The Abhidhamma Philosophy

by Ven. Nyanaponika, Thera

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Concluding Remarks and a Warning

Taking a middle path between overrating or underrating the Abhidhamma, we may say: The Abhidhammic parts of the Sutta, namely the teachings given there in ultimate (paramattha) terms, are certainly indispensable for the understanding and practice of the Dhamma; and the additional explanations of these teachings given in the Abhidhamma proper may prove very helpful, and in some cases even necessary, for both these purposes. As to the codified Abhidhamma Pitaka, familiarity with all its details is certainly not a general necessity; but if it is studied and knowledge of it is applied in the way briefly indicated in these pages, this will surely richly enhance a true understanding of actuality and aid the work of liberation. Also, if suitably presented, the Abhidhamma can provide for philosophical minds a stimulating approach to the Dhamma that will prove helpful to them provided they take care to compensate it adequately with the practical aspects of the Dhamma. Such an approach to the Dhamma should certainly not be blocked by the wholesale disparagement of Abhidhamma study sometimes found nowadays among Buddhists of the West, and even of the East. Dangers of one-sided emphasis and development lurk not only in the Abhidhamma but also in other ways of approach to the Dhamma, and they cannot be entirely avoided until a very high level of harmonious integration of mental qualities has been attained (cf. the ‘Balance of the Five Spiritual Faculties’; indriya-samata).

To be sure, without an earnest attempt to apply the Abhidhamma teachings in such ways as intimated above, they may easily become a rigid system of lifeless concepts. Like other philosophical systems, the Abhidhamma can very easily lead to dogmatic and superstitious belief in words, for example, to the opinion that one really knows something about an object of cognition if one tacks a conceptual label on to it. The study of the Abhidhamma should therefore not be allowed to degenerate to a mere collecting, counting and arranging of such conceptual labels. In that way, Abhidhamma study (but, of course, not the Abhidhamma itself) would become just one more among the many existing intellectual ‘play-things’ which serve as an escape from facing stark reality, or as a ‘respectable excuse’ with which to try and evade hard work for one’s own inner progress towards liberation, for which purpose alone the Abhidhamma is meant. A merely abstract and conceptual approach to the Abhidhamma may also lead to that kind of intellectual pride which often goes together with specialised knowledge.

If these pitfalls are avoided, there is a good chance that the Abhidhamma may again become a living force which stimulates thought and aids the meditative endeavour for the mind’s liberation. To achieve that, it is necessary, however, that the Abhidhamma teachings, which are extremely condensed in parts, are not merely accepted and transmitted verbally, but that they are carefully examined and contemplated in their philosophical and practical implications. This again requires the devotion of searching and imaginative minds; and as they will have to work on neglected and difficult ground, they should not lack the courage to make initial mistakes, which can be rectified by discussion and constant reference to the teachings of the Sutta Pitaka.

As to the relation of the teachings of the Abhidhamma to those of the Sutta Pitaka, two very apt comparisons given in a conversation by the late Venerable Pelene Vajiranana, Maha-Nayakathera of Vajirarama, Colombo, may be added, in conclusion:

The Abhidhamma is like a powerful magnifying-glass, but the understanding gained from the Suttas is the eye itself, which performs the act of seeing. Again, the Abhidhamma is like a medicine container with a label giving an exact analysis of the medicine; but the knowledge gained from the Suttas is the medicine itself which alone is able to cure the illness and its symptoms, namely craving rooted in ignorance, and the suffering caused by it.