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 [Dhamma Talk]


What's Wrong with Abhidhamma Study?

The question was: "What is the objection to Abhidhamma study?"

The first, and direct answer is that it is bad methodology. It is going to commentary before the study of the original documentation. ... but there are those Abhidhammists that claim originality for the Abhidhamma. The response to that is that to say that this document was the product of the same mind as produced the suttas is simply impossible to countenance.

The issue with the Abhidhamma is complex. Not everything it has is wrong. In fact very little, maybe even nothing, is actually wrong. I believe there are in fact some technical errors, but since I am not an expert and do not wish to become an expert on it's details, I am backing off any statement that I have made that it has errors. The thing is that the Abhidhamma is devoid of spirit. There is no magic in lists. Lists are magic when they are used as in the suttas as hypnotic devices. Like the hypnotic regressions used to project people into memory of past lives. They are memory enhancing devices, mind-organizing devices, but for such a thing to work it must be in a context which makes the list appear incidental to the content. Lists as lists of things to remember actually work against meaningful recollection. It becomes the list which is important to remember, not the information contained in the items in the list and the way the items in the list are to be used. Further, many of the lists found in the suttas contain series ending in some best thing. It is the best thing which is what is useful to remember. The list is simply the illustration of the lesser usefulness of the things early in the list — they actually could be usefully forgotten.

The Dhamma in essence is simple and brief — Some variation on the Four Truths. The rest is like a kasina. It is even called a kasina: the consciousness kasina. Something to use to focus and to keep one's attention on the Path. It is a tool. One should not mistake mastery of the tool with attainment of the goal. And that is what happens with many Abhidhammists.

In other words, fluency in the manipulation of the units of the Dhamma is only one of several aspects of a well developed mind, and the Abhidhamma makes it the centerpiece and that is misguided.

Third is that the Abhidhamma is a lie. It is claiming to have been spoken by the Buddha and Sariputta where we know beyond any reasonable doubt that it was constructed hundreds of years later. And anyone who has the idea that the Buddha or Sariputta came back later, has no understanding of the whole point of the system which is 'no more thising and thating'. It is critical to the essence of the Dhamma that the Arahant has come to the end of 'existence' 'bhava' 'living'. Without that there is no trusting the Dhamma no difference, certainly, except in thoroughness and clarity between the Buddha's Dhamma and any other religion out there. And that was not the point when Gotama renounced the world. He, seeing himself as something ending, set as a goal that which was unending.

And there is no excuse for lies, period. They are considered the worst of bad actions. What good can come from a doctrine based on a lie?

The fourth thing is related to the others: Abhidhamma is going the wrong direction. It is pointing to this business of fluency in the manipulation of the units of the Dhamma when the point of the Dhamma is to use it to escape the world. Dragging people into the details much further than was done by the Buddha, and subjecting them to the doubtful and erroneous conclusions in those details is pulling people off track.

Again: the essence of the Dhamma is brief and simple, (which is not to say it is not Deep), and points to the effort to escape by the letting go of absolutely everything. If there is one thing all Abhidhammists have in common it is clinging to the Abhidhamma. When one sits down to meditate one does not need a whole bunch of theories and details about averting, and lists, one needs one basic idea: Let it go. In that the Abhidhamma fails.

Again there is the issue of the two Paths. I believe this is a big mistake based on Sariputta's description of how the Dhamma can be taken the wrong way. In other words when Sariputta described how one could approach the path for worldy gains or for attaining the goal he was not describing two Dhammas, but two attitudes. The Abhidhammists and followers of the Commentary, have turned this around and made the wrong attitude into a wrong Path. I believe this is a mis-interpretation based on the same sort of elitism that inspired the idea of a 'Maha yana' and 'Hina yana' where to my mind it is the Maha and the Abhi which are the inferiors.

