Abhidhamma And Practice

by Nina van Gorkom | 2001 | 5,974 words

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What is the cause of all misery and sorrow in the world? We read in the ‘Kindred Sayings’ (Vol. I, Ch. III, iii, par. 3, The World) that King Pasenadi asked the Buddha:

‘How many kinds of things, lord, that happen in the world, make for trouble, for suffering, for distress?’

The Buddha answered:

‘Three things, sire, happen of that nature. What are the three? Greed, hate, and delusion;- these three make for trouble, for suffering, for distress.’

In the Buddha’s time defilements were the cause of all sorrow and suffering and this is also true for today. It is true for all times. Only those who are perfected have no sorrow and suffering.

The Buddha taught the solution to all problem: the eradication of all unwholesomeness through the development of right understanding; right understanding of all phenomena of our life.

Is the eradication of our defilements really the solution to all problems in the world? Is it not a selfish attitude to be solely occupied with the eradication of one’s own defilements, and even more, is it possible to eradicate defilements?

We cannot eradicate the defilements of others, “we” cannot even eradicate our own defilements. But when right understanding has been developed, it is right understanding which can gradually eradicate defilements. But this may take many lives.

At this moment we are full of ignorance as to the phenomena of our live. We usually seek only ourselves and we serve our own interests. How could we then really serve other people? Detachment from ‘self’ is only possible through right understanding of the phenomena of our life. Through right understanding there will be less unwholesomeness in life and more wholesomeness, such as loving-kindness and compassion. Thus, the development of right understanding should be our first aim.

The Buddha taught that all phenomena which arise, fall away immediately, they are impermanent. What is impermanent cannot be true happiness and thus it is ‘suffering’ (dukkha), Phenomena are not self, and they do not belong to a self, they are ‘not-self’ (anatta). At this moment we have wrong view of reality. We do not see things as they are: impermanent, ‘suffering’ and not self. We believe that we see the impermanence of things, but we have only theoretical understanding of impermanence. In reality we do not experience the arising and falling away of phenomena as it occurs now, and at each moment.

Our body is impermanent, but we are so attached to it. We all see a change in the body after some time, when we become older, but in reality our body changes each moment of our life. What we take for ‘our body’ are only different physical phenomena which arise and then fall away immediately.

We are so attached to our mind, our ‘soul’, our ambitions, our pleasures. But what we take for our mind, our soul, are in reality many different mental phenomena which change all the time. We are attached to the idea of ‘my mind’, but where is it? Is it thinking? But thinking is never the same, we think now of this, now of that. There is thinking now, but it is always changing. Is feeling something which lasts? Feeling is sometimes pleasant, sometimes unpleasant, and sometimes there is indifferent feeling. Each moment feeling is different. There is no mind, there are only ever-changing mental phenomena which do not belong to a self. The Buddha taught us to develop right understanding of all the changing phenomena in our daily life and this is the essence of his teachings. Thus we can gradually become detached from the self and develop more wholesomeness.

We come to know the Buddha’s teachings through the ‘Three Collections’ of The Vinaya (Book of Discipline for the monks), the Suttanta and the Abhidhamma. The Abhidhamma teaches us in detail about all mental phenomena and physical phenomena. The Abhidhamma teaches us in detail about all wholesome moments of consciousness and all unwholesome moments of consciousness, and is this not valuable? If we do not know about the moments of consciousness how could we develop wholesomeness? Often we take for wholesome what is actually not wholesome. For example, we think that there is unselfish love while there is actually attachment to people. The study of the Abhidhamma can help us to develop more understanding of the different moments of consciousness.

We may wonder whether a precise knowledge of the phenomena of life is necessary. Does this not make our life unnecessarily complicated? The Abhidhamma teaches about realities. The different moments of consciousness change so rapidly and they are all different. We cannot catch them, but the study of the different moments of consciousness which occur will help us to develop right understanding of our life.

We believe that a self exists, sees, hears and thinks, we believe that a self lives and dies. We believe that other people exist. This is a wrong view of reality. What we take for self are only ever-changing phenomena. In reality there is no ‘I”, no ‘he’. We spend our life dreaming about things which do not exist. Our wrong view causes us suffering. We have expectations about ourselves and others and if these do not come true we suffer from frustrations. We are afraid of death and we do not know what will happen to the ‘self’ after we have died. It would be a great gain if we could see our life as it really is—only changing phenomena. Then we could face with right understanding old age, sickness and death.

The Abhidhamma teaches us that all phenomena in ourselves and around
ourselves are only two kinds of realities:

Mental phenomena, or nama,
Physical phenomena, or rupa.

Nama experiences or knows something, rupa does not know anything.

What we take for self or person are only changing phenomena, nama and rupa. But, we may wonder, is the world not full of people, animals and things? We see them, we touch them, we live with them. If we see them as only changing phenomena, namas and rupas, does this vision estrange us from the world, from our fellow men?

When we think about old age, sickness and death, we will understand that life, that all people, are impermanent. But there is impermanence at each moment, each phenomena which arises falls away immediately. This does not mean that these phenomena are not real. Love is real, but it falls away immediately, and it does not belong to a self who could be master of it. We can have the intention to be kind, but we cannot force ourselves to kindness. When things are not the way we want them to be we may become angry, in spite of ourselves, as we say. This shows us that phenomena are anatta, not self. Anger is real, but it falls away immediately. Love, hate, wisdom, generosity, all these things are real, but there is no self which could not be mater of them, they are anatta.

Does not everybody have his own personality? There is nothing lasting in a man, not even what we call his character. There are ever changing moments of consciousness which arise and fall away. There is only one moment of consciousness (citta) at a time, and it falls away immediately after it has arisen, but it is succeeded by a next moment. Thus our whole life is like a chain of moments of consciousness. Each moment of consciousness which falls away conditions the next moment of consciousness and thus it is possible that our good and bad moments today condition our inclinations in the future. Generosity today or anger today conditions generosity or anger in the future. A moment of right understanding now conditions right understanding in the future, and thus it is possible to develop wisdom. Although each moment falls away we can still speak of an ‘accumulation’ of experiences in each moment of consciousness, and we can call this character. But we should not forget that the mental phenomena we call character do not last and that they do not belong to a self.

We do not become estranged from life and from our fellowmen when we see both ourselves and others as nama and rupa which are impermanent and not self. We would rather that there is no impermanence, no death, but that is not possible. It is better to know the truth about life than to mislead ourselves with regard to the truth. When there is less clinging to the concept of self we will be able to act with more unselfishness and thus we can be of more help to others and we can perform our duties with more wholesomeness.

In reality there are only nama and rupa which are impermanent and not self. Nama experiences or knows something, rupa does not know anything. Seeing, hearing, thinking, love, hate, these are all experiences, they are namas. Sound, hardness or softness are rupas, they do not experience anything. Both nama and rupa are realities which we experience time and again, they are real for everybody. We do not have to name them in order to experience them; They can be directly experienced when they present themselves, at this moment.

We see and hear the whole day, but we know so little about these realities. Seeing is an experience through the eyes and it is different from thinking of what we see. Hearing is an experience through the ears and it is different from thinking of what we hear. Since the different moments of consciousness succeed one another so rapidly we believe that we can see and hear or see and think all at the same time. However, there is only one moment of consciousness at a time which experiences one object and then falls away immediately.

We are attached to all namas and rupas. We are, for example, attached to seeing and to what we see, but what is actually seeing and what is visible object? We should know seeing and visible object as they are. We think that we are a person but seeing sees only what appears through the eyes: the visible. A person could not contact the eye-sense. When we pay attention to the shape and form of something there is no seeing, but thinking. Thinking of a person is another moment of consciousness which cannot occur at the same time as seeing.

At first we may find it strange that seeing only sees visible object and not a person. We find it strange because we actually cling to the concept of a person who exists, who stays, at least for some time, But this is not the truth.

When we look at what we call a ‘person’, seeing sees only what is visible, visible object. Visible object is not a person, it is a kind of rupa which falls away immediately, although we do not realize it. At the moment of seeing only visible object is experienced, no other reality such as solidity. It is true that the rupa which is visible object does not arisen alone, it arises together with other rupas such as solidity and temperature. Visible object could not arise if there were no solidity and other rupas arising together with it. However, only one reality can be known at a time; it can be known when it appears through the appropriated doorway. Realities can be experienced one at a time through eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body-sense and mind, through these six doors. The moment of consciousness which experiences visible object does not experience sound or hardness (solidity). When we touch what we call a ‘human-body’ hardness may appear through the body-sense. The hardness which is experienced is not a body, it is only hardness, a rupa which is experienced through the body-sense and it falls away again, although we do not realize it. Since we always cling to the concept of a person or the human body we fail to see them as different elements which do not stay, even for a second. We are always attached to people and to self and this causes us sorrow.

We do not only cling to the concept of a person but also to the concepts of things such as a house or a tree and we believe that they exist, that they can stay. In reality there are only different elements which arise and fall away. Our life is actually one moment of consciousness which experiences one object and this moment falls away immediately. Then another moment arises. The object which is experienced does not stay either, it falls away.

The development of a more precise knowledge of realities which appear one at a time is the only way to gradually eliminate ignorance and wrong view about them. If we learn to be aware of the characteristic of visible object when it appears we will know that it is only a rupa appearing through the eye-sense, not a person. If there can be awareness of hardness when it appears we will know that it is only a rupa appearing through the body-sense, not a person or a thing. We should not try to avoid thinking of people or things, thinking is a reality, it arises. However, we should know that the concepts which are object of our thinking are not realities; they are different from nama and rupa which can be experienced one at a time through the appropriate doorways. We form up concepts because of a combination of many different experiences which we remember.

