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A Fitting Introduction to 'The Essence of Buddha Abhidhamma'

Dr. Mehm Tin Mon

(Saddhamma Jotikadhaja)

( Professor in Samatha Patipatti )

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          The Abhidhamma pitaka consists of seven treatises—namely, Dhammasangani, Vibhanga, Dhatukatha, Puggalapannatti, Kathavatthu, Yamaka and Patthana.

           The subject matter of Abhidhamma is the four ultimate realities (paramatthas) and the causal relations between them. The treatment of the subject-matter is highly technical and remarkably systematic making use of purely philosophical terms true in the absolute sense.

           If one can patiently study the treatises on Abhidhamma, one cannot but admire the profound wisdom and the penetrative insight of Lord Buddha. But it is not easy to study Abhidhamma on one's own efforts as one may easily get lost in the wilderness of abstract terms and strange methodology.

           There is, however, a well-known treatise called Abhidhammattha Sangaha, which is the most fitting essence to Abhidhamma. This treatise , written by Venerable Anuruddha Thera, an Indian monk of Kancipura (Kanjeevaram), summerises all the important points of Abhidhamma very systematically.

           The treatise, originally written in pali, has been translated into several languages. In Myanmar the subject matter of this treatise is included in the course of study for novices and monks, and is also used as the course of Abhidhamma examinations held every year throughout Myanmar by the Ministry of Religious Affairs.

          The present book, entitled ' The Essence of Buddha Abhidhamma', further elaborates the subject - matter presented in 'Abhidhammattha Sangaha' in a simple and systematic manner with certain collaboration with scientific views and practical aspects. It is written more or less in the form which is used by the author as lecture guides in conducting Abhidhamma short courses.

          The courses prove to be very successful. So the reader will find this book to be thoroughly clarified and interesting to study the essential facts of Abhidhamma.

           Abhidhamma is really the golden knowledge which will help one to discard wrong views and to acquire the right view for one's total liberation from all miseries.


           There are two kinds of realities — apparent and ultimate.

           Apparent reality is the ordinary conventional truth or the commonly accepted truth (sammuti - sacca). It is called pannatti in Abhidhamma.

          Ultimate reality is the ultimate truth (paramattha-sacca). It is called paramattha in Abhidhamma.

           In basic science we learn about the apparent depth of an object in water. The apparent depth is shallower than the real depth. It appears to be the true depth due to the deviation of light rays on passing from a denser medium (water) to a lighter medium (air). So if a fisherman throws a spear at a fish where he sees it under water, the spear will not hit the fish, because the fish is not really there.

           In the same way pannattis or the apparent realities, though they seem to exist, do not really exist. What are the pannattis? Pannattis are the names of living- and non- living things; they also refer to the things and the persons themselves. Thus not only the names 'man, dog, table, house, etc.' are pannattis but the man, the dog, the table, the house, etc., are also pannattis.

           It is apparent that 'names' are not the ultimate realities because a particular thing has been given different names in different languages. There is an interesting episode about giving names in Myanmar.

           A lad by the name of Mr. Ba appeared for the matriculation examination. He failed in his first attempt. He appeared for the same examination again next year under the new name of Mr. Ba Hla. He failed again. In the third year he changed his name to Mr. Ba Hla Than and sat for the examination again. Again he didn't have a better luck. So to improve his luck he took the name of Mr. Ba Hla Than Tin in the fourth year. He failed in the examination again. Nevertheless he appeared for the examination again in the fifth year under a longer name of Mr. Ba Hla Than Tin Nyunt. Well, he passed the examination this time. So he was known as Mr. Ba Hla Than Tin Nyunt when he joined the University of Yangon.

          The point is that, since names can be chosen at will to designate various things and persons, they can not be ultimate realities. Yet we have to use these names in our everyday expressions and speeches to communicate with one another. Other people understand correctly what we mean and what we refer to. So these expressions and speeches with no intention of lying are called sammuti -sacca or conventional truth.

           Now according to Abhidhamma,, not only the names but also the things and the persons the names refer to do not really exist. You may argue:" Why? We can see the table, the house, the man, the dog and we can also touch them and feel them. Why don't they exist?"

          Well then —please show me the table. Isn't that wood that you are touching or pointing at? If you take out the pieces of wood from the table, does the table exist any more? It is similar with the house. If you pull down the four walls and take off the roof, the house will disappear.

          What about the man and the dog? If you take each part such as hair, nails, skin, flesh, blood, bones, intestines, heart, liver, lungs, spleen, etc., in turn and ask the question: "Is this the man or the dog?" The answer is always 'No'. So the man and the dog do not really exist.

          Again there is an interesting episode in the Buddhist chronicles between two wise persons — King Milinda and the arahat Rev. Nagasena.

