing to this same body. Now this body is impermanent, compounded, arisen owing to something. It is owing to this impermanent body, which has so arisen, that pleasant feeling has arisen as a consequence, and how can that be permanent?’

Thus he dwells contemplating impermanence in body and pleasant feeling, he dwells contemplating their transience, their waning, their ceasing, the giving of them up. As he thus dwells contemplating impermanence in body and pleasant feeling, contemplating their transience… the lurking tendency to lust for body and pleasant feeling is abandoned.

So also as regards painful feeling… the lurking tendency to repugnance for body and painful feeling is abandoned.

So also as regards neutral feeling… the lurking tendency to ignorance of body and neutral feeling is abandoned.

If he feels a pleasant feeling he understands: ‘That is impermanent, I do not cling to it. It has no lure for me.’ If he feels a painful feeling he understands likewise. So also if he feels a neutral feeling.

If he feels a pleasant feeling, he feels it as released from bondage to it.

So also, if he feels a painful feeling and a neutral feeling, he feels it as one released from bondage to it.

When he feels a feeling that his bodily endurance has reached its limit, he knows that he so feels. When he feels a feeling that life has reached its limit, he knows that he so feels. He understands: When body breaks up, after life is used up, all my experiences in this world will lose their lure and grow cold.

Just as, monks, because of oil and because of a wick a lamp keeps burning, but, when oil and wick are used up, the lamp would go out because it is not fed. Even so, monks, a monk, when he feels a feeling that his bodily endurance has reached its limit, that his life has reached its limit, when he feels a feeling that, when body breaks up, after life is used up, all his experience in this world will lose its lure and grow cold,- he knows that he so feels.”

This sutta contains the essence of the Buddha’s teaching: the development of satipatthāna, right understanding of mental phenomena and physical phenomena, which leads to the eradication of all defilements. Just as a lamp will go out when oil and wick are used up the person who has eradicated defilements will not be reborn.

The Buddha taught about the realities which can be directly experienced in daily life when they appear, such as seeing, hearing, feeling, hardness or sound. All these phenomena are real in the absolute or ultimate sense. Absolute or ultimate truth is different from conventional truth 2. If one has never heard of the Buddha’s teachings one only knows what is real in conventional sense. We think of ourselves and of the world around us, of people, animals, trees, and they seem to last. The world, person, animal or tree are real in conventional sense. The world and everything in it can only appear because consciousness arises just for a moment, thinks about it and then falls away immediately. Consciousness, in Pāli : citta, is real in the absolute sense. The Buddha taught that in the absolute sense our life consists of mental phenomena, in Pāli: nāma, and physical phenomena, in Pāli: rūpa. Citta is nāma, it experiences an object, whereas rūpa does not experience anything. There are no mind and body which last and which belong to a self or person; what we take for our mind and body are only different nāmas and rūpas, each with their own characteristic which can be experienced one at a time when it appears. They arise because of their appropriate conditions and then fall away immediately. They are impermanent and they do not belong to a self, they have no owner. There is only one citta arising at a time, but each citta is accompanied by several mental factors, in Pāli: cetasikas. Both citta and cetasika are nāma. Some cetasikas, such as feeling and remembrance accompany each citta, whereas unwholesome qualities such as attachment and aversion accompany only unwholesome cittas and wholesome qualities such as kindnes, generosity or understanding accompany wholesome cittas. Citta cannot arise without cetasikas and cetasikas cannot arise without citta, they condition one another. They arise together, experience the same object and then fall away together. Thus, what we call “person” is actually citta, cetasika and rūpa which arise and fall away. Citta, cetasika and rūpa are the three paramattha dhammas which are conditioned: they arise because of conditions and then fall away. There is a fourth paramattha dhamma which is unconditioned, which does not arise and fall away and this is nibbāna. Nibbāna is the reality which can only be experienced at the moment enlightenment is attained.