Finally! The other way around, the suttas are sufficient. Not only sufficient, but because of the contexts in teaching opportunities and methods, superior even in the teaching of the Dhamma details. And the Buddha repeatedly says of the suttas: 'Well taught by me is the Dhamma'. So going to the Abhidhamma is thinking that one knows better than the Buddha. A dangerous course.




EBO: Abhidhamma is not to really be seen as its own subject matter. It is like footnotes to a book. It is like the internal code to an object class ... where the suttas are just the interface. Knowing the code can help with understanding why certain things may work or not work ... why and how. The interface ... i.e. suttas ... is the driving force nevertheless. A programmer sees the object interface differently than a normal user ... sort of like a VB programmer vs C+ programmer who makes the ocx control used in VB.

In another way ... a car mechanic drives with different awareness than a normal driver. Both of them use the car to go places ... the suttas ... but the mechanic sees many underlying things when the car interface is activated. If one gets stuck ... the mechanic can help himself. Many times abhidhamma is for less intelligent people. Take the 5 jhana system ... It is said that 5 jhanas are needed by less intelligent people. The sutta in the MN also references ven anaruddha who was having problems and it uses the 5 jhana system.

The abhidhamma just gives more details ... as they say ... the brief way and detailed way when I read the suttas it is like the suttas are a transparency laid on top of the abhidhamma. It is called the higher dhamma ... but really it is the lower level code ... without lowering it's status as the high dhamma.

The commentaries were translated into sinhala and then lost. Then they were organized and translated back to pali. This account for the differnt pali style. Some people do this analysis so far as to reject many important suttas.




We can leave this discussion at 'we disagree', or I can say I think that the Abhidhamma colors, distorts and disrespects the Suttas in a way that can throw people off.

They say it is to clarify, but every time I have tried to clarify I have narrowed and that is what I see the Abhidhamma doing. They say it is to help beginners, but the thing gives beginners a migraine. It is way harder to understand raw lists than a list that occurs in context. And finer details than found in the Suttas are not needed. That's what Gotama means by 'Well taught by me is Dhamma!' One must consider the whole of the way he taught when listening to that statement: The Sutta is a drama-play, entertainment, education and magic spell uttered at a precise point in time when it will be effective, uttered at the occurrence of a precise episode or time in a way and using language that will make it's message timeless.

The parallel is my 'The Method'. I have made an outline of the Dhamma so that the whole can be easily pictured in the head. The difference is I say outright one would be better off forgetting this and reading the Suttas. Also, it is constructed from quotes from the suttas not 'explanations' from some person nobody knows and cannot, therefore trust. And also, it is short.

Trust that the Buddha actually accomplished the goal is the #1 single most important issue in the whole of teaching Dhamma. We are bound up in our senses and cannot see beyond our senses. Consequently everything we are conscious of is a second hand thing manufactured by our own minds. The conclusion is that we can trust nobody. Everyone is simply saying what we imagine them to be saying. It is only when one of 'those beings out there' say something that we did not think of ourselves and cannot imagine we could have thought of ourselves because it solves the problem we have been grappling with, do we take note and then Trust is what we are looking for. Can this solution be relied upon, or is it just another of Mara's tricks?

The perception at the highest level short of Nibbana is that consciousness and creation are happening simultaneously. That is, the perception is that WE are creating the world. Things arise as we think them up.[1] There is no getting around this as long as there is identification with a self defined as made up from the senses. The escape is Gotama's statement that there is no thing there that is the self and that there is freedom from the phenomena. TRUST precedes accomplishment. Short of that the choice at death or at that highest state is either rebirth or existence as a self alone in the universe — no solution at all in that the state is intollerable to one identified as a being. (A 'being' is a being because of wanting to be, to enjoy being one must become. The underlying motivation will drag one back into being a being with other beings, that is, rebirth.) Perception from the view of being God the Creator is that we have been forever and ever and will be forever and ever. And it is CRUSHINGLY BORING as well as being hopelessly bound up in aging and death, grief and lamentation, pain and misery and despair.


