This book will be the guiding star of your life! Buddha's teachings will enlighten you to understand real knowledge and ultimate truths!
(—Dr. Mehm Tin Mon, PhD., Saddhamma Jotikadhaja, on the cover of his book The Essence of Buddha Abhidhamma, which a Western monk in Burma can hardly avoid, being offered a new copy almost as soon as he gets rid of the old one)
The third receptacle, or "basket," of canonical texts in the Pali Tipitaka is Abhidhamma, which represents an attempt to systematize the teachings of the Suttas into one coherent, comprehensive system. In Burma it is considered by many to be the most profound and most important portion of the teachings of Gotama Buddha; and no monk is considered well educated if he has not studied it extensively. The Burmese government holds yearly national Abhidhamma examinations, and those who score highest receive public honors and titles.
Anyone who has spent much time in Burma will be familiar with the Patthan pweh, or Paṭṭhāna festival—an event in which monks recite Paṭṭhāna, the last portion of the Abhidhamma Piṭaka, over loudspeakers, in relay, sometimes around the clock for several days in succession. To a Westerner who appreciates peace and quiet they are little more than an affliction, but the Burmese love and esteem them. I have often considered that it would be more to the people's benefit to recite something they would actually understand, like a Burmese translation of the Dhammapada; as even most of the monks who chant Paṭṭhāna in Pali don't really understand it. It is considered to be "unreadable" as a literary document, even to those who know Pali.
The reason for these very loud chanting festivals is that, according to the commentarial tradition, the last book of the last section of the Canon (i.e., Paṭṭhāna), will be the first portion of the Tipitaka to disappear from this world, in accordance with the inexorable effects of impermanence. So by repeating these practically incomprehensible texts the monks are doing their best to keep Buddhism from disappearing from the earth. However—while Burmese monks revere and preserve Abhidhamma, the other two sections, Vinaya and the Suttas, are studied but not practiced all that much, allowing the disappearance to occur from first to last. For example, some monks specialize in chanting Paṭṭhāna at these festivals, charge for their services, and make quite a lot of money by doing it.
Whether Thai and Sinhalese monks share this reverence for Abhidhamma I don't know—I've never seen much sign of it in them if they do—but Western monks certainly have a different attitude toward it. More than half of Western monks, possibly more than three-fourths, consider Abhidhamma to be apocrypha, not taught by the Buddha at all, or for that matter by any enlightened being.
It is true that there are some non-Burmese people, including monks, who do believe and revere Abhidhamma; and rather amazingly, venerable Pah Auk Sayadaw, whose system is heavily based on it as well as on the commentarial tradition, has quite a few followers in the West and has even conducted 3-month retreats at the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts. Some of these people are even a bit fanatical about it: Once I heard of a woman who came to Burma to study Abhidhamma, and as the Sayadaw she went to didn't speak English very well, he suggested to her another Abhidhamma scholar who had studied English; the woman replied that if he had studied English she wasn't interested in being his student, as she wanted a master who had studied only Abhidhamma! Anyone whose attention had deviated from the Buddha's highest teachings was not master enough for her.
Still, most of us Westerners, myself included, pay little heed to Abhidhamma. I once was in correspondence with a British monk who called Abhidhamma scholars "abhidummies," who compiled a long list of faults in the abhidhammic approach to Dhamma, and who was of the opinion that the Abhidhamma Piṭaka should be "burnt at the stake." An American monk friend and I used to semi-joke about how our mission in life was to eradicate Abhidhamma from the face of the earth; and I even formulated a few oaths using the "A word," such as, "Your mother was an Abhidhamma scholar and your father smelled of elderberries."
Back around 1997, as an appendix to the first Dhamma essay I ever wrote, I listed evidence suggesting the less than authentic nature of Abhidhamma. It is included, in very slightly modified form, as an appendix to this post. I intend to discuss problematic Abhidhamma issues in another post also; but here I'll add the suspicious origin story accounting for the third Piṭaka. According to the commentarial tradition, one monsoon season the Buddha ascended into a heaven world, leaving behind a kind of holographic projection of himself so that those on earth would not notice his absence. He taught Abhidhamma to the gods and goddesses up there, and eventually a condensed version of it was released to human beings. The day the Buddha returned to earth, on the last day of the rains retreat (the full moon of October), is a national holiday in Burma, called Abhidhamma Day. Yet this legend seems suspiciously like a story made up after the fact to explain why a new system had suddenly appeared that was attributed to the Buddha—that is, explaining why, if the Buddha really taught it, nobody had ever heard of it before. It strikes me as very similar to the legend that the Buddha himself taught Mahayana, but since so few people in his day were wise enough to appreciate it (!) he caused the Mahayana scriptures to be hidden in the ocean and guarded by dragons for five hundred years. It is also somewhat similar to Tibetan monks "finding" previously unknown teachings of the Buddha in Himalayan caves even in modern times. Well, maybe a few of them are authentic. Maybe.
