The Abhidhamma as System and Method

Those who have an eye for the ingenious and the significant in the architecture of great edifices of thought will probably be impressed first by the Abhidhamma’s structural qualities, its wide compass, its inner consistency, and its far-reaching implications. The Abhidhamma offers an impressive systematisation of the whole of reality as far as it is of concern to man’s liberation from passion and suffering, and the way thereto; for it deals with actuality from an exclusively ethical and psychological view-point, and with a definite practical purpose.

A very striking and deeply impressive feature of the Abhidhamma is the analysis of the entire realm of consciousness. It is the first time in the history of human thought that this was undertaken so thoroughly and realistically, without admixture of any metaphysics and mythology. This system provides a method by which the enormous welter of facts included or implied in it, can be subordinated to, and be utilized by, the liberating function of knowledge, which in the Buddha’s teaching is the essential task and the greatest value of true understanding. This organizing and mustering of knowledge for such a purpose cannot fail to appeal to the practical thinker.

The Abhidhamma may also be regarded as a systematisation of the doctrines contained, or implied, in the Sutta-Pitaka, the Collection of Discourses. It formulates these Sutta-doctrines in strictly philosophical (paramattha) or truly realistic (yatha-bhuta) language that as far as possible employs terms of a function or process without any of the conventional (vohara) and unrealistic concepts assuming a personality, an agent (as different from the act), a soul or a substance.

These remarks about the systematising import of the Abhidhamma may perhaps create the impression in the reader that the Abhidhamma is no more than ‘a mere method with only a formalistic function’. Leaving aside the fact that this is not so, as we shall see later, let us first quote, against this somewhat belittling attitude, a word of Nietzsche, himself certainly no friend of rigid systematisation: ‘Scientific spirit rests upon insight into the method’.

For the preeminently practical needs of the Buddhist the Abhidhamma fulfils the requirements stated by Bertrand Russell ‘A complete description of the existing world would require not only a catalogue of things, but also a mention of all their qualities and relations’ (‘Our Knowledge of the External World”). A systematical ‘catalogue of things’ together with their qualities, or better ‘functions’, is given in the first book of the Abhidhamma, the Dhammasangani, a title that could well be rendered by ‘A Catalogue (or Compendium) of Things’; and the relations, or the conditionality, of these things are treated in the Patthana.

Some who deem themselves ‘strong-minded’ have called systems ‘a refuge of feeble minds’. It is to be admitted that the conceptual labels supplied by systems (and also in Abhidhamma) have often been misused as a surrogate for the true comprehension of a changing, and not at all rigid, world. But if cautiously and critically used, it is precisely one of the advantages of systematic thought that it provides, as it were, ‘weapons of defence’, means of protection , against the overwhelming assault of innumerable internal and external impressions on the human mind. This unceasing influx of impressions, by sheer weight of number and diversity alone, has an influence, even on ‘strong minds’, that tends to be either overpowering and fascinating, or confusing, intimidating, distracting, even dissolving, unless this vast world of plurality (papanca) is at least partly assimilated by the human mind with the help of systematic and methodical thought. But systems may also be ‘aggressive weapons’ when wielded by a mind that through its power of understanding tries to control and master the numerous experiences, actions and reactions occurring in man’s inner and outer world, subordinating them to his own purpose.

The Abhidhamma system, however, is not concerned with an artificial abstract world of ‘objects in themselves’. In so far as it deals with external facts at all, the respective concepts refer to the relation of those ‘external facts’ to the bondage or liberation of the human mind; or they are terms auxiliary to the tasks of the understanding and mental training connected with the work of liberation.

The basically dynamic character of the Abhidhamma system, and of the concepts it employs, goes far in preventing both rigidity and any artificial simplification of a complex and ever-changing world – the faults that those inimical to them find in all ‘systems’.

System and method bring order, coherence and meaning into what often appears to be a world of isolated facts which only becomes amenable to the purposes of man by a methodical approach. This holds true for the system of the Abhidhamma too, in regard to the highest purpose; man’s liberation from ignorance and suffering.