We are dealing with 'Mind'. Mind is 'all powerful' it knows about this problem and has been seeking the way out for a long long time. It knows every trick and will dismiss in a finger-snap any fakery and proclamation made by a mind that does not understand the problem and the solution. Very often it will do that while we are prostrating ourselves before some faker and giving him our life savings. And the authors of the Abhidhamma did not understand either the problem or the solution.

To say that one is 'making it easy' is to say out loud that one has not seen the all-powerful nature of this mind. It doesn't need it to be made easy, it needs it to be made truthfully.

One more thing! Time. We do not have any time to waste here. People act as though they will live forever, but what they have, in terms of being able to make a change in their mind is a finger-snap. Zip it's over. There is not one second to waste. And the Abhidhamma, even allowing it may have some helpful information in it, and putting aside it's errors, does not give the full picture of what needs to be done to make the changes needed for escape. The suttas do. That is all that really needs to be known about commentaries.

No trust cannot be used to build trust.

My say.

You didn't address the idea of the error of 'paramattha dhammas'.

On the commentaries: The originals were not 'lost' they were burned. Think about that a little, please. The whole body of a literature does not get 'lost'. The whole body of a literature must be 'destroyed' to completely disappear. Something like shredding the incriminating documents we see in places of power today where history is being re-written according to the victor.

Today those using modern linguistic analysis to point out what they believe are critical faults with the cannon, what they fail to think of is that the Suttas are a collection made up from a verbal tradition. There can be differences and things that came early could have been added later. These people also base their thinking on the idea that Sanskrit came before Pali and this is an error that throws all their calculations off.

I have taken a little look at some of the issues and they are completely unimportant. There are insignificant differences between versions of the Pali. There are differences in the order of presentation of the suttas between the various versions. The only problem comes in when a group claims a sutta to be authentic when it exists only in it's own tradition. The Buddha provided a method for dealing with that: chuck it.

As for the 5 jhanas. I would hesitate to call Anuruddha a 'less intelligent person.' He was foremost among bhikkhus in the art of clairvoyance. Sariputta did call him arrogant, at one point but he ended up Arahant. I should be so less intelligent!

First of all, in the sutta to which you refer, Gotama states that he had the same problem as was troubling Anuruddha and he used the same solution as that proposed. And what about the no jhana method and the 1 jhana method and the 2 jhana method and the 3 jhana method and the 8 jhana method? To what grade of individual does the Abhidhamma allocate these?

You see here exactly the sort of problem the Abhidhamma creates. Am I less intelligent that I need 8 jhanas? That is an irrelevant issue. A waste of time.

The important thing is not that the Satipatthana etc. may be a composite, but that it is a composite which is consistent with the rest of the Dhamma as found in the Suttas. You know I place my entire reliance on the Suttas, for me the Suttas and the Buddha are one, but I agree the Satipatthana is a cut and paste job. I think most of the Digha is also cut and paste. I think the suttas people think are the latest are the earliest. What I think doesn't matter a damn. The whole thing is internally consistent and furthermore anyone who puts the system into practice sees how it works and what can and what cannot be included under the term Dhamma. Anything, any word that does not point to ending, giving up, letting go thirst, detachment, freedom is not the right word any word that does so point is the word of the Buddha.




Wednesday, February 22, 2012 6:48 AM There was further discussion:

EBO, in another context, made the statement: "For every Rupa lifetime, there are 17 mind moments arising and passing away." This is the discussion that followed:

OBO: I asked you: Can you please give me the place in the Suttas for the statement:
"For every Rupa lifetime, there are 17 mind moments arising and passing away."

EBO: There would be no place. It is a footnote or subfootnote. There are places all over the suttas as you know which tell about the impermanence of rupa.. ie earth.

OBO: Your answer is you cannot give me a place in the Suttas where this statement is made. The suttas do not have footnotes.

OBO: I asked you: If there is no such place can you give me the place in the Suttas where such a statement could be deduced or calculated?