I am going to the trouble of debunking Abhidhamma philosophy here, although there are a few salient considerations. First is that even though Abhidhamma can hardly be considered Ultimate Truth by most critically-thinking Westerners, it may qualify as conventional truth so long as people believe it; and if it helps them to practice, or otherwise to approach nearer to enlightenment, then there is nothing wrong with that.
Also, all of this may be barking up the wrong tree in the West, as few Westerners, including Dhamma teachers, have more than a very superficial acquaintance with it. Besides, Westerners have their own equivalent of Abhidhamma, which they call Science. I prophesy that two hundred years from now, assuming that civilization hasn't collapsed by then, scientific materialism as a world view will be seen as just as unrealistic in its attempts to describe and explain reality as scientists nowadays would consider to be true of Abhidhamma. For a critique of the religion of the modern West, i.e., Scientism, which even Western Christians and Buddhists believe more than they believe Christianity and Buddhism, I refer the reader to the article "Buddhism and Scientism" on the website nippapanca.org. Here I will simply conclude the matter with a relevant quotation.
"To adopt scientific realism consciously, we must accept a number of underlying premises: (1) there is a physical world that exists independently of human experience; (2) it can be grasped by human concepts (mathematical or otherwise); (3) among a potentially infinite number of conceptual systems that can account for observed phenomena, only one is true of reality; (4) science is now approaching that one true theory; and (5) scientists will know when they have found it. It seems a safe guess that most people who adopt the view of scientific realism are not aware of the many articles of faith that this view entails." —B. Alan Wallace, in Choosing Reality: A Contemplative View of Physics and the Mind (Shambhala, 1989)
The Buddha Allegedly Descending from Heaven
After Teaching Abhidhamma to the Gods
Appendix: Some Evidence Suggesting the Spurious Nature of Abhidhamma Philosophy
1. In the only canonical account of the first Buddhist council (Vinaya Cullavagga chapter 12) it is stated that venerable Upāli recited Vinaya, then venerable Ānanda recited the five Nikāyas (i.e., the Suttanta), after which the council was brought to a close. Abhidhamma is mentioned not at all in the entire account (nor is it mentioned in the canonical account of the second council). The general consensus of Western scholars is that the traditional account of the first council is largely fiction; nevertheless, it does indicate that at the time of its composition (presumably sometime before the third council) Abhidhamma philosophy was either unknown or considered to be unworthy of mention. Venerable Buddhaghosa in his commentary to the Dīgha Nikāya tried to rectify the omission by simply changing the details of the story, which is a rather unconvincing device. The standard Burmese explanation of the conspicuous absence of Abhidhamma in the oldest ecclesiastical histories is that it is included in the Kuddaka Nikāya of the Suttanta Piṭaka, but this assertion receives no support from the ancient texts themselves. (The Burmese also consider Vinaya to be included in the Kuddaka Nikāya, thereby rendering the fifth Nikāya—the "Small Collection" or "Collection of the Small"—very much larger and more comprehensive than the entire remainder of the Canon, and reducing the Buddhist scriptures to a single Piṭaka.)
2. The word "abhidhamma" is very seldom found in the Vinaya and Suttanta (according to one authority eleven times), and when it is found it is usually paired with the term "abhivinaya." Since there is not and never was an Abhivinaya Piṭaka the context implies that "abhidhamma" here means simply "about Dhamma," not "higher Dhamma." In the very few cases where the term clearly refers to the philosophy of the Abhidhamma Piṭaka it is found in relatively very late canonical exegesis of older texts—for example the Vinaya Suttavibhaṅga and the Mahāniddesa.
3. Very many of the terms which play integral, central roles in Abhidhamma philosophy (cetasika, citta-vīthi, bhavaṅga, javana, kiriya-citta, rūpakalāpa, etc. etc.) are either entirely lacking in the Suttanta or are found there rarely and in a radically different context. The elaborate doctrine of citta-vīthi, for example, which essential to orthodox abhidhammic psychology and is taught in even the most elementary of Abhidhamma courses, is entirely foreign to the first two Piṭakas (and, curiously, is mentioned only briefly and obscurely in the third). Abhidhamma philosophy is claimed by orthodox authorities to be the most profound and important part of the teachings of the Buddha; but there is not a single narrative episode in the Canon, believable or otherwise, which clearly indicates that he ever taught it to anyone; and furthermore, much of the supposed "highest teachings of Buddha" (e.g., the theory of rūpakalāpas) is non canonical—not even to be found in the Abhidhamma Piṭaka itself.
4. The Kathāvatthu, fifth book of the Abhidhamma Piṭaka, deals exclusively with dogmatic controversies among schismatic sects of Buddhism that existed around the time of the third council (i.e., the mid 3rd century B.C.E.). Also, it is believed that the compiler of the work was a bhikkhu named Moggalīputtatissa, who according to ven. Buddhaghosa presided over the third council. Some fundamentalists claim that the Buddha, foreseeing the doctrinal disputes and schisms that would arise after his death, laid down the general outline of the Kathāvatthu, and more than two centuries later ven. Moggalīputtatissa merely elaborated upon it. Although this cannot be demonstratively disproved it is, needless to say, rather unlikely. (Incidentally, considering that one of the main purposes of the third council was to purge the Sangha of heretics and champion what one faction, presumably led by ven. Moggalīputtatissa, believed to be Right View, it may be assumed that the Canon was edited and infused with new material favoring the views of the prevailing faction.)
