Classic and Contemporary Buddhist Works

Abhidhamma Studies - Introduction

Buddhist Explorations of Consciousness and Time


In his preface to this book Nyanaponika Thera explains that these studies originated while he was engaged in translating into German the Dhammasaṅgaṇī and the Atthasālinī, respectively the first book of the Pāli Abhidhamma Piṭaka and its authorized commentary. He translated these works during the trying years of World War II, while residing in the British civilian internment camp at Dehra Dun, in north India (1941–46). Unfortunately, these two translations, made with such keen understanding and appreciation of their subject, remain unpublished. The Dhammasaṅgaṇī appeared only in a very limited cyclostyle edition (Hamburg, 1950), long unavailable. The Atthasālinī has been in preparation for the press since the mid1980s, but it is still uncertain whether it will ever see the light of day.

The investigations stimulated by this translation work, however, have enjoyed a happier fate. Soon after returning to Sri Lanka following the war, Ven. Nyanaponika recorded his reflections on the Abhidhamma in a set of four essays, which became the first version of this book, entitled Abhidhamma Studies: Researches in Buddhist Psychology. The manuscript must have been completed by 15 March 1947, the date of the preface, and was published in a series called Island Hermitage Publications (Frewin & Co. Ltd., Colombo, 1949). This imprint emanated from the Island Hermitage at Dodanduwa, a monastic settlement chiefly for Western Buddhist monks founded in 1911 by Ven. Nyanaponika’s teacher, Ven. Nyanatiloka Mahāthera (1878–1957). Ven. Nyanatiloka, also from Germany, was the first Theravāda bhikkhu from continental Europe in modern times. Ordained in Burma in 1903, he soon established himself as an authority on the Abhidhamma, and it was from him that Ven. Nyanaponika acquired his deep respect for this abstruse branch of Buddhist learning.

While Island Hermitage Publications came to an early end, its animating spirit was reincarnated in the Buddhist Publication Society (BPS), which Ven. Nyanaponika established in Kandy in 1958 together with two lay friends. Accordingly, in 1965 a second edition of Abhidhamma Studies appeared, published by the BPS. This edition had been stylistically polished (incorporating suggestions written into a copy of the first edition by Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli) and included a new first chapter that served to explain the high esteem in which the Theravāda tradition holds the Abhidhamma. A third edition, issued in 1976, contained only minor corrections. For the present edition I have merely reformulated a few awkward sentences in the third edition, reorganized the notes, provided additional references, and supplied a bibliography. The subtitle has also been changed to convey a clearer idea of the book’s contents.

Although these essays are largely intelligible on their own and can be read with profit even by those unacquainted with the Abhidhamma texts themselves, they will naturally be most rewarding if they are read with some awareness of the doctrinal and scriptural matrix from which they have emerged. While an introduction like this is certainly not the place for a thorough historical and doctrinal survey of the Abhidhamma, in what follows I will attempt to provide the reader with the information needed to place Ven. Nyanaponika’s studies in their wider context. First I will briefly present an overview of the Abhidhamma literature on which he draws; then I will discuss the principal strains of Abhidhamma thought that underlie the essays; and finally, in the light of this background, I will highlight some of the ideas that Ven. Nyanaponika is attempting to convey in this book.

Before proceeding further I must emphasize at the outset that Ven. Nyanaponika’s essays are not historical in orientation, and are thus very different in character from the well-known Abhidhamma studies of Erich Frauwallner, which attempt to trace the historical evolution of the Abhidhamma. While he does make a few remarks on the historical authenticity of the Abhidhamma, for the most part he simply accepts the canonical Abhidhamma as a given point of departure and adopts toward this material an approach that is thoroughly philosophical and psychological. Though his focus is very narrow, namely, the first wholesome state of consciousness in the Consciousness chapter of the Dhammasaṅgaṇī, his treatment of this subject branches out into broader issues concerning the Abhidhamma analysis of mind and the bearings this has on the Buddhist spiritual life. The essays do not merely repeat the timehonored fundamentals of the Abhidhamma philosophy, but strike out in a direction that is innovative and boldly exploratory. Despite their strong rootedness in an ancient, minutely analytical corpus of knowledge, they venture into territory virtually untouched by the great Abhidhamma commentators of the past, raising questions and throwing out hypotheses with a depth of insight that is often exhilarating. It is this boldness of intuition, coupled with careful reflection and a capacity for mature judgment, that makes this little book a contemporary gem worthy of a place among the perennial classics of Abhidhamma literature.