The development of right understanding of what is real in the ultimate sense is the only way leading to the eradication of defilements. When we study the scriptures, no matter whether it is the Vinaya, the Book of Discipline for the monks, the Suttanta or Discourses, or the Abhidhamma, we should never forget this goal. The Vinaya contains rules and guidelines for the monk’s behaviour which can help him to reach perfection, the state of the arahat, who has eradicated all defilements. The Suttanta or Suttas are discourses of the Buddha to people of different levels of understanding at different places. In these discourses the Buddha speaks about birth, old age, sickness and death. He speaks about the suffering in the world and the cause of all suffering which is craving. He explains what is unwholesome and what is wholesome or beneficial, he points out the danger of defilements and the way to eradicate them by the development of understanding of all that is real. The Abhidhamma contains the description of all mental phenomena and physical phenomena of our life, their different conditioning factors and the way they are related to each other.

In the Abhidhamma all paramattha dhammas, ultimate realities, are enumerated and classified in detail, but also in the Suttas the Buddha explained about paramattha dhammas, about nāma and rūpa, in order to help people to gain understanding. The Suttas are mostly, but not entirely, in terms of conventional language. The Buddha knew the different accumulated inclinations of people and thus he chose the wording best suited to the persons addressed. He spoke to monks, laypeople, brahmins and philosophers who adhered to other beliefs. He made use of parables or of examples of events in daily life in order to help people to understand paramattha dhammas. Right understanding of paramattha dhammas should be developed in order to eliminate wrong view of realities. The study of the Abhidhamma helps us to have more understanding of what the Buddha taught in the suttas.

Not all people were ready to grasp what paramattha dhammas are, and therefore the Buddha would give them a “gradual discourse”, or a discourse “in due order”. We read, for example in the “Verses of Uplift” (Khuddaka Nikāya, Minor Anthologies), Ch V, 3, that, when the Buddha was staying near Rājagaha, in Bamboo Grove, a leper, named Suppabuddha, saw from afar that the Buddha was teaching dhamma to a great many people. He wanted to draw near the crowd, hoping to obtain some food. He noticed that there was no alms-giving, but that the Buddha was teaching dhamma and then he decided to listen. We read:

Now the Exalted One, grasping with his mind the thoughts of all that assembly, said to himself: Who, I wonder, of those present is of growth to understand dhamma? And the Exalted One saw Suppabuddha, the leper, sitting in that assembly, and at the sight he thought: This one here is of growth to understand dhamma. So for the sake of Suppabuddha, the leper, he gave a talk dealing in due order with these topics: on almsgiving, virtue, the heaven world, of the danger, meanness and corruption of sense-desires, and the profit of getting free of them.

And when the Exalted One knew that the heart of Suppabuddha, the leper, was ready, softened, unbiassed, elated and believing, then he unfolded those dhamma-teachings which the awakened ones have themselves discovered, namely: Dukkha, arising, ending, the Way.

Then just as a white cloth, free from stains, is ready to receive the dye, even so in Suppabuddha, the leper, as he sat there in that very seat, arose the pure, stainless dhamma-sight, the knowledge that whatsoever is of a nature to arise, that also is of a nature to end. And Suppabuddha, the leper, saw dhamma, reached dhamma, understood dhamma, plunged into dhamma, crossed beyond doubting, was free from all questionings, won confidence, and needing none other in the Master’s message 3, rose from his seat, advanced to the Exalted One and sat down at one side…

Suppabuddha listened to the Buddha’s exposition of the four noble Truths: dukkha, the cause of dukkha, the cessation of dukkha and the way leading to the cessation of dukkha which is the eightfold Path 4. While Suppabuddha listened he attained the first stage of enlightenment, the stage of the sotāpanna. He could not have attained enlightenment if he had not known what dhammas, realities, are. While he was seeing and hearing he had to be aware of the nāmas and rūpas which were appearing and he had to penetrate their true nature. He could attain enlightenment because he had accumulated wisdom also in past lives.