5. Among the many ancient schools of Buddhism there were at least two versions of the Abhidhamma or Abhidharma Piṭaka, one being of the Theravadins, another being of the Sarvastivadins. Both of these versions are comprised of seven books, but this is almost their only resemblance, and they are obviously not simply variations of a common precursor. Other sects possessed of an Abhidharma Piṭaka, including the Mahayanists, tended to modify or borrow outright the version of the Sarvastivadins; but many schools, particularly those which diverged from the Theravada/Sarvastivada lineage prior to around the beginning of the 3rd century B.C.E., had none. Now it would be absurd to suggest that all of the ancient schools of Buddhism that diverged from the Theravadin line were so foolish as to throw out an entire Piṭaka, which many Theravadins claim is the most profound and most important of the three; that the Sarvastivadins subsequently concocted another one from scratch; and that some of the other schools then adopted the counterfeit in favor of the original. It would be much more reasonable to assume that there simply was no Abhidhamma Piṭaka in the earliest days of Buddhism, the trend for composing such abstract, technical philosophy beginning in the Theravada/Sarvastivada lineage shortly before the occurrence of the schism that divided them. This one point is sufficient to convince most Buddhistic scholars in the West that Abhidhamma philosophy was never taught by the historical Buddha.
6. Regardless of the age and authorship of Abhidhamma there remains the serious fact that many of its tenets are in bald contradiction to quite elementary and uncontroversial observations of science. Although dozens of examples of abhidhammic non-science and illogic could easily be given, for the sake of brevity only two of the more outstanding cases will be discussed.
a) It is readily apparent that the authors of the Abhidhamma philosophy were completely ignorant of the function, even the existence, of the human nervous system. Sensory consciousness is claimed to occur in the sense organs themselves, not in the brain; for example, visual consciousness supposedly arises in seven layers of (elemental and ultimately real) visually sensitive matter located on the anterior surface of the eyeball. Rather than relying upon the presence of sensory nerve endings, the material basis of tactile sensation (also one of the 82 "ultimate realities") is said uniformly to pervade the body like oil soaking a tuft of cotton wool, being everywhere except in hair, nails, and hard, dry skin. The Pali word matthaluṅga, i.e., "brain," is conspicuously absent in the canonical Abhidhamma texts (while in the commentarial literature the brain is declared to be a large lump of inert bone marrow and the source of nasal mucus); according to the Abhidhamma scholars, thought arises not in the brain but in a small quantity of variably colored blood located in one of the chambers of the heart. This belief is closely interrelated with the fundamental concept that all mentality is strictly linear, only one specific image at a time existing in the mind, arising and passing away spontaneously through the metaphysical power of kamma. The generally prevalent and empirically consistent concept of a complex, physical generator of feeling and perception is quite foreign to Abhidhamma, and modern attempts to reconcile the two paradigms result in what is essentially doublethink.
b) The classical abhidhammic theory of matter primarily deals with 28 supposed elemental qualities which are never found alone, but are always combined in or associated with quasi-atomic particles called rūpakalāpas. The naïve realism underlying this philosophy is manifest, and furthermore has been scientifically obsolete for centuries. As an example, the four ("ultimately real") secondary material qualities allegedly present in all rūpakalāpas—color, odor, flavor, and nutritional essence—will be very briefly considered. The formulators of the theory evidently did not perceive that color, as such, exists only in the mind and is merely a symbolic interpretation of a certain bandwidth of electromagnetic radiation; and furthermore that the hypothetical rūpakalāpa is much smaller than the smallest wavelength of visible light. An individual rūpakalāpa, unless, perhaps, it could somehow be identified with a photon, could be endowed with color only potentially, and even then only in a very abstract sense. The formulators also evidently did not perceive that odor and flavor exist only in the mind, and are the result of molecules and ions of certain configurations interacting with specific neurosensory receptor sites. And the formulators quite obviously did not perceive the vast complexity of human nutrition. A hydrogen atom, for example, if contained in a molecule of sucrose is endowed with a certain nutritional value; if in a molecule of ascorbic acid, another; if in a molecule of cholesterol, yet another; if in a molecule of cellulose, is non-nutritive; and if in a molecule of cyanide, is poisonous. In the case of nutrition, even more markedly than in the preceding cases, the configuration and interaction of complex groups of elementary particles is of primary importance in determining the attributes in question. Just as a single nail does not contain within it the absolute element of "houseness," even so a single subnuclear quantum of matter does not contain within it odor, flavor, or nutritional value. And finally, although rūpakalāpas are declared by the authorities to be ubiquitous and of appreciable size by modern scientific standards (roughly the size of an electron according to one authority), no physicist or chemist in a normal, waking state of consciousness has ever experimentally isolated or otherwise verified the existence of one.