The Abhidhamma Literature

The Abhidhamma is a comprehensive, systematic treatment of the Buddha’s teachings that came to prominence in the Buddhist community during the first three centuries after the Master’s death. The development of Abhidhamma spanned the broad spectrum of the early Buddhist schools, though the particular tracks that it followed in the course of its evolution differed markedly from one school to another. As each system of Abhidhamma assumed its individual contours, often in opposition to its rivals, the respective school responsible for it added a compilation of Abhidhamma treatises to its collection of authorized texts. In this way the original two canonical collections of the Buddha’s Word—the Sutta and Vinaya Piṭakas— came to be augmented by a third collection, the Abhidhamma Piṭaka, thus giving us the familiar Tipiṭaka or “Three Baskets of the Doctrine.”

There is some evidence, from the reports of the Chinese Buddhist pilgrims, that most of the old Indian Buddhist schools, if not all, had their own Abhidhamma Piṭakas. However, with the wholesale destruction of Buddhism in India in the twelfth century, all but three canonical Abhidhammas perished with hardly a trace.

The three exceptions are (1) the Theravāda version, in seven books, recorded in Pāli; (2) the Sarvāstivāda version, also in seven books but completely different from those of the Theravāda; and (3) a work called the Śāriputra-abhidharma-śāstra, probably belonging to the Dharmaguptaka school. The Pāli Abhidhamma had survived because, long before Buddhism disappeared in India, it had been safely transplanted to Sri Lanka; the other two, because they had been brought to China and translated from Sanskrit into Chinese. Though the schools that nurtured these last two Abhidhamma systems vanished long ago, a late exposition of the Sarvāstivāda Abhidhamma system, Vasubandhu’s Abhidharmakośa, continues to be studied among Tibetan Buddhists and in the Far East. In the Theravāda countries such as Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Thailand, the Abhidhamma has always been a subject of vital interest, both among monks and educated lay Buddhists, and forms an essential component in any program of higher Buddhist studies. This is especially the case in Myanmar, which since the fifteenth century has been the heartland of Abhidhamma study in the Theravāda Buddhist world.

The seven treatises of the Pāli Abhidhamma Piṭaka are the Dhammasaṅgaṇī, the Vibhaṅga, the Dhātukathā, the Puggalapaññatti, the Kathāvatthu, the Yamaka, and the Paṭṭhāna. The distinctive features of the Abhidhamma methodology are not equally evident in all these works. In particular, the Puggalapaññatti is a detailed typology of persons that is heavily dependent on the Sutta Piṭaka, especially the Aṅguttara Nikāya; the Kathāvatthu, a polemical work offering a critical examination of doctrinal views that the Theravādin theorists considered deviations from the true version of the Dhamma. These two works do not exemplify the salient features of the Abhidhamma and may have been included in this Piṭaka merely as a matter of convenience. What is probably the most archaic core of Abhidhamma material—detailed definitions of the basic categories taken from the suttas, such as the aggregates, sense bases, and elements—is preserved in the Vibhaṅga. But the two works that best exemplify the mature version of the canonical Abhidhamma system are the Dhammasaṅgaṇī and the Paṭṭhāna. As Ven. Nyanaponika repeatedly points out, these two books are complementary and must be viewed together to obtain an adequate picture of the Abhidhamma methodology as a whole. The Dhammasaṅgaṇī emphasizes the analytical approach, its most notable achievement being the reduction of the complex panorama of experience to distinct mental and material phenomena, which are minutely defined and shown in their various combinations and classifications. The Paṭṭhāna advances a synthetic approach to the factors enumerated in the first book. It delineates the conditional relations that hold between the diverse mental and material phenomena disclosed by analysis, binding them together into a dynamic and tightly interwoven whole.

Each of the books of the Abhidhamma has its authorized commentary. Since the commentaries on the last five books are combined into one volume, there are three Abhidhamma commentaries: the Atthasālinī (on the Dhammasaṅgaṇī); the Sammoha-vinodanī (on the Vibhaṅga); and the Pañcappakaraṇa-aṭṭhakathā (on the other five books). These commentaries are the work of ficariya Buddhaghosa, the most eminent of the Pāli commentators. Buddhaghosa was an Indian Buddhist monk who came to Sri Lanka in the fifth century C.E. to study the old Sinhalese commentaries (no longer extant) that had been preserved at the Mahāvihāra, the Great Monastery, the seat of Theravāda orthodoxy in Anuradhapura. On the basis of these old commentaries, written in a style of Sinhala that by then may have already been antiquated, he composed new commentaries in the internationally recognized Theravāda language, now known as Pāli. These commentaries, refined in expression and doctrinally coherent, are not original creative works expressing Buddhaghosa’s own ideas, but edited and synoptic versions of the old commentaries, which had probably accumulated over several centuries and recorded the diverse opinions of the early generations of doctrinal specialists up to about the second century C.E. If we had direct access to these commentaries we would no doubt be able to trace the gradual evolution of the system of exegesis that finally became crystallized in the works of Buddhaghosa. Unfortunately, however, these old commentaries did not survive the ravages of time.