We cannot understand the deep meaning of the suttas if we have no basic understanding of the paramattha dhammas as they have been described in the Abhidhamma. We cannot understand what has been stated in this sutta about Suppabuddha’s enlightenment if we do not know that citta, cetasika and rūpa, thus, paramattha dhammas, are the objects of insight. Suppabuddha had to clearly know the difference between the characteristics of nāma and rūpa as they appeared one at a time, and he had to realize them as conditioned realities before he could penetrate their impermanence, their nature of dukkha and of non-self 5. It takes an endlessly long time, even many lives, to develop understanding. However, a moment of understanding is never lost, it is accumulated. In the Seventh Book of the Abhidhamma, the “Paṭṭhāna”, translated as “Conditional Relations”, different types of conditions for realities have been taught. One of these is the contiguity-condition (anantara-paccaya): each citta which arises is a condition for the succeeding one by way of contiguity-condition. Defilements and good qualities which arose in the past, even in past lives, are accumulated from one moment of citta to the next one, since each citta conditions the following one by way of contiguity-condition. The Abhidhamma clarifies how we accumulate different inclinations and how they condition the cittas arising at the present time.

We read further on that Suppabuddha went away after having heard the discourse and was then killed by a calf. When the monks asked the Buddha about Suppabuddha’s rebirth the Buddha explained that he was a sotāpanna, bound for full enlightenment. A sotāpanna cannot be reborn in an unhappy plane. The monks then asked why he was born as a poor, wretched leper. The Buddha answered that in a former life he had insulted a “Silent Buddha”. Because of that deed he was reborn in hell and in his last life he was born as a leper. In that life he became a sotāpanna and then he was reborn in a heavenly plane.

We read in this sutta about kamma which produces result, but it is a subject which is difficult to understand. The study of the Abhidhamma is most helpful to gain more understanding of the different conditions for the nāmas and rūpas of our life, including the condition of kamma which produces vipāka. We have read in the above-quoted sutta about the result Suppabuddha received when a calf caused his death. Not only pain felt at an accident is vipāka, but also seeing, hearing and the other sense-impressions are vipāka. They are vipākacittas arising time and again in daily life. The Abhidhamma teaches in detail about all the different types of kusala cittas, of akusala cittas and of cittas which are neither kusala nor akusala, including vipākacittas, and about all the different cetasikas which accompany cittas. We learn about the different objects cittas experience through the senses and the mind-door, and about the defilements arising on account of what is experienced. Also in the suttas we read about the experience of objects through the senses and the defilements which arise, but without the study of the Abhidhamma we cannot fully understand the sutta texts. I will illustrate this with a quotation from another sutta. We read in the “Kindred Sayings” (IV, Saḷāyatana Vagga, Kindred Sayings on Sense, Second Fifty, Ch 5, § 98, Restraint) that the Buddha said to the monks:

I will teach you, monks, restraint and lack of restraint. Do you listen to it. And how, monks, is one unrestrained?

There are, monks, objects cognizable by the eye, objects desirable, pleasant, delightful and dear, passion-fraught, inciting to lust. If a monk be enamoured of them, if he welcome them, if he persist in clinging to them, thus should he understand: “I am falling back in profitable states. This was called ‘falling back’ by the Exalted One.”

(the same is said with regard to the other sense-doors and the mind-door.)

And how, monks, is one restrained?

There are objects cognizable by the eye… If a monk be not enamoured of them, if he welcome them not, … thus should he understand: “I am not falling back in profitable states. This was called ‘not falling back’ by the Exalted One.” Thus, monks, is one restrained.

The Abhidhamma helps us to understand the different functions of cittas arising in a process of cittas which experience objects through the six doors. In a process of cittas which experience an object through one of the sense-doors there are moments of vipāka and there are kusala cittas or akusala cittas which arise on account of the object which is experienced. The cittas arising in such a process arise each because of their own conditions and in a fixed order; there is no self who can direct the arising of particular cittas. There is no self who is unrestrained or restrained. When we read about the monk who is enamoured of the objects experienced through eyes, ears, or through the other senses, we may not realize that we all have attachment time and again after seeing, hearing and the other sense-impressions. When we read the above-quoted sutta with understanding of different cittas arising in processes we will see that this sutta reminds us of our defilements arising in daily life, even at this moment. If we do not know that defilements and wholesome qualities are cetasikas, conditioned realities, we may take them for self. We may cling to a concept of self who is practising the eightfold Path, whereas in reality wholesome cetasikas are performing their functions. We read in the suttas about the exertion of energy or effort for what is wholesome and about right effort of the eightfold Path. If we do not know that effort is a cetasika which can arise with akusala citta as well as with kusala citta there are bound to be many misunderstandings concerning the development of kusala and in particular the development of the eightfold Path. We read, for example, in the “Gradual Sayings” (II, Book of the Fours, Ch II, § 3, Effort)6:

There are four right efforts, O monks. What four?

