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The Four Paramattha Dhammas
There are two kinds of reality: mental phenomena or nāma and physical phenomena or rūpa. Nāma experiences something; rūpa does not experience anything. What we take for “self” are only nāma and rūpa which arise and fall away. The Visuddhimagga (Path of Purification chapter XVIII, 25) explains:
For this has been said:
As with the assembly of parts
The word 'chariot' is countenanced,
So, when the khandhas are present,
A being' is said in common usage''.
(Kindred Sayings I, 135)
...So in many hundred suttas there is only mentality-materiality which is illustrated, not a being, not a person. Therefore, just as when the component parts (of a chariot) such as axles, wheels, frame, poles... are arranged in a certain way, there comes to be the mere conventional term ‘chariot’, yet in the ultimate sense, when each part is examined, there is no chariot ... so too, when there are the five khandhas of clinging there comes to be the mere conventional term ‘a being’, ‘a person’, yet in the ultimate sense, when each component is examined, there is no being as a basis for the assumption ‘I am’ or ‘I’; in the ultimate sense there is only mentality-materiality. The vision of one who sees in this way is called correct vision.
All phenomena in and around ourselves are only nāma and rūpa which arise and fall away; they are impermanent. Nāma and rūpa are absolute realities, in Pāli: paramattha dhammas. We can experience their characteristics when they appear, no matter how we name them; we do not necessarily have to call them nāma and rūpa. Those who have developed “insight” can experience them as they really are: impermanent and not self. Seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, experiencing tangible object through the bodysense and thinking, all these nāmas are impermanent. We are used to thinking that there is a self who performs different functions such as seeing, hearing or thinking; but where is the self? Is it one of those nāmas? The more we know different nāmas and rūpas by experiencing their characteristics, the more will we see that “self” is only a concept; it is not a paramattha dhamma (absolute or ultimate reality).
Nāmas are mental phenomena, rūpas are physical phenomena. Nāma and rūpa are different types of realities. If we do not distinguish them from each other and learn the characteristic of each we will continue to take them for self. For example, hearing is nāma; it has no form or shape, it has no ears. Hearing is different from earsense, but it has earsense as a necessary condition. The nāma which hears experiences sound. Earsense and sound are rūpas, they do not experience anything; they are entirely different from the nāma which hears. If we do not learn that hearing, earsense and sound are realities which are altogether different from each other, we will continue to think that it is self who hears.
The Visuddhimagga (XVIII, 34) explains:
Furthermore, nāma has no efficient power, it cannot occur by its own efficient power ...It does not eat, it does not drink, it does not speak, it does not adopt postures. And rūpa is without efficient power; it cannot occur by its own efficient power. For it has no desire to eat, it has no desire to drink, it has no desire to speak, it has no desire to adopt postures. But it is when supported by rūpa that nāma occurs; and it is when supported by nāma that rūpa occurs. When nāma has the desire to eat, the desire to drink, the desire to speak, the desire to adopt a posture, it is rūpa that eats, drinks, speaks and adopts a posture...
Furthermore (XVIII, 36) we read:
And just as men depend upon
A boat for traversing the sea,
So does the mental body need
The matter-body for occurrence.
And as the boat depends upon
The men for traversing the sea,
So does the matter-body need
The mental body for occurrence.
Depending each upon the other
The boat and men go on the sea.
And so do mind and matter both
Depend the one upon the other.
There are two kinds of conditioned nāma : citta (consciousness) and cetasika (mental factors arising together with consciousness). They are nāmas which arise because of conditions and fall away again.
As regards citta, citta knows or experiences an object. Each citta has its object, in Pāli: ārammaṇa. Knowing or experiencing an object does not necessarily mean thinking about it. The citta which sees has what is visible as object; it is different from the cittas which arise afterwards, such as the cittas which know what it is that was perceived and which think about it. The citta which hears (hearing-consciousness) has sound as its object. Even when we are sound asleep and not dreaming, citta experiences an object. There isn’t any citta without an object. There are many different types of citta which can be classified in different ways.
Some cittas are kusala (wholesome), some are akusala (unwholesome). Kusala cittas and akusala cittas are cittas which are cause; they can motivate wholesome or unwholesome deeds through body, speech or mind which are able to bring about their appropriate results. Some cittas are the result of wholesome or unwholesome deeds; they are vipākacittas. Some cittas are neither cause nor result; they are kiriyacittas (sometimes translated as “inoperative”) (3).
Cittas can be classified by way of jāti (jāti literally means “birth” or “nature”). There are four jātis:
Both kusala vipāka (the result of a wholesome deed) and akusala vipāka (the result of an unwholesome deed) are one jāti, the jāti of vipāka.
It is important to know which jāti a citta is. We cannot develop wholesomeness in our life if we take akusala for kusala or if we take akusala for vipāka. For instance, when someone speaks unpleasant words to us, the moment of experiencing the sound (hearing-consciousness) is akusala vipāka, the result of an unwholesome deed we performed ourselves. But the aversion which may arise very shortly afterwards is not vipāka, but it arises with akusala citta. We can learn to distinguish these moments from each other by realizing their different characteristics.
Another way of classifying citta is by plane of consciousness, in Pāli: bhūmi. There are different planes of consciousness. The sensuous plane of consciousness (kāmāvacara cittas) is the plane of sense-impressions, which are: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and the experiencing of tangible object through the bodysense. On account of pleasant and unpleasant objects experienced through the senses, kusala cittas (wholesome cittas) and akusala cittas (unwholesome cittas) arise. There are other planes of citta which do not experience sense-impressions. Those who cultivate samatha (tranquil meditation) and attain absorption (jhāna), have jhānacittas. The jhānacitta is another plane of citta; it does not experience sense-impressions. The lokuttara citta (“supramundane consciousness”) is the highest plane of consciousness because it is the citta which directly experiences nibbāna.
There are still other ways of classifying citta and if we consider the different intensities of citta there are many more distinctions to be made. For instance, akusala cittas, which are rooted in attachment (lobha), aversion (dosa) and ignorance (moha), can be of many different intensities. Sometimes they may motivate deeds, sometimes they may not, depending on the degree of akusala. Kusala cittas too are of many different intensities. It is useful to know different ways of classification because in this way we learn about different aspects of citta. There are altogether eighty-nine (or, in another classification, hundred-and-twenty-one) types of citta (4). If we develop our knowledge of cittas and if we are aware of them when they appear, we will be less inclined to take them for ”self”.
Cetasika is the second paramattha dhamma which is nāma. As we have seen, citta experiences an object: seeing has what is visible as its object, hearing has sound as its object, the citta which thinks experiences the object it is thinking of. However, there is not only citta, there are also mental factors, cetasikas, which accompany citta. One can think of something with aversion, with pleasant feeling or with wisdom. Aversion, feeling and wisdom are mental phenomena which are not citta; they are cetasikas which accompany different cittas. There is only one citta at a time, but there are several cetasikas arising together with the citta and falling away together with the citta; citta never arises alone. For example, feeling, in Pāli: vedanā, is a cetasika which arises with every citta. Citta only knows or experiences its object; it does not feel. Feeling, vedanā, however, has the function of feeling. Feeling is sometimes pleasant, sometimes unpleasant. When we do not have a pleasant or an unpleasant feeling, there is still feeling: at that moment the feeling is neutral or indifferent. There is always feeling; there isn’t any moment of citta without feeling. When, for example, seeing-consciousness arises, feeling arises together with the citta. The citta which sees perceives only visible object; there is not yet like or dislike. The feeling which accompanies this type of citta is indifferent feeling. After seeing-consciousness has fallen away, other cittas arise and there may be cittas which dislike the object. The feeling which accompanies this type of citta is unpleasant feeling. The function of citta is to cognize an object; citta is the “chief in knowing”. Cetasikas share the same object with the citta, but they each have their own specific quality and function. Some cetasikas arise with every citta whereas others do not (5).