The Abhidhamma commentaries of Buddhaghosa do considerably more than explicate the difficult terms and statements of the canonical Abhidhamma texts. In the course of explication they introduce in full measure the reflections, discussions, judgments, and determinations of the ancient masters of the doctrine, which Buddhaghosa must have found in the old commentaries available to him. Thus, out of the beams and rafters of the canonical Abhidhamma, the commentaries construct a comprehensive and philosophically viable edifice that can be used for several purposes: the investigation of experience in the practice of insight meditation; the interpretation of the canonical Abhidhamma; and the interpretation of the other two Piṭakas, the Suttanta and the Vinaya, whose exegesis, at an advanced level, is guided by the principles of the Abhidhamma. ficariya Buddhaghosa’s masterpiece, the Visuddhimagga, is in effect a work of “applied Abhidhamma,” and chapters 14–17 constitute a concise compendium of Abhidhamma theory as a preparation for insight meditation.

Following the age of the commentaries, Pāli Abhidhamma literature expanded by still another layer with the composition of the ṭīkās, the subcommentaries. Of these, the most important is the three-part Mūlaṭīkā, “The Fundamental (or Original) Subcommentary” to the three primary commentaries. This work is attributed to one ficariya finanda, who may have worked in south India in the late fifth or early sixth century. Its purpose is to clarify obscure terms and ideas in the commentaries and also to shed additional light on the canonical texts. This work in turn has an Anuṭīkā, a secondary subcommentary, ascribed to ficariya Dhammapāla, another south Indian.

Once the commentarial literature on the Abhidhamma had grown to gargantuan dimensions, the next stage in the development of Abhidhamma theory was governed by the need to reduce this material to more manageable proportions for easy use by teachers and their students. Thus there arrived the age of the Abhidhamma manuals, which reached its high point with the composition of the Abhidhammattha-saṅgaha sometime between the tenth and twelfth centuries. This work, ascribed to one ficariya Anuruddha, occupies only fifty pages in print, yet provides a masterly overview of the whole Abhidhamma, both canonical and commentarial, in an easily memorizable form. The Saṅgaha has become the standard primer for Abhidhamma studies throughout the Theravāda Buddhist world, and in the traditional system of education teachers require their pupils to learn it by heart as the prerequisite for further lessons in the Abhidhamma. Yet, because the manual is so terse and pithy in expression, when read on its own it borders on the cryptic, and to convey any clear meaning it needs paraphrase and explanation. Thus the Saṅgaha in its turn has generated a massive commentarial literature, written both in Sri Lanka and Myanmar, and this has opened up still new avenues for the elaboration of Abhidhamma theory. In this way the literary history of the Abhidhamma has advanced by a rhythmic alternation of condensed and expansive modes of treatment, the systole and diastole phases in the evolution of Theravāda Buddhist doctrine.

From this quick and superficial overview of the Abhidhamma literature we can see that the fountainhead of the Pāli Abhidhamma system is the Abhidhamma Piṭaka with its seven treatises. But how did this collection of texts come into being? To this question, the Theravāda commentarial tradition and present-day critical scholarship give different answers. Unlike the suttas and the accounts of the monastic rules in the Vinaya, the books of the canonical Abhidhamma do not provide any information about their own origins. The commentaries, however, ascribe these treatises to the Buddha himself. The Atthasālinī, which gives the most explicit account, states that the Buddha realized the Abhidhamma at the foot of the Bodhi Tree on the night of his enlightenment and investigated it in detail during the fourth week after the enlightenment, while sitting in deep meditation in a house of gems (ratanaghara) to the northeast of the Bodhi Tree. Subsequently, during his career as a teacher, he spent one rains retreat in the Tāvatiṃsa heaven, where he taught the Abhidhamma to the devas or gods from ten thousand world systems. Each morning during this period he would descend to the human realm for his one meal of the day, and then he taught the methods or principles (naya) of the doctrine that he had covered to his chief disciple Sāriputta, who elaborated them for the benefit of his own pupils.