           The King asked, "By what name shall I know you, Sir?"

          Rev. Nagasena answered, "My companions call me Nagasena. But the name and the person whom the name refers to do not really exist."

           The King commented, " If Nagasena and the person do not exist, to whom do people offer alms and who receives these offerings? Since you receive them, you really exist. Why did you tell a lie in spite of your higher nobility?"

          Rev. Nagasena enquired, " Your Majesty, did you come to this monastery on foot or by chariot?"

          The King replied, "I came by chariot."

          Rev. Nagasena enquired further, "Well then, please show me your chariot. Is the horse the chariot? Is the wheel the chariot? Is the axle the chariot? Is the carriage the chariot?"

           The King answered "No" to all these questions.

           Rev. Nagasena remarked, "Is there a chariot beside the horse, the wheel, the axle, the carriage, etc.?"

          The King again said "No."

          Rev. Nagasena commented, "Your Majesty, you said you came here by chariot; yet you could not show me the chariot! Why did you tell a lie inspite of your high honour?"

           The King consented, "There is no chariot beside the horse, the wheels, the axle and the carriage. Just a combination of these things has been named the chariot."

           Rev. Nagasena remarked, "Very well, your Majesty, you should understand Nagasena as you understood the chariot."

           The important point is that by paramattha or ultimate reality we mean something which cannot be changed into another thing or divided up into other things. It can neither be created nor destroyed by man.

          It really exists in nature and it holds on its characteristics till it perishes. It can stand the tests or the investigation by any method about its reality and real existence.

           Philosophers and scientists have been searching for the ultimate realities that really exist in the universe.

           Philosophers could not agree on any ultimate reality what was proposed by a well - known philosopher was disputed by another.

           Scientists first regarded matter and energy as the two ultimate realities. Matter has been divided into 92 natural elements, which in turn have been divided into 92 kinds of natural atoms and their various isotopes. Now-a-days atoms are generally believed to be composed of protons, neutrons and electrons —the protons and the neutrons form the nucleus with the electrons revolving in orbits around the nucleus.

          Although protons, neutrons and electrons may be regarded as the basic building blocks of atoms, they are not particles with definite forms and shapes since they can be emitted from atoms as rays. It is more appropriate to regard them as bundles of energy just as sun light is composed of photons — the basic bundles of light energy.

           Scientists have detected more than 80 sub atomic particles from the breakup of atomic nuclei. All these particles may also be regarded as bundles of energy as matter and energy are inter-convertible according to Albert Einstein's equation: E=mc2, where E represents energy, m the mass of matter and c the velocity of light.

           Thus from the point of scientific view, man, dog, table, house, all living and non-living things are not ultimate realities since they are composed of electrons, protons, neutrons and energy. Furthermore, since all the sub-atomic particles may be regarded as bundles of energy, only energy may be taken as the ultimate reality in science.

           In Abhidhamma there are four paramatthas or ultimate realities. They are rupa, citta, cetasika and Nibbana. In the analysis of rupa it is found to comprise the principles of matter and energy.

           Citta is consciousness, and cetasikas are mental factors or mental concomitants As citta and cetasikas can pick up the senses and are aware of the senses, they are collectively known as nama (mind).

          A person is made up of rupa, citta and cetasikas, or in other words just rupa and nama. These are the ultimate realities whereas the person is just an apparent reality.

          Nibbana — the principle of cessation of suffering and of lasting peace —always exists in nature. The only drawback is that we do not realize it. It can be realized only by magga-nana and phala-nana, i.e., the wisdom - eye accompanied by the Path and its Fruition.

          The principles of citta, cetasika and Nibbana are yet to be discovered by science. They are exactly specified and characterized in Abhidhamma and can be verified by samatha-vipassana bhavana i.e., tranquility and insight meditation.

The Four Paramatthas

           · (i) Citta =consciousness of the senses or awareness of an object.

          Citta, ceta cittuppada, mana, mano, vinnana are used as synonymous terms in Abhidhamma. In casual speaking, the mind usually refers to citta or mano.

          · (ii) Cetasika=mental factors or mental concomitants.

           · Cetasikas arise and perish together with citta. They depend on citta for their arising and they have influence on citta. There are 52 kinds of cetasikas. What we usually call 'mind' is actually a combination of citta and cetasikas. Neither citta nor cetasikas can arise independently.

          · (iii) Rupa =corporeality or material quality.

           It may change form and colour on account of heat or cold. There are 28 kinds of rupa.

           · (iv) Nibbana=extinction of defilements and suffering; absolute lasting peace.