As we have seen, feeling, vedanā is a cetasika which arises with every citta. Contact, in Pāli: phassa, is another cetasika which arises with every citta; it “contacts” the object so that citta can experience it. Perception or remembrance, in Pāli: saññā, is also a cetasika which arises with every citta. In the Visuddhimagga (XIV, 130) we read that saññā has the function of perceiving:
...Its function is to make a sign as a condition for perceiving again that “this is the same”, as carpenters, etc., do in the case of timber...
Citta only experiences or cognizes an object; it does not “mark” the object. Saññā marks the object so that it can be recognized later. Whenever we remember something it is saññā, not self, which remembers. It is saññā which, for example, remembers that this colour is red, that this is a house, or that this is the sound of a bird.
There are also types of cetasika which do not arise with every citta. Akusala (unwholesome) cetasikas arise only with akusala cittas. Sobhana (beautiful) cetasikas (6) arise with sobhana cittas. Lobha (attachment), dosa (aversion) and moha (ignorance) are akusala cetasikas which arise only with akusala cittas. For example, when we see something beautiful, cittas with attachment to what we have seen may arise. The cetasika which is lobha arises with the citta at that moment. Lobha has the function of attachment or clinging. There are several other akusala cetasikas which arise with akusala cittas, such as conceit (māna), wrong view (diṭṭhi) and envy (issā). Sobhana cetasikas accompanying wholesome cittas are for example alobha (generosity), adosa (loving kindness), amoha (or paññā, wisdom). When we are generous alobha and adosa arise with the kusala citta. Paññā, wisdom, may arise too with the kusala citta, and moreover, there are other kinds of sobhana cetasikas arising with the kusala citta as well. Defilements and wholesome qualities are cetasikas, they are non-self. Altogether there are fifty-two different cetasikas.
Although citta and cetasika are both nāma, they each have different characteristics. One may wonder how cetasikas can be experienced. When we notice a change in citta, a characteristic of cetasika can be experienced. For instance, when akusala cittas with stinginess arise after kusala cittas with generosity have fallen away, we can notice a change. Stinginess and generosity are cetasikas which can be experienced; they have different characteristics. We may notice as well the change from attachment to aversion, from pleasant feeling to unpleasant feeling. Feeling is a cetasika we can experience, because feeling is sometimes predominant and there are different kinds of feeling. We can experience that unpleasant feeling is different from pleasant feeling and from indifferent feeling. These different cetasikas arise with different cittas and they fall away immediately, together with the citta they accompany. If we know more about the variety of citta and cetasika, it will help us to see the truth.
Since citta and cetasika arise together it is difficult to experience the difference in their characteristics. The Buddha was able to directly experience the different characteristics of all cittas and cetasikas because his wisdom was of the highest degree. We read in the Questions of King Milinda (Book III, “The Removal of Difficulties”, chapter 7, 87 (7)) that the arahat Nāgasena said to King Milinda:
“A hard thing there is, O King, which the Blessed One has done.” “And what is that?” “The fixing of all those mental conditions which depend on one organ of sense, telling us that such is contact, such is feeling, such is saññā (perception), such is volition and such is citta.” “Give me an illustration.” “Suppose, O King, a man were to wade down into the sea, and taking some water in the palm of his hand, were to taste it with his tongue. Would he distinguish whether it were water from the Ganges, or from the Jamunā, or from the Aciravatī, or from the Sarabhū, or from the Mahī?” “Impossible, Sir.” “More difficult than that, great King, is it to have distinguished between the mental conditions which follow on the exercise of any one of the organs of sense!”
Citta and cetasika are paramattha dhammas (absolute realities) which each have their own unchangeable characteristic. These characteristics can be experienced, regardless how one names them. Paramattha dhammas are not words or concepts, they are realities. Pleasant feeling and unpleasant feeling are real; their characteristics can be experienced without having to call them “pleasant feeling” or “unpleasant feeling”. Aversion is real; it can be experienced when it presents itself.