 Although this account still prevails in conservative monastic circles in the Theravāda world, critical scholarship has been able to determine in broad outline, by comparative study of the various Abhidhamma texts available, the route along which the canonical Abhidhamma evolved. These studies indicate that before it came to constitute a clearly articulated system the Abhidhamma had gradually taken shape over several centuries. The word abhidhamma itself appears already in the suttas, but in contexts that indicate that it was a subject discussed by the monks themselves rather than a type of teaching given to them by the Buddha. Sometimes the word abhidhamma is paired with abhivinaya, and we might suppose that the two terms respectively refer to a specialized, analytical treatment of the doctrine and the monastic discipline. Several suttas suggest that these Abhidhamma discussions proceeded by posing questions and offering replies. If we are correct in assuming that these ancient discussions were one of the seeds of the codified Abhidhamma, then their catechistic framework would explain the prominence of the “interrogation sections” (pañhāvāra) in the canonical Abhidhamma treatises.

Another factor that contemporary scholarship regards as a seed for the development of the Abhidhamma was the use of certain master lists to represent the conceptual structure of the Buddha’s teachings. For the sake of easy memorization and as an aid to exposition, the doctrinal specialists in the early Sangha often cast the teachings into outline form. These outlines, which drew upon the numerical sets that the Buddha himself regularly used as the scaffolding for his doctrine, were not mutually exclusive but overlapped and meshed in ways that allowed them to be integrated into master lists that resembled a tree diagram. Such master lists were called mātikās, “matrixes,” and skill in their use was sometimes included among the qualifications of an erudite monk. To be skilled in the mātikās it was necessary to know not only the terms and their definitions but also their underlying structures and architectonic arrangement, which revealed the inner logic of the Dhamma. An early phase of Abhidhamma activity must have consisted in the elaboration of these master lists, a task that would have required extensive knowledge of the teachings and a capacity for rigorous, technically precise thought. The existing Abhidhamma Piṭakas include substantial sections devoted to such elaborations, and beneath them we can hear the echoes of the early discussions in the Sangha that culminated in the first Abhidhamma texts.

While the roots from which the Abhidhamma sprang can be traced back to the early Sangha, perhaps even during the Buddha’s lifetime, the different systems clearly assumed their mature expression only after the Buddhist community had split up into distinct schools with their own doctrinal peculiarities. Codified and authorized Abhidhamma texts must have been in circulation by the third century B.C., the time of the Third (exclusively Theravādin) Council, which was held in Pāṭaliputta, the capital of King Aśoka’s Mauryan empire. These texts, which would have constituted the original nuclei of the Theravāda and Sarvāstivāda Abhidhamma Piṭakas, might have continued to evolve for several more centuries. In the first century B.C. the Theravāda Abhidhamma Piṭaka, along with the rest of the Pāli Canon, was formally written down for the first time, at the filokavihāra in Sri Lanka. This officially approved recension of the Abhidhamma Piṭaka must mark the terminal point of its development in the Pāli school, though it is conceivable that minor additions were incorporated even afterward.

The Abhidhamma Teaching

The Abhidhamma teaching in the Dhammasaṅgaṇī, the focus of Ven. Nyanaponika’s essays, might be discussed in terms of three interwoven strands of thought: (1) an underlying ontology framed in terms of bare ontological factors called dhammas; (2) the use of an “attribute-mātikā,” a methodical list of contrasting qualities, as a grid for classifying the factors resulting from ontological analysis; and (3) the elaboration of a detailed typology of consciousness as a way of mapping the dhammas in relation to the ultimate goal of the Dhamma, the attainment of Nibbāna. The first two strands are shared by the Theravāda and Sarvāstivāda systems (though with differences in the details) and might be seen as stemming from the original archaic core of Abhidhamma analysis. The third strand, the minute analysis of consciousness, seems to be a specific feature of the Pāli Abhidhamma and thus may have evolved only after the two traditions had gone their separate ways.

We will now discuss these three strands of Abhidhamma thought more fully.