EBO: Surely. There is a sutta about foam. There is a sutta where it says that the body is just like rice and gruel. When I read those words (search ven. Bodhi's SN), I think of kalapas which are impermanent.

OBO: Your answer is that you cannot. The question was: If there is no such place in the Suttas for the statement "For every Rupa lifetime, there are seventeen mind moments arising and passing away" can you give me a place in the Suttas where such a statement could be deduced or calculated. In stead of answering this question, you speak about foam and rice and gruel and what you think of when you think of these things which was not the question that was asked.

OBO: I asked you: If there is no such place can you explain to me the usefulness of this information over and above the information that 'being' is a matter of the conjunction of consciousness with nama/rupa and that such a thing is not self and impermanent and that by the ending of nama/rupa comes the ending of consciousness in the attainment of upekkha?

EBO: Surely... There is a momentariness of impermanence. Nothing can be held onto. If you do not think this way, you can hold onto objects (although it will eventually die and wither).

OBO: Your answer is that you cannot. The question was: If there is no place in the suttas which you can cite where the statement "For every Rupa lifetime, there are seventeen mind moments arising and passing away" could be deduced or calculated?" can you explain to me the usefulness of this information OVER AND ABOVE (ABHI) the information that 'being' is a matter of the conjunction of consciousness with nama/rupa and that such a thing is not self and impermanent and that by the ending of nama/rupa comes the ending of consciousness in the attainment of upekkha.

You could not give me the citations requested and instead of giving me an explanation of how the statement was useful over and above what could be found in the suttas, you refer to the suttas.

You have failed to justify the time spent reading the Abhidhamma.

OBO: I asked: If you cannot give me a citation from the Suttas for this information and you cannot give me a citation where such could be derived can you explain to me how I am to trust what you have said as being Dhamma given the Buddha's instruction to compare sutta with sutta?

EBO: I gave some listings above. You are familiar with these. You can also practice and see kalapas for yourself. In the atomic world, this is very close. In the medical world, the seeing takes place in retina cells. I think that somehow there is a holographic nature. We have an eye, cells, atoms. It is best to be seen with one's own mind with practice and concentration. Knowing and Seeing (not reading). Many people can do this. Many people do this and then see their past lives. Then they do PaticcaSamupada across lives. This matches very well in the suttas, especially the 5th method. This is one part which we have not discussed. Your past life (intuition) nevertheless is powerful and can scare one into dhamma. I won't argue this so much. But I'm not sure your method is in the suttas, directly as a method for P.S. “so many times you have done this” is in the suttas. This is where it can be good, but it is not the cause of samsara.

Your answer is that you cannot. I asked for specific citations. You did not provide them. I asked for a place where the specific statement could be deduced and you did not provide it. I asked how this information could be more helpful than the information in the suttas and you could not give me an answer. I asked how this information could be trusted given answers such as you have given and you say your answers should be trusted when they are not answers to the questions I asked nor is the information in them sufficient to say that the statement under examination is to be found in the suttas, or could be deduced from the suttas. And then you go on to discuss issues that are irrelevant to the discussion.

Your answer is that you cannot.

The only conclusion that can be drawn from this discussion is that one should not waste one's time reading the Abhidhamma. Yet you will cling to your insistence on the presence of this information in the suttas, the consistency of the information in the Abhidhamma with that in the suttas, with the usefulness of it's information over and above the suttas, and with its trustworthiness.

I say this is the very definition of avijja, blindness, madness, in-sanity.

You conclude with the statement: I'll ask the abhidhamma master to come up with refs. In this way you won't need to painfully look through the abhidhamma. It is probably a commentary thing. If the abhidhamma does not match the suttas, this is a problem. Please show me more references where you believe it is incorrect. ie. earth as permanent.

