The Abhidhamma Philosophy

by Ven. Nyanaponika, Thera

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Abhidhamma and Meditation

A fertile soil for the origin and persistence of beliefs and ideas about a self, soul, god or any other form of an absolute entity, is misinterpreted meditative experience occurring in devotional rapture or mystical trance. Such experience is generally interpreted by the mystic or theologian as revelation of, or union with, a godhead; or it is taken for a manifestation of man’s true and eternal Self. Such interpretations are conceived and accepted all the more readily since such meditative experience so greatly transcends the average level of consciousness that the temptation is very great, indeed, to connect it in some way or other with a deity or some other eternal principle. The overwhelming impact of such meditative experience on the mind will produce a strong feeling of certainty of its reality and superiority; and this strong feeling of assurance will be extended to the theological or speculative interpretation, too. In that way these interpretations will obtain a strong hold on the mind, for they are imagined to correspond with actual, irrefutable experience, while, in fact, they are only superimposed on the latter.

The analytical method of the Abhidhamma gives immunity against such deceptive interpretations. In the Dhammasangani the consciousness of meditative absorption (jhana) is subjected to the same sober analysis as the ordinary states of mind. It is shown that meditative consciousness, too, is a transitory combination of impermanent, conditioned and impersonal mental factors, which differ from their counterparts accompanying ordinary consciousness, only in their greater intensity and purity. They do not, therefore, warrant at all any assumption of a divine manifestation or an eternal Self. It has already been mentioned how the Venerable Sariputta undertook such an analysis of his meditative experience.

It is characteristic of the spirit of the Buddha’s teaching that the disciple is always advised to follow up his meditative absorption by an analytical retrospection (paccavekkhana) on the mental states just experienced, comprehending them by Insight (vipassana) as impersonal, evanescent, and therefore not to be adhered to.

By so doing, three main defilements of the mind (kilesa) are effectively warded off, which otherwise may easily arise along with the overwhelming impact of meditative experience on the mind:

1) Craving (tanha) for these experiences, clinging to them and longing for them for their own sake (jhana-nikanti, ‘indulgence in Jhana’);

2) the False View (ditthi) that these meditative experiences imply a self or a deity;

3) the Conceit (mana) that may arise through having attained these exalted states.

These remarks refer to the division of Buddhist meditation called Development of Tranquillity (samatha-bhavana), aiming at the attainment of Jhana.

Turning now to the Development of Insight (vipassana-bhavana), the classificatory terms of the Abhidhamma Schedule (matika), as explained in the Dhammasangani, etc., provide numerous possibilities for including in them the various particular subjects of Insight. By such reference to the triads or dyads of terms in the Schedule a limited subject of Insight can easily be connected with the entire world of actuality, and will thereby gain in significance. Such a particular subject of Insight may either be deliberately chosen from the traditional subjects of meditation (kammatthana) or may consist in some incidental occurrence in life. The latter again may be either some deeply stirring inner or outer experience or it may be quite an ordinary happening of every-day life taken as an object of Right Mindfulness and Clear Comprehension (sati-sampajanna), as is often reported of meditating monks of old. The impulse to deep religious commotion (samvega) or the stimulation for Insight derived from such incidental events may be easier retained, utilized and extended to general, universal significance, if that event can be referred at once to one of the triads or dyads of Abhidhammic terms, which comprise the entire actuality. Thus a single act of penetrative understanding starting from a limited object may acquire such intensity, width and depth as to either lead to, or effectively prepare for, that liberating Insight of which a great Buddhist thinker has said:

‘The understanding of one single thing means the understanding of all; the voidness of one single thing is the voidness of all.’ – Aryadeva (Catuhsataka, v.191).