1. The Dhamma Theory. Although Ven. Nyanaponika distinguishes between phenomenology and ontology and assigns the Abhidhamma to the former rather than the latter, he does so on the assumption that ontology involves the quest for “an essence, or ultimate principle, underlying the phenomenal world” (p. 19). If, however, we understand ontology in a wider sense as the philosophical discipline concerned with determining what really exists, with discriminating between the real and the apparent, then we could justly claim that the Abhidhamma is built upon an ontological vision. This vision has been called the dhamma theory. The theory as such is not articulated in the Abhidhamma Piṭaka, which rarely makes explicit the premises that underlie its systematizing projects, but comes into prominence only in the later commentarial literature, particularly in the commentaries to the Abhidhamma manuals. Succinctly stated, this theory maintains that the manifold of phenomenal existence is made up of a multiplicity of “thing-events” called dhammas, which are the realities that conceptual thought works upon to fabricate the consensual world of everyday reality. But the dhammas, though constitutive of experience, are distinctly different from the gross entities resulting from the operations of conceptual thought. Unlike the persisting persons and objects of everyday reality, the dhammas are evanescent occurrences, momentary mental and physical happenings brought into being through conditions—with the sole exception of the unconditioned element, Nibbāna, which is the one dhamma that is not evanescent or subject to conditions.

The germ of the dhamma theory can already be found in the suttas, in the Buddha’s instructions aimed at the development of wisdom (paññā). For wisdom or insight to arise, the meditator must learn to suspend the normal constructive, synthesizing activity of the mind responsible for weaving the reams of immediate sensory data into coherent narrative patterns revolving around persons, entities, and their attributes. Instead, the meditator must adopt a radically phenomenological stance, attending mindfully to each successive occasion of experience exactly as it presents itself in its sheer immediacy. When this technique of “bare attention” is assiduously applied, the familiar world of everyday perception dissolves into a dynamic stream of impersonal phenomena, flashes of actuality arising and perishing with incredible rapidity. It is the thing-events discerned in the stream of immediate experience, the constitutive mental and physical phenomena, that are called dhammas, and it is with their characteristics, modes of occurrence, classifications, and relationships that the Abhidhamma is primarily concerned.

To assist the meditator in applying this phenomenological investigation of experience, the Buddha had delineated various conceptual schemes that group these bare phenomena into orderly sets. These sets are governed by different heuristic principles, of which we might distinguish three: the disclosure of the phenomenal field; the causes of bondage and suffering; and the aids to enlightenment.

The disclosure of the phenomenal field aims at showing how all the factors of existence function in unison without a substantial self behind them to serve as a permanent subject or directing agent. The conceptual schemes used for this purpose include the five aggregates (pañcakkhandhā: material form, feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness); the six internal and external sense bases (saḍāyatana: the six sense faculties including mind and their respective objects); and the eighteen elements (aṭṭhārasa dhātuyo: the six senses, their objects, and the corresponding types of consciousness).

The causes of bondage and suffering are the defilements, the main impediments to spiritual progress, which include such groups as the four taints (āsava), the four kinds of clinging (upādāna), the five hindrances (nīvaraṇa), and the ten fetters (saṃyojana).

The aids to enlightenment are the various sets of training factors that make up the Buddhist path to liberation. These are traditionally grouped into seven sets with a total of thirty-seven factors: the four foundations of mindfulness, the four right efforts, the four bases of accomplishment, the five spiritual faculties, the five powers, the seven factors of enlightenment, and the eight factors of the Noble Eightfold Path.

One of the major projects that the Abhidhamma Piṭaka sets for itself is to collect these various schemes into a systematic whole in which each item has a clearly defined position. To fulfill this aim, the architects of the Abhidhamma did not simply pile up lists but attempted to coordinate them, establish correspondences, and display relationships. Through their research into the dhammas, the Abhidhamma masters discovered that diverse terms used by the Buddha for the pedagogical purposes of his teaching often represent, at the level of actuality, the same factor functioning in different ways or under different aspects. Thus, for example, “clinging to sensual pleasures” among the four kinds of clinging is identical with the hindrance of sensual desire among the five hindrances; the practice of mindfulness in the four foundations of mindfulness is identical with the faculty of mindfulness among the five faculties and also with the path factor of right mindfulness in the Eightfold Path; the sense base of mind among the six senses is identical with the aggregate of consciousness among the five aggregates, and both comprise the seven consciousness elements among the eighteen elements.

By proceeding thus, the Abhidhamma draws up a fixed list of ontological actualities that it understands to be the differently colored threads that constitute the inconceivably diverse and complex fabric of experience. These ontological actualities are the dhammas, which the later Pāli Abhidhamma neatly groups into four classes of ultimates (paramattha-dhamma) comprising eighty-two actualities: consciousness (citta), which is one reality with eighty-nine or 121 types; fifty-two mental factors (cetasika); twenty-eight kinds of material phenomena (rūpa); and one unconditioned element, Nibbāna. The various defilements and aids to enlightenment are traced to particular mental factors (with the exception of one “base of accomplishment,” the citta-iddhipāda, which is consciousness itself ), and a detailed scheme is drawn up to show how the mental factors combine in the acts of consciousness and how the mental side of experience is correlated with the material world.

