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The Buddha’s teachings, contained in the “Tipiṭaka” (Three Baskets) are: the Vinaya (Book of Discipline for the monks), the Suttanta (Discourses) and the Abhidhamma. All three parts of the Tipiṭaka can be an inexhaustible source of inspiration and encouragement to the practice, the development of right understanding of realities. The development of right understanding will eventually lead to the eradication of wrong view and the other defilements. In all three parts of the Tipiṭaka we are taught about dhamma, about everything which is real. Seeing is a dhamma, it is real. Colour is a dhamma, it is real. Feeling is a dhamma, it is real. Our defilements are dhammas, they are realities.
When the Buddha attained enlightenment he clearly knew all dhammas as they really are. He taught the “Dhamma”, the teaching on realities, to us in order that we also may know dhammas as they are. Without the Buddha’s teaching we would be ignorant of reality. We are inclined to take for permanent what is impermanent, for pleasant what is sorrowful and unsatisfactory (dukkha), and for “self” what is non-self. The aim of all three parts of the Tipiṭaka is to teach people the development of the way leading to the end of defilements.
The Vinaya contains the rules for the monks and these rules help them to live to perfection the “brahman life” and to reach “…that unsurpassed goal of the brahman life, realizing it by personal knowledge even in this life; for the sake of which clansmen rightly go forth from the home into the homeless life...” (Gradual Sayings, Book of the Fives, chapter VI, paragraph 6, The Preceptor). The goal of the “brahman life” is the eradication of defilements.
Not only monks, but also laymen should study the Vinaya. We read about the instances that monks deviated from their purity of life; when there was such a case, a rule was laid down in order to help them to be watchful. When we read the Vinaya we are reminded of our own attachment (lobha), aversion (dosa) and ignorance (moha); they are realities. So long as they have not been eradicated they can arise at any time. We are reminded how deeply rooted defilements are and what they can lead to. When we consider this, we are motivated to develop the eightfold Path which leads to the eradication of wrong view, jealousy, stinginess, conceit and all other defilements.
In the Suttanta, the “Discourses”, the Dhamma is explained to different people at different places on various occasions. The Buddha taught about all realities appearing through the “six doors” of eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body-sense and mind. He taught about cause and effect and about the practice leading to the end of all sorrow.
As regards the Abhidhamma, this is an exposition of all realities in detail. The prefix “abhi” is used in the sense of “preponderance” or “distinction”. “Abhidhamma” means “higher dhamma” or “dhamma in detail”. The form of this part of the Tipiṭaka is different, but the aim is the same: the eradication of wrong view and eventually of all defilements. Thus, when we study the many enumerations of realities, we should not forget the real purpose of our study. The theory (pariyatti) should encourage us to the practice (paṭipatti) which is necessary for the realization of the truth (paṭivedha). While we are studying the different mental phenomena (nāmas) and physical phenomena (rūpas) and while we are pondering over them, we can be reminded to be aware of the nāma and rūpa which appear at that moment. In this way we will discover more and more that the Abhidhamma explains everything which is real, that is, the “worlds” appearing through the six doors of the senses and the mind.
This book is meant as an introduction to the study of the Abhidhamma. In order to understand this book, some basic knowledge of Buddhism is necessary. My book The Buddha’s Path could be helpful to make the reader acquainted with the basic principles and tenets of Buddhism before he starts to read this book on the Abhidhamma.
I am using terms in Pāli which is the original language of the scriptures of the old Theravāda tradition. The English equivalents of the Pāli terms are often unsatisfactory since they stem from Western philosophy and psychology and therefore give an association of meaning which is different from the meaning intended by the Buddhist teachings. I hope that the reader, instead of being discouraged by the Pāli terms and by the many enumerations which are used in this book, will develop a growing interest in the realities to be experienced in and around himself.
Ms. Sujin Boriharnwanaket has been of immense assistance and inspiration to me in my study of the Abhidhamma. She encouraged me to discover for myself that the Abhidhamma deals with realities to be experienced through the senses and the mind. Thus I learnt that the study of the Abhidhamma is a process which continues throughout life. I hope that the reader will have a similar experience and that he will be full of enthusiasm and gladness every time he studies realities which can be experienced!
I have quoted many times from the suttas in order to show that the teaching contained in the Abhidhamma is not different from the teaching in the other parts of the Tipiṭaka. I have mostly used the English translation of the “Pāli Text Society” (Translation Series). For the quotations from the Visuddhimagga (Path of Purification) I have used the translation by Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli (Colombo, Sri Lanka, 1964). The Visuddhimagga is an Encyclopedia on Buddhism written by the commentator Buddhaghosa in the fifth century A.D. He also edited the commentaries to most parts of the Tipiṭaka, thereby basing his works on older commentarial traditions.
The Abhidhamma consists of the following seven books (1) For a synopsis of their contents see: Guide through the Abhidhamma Pitaka by Ven. Nyanatiloka].
  • Dhammasangaṇi (Buddhist Psychological Ethics)
  • Vibhaṅga (Book of Analysis)
  • Dhātukathā (Discussion on the Elements)
  • Puggalapaññatti (A Designation of Human Types)
  • Kathāvatthu (Points of Controversy)
  • Yamaka (the Book of Pairs)
  • Paṭṭhāna (Conditional Relