ABHIDHAMMA AND VIPASSANA
By Venerable Sitagu Sayadaw U Nyanissara
|'Abbhidhamma' means dhamma which is exceedingly subtle, deep, difficult to comprehend, and vast in scope.
'Dhamma' means reality and truth. It means the law of cause and effect, the essence of things and the way things are by nature. It means knowable reality; a reality in which there are no beings, and which is fixed in the order of its manifestations. In short,
'Dhamma' means Reality and Truth in the absolute sense.
That exceedingly subtle, deep, difficult, excellent and wide Abhidhamma, which is real and correct because it speaks of the selflessness of beings and the natural essential condition of things, was taught by the Buddha in the realm of the gods. Because no distracting objects or hindrances interrupted the mental continua of the gods, they could immediately listen to this very difficult dhamma with undivided attention and fully comprehend it. In the human realm, the nuisances of having to eat, sleep and defecate, etc., interrupt and obstruct the performance of every task. And because whenever we focus our thoughts upon any given endeavor, physical weariness, the call of nature, and hunger and thirst always intervene, our concentration becomes broken even while we work. For this reason, there would have been no benefit in teaching piecemeal a doctrine so deep as the Abhidhamma in the realm of human beings.
The time-scale in the ream of the gods is vastly different from our own. One hundred human years equals only one day in Tavatimsa heaven, Because of this, the times for eating and sleeping, for example, are separated by extremely long intervals. Moreover, the gods neither defecate nor urinate, and they feel no bodily aches or weariness. Therefore, they were able to listen to the entire exposition of the Abhidhamma in a single sitting, and - for what was to them only fifteen minutes - to attend to the discourse with a stream of thought that was undivided and continuous. In contrast, it took the Venerable Sariputta, who was the most intelligent of the Buddha's disciples, ninety days and ninety separate trips to Tavatimsa to learn and then preach in the human realm that Abhidhamma which was taught to the gods in one uninterrupted sitting.
The Abhidhamma which the Venerable Sariputta heard in brief from the Buddha he preached to his five hundred disciples in a way that was neither brief nor extended. The monks who learned the Abhidhamma from the Venerable Sariputta were newly ordained, having entered the Order on the day the Buddha ascended to Tavatimsa heaven. These five hundred sons-of good-family took ordination at that time - the full moon day of 'Waso' - because they were inspired to faith by a display of miracles performed at the foot of a white mango tree. On the following day, they listened to the Abhidhamma; and it was this Abhidhamma which became for those monks their Vipassana.
And why was this? Those five hundred monks, all of whom became arahants during the rains-retreat of that year (the seventh rains-retreat of the Buddha), also became by the end of the retreat, masters of the seven books of the Abhidhamma (abhidhammika sattapakaranika). The Buddha first assembled the entire Dhamma and taught it all together (as the Dhammasangani). He then analyzed it into separate parts and taught (the Vibhanga). He further analyzed it in detail according to elements (producing thereby, the Dhatukatha). Again he assembled it together and again analyzed it into minute parts, this time in relation to individuals, (and so taught the Puggalapannati). After that, the Buddha examined and compared the different doctrines existing in the world and taught (the Kathavatthu). Thereupon, he examined and taught the Dhamma in pairs (Yamaka); and finally, taught the doctrine of causal relations in detail (Pathana).
The seven methods of examining Dhamma presented in the seven books of the Abhidhamma; that is to say, 1) the analysis of mind (citta), mental factors (cetasika) and matter (rupa) when taken together, 2) the analysis of the same when distinguished into parts, 3) the analysis of elements, 4) the analysis of individuals, 5) the comparison of doctrines, 6) the analysis of Dhamma into pairs, and 7) the examination of causal relations, are in truth none other than seven exceedingly deep methods of Vipassana practice. For this reason it can be said that the day the five hundred monks mastered the Abhidhamma - this being the teaching of Abhidhamma-Vipassana they had listened to since their ordination - was the very day they mastered the practice of Vipassana.
Vipassana is a method of wisdom that searches for truth and peace in diverse ways by observing, inquiring into, and penetrating the nature, the essence, the set order, the absence of being, the selflessness and the ultimately reality of mind and matter. For example, one method of Vipassana accomplishes this goal through ten kinds of knowledge whereby one comes to understand the nature of matter as producing effects in mutual dependence on matter; and similarly, the nature of mind as producing effects in mutual dependence on mind. Another method which achieves the same end; that is, the seeking out and penetration of reality, relies on an ascent through the seven purifications. In both instances, Vipassana and Abhidhamma are identical.
Since Vipassana meditation takes the Abhidhamma as its sole object of contemplation, Vipassana and Abhidhamma cannot be separated. And while it may not be said that one can practice Vipassana only after one has mastered the Abhidhamma, Vipassana meditation and the study of Abhidhamma remain one and the same thing. Because mind, mental factors and matter are forever bound up with this fathom-long body, the study and learning of this subject, and the concentrated observation of the nature of mind, mental factors and matter are tasks which cannot be distinguished.
Since at the very least one would have to say that there can be no Vipassana without an understanding of mind and matter, surely then it is not possible to separate Abhidhamma and Vipassana. It is explained in the Abhidhamma that the root causes giving rise to the seven elements of mind and matter are ignorance (avijja), craving (tanha) and volitional action (kamma). It is further pointed out that the supporting conditions for these same seven elements are kamma, mind, climate (utu) and nutriment (ahara). Only by grasping these abhidhammic truths will one possess the knowledge which comprehends conditional relations (paccayapariggahanana), and achieve the purification of mind necessary for overcoming doubt. These excellent benefits are pointed out by paticcasamuppada and pathana. Therefore, since it is the case that Vipassana and Abhidhamma are not separate but are mutually dependent, it is rightly submitted that Vipassana yogis ought not let go of that wise method of learning about the human condition called the Abhidhamma.
(Note: - This is the talk, which Sitagu Sayadaw gave on a special occasion of Abhidhamma, translated into English by the Department of Research and Compilation, International Buddhist Academy, Sagaing Hill, Myanmar)
N.B. The Venerable Sayadaw Ashin Nyanissara was born on February 23rd, 1937, in the town of Thegon, Pegu Division, in central Myanmar. Besides being a teacher of Buddhism and organising and administering various charitable projects in Myanmar; he has published thirty-eight books and articles in the Myanmar language on the subject of Buddhism. He has published several booklets in English and worked on several more manuscripts for English publication.
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