2. The Attribute-mātikā. Having reduced the entire manifold of experience to a procession of impersonal thing-events, the Abhidhamma sets about to classify them according to a scheme determined by the guiding ideals of the Dhamma. This scheme is embedded in a mātikā or master list of contrasting categories. But since the lists of dhammas resulting from ontological analysis can also be called mātikās, following Frauwallner we might refer to the master list of qualitative categories as an attribute-mātikā.

The attribute-mātikā is announced at the very beginning of the Dhammasaṅgaṇī and serves as a preface to the entire Abhidhamma Piṭaka. It consists of 122 modes of classification proper to the Abhidhamma system, with an additional forty-two taken from the suttas. Of the Abhidhamma modes, twenty-two are triads (tika), sets of three terms used to classify the fundamental factors of existence; the other hundred are dyads (duka), binary terms used as a basis for categorization. The triads include such sets as states that are wholesome, unwholesome, indeterminate; states associated with pleasant feeling, with painful feeling, with neutral feeling; states that are kamma results, states productive of kamma results, states that are neither; and so forth. The dyads include roots, not roots; having roots, not having roots; conditioned states, unconditioned states; mundane states, supramundane states; and so forth. Within these dyads we also find the various defilements: taints, fetters, knots, floods, bonds, hindrances, misapprehensions, clingings, corruptions. The mātikā also includes forty-two dyads taken from the suttas, but these have a different character from the Abhidhamma sets and do not figure elsewhere in the system.

The Dhammasaṅgaṇī devotes two full chapters to the definition of the mātikā, which is done by specifying which dhammas are endowed with the attributes included in each triad and dyad. In chapter 3 this is done by way of the classical scheme of categories, such as the five aggregates, and in chapter 4 again by means of a simpler, more concise method of explanation. The same mātikā also figures prominently in the Vibhaṅga and the Dhātukathā, while in the Paṭṭhāna it is integrated with the system of conditional relations to generate a vast work of gigantic proportions that enumerates all the conceivable relations between all the items included under the Abhidhamma triads and dyads.

3. The Typology of Consciousness. To fill out our picture of the project undertaken in the Dhammasaṅgaṇī, and more widely in the Abhidhamma as a whole, we need to bring in another element, in some respects the most important. This is the medium within which the Abhidhamma locates its systematic treatment of experience, namely, consciousness or mind (citta). The Abhidhamma is above all an investigation of the possibilities of the mind, and thus its most impressive achievement is the construction of an elaborate map revealing the entire topography of consciousness. Like all maps, the one devised by the Abhidhamma necessarily simplifies the terrain which it depicts, but again like any well-planned map its simplification is intended to serve a practical purpose. In this case the map is drawn up to guide the seeker through the tangle of mental states discerned in meditative experience toward the aim of the Buddha’s teaching, liberation from suffering. For this reason the map devised by the Abhidhamma looks very different from a map of the mind that might be drawn up by a Western psychologist as an aid to understanding psychological disorders. The Buddhist map makes no mention of neuroses, complexes, or fixations. Its two poles are bondage and liberation, saṃsāra and Nibbāna, and the specific features it represents are those states of mind that prolong our bondage and misery in saṃsāra, those that are capable of leading to mundane happiness and higher rebirths, and those that lead out from the whole cycle of rebirths to final deliverance in Nibbāna.

In delineating its typology of consciousness the Abhidhamma extends to both the microscopic and macroscopic levels the concern with the functioning of mind already so evident in the Sutta Piṭaka. In the suttas the Buddha declares that mind is the forerunner of all things and the chief determinant of human destiny, and he holds up the challenge of self-knowledge and mental self-mastery as the heart of his liberative discipline. In the suttas, however, concern with theoretical investigation is subordinated to the pragmatic aims of the training, and thus the analysis and description of mental states remains fairly simple. In the Dhammasaṅgaṇī, where theoretical concerns are given free rein, the analysis and classification of consciousness is pursued relentlessly in a quest for systematic completeness.

 The schematization of consciousness is undertaken as a way of fleshing out the first triad of the mātikā, and thus the primary distinctions drawn between mental states are framed in terms of ethical quality: into the wholesome, the unwholesome, and the indeterminate. The Dhammasaṅgaṇī shows that the entire domain of consciousness in all its diversity is bound into an orderly cosmos by two overarching laws: first, the mundane moral law of kamma and its fruit, which links mundane wholesome and unwholesome states of consciousness to their respective results, the fruits of kamma, the latter included in the class of indeterminate consciousness. The second is the liberative or transcendent law by which certain wholesome states of consciousness—the supramundane paths—produce their own results, the four fruits of liberation, culminating in the attainment of Nibbāna.