          The defilements of citta are greed, hatred, delusion, etc.; they are the root cause of suffering and of the continuity of life. Thus absolute extinction of defilements means absolute deliverance from all future rebirth, old age, disease and death, from all suffering and misery. There is absolute lasting peace in Nibbana.

           The Sanskrit word 'Nirvana' literally means 'freedom from craving'.

           "Extinction of greed, extinction of hatred, extinction of delusion; this is called Nibbana.". (Samyutta Nikaya 38.1)

          Each of the above four paramatthas may be scrutinized for their real existence. Science may dispute the existence of the mind because it cannot detect it. But the existence of citta which is consciousness of the senses in man and animals cannot be disputed by anyone.

           The existence of cetasikas such as lobha (greed), dosa (anger), mana (conceit), issa (jealousy), alobha (non-attachment), adosa (goodwill), etc., in men and animals is also apparent. But it is important to see them as separate entities and not as parts of the mind or different mental states. The unwholesome cetasikas like lobha, dosa, mana and issa can be completely eliminated from the mind by means of insight meditation.

           The existence of rupa as matter and energy is easily seen. But Nibbana, being supramundane, cannot be perceived by the ordinary mind, but it can be observed by lokuttara (supramundane) cittas.

           It should be noted that all the paramatthas in their ultimate sense, are formless and shapeless just as bundles of energy are formless and shapeless. They are invisible under the best microscope, but cittas, cetasikas and rupas can be seen by the samadhi - eye. Nibbana can be realized by the wisdom of the Four Paths.

          Each paramattha will be treated at length in the following chapters.

Nama and Rupa

           Both citta and cetasikas are aware of the senses. They are always bent towards the senses in order to pick up the senses, and thus they are collectively called 'Nama'.

          A man is made up of nama and rupa (mind and body). Of the two, nama is aware of the senses and rupa is not. So nama is the leader and rupa, the follower. But in the sense sphere and the fine-material sphere, nama needs the support of rupa for, its arising.

           Nama is similar to a man with good eye-sight but no legs whereas rupa is like a blind man with good legs. A man without legs and a blind man meet outside a village and they hear the announcement on loud speaker that food is being distributed inside the village. They want to get food from the place. How can they go?

          Well, if the man with good eye-sight sits on the shoulders of the blind man, and the latter walks along the road as directed by the former, they will soon arrive at the desired place and enjoy food.

           Nama and rupa work hand, in hand like the two men above.

The Purpose of the ultimate Analysis

           To see things as they really are is the cherished goal of all lovers of truth including philosophers and scientists. When one cannot see the true picture of things, one sees the distorted picture and maintains the wrong view about them.

           One basic wrong view which has plagued men for aeons of time is Sakkaya-ditthi. It is 'personality-belief', interpreting the aggregates of rupa and nama as an individual or 'I' or 'atta'. Because of this sakkaya-ditthi, everyone wants to be a very important person (VIP), wants to pile up possessions for the benefit of 'I' and behaves in a selfish way. In fact all sorts of troubles and miseries spring up from this wrong view.

          Seeing others as a person, a man, a woman, an individual, etc., is also sakkayaditthi. Sakkdyaditthi gives rise to other wrong views which are uncountable in the world today.

          The dreadful thing about sakkayaditthi is that it can couple with bad kamma to throw one down to the lower abodes (apayas) once and again. According to Buddha's teachings, to get rid of sakkayaditthiis most important and most urgent. It is as urgent as putting out the fire on one's head when one's head is on fire and as removing the spear and treating the wound on one's chest when the chest is impaled by a spear.

          The study of Abhidhamma furnishes one with the right view that 'I' or 'atta' does not exist and what really exist in man are citta, cetasikas and rupa. Understanding the mental states can help one to control one's temperament and to avoid unwholesome mental states, thus reducing mental tension and curing many mental diseases.

          When one understands that the volitions (cetana), that direct one's action, speech and thought, bear kammic properties which cause rebirth and shape the destiny of beings, one becomes mindful to avoid unwholesome volitions.

           Furthermore, when one understands the causal relations described in Abhidhamma, one can get rid of all wrong views and hold a correct understanding of what is going on in the world.

          When one decides to follow the Noble Eightfold Path to free oneself from all miseries, one begins with the right view and develops sila (morality), samadhi (concentration) and panna(wisdom) step by step. In so doing one has to undertake samatha-vipassana (tranquility and insight) meditation and try to observe how the cittas, cetasikas and rupas are functioning, how they are being produced incessantly, how the causal relations really work and, in short, how all the phenomena described in Abhidhamma really take place.

           So the ultimate analysis in Abhidhamma is not for the pleasure of reading nor for the sake of knowledge alone; it is also to be Scrutinized by the samadhi- mind in order to develop insight wisdom leading to the Path and its Fruition (magga and phala.)

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