OBO: I have no intention of pursuing this further. My intent was to show you that you are hanging on to a vehicle that you have right here shown is a waste of time and that you yourself cannot show is trustworthy. My point was simply that you are practicing a faulty method when it comes to Dhamma research. I have also shown you that you yourself cannot be trusted to understand and respond to what has been written. Your practice should be seen by you after all this time to have failed to instill in you the need to pay careful attention (appamada) to both what is said to you and to what you say in response. My intention here is not to upset you but to get you to wake up to the obvious. Your teachers, people and reference works, have failed you and you need to let them go and change course while there is still time.

I have conceded for the time being that the Abhidhamma does not say that earth is permanent. Twice since you have characterized me as still hanging on to that idea. I am not hanging on to that idea. That the Abhidhamma may have errors is secondary to my objections to it as pointing the wrong direction by it's pointing to the study of finer detail than is necessary to solve the problem of rebirth and pain, and by it's claim to be superior as a teaching tool to the Suttas. I do recall reading the statement somewhere and if I come across it again I will examine it at that point. Otherwise you can take the above dialog as my argument as to it's uselessness and harmfulness as a time waster.

OBO: I said, when you interpreted my discussion of the dangers of bhikkhus entering the sangha who then waste their time there that they would either burn in hell or burn in shame depending on whether or not they were originally sincere in their search for enlightenment as my saying that you would burn in hell:

I wasn't speaking about you directly when I mentioned burning in hell or burning with shame. I was speaking about bhikkhus who were either in the order for other reasons than realizing the Dhamma or bhikkhus who were sincere who had entered the Sangha to really learn who had fallen from that ambition to become worldly activists (great or small). This would apply in my mind to such activities as advocating all Buddhists become vegetarian and even to having overbalanced in the use of one's time in the order by spending it madly translating suttas and claiming them as one's own intellectual property keeping control of their use in private hands (something that might explain getting migraines, in a man who had entered the order to attain enlightenment)*. It would apply to you to the degree the shoe fit which was of course the intent but where the intent was certainly motivated by a wish to see the shoe discarded. I believe I was careful not to point directly. That is what I mean when I say that people read into what I write what they think I am writing. That is something that reveals the clarity (or lack thereof) of their mind. That is something that reveals the success of their practice.

*Something that approaches 'theft of the Dhamma'. In America should a man work for a corporation which paid his salary, providing his living, furnished him a house and food in exchange for his time and work the product of his time and work would unquestionably be the property of the corporation.

You responded: We can let all that drop.

I say: You cannot. Carelessness is a symptom of hanging on. It means the mind is focused on something other than the issue in front of it. One cannot drop what one does not even see.

As for me. I am letting all that drop.




The Bottom Line on Junk Buddhism

This is the situation: however it happens whatever error that can be made in understanding the Dhamma that error gets made. Ignorance abhors a vacuum.

We have Theravada Buddhism and we have Mahayana Buddhism, only two of eighteen early 'schools' that survived. We have Tibetan Buddhism. We have Chan Buddhism. We have that Namyohorengikyo thing, what is that — Nichirin I think. Whatever you want, just chant and you get it. We have Zen Buddhism through the eyes of D.T. Suzuki, and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance. We have the Theravada version of Mahayana Buddhism of Kornfield, Trycycle and crew. We have Abhidhamma and Commentary Buddhism. We look to be evolving here in the U.S. towards Christian New Age Buddhism.

All these interpretations are faulty and are blameable for their faulty interpretations. That is one side of the picture.

The other side of the picture is that everyone starts somewhere. I started with the crazy rantings in Li Hung Chang's Scrapbook and then, of course, being here then, Jack Kerouac and the beatnicks.

Bottom line is that after pointing out, when the burden of doing so befalls us, that 'just this and that' was not said or done by the Buddha, we need to let it go. Even the mention of the word 'Buddha' and the idea of 'enlightenment' may be the thing that starts someone on their way. To go further than to state the issue; to get angry about it or to try to eliminate it, is to go off-track one's self. That is a bad example amounting to doing the same thing as one is attempting to correct. I confess I have been there. Work'n on that down here boss!


[1] For more on this see What is 2?


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