Nama and rupa are ‘ultimate realities’, paramattha dhammas; they are realities which can be directly experienced by everybody, without there being the need to think about them. We do not have to think of sound or hardness in order to experience them. They are real for everybody and they can be experienced when they appear. Person, animal, tree or house are not paramattha dhammas, they are concepts.

We may find it difficult to accept that nama and rupa are realities and that concepts such as people, animals and things are not realities. Gradually we may be able to prove to ourselves that life is actually one moment of experiencing one object through one of the six doors. Thus, life is nama and rupa which arise because of conditions and fall away again. Time and again there are objects impinging on the different doorways. When there is a pleasant object attachment is bound to arise, and when there is an unpleasant object, aversion. Defilements have been accumulated and they can arise at any time so long as they have not been eradicated. Defilements are nama which arise because of conditions. When there is no right understanding of nama and rupa we will only have a superficial knowledge of both ourselves and others. We will have a wrong understanding of cause and effect in life. Don’t we blame others for our own unhappiness? The real cause of unhappiness is within ourselves. Right understanding of the different namas and rupas which appear is the only way to have less defilements and thus to have less sorrow in life.

Namas and rupas can experienced now. There are seeing and hearing time and again but we may never have been aware of them. Still, it is necessary to know them as they are. Seeing is not thinking. Seeing sees and it does not think. When we close our eyes we may think of many things but we cannot see. When we open our eyes something appears which did not appear when our eyes were closed. There is seeing, and seeing sees visible object. Seeing does not see a man or a tree.

The development of insight is a kind of study of nama and rupa through the direct experience of them. Namas and rupas which appear one at a time should be ‘studied’ with mindfulness, but each moment of study is extremely short, since mindfulness does not last, it falls away. However, gradually a clearer understanding of realities can be accumulated. Nama and rupa are the objects of the ‘study with mindfulness’, not people, animals or things. Whenever we are there are in reality only nama and rupa, such as seeing, hearing, the visible object, sound or hardness. Instead of clinging to them or having aversion towards them we can know them as they are. When we realize that our life is actually only nama and rupa which arise because there are conditions for their arising, we can become more patient, even in difficult situations.

Mindfulness (sati) is nama which arises with a wholesome moment of consciousness. We cannot induce mindfulness whenever we want it, but it can arise when there are the appropriate conditions. All namas and rupas in our life arise only when there are the appropriate conditions, not because of our will. The condition for right mindfulness is intellectual understanding of what nama and rupa are: realities which appear through the six doorways. Nama and rupa which appear now – thus, realities, not ideas - are the objects about which right understanding should be developed. When we read in the Buddhist scriptures time and again about the realities which appear through the six doors or we listen to talks about nama and rupa, and we understand what we read or what we hear, then the intellectual understanding can condition the arising of mindfulness. Even one moment of mindfulness is valuable because it can condition another moment later on and thus right understanding can grow. The development of insight is the highest form of wholesomeness, it is the only way to eradicate attacment, aversion and ignorance.

Mindfulness of the nama or rupa which appears now is the way to develop insight. When one believes that one does all one’s actions in a day with thoughtfulness but there is no awareness of nama and rupa, it is not the development of insight. When one, for example, follows what one’s hands and feet are doing in a day one does not learn anything about nama and rupa, about what is real, about impermanence.

In the development of insight we do everything as usual, but in our daily life there can be mindfulness of a nama or a rupa, a moment of ‘study with mindfulness’, study through the practice. When my husband takes my hand, there is, as we say, a ‘human contact’. What are the realities? There is attachment and this is real, we do not have to try to suppress it. There can, in a very natural way, be study with mindfulness of a nama or a rupa. What appears through the body-sense? Not a person, not my husband. Heat or cold, hardness or softness can appear through the body-sense. We do not have to think about it, it can be directly experienced. Through mindfulness we can prove that no person is experienced through the body-sense, that a person does not exist. There is no person, only different namas and rupas appearing one at a time, and they do not stay. Clinging to people brings sorrow; eventually I will have to take leave from my husband, nothing is permanent. Through the development of insight, clinging to the concept of a person who exists can be eradicated.

When there is more right understanding of nama and rupa we will have a different view of the events of our life. We like to make plans but often things do not happen the way we would like them to. Our good and bad deeds (kamma) are the causes in our life which bring their results in the form of pleasant and unpleasant experiences. When we understand that our life is nama and rupa which arise because of their own conditions, not because of our will, we will be less attached to pleasant results and less inclined to blame others for unpleasant things we experience. There are only nama and rupa and we are not master of them. Through the development of insight we will become more patient, we will have more loving-kindness and compassion. Thus, the development of insight is to the benefit of other people as well.

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