Herein, a monk rouses his will not to permit the arising of evil, unwholesome states that have not arisen- to abandon evil, unwholesome states already arisen- to arouse wholesome states that have not yet arisen- to maintain wholesome states already arisen and not allow them to disappear; he makes an effort (for it), stirs up his energy, exerts his mind and strives.

Someone may believe that whenever he tries to develop the eightfold Path there is right effort which is wholesome, but in reality there may be effort arising with akusala citta rooted in attachment, he may take effort for “my effort”. Mindfulness arises because of its appropriate conditions, not by trying to make it arise. When awareness and right understanding of nāma and rūpa arise there is at that moment also right effort which accompanies the kusala citta. Thus, it is essential to study details of cetasikas which accompany the different types of citta. The study of the Abhidhamma can help us to have a more precise understanding of the realities of daily life.

Some people doubt whether the Abhidhamma is the Buddha’s teaching. The commentator Buddhaghosa explains7 that the Buddha, at the attainment of enlightenment, penetrated the truth of all realities, and that he in the fourth week after his enlightenment contemplated the contents of the seven books of the Abhidhamma. He preached the Abhidhamma first to the devas of the heavenly plane of the “Thirtythree”, headed by his mother. After that he conveyed the method of the Abhidhamma to Sāriputta.

Thus, the codified Abhidhamma literature as we have it today goes back to the Buddha’s chief disciple Sāriputta. When we study the Abhidhamma and the suttas and compare them, we will notice that also numerous suttas are in terms of paramattha dhammas, dealing with the khandhas (aggregates), the elements, the sense-fields (āyatanas) and the cittas. Also the Vinaya deals with cittas and with many different degrees of defilements which can accompany citta. The Vinaya reminds the monk to scrutinize himself, to be aware also of akusala cittas. While the monk goes out to collect almsfood and while he accomplishes his daily tasks he should develop mindfulness and understanding of nāma and rūpa. All three parts of the Buddhist scriptures are in conformity with each other, they help people to develop right understanding of all realities, each in their own situation of life. Historical reasons may not cure doubts about the authenticity of the scriptures, but careful examination and consideration of the contents of the Buddhist teachings themselves can convince us of their authenticity and their immense value for the development of the way leading to freedom from all suffering.

When someone takes up the first book of the Abidhamma, the ``Dhammasangaṇi ``, translated as “a Buddhist Manual of Psychological Ethics”, he may feel confused about the many classifications and enumerations of cittas, of their accompanying cetasikas and of rūpas. These are not abstract categories just to be read and memorized, but they are realities which arise time and again in daily life. When they appear they can be objects of awareness and right understanding. The development of satipatthāna, right understanding of nāma and rūpa as impermanent, dukkha and non-self, is the aim of the teaching of the Abhidhamma. The first book of the Abhidhamma should be read together with its commentary the “Atthasālinī”, translated in two volumes as “The Expositor”. The great commentator Buddhaghosa, who lived in the sixth century A.D., wrote this commentary. The footnotes of the translation of the first book of the Abhidhamma refer to the corresponding parts in its commentary, and the reader will see for himself that the commentary is most helpful for the correct understanding of the Abhidhamma8. Buddhaghosa came from India to Sri Lanka where he edited and rendered into the Pāli language ancient Singhalese commentaries he found there. The commentaries to most of the Buddhist scriptures are from his hand, but they are based on the ancient commentaries. The “Visuddhimagga”, an encyclopedia of the teachings written by Buddhaghosa, which is translated as “The Path of Purification”, and also the “Abhidhammattha Sangaha”, a compendium of the Abhidhamma written by Anuruddha 9, are of great assistance for the understanding of the Abhidhamma.