The Dhammasaṅgaṇī first takes up wholesome consciousness (kusala-citta) and distinguishes it into four planes: (1) sense sphere, (2) form sphere (i.e., the consciousness of the four or five mundane jhānas), (3) formless sphere (i.e., the consciousness of the four formless meditations), and (4) supramundane (i.e., the consciousness of the four noble paths, which become twentyfold when correlated with the five supramundane jhānas). Second, unwholesome consciousness (akusala-citta) is analyzed into twelve types, as determined by the unwholesome roots from which they spring, that is, as rooted in greed, or in hatred, or in bare delusion. Third, kammically indeterminate consciousness (abyākata-citta) is considered, states of mind that are neither wholesome nor unwholesome. This is first bifurcated into resultant consciousness (vipāka-citta) and functional consciousness (kiriya-citta), which in turn are each used as headings for classifying their subordinate types. In this way the Dhammasaṅgaṇī builds up a typology of 121 acts of consciousness (citt’uppāda), each of which is a complex whole made up of consciousness itself, citta, the bare knowing of an object, functioning in correlation with various mental constituents, the cetasikas, which perform more specific tasks in the act of cognition.

The analysis of each type of consciousness proceeds by asking what states are present on an occasion when such a state of consciousness has arisen, and this provides the opportunity for minutely dissecting that state of consciousness into its components. The constituents of the conscious occasion are enumerated, not in the abstract (as is done in the later Abhidhamma manuals) but as members of fixed sets generally selected from the suttas. The first set consists of five bare cognitive elements present on any occasion of cognition: sensecontact, feeling, perception, volition, and consciousness. Following this, various other sets are introduced, and their components are defined by fixed formulas.

The following chapter of the Dhammasaṅgaṇī undertakes, in a similar way, a detailed analysis of material phenomena, which are all comprised under the heading of states that are kammically indeterminate (abyākata: neither wholesome nor unwholesome). Since Ven. Nyanaponika barely touches on the Abhidhamma treatment of material phenomena, we need not pursue this discussion further.

The Present Book

Chronologically and structurally, the essays that make up Abhidhamma Studies unfold from chapters 3 and 4, which deal with the first type of wholesome consciousness analyzed in the Dhammasaṅgaṇī. Although this section forms only a fraction of the treatise, it offers the key to the entire first chapter, the Analysis of Consciousness, and thus an investigation of its terms and methodology has major significance for an understanding of the Abhidhamma system as a whole. Chapter 3 presents the Pāli text and an English translation of the opening paragraph on the first type of wholesome consciousness; Chapter 4, a detailed investigation of its meaning and implications. Chapter 5 reverts to the opening formula for the first state of wholesome consciousness, which establishes time as an essential dimension of conscious experience. Taking up a verse in the Atthasālinī as his point of departure, Ven. Nyanaponika explores a number of signposts that the Abhidhamma holds out for understanding the relationship between time and consciousness.

Chapter 2 was added to balance the emphasis on analysis that predominates in the last three chapters of the book. Under the title “The Twofold Method of Abhidhamma Philosophy” Ven. Nyanaponika cautions us that a complete perspective on the Abhidhamma requires us to take account, not only of the analytical treatment of experience so conspicuous in the first three Abhidhamma treatises, but also of the synthetical approach that predominates in the last treatise, the Paṭṭhāna, wherein all the terms resulting from analysis are connected to one another by a vast network of conditional relations. Chapter 1 was written last, and was added to the book only in the second edition. Its purpose is to defend the Abhidhamma against common criticisms, both ancient and modern, and to establish its legitimacy as an authentic Buddhist enterprise that can make important contributions to Buddhist theory and practice.

Viewed in its wider context, Abhidhamma Studies is both an emphatic affirmation of the high value that Buddhist tradition ascribes to the Abhidhamma and a trenchant attempt to break through the shackles that have tended to stultify traditional Abhidhamma study. Ven. Nyanaponika already sounds this radical note in his preface, when he declares that the Abhidhamma is “meant for inquiring and searching spirits who are not satisfied by monotonously and uncritically repeating ready-made terms.” Reading behind these lines we can obtain some picture of what Abhidhamma study has too often become in Theravādin scholastic circles: an exercise in blindly absorbing by rote a hallowed body of knowledge and passing it on to others with only scant concern for its deeper relevance to the spiritual life. For Ven. Nyanaponika, the Abhidhamma, like Buddhism as a whole, is a living dynamic organism, and his underlying purpose in this book is to breathe new life into this sometimes moribund creature.

Throughout his essays Ven. Nyanaponika repeatedly cautions us against another, closely related tendency in traditional Abhidhamma studies: that of allowing Abhidhamma learning to degenerate into a dry and barren intellectual exercise. He holds that the study of Abhidhamma and the practice of meditation must proceed hand in hand. The study of Abhidhamma, at least by way of its fundamental principles, helps to correct misinterpretations of meditative experience and also, in relation to insight meditation, lays bare the phenomena that must be discerned and comprehended in the course of contemplation. Meditation, in turn, brings the Abhidhamma to life and translates its abstract conceptual schemes into living experience. The Abhidhamma itself, he holds, has immense significance for a correct understanding of the Dhamma, for it spells out, with striking thoroughness and precision, the two mutually reinforcing intuitions that lie at the very heart of the Buddha’s enlightenment: the principle of anattā or non-self, and the principle of paṭicca-samuppāda, the dependent origination of all phenomena of existence.

If I had to single out one strain in Ven. Nyanaponika’s thought as his major contribution to our understanding of the Abhidhamma philosophy, I would choose his emphasis on the inherent dynamism of the original Theravāda version of the Abhidhamma. It is especially necessary to stress this point because the treatment of the Abhidhamma that has come down to us in the medieval manuals can convey the impression that the Abhidhamma is a rigid, static, even myopic system that would reduce the profound, mind-transforming Dhamma of enlightenment to a portfolio of orderly charts. For Ven. Nyanaponika, the ancient canonical Abhidhamma is as vital and dynamic as the reality it is intended to depict, vibrant with intuitions that cannot easily be captured in numerical lists and tables. The key he offers us for restoring to this system its original dynamism is a recognition of the essentially temporal dimension of experience. Temporality is intrinsic to the description of conscious states throughout the Dhammasaṅgaṇī, but it is easy to overlook its importance when the subtle complexities of the system are subordinated to a concern for schematic representation, as occurs in the later literature. For Ven. Nyanaponika it is only by attending to the time factor that we can rediscover, in the Abhidhamma, the depth and breadth of primary experience and the dignity and decisive potency of the present moment.

To recover this element of dynamic temporality, Ven. Nyanaponika points us away from the systematic manuals of the medieval period back toward the canonical texts themselves, the Abhidhamma Piṭaka. This does not mean that he slights the manuals or disparages their contribution. He recognizes that these works serve a valuable purpose by compressing and organizing into a compact, digestible format a vast mass of material that might otherwise intimidate and overwhelm a novice student of the subject. What he maintains, however, is that familiarity with the manuals is not sufficient. Illuminating and fruitful lines of thought lie hidden in the original texts, and it is only by unearthing these through deep inquiry and careful reflection that the riches of the Abhidhamma can be extracted and made available, not to Buddhist studies alone but to all contemporary attempts to understand the nature of human experience.

It had always been one of Nyanaponika Thera’s deepest wishes to resume the methodical exploration of the Abhidhamma, which he had broken off after completing the essays contained in the present volume. His life’s circumstances and own inner needs, however, did not permit this. During the early 1950s an increased concern with his own spiritual development led him to pursue more vigorously the practice of meditation, which bore fruit in his popular book The Heart of Buddhist Meditation. In the mid-1950s he had to attend on his ailing teacher, Ven. Nyanatiloka Mahāthera, and to meet certain commitments regarding literary work in German, which included the revision and editing of his teacher’s German translation of the complete Aṅguttara Nikāya. Then in 1958 the Buddhist Publication Society was born, which he conscientiously served as president and editor of until his retirement in the 1980s, by which time his sight had deteriorated too far to allow any further literary work.

Nevertheless, in this small volume Ven. Nyanaponika has left us one of the most original, profound, and stimulating contributions in English toward the understanding of this ancient yet so contemporary system of philosophical psychology. It is to be hoped that these studies will in some way serve to fulfill the hope the author expressed in his preface, that they will “show modern independent thinkers new vistas and open new avenues of thought,” thereby vindicating the eternal and fundamental truths made known by the Buddha.


Bhikkhu Bodhi


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© Buddhist Publication Society, Abhidhamma Studies (Wisdom Publications, 1998)

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