There are not only mental phenomena, there are also physical phenomena. Physical phenomena or rūpa are the third paramattha dhamma. There are several kinds of rūpas which each have their own characteristic (8). There are four principle rūpas which are called the Great Elements (in Pāli: mahā-bhūta-rūpa). They are:
- Element of Earth or solidity (to be experienced as hardness orsoftness)
- Element of Water or cohesion
- Element of Fire or temperature (to be experienced as heat or cold)
- Element of Wind or motion (to be experienced as oscillation orpressure)
These “Great Elements” are the principle rūpas which arise together with all the other kinds of rūpa, which are the derived rūpas (in Pāli: upādā-rūpa). Rūpas never arise alone; they arise in “groups” or “units”. There have to be at least eight kinds of rūpa arising together. For example, whenever the rūpa which is temperature arises, solidity, cohesion, motion and other rūpas have to arise as well. “Derived rūpas” are, for example, the physical sense-organs of eyesense, earsense, smellingsense, tastingsense and bodysense, and the sense-objects of visible object, sound, odour and flavour.
Different characteristics of rūpa can be experienced through eyes, ears, nose, tongue, bodysense and mind. These characteristics are real since they can be experienced. We use conventional terms such as “body” and “table”; both have the characteristic of hardness which can be experienced through touch. In this way we can prove that the characteristic of hardness is the same, no matter whether it is in the body or in the table. Hardness is a paramattha dhamma; “body” and “table” are not paramattha dhammas but only concepts. We take it for granted that the body stays and we take it for “self”, but what we call “body” are only different rūpas arising and falling away. The conventional term “body” may delude us about reality. We will know the truth if we learn to experience different characteristics of rūpa when they appear.
Citta, cetasika and rūpa only arise when there are the right conditions, they are conditioned dhammas (in Pāli: saṅkhāra dhammas (9)). Seeing cannot arise when there is no eyesense and when there is no visible object; these are necessary conditions for its arising. Sound can only arise when there are the right conditions for its arising. When it has arisen it falls away again. Everything which arises because of conditions has to fall away again when the conditions have ceased. One may think that sound stays, but what we take for a long, lasting moment of sound are actually many different rūpas succeeding one another.
The fourth paramattha dhamma is nibbāna. Nibbāna is a paramattha dhamma because it is real. Nibbāna can be experienced through the mind-door if one follows the right Path leading towards it: the development of the wisdom which sees things as they are. Nibbāna is nāma. However, it is not citta or cetasika, paramattha dhammas which arise because of conditions and fall way. Nibbāna is the nāma which is an unconditioned reality (10); therefore it does not arise and it does not fall away. Citta and cetasika are nāmas which experience an object; nibbāna is the nāma which does not experience an object, but nibbāna itself can be the object of citta and cetasika which experience it. Nibbāna is not a person, it is non-self, anattā.
Summarising the four paramattha dhammas, they are:
When we study Dhamma it is essential to know which paramattha dhamma such or such reality is. If we do not know this we may be misled by conventional terms. We should, for example, know that what we call “body” are actually different rūpa-paramattha dhammas, not citta or cetasika. We should know that nibbāna is not citta or cetasika, but the fourth paramattha dhamma. Nibbāna is the end of all conditioned realities which arise and fall away: for the arahat, the perfected one, who passes away, there is no more rebirth, no more nāmas and rūpas which arise and fall away.
- All conditioned dhammas, citta, cetasika and rūpa, are impermanent,“anicca”.
- All conditioned dhammas are “dukkha”; they are “suffering” orunsatisfactory, since they are impermanent.
- All dhammas are non-self, “anattā” (in Pāli: sabbe dhammā anattā,Dhammapada, vs. 279).
Thus, the conditioned dhammas, not nibbāna, are impermanent and dukkha. But all dhammas, that is, the four paramattha dhammas, nibbāna included, have the characteristic of anattā, non-self.
- 1.What is the difference between nāma and rūpa?
- 2.What is the difference between citta and cetasika?
- 3.Do cetasikas experience an object?
- 4.Is there more than one cetasika arising together with the citta?
- 5.Can nibbāna experience an object?
- 6.Is nibbāna a “self”?