In the above-quoted sutta on restraint and lack of restraint we read that the monk who is not enticed by pleasant objects is restrained. Someone may have restraint by temporarily suppressing his likes and dislikes, but when there are conditions for defilements they will arise again. Only through the development of right understanding of realities can there be restraint which is enduring. The development of satipatthāna is exclusively the teaching of the Buddha and thus this is implied in all parts of the scriptures, also when it is not expressively mentioned. We read in the “Middle Length Sayings” (II, 97, Discourse with Dhānañjāni) that Sāriputta taught the brahman Dhānañjāni when he was sick about the meditations which are the “Divine Abidings” of lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity. With these meditations, when they are developed, jhāna or absorption can be attained. However, jhāna is not the goal of the Buddha’s teachings. We read that the Buddha said to Sāriputta:

“But why did you, Sāriputta, although there was something further to be done, having established the brahman Dhānañjāni (only) in the less, in the Brahma-world, rising from your seat, depart?”

“It occurred to me, Lord: ‘These brahmans are very intent on the Brahma-world. Suppose I were to show the brahman Dhānañjāni the way to companionship with Brahmā?’”

“Sāriputta, the brahman Dhānañjāni has died and has uprisen in the Brahma-world.”

This sutta reminds us not to forget the goal of the Buddha’s teachings, that is: the eradication of defilements through the development of satipatthāna. We cannot understand any sutta if we do not begin to develop understanding of the nāma or rūpa which appears in our daily life. In the following sutta the importance is stressed of listening to the teachings, considering them and putting them into practice. We read in the “Kindred Sayings”(II, Nidāna-vagga, Ch XX, Kindred Sayings on Parables, § 7, The Drum-peg) that the Buddha said to the monks:

Once upon a time, monks, the Dasārahas had a kettle-drum called Summoner. As it began to split the Dasārahas fixed in ever another peg, until the time came that the Summoner’s original drumhead had vanished and only the framework of pegs remained.

Even so, monks, will the monks become in the future. Those Suttantas uttered by the Tathāgata, deep, deep in meaning, not of the world, dealing with the void, to these when uttered, they will not listen, they will not lend a ready ear, they will not bring to them an understanding heart, they will not deem those doctrines that which should be learnt by heart, that which should be mastered.

But those Suttantas which are made by poets, which are poetry, which are a manifold of words, a manifold of phrases, alien, the utterances of disciples, to these when uttered they will listen, they will lend a ready ear, they will bring an understanding heart, they will deem these doctrines that which should be learnt by heart, which should be mastered. Thus it is, monks, that the Suttantas uttered by the Tathāgata, deep, deep in meaning, not of the world, dealing with the void, will disappear.

Wherefore, monks, you are thus to train yourselves:— To these very Suttantas will we listen, will we give a ready ear, to these will we bring an understanding heart. And we will deem these doctrines that which should be learnt by heart, and mastered:— even thus.

The Buddha’s teachings will disappear by wrong understanding of them and by wrong practice. Today we are fortunate that we still have access to the teachings. Therefore, we should not neglect to study them and to put them into practice.

  1. Collected and composed are in this text the translation of : with sati sampajañña, with mindfulness and understanding. The four applications of mindfulness which then follow have been explained in Vol. I, Ch 8. 

  2. I explained the difference in The Buddha’s Path, Ch 3 and 4. 

  3. He had personal conviction of the truth. The sotāpanna has eradicated doubt about realities and he has an unshakable confidence in the Triple Gem. 

  4. As I explained in Vol. I, Ch 1 and 2, realities which are impermanent are unsatisfactory, dukkha. 

  5. As I explained in Vol. I, Ch 7, insight is developed in different stages. 

  6. I am using the translation of Ven. Nyanaponika, in Anguttara Nikāya, An Anthology I, Wheel no. 155-158, Kandy. 

  7. In the ``Expositor I, Introductory Discourse. See further on in this chapter about the person of Buddhaghosa. 

  8. In my “Abhidhamma in Daily Life” I tried to give an introduction to the study of the Abhidhamma. 

  9. The time this was written is not sure, but it must have been between the 8th and 12th century A.D. This has been translated as “A Manual of Abhidhamma” by Ven. Nārada, Colombo, and as “Compendium of Philosophy” in a P.T.S. edition.