The Abhidhamma Philosophy

by Ven. Nyanaponika, Thera

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Analysis of Consciousness

One of the Abhidhamma’s most important contributions to human thought, though still insufficiently known and utilized, is the analysis and classification of consciousness undertaken in the first of the Dhammasangani. Here the human mind, so evanescent and elusive, has for the first time been subjected to a comprehensive, thorough and unprejudiced scrutiny, which definitely disposes of the notion that any kind of static unity or underlying substance can be traced in mind. However, the basic ethical lay-out and purpose of this psychology effectively prevents conclusions of ethical materialism or theoretical and practical amoralism being derived from its realistic and unmetaphysical analysis of mind.

The method of investigation applied in the Abhidhamma is inductive, being based exclusively on an unprejudiced and subtle introspective observation of mental processes. The procedure used in the Dhammasangani for the analysis of consciousness is precisely that postulated by the English philosopher and mathematician, A. N. Whitehead: ‘It is impossible to over-emphasize the point that the key to the process of induction, as used either in science or in our ordinary life, is to be found in the right understanding of the immediate occasion of knowledge in its full concreteness…In any occasion of cognition, that which is known is an actual occasion of experience, as diversified by reference to a realm of entities which transcend that immediate occasion in that they have analogous or different connections with other occasions of experience’ (‘Science and the Modern World’).

Whitehead’s term ‘occasion’ corresponds to the Abhidhamma concept samaya (time, occasion, conjunction of circumstances), which occurs in all principal paragraphs of the Dhammasangani, and there denotes the starting point of the analysis. The term receives a detailed and very instructive treatment in the Atthasalini the commentary to the aforementioned work.

The Buddha succeeded in reducing this ‘immediate occasion’ of an act of cognition to a single moment of consciousness, which, however, in its subtlety and evanescence, cannot be observed, directly and separately, by a mind untrained in introspective meditation. Just as the minute living beings in the microcosm of a drop of water become visible only through a microscope, so, too, the exceedingly short-lived processes in the world of mind become cognizable only with the help of a very subtle instrument of mental scrutiny, and that only obtains as a result of meditative training. None but the kind of introspective mindfulness or attention (sati) that has acquired, in meditative absorption, a high degree of inner equipoise, purity and firmness (upekkha-sati-parisuddhi), will possess the keenness, subtlety and quickness of cognitive response required for such delicate mental microscopy. Without that meditative preparation only the way of inference from comparisons between various complete or fragmentary series of thought moments will be open as a means of research. But this approach too may yield important and reliable results, if cautious and intelligent use is made of one’s own introspective results and of the psychological data of meditative experience found in Sutta and Abhidhamma.

In the Anupada Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 111) it is reported that the Venerable Sariputta Thera, after rising from meditative absorption (jhana) was able to analyse the respective jhanic consciousness into its constituent mental factors. This may be regarded as a precursor of the more detailed analysis given in the Dhammasangani.

Let us listen to a voice from Indian antiquity appreciating the difficulty of that analytical work and the greatness of its achievement. We read in the ‘Questions of King Milinda’; “A difficult feat indeed was accomplished, O great King, by the Exalted One” — “Which was that difficult feat, O venerable Nagasena?” – “The Exalted One, O king, has accomplished a difficult task when he analysed a mental process having a single object as consisting of consciousness with its concomitants, as follows: ‘This is sense-impression, this is feeling, perception, volition, consciousness.” – “Give an illustration of it, venerable sir” – “Suppose, O king, a man has gone to the sea by boat and takes with the hollow of his hand a little sea water and tastes it. Will this man know, ‘This is water from the Ganges, this is water from such other rivers as Jamuna, Aciravati etc.?” – “He can hardly know that.” – “But a still more difficult task, O king, was accomplished by the Exalted One when he analysed a mental process having a single object, as consisting of consciousness with its concomitants.”

The rather terse and abstract form in which the Dhammasangani presents its subject matter, the analysis of mind, should not mislead the reader into making him believe that he is confronted with a typical product of late scholastic thought. When, in the course of closer study, he notices the admirable inner consistency of the system, and gradually becomes aware of many of its subtle points and far-reaching implications, he will become convinced that at least the fundamental outlines and the key notes of Abhidhamma psychology must be the result of a profound intuition gained through direct and penetrative introspection. It will appear to him increasingly improbable that the essence of the Abhidhamma should be the product of a cumbersome process of discursive thinking and artificial thought-constructions. This impression of the essentially intuitive origin of the Abhidhammic mind-doctrine will also strengthen his conviction that the elements of the Dhammasangani and the Patthana must be ascribed to the Buddha himself and his early great and holy disciples. What is called ‘scholastic thought’, which has its merit in its own sphere and does not deserve wholesale condemnation, may have had its share later in formulating, elaborating and codifying the teachings concerned.

If we turn from the Abhidhamma to the highest contemporary achievements of non-Buddhist Indian thought in the field of mind and ‘soul’, i.e. the early Upanishads and the early Samkhya, we find that apart from single great intuitions, they teem with mythological ritualistic terms, and with abstract speculative concepts. Against that background the realistic sober and scientific spirit of Abhidhamma psychology (or its nucleus extant in the Sutta period) must have stood out very strongly. To those who could appreciate the import of that contrast, it will have sufficed to instil that high esteem and admiration for the Abhidhamma of which we have spoken.

But even if compared with most of the later psychological teachings of the East or the West, the distance from Abhidhamma psychology remains fundamentally the same, for only the Buddha’s teaching on mind keeps entirely free from the notions of self, ego, soul, or any other permanent entity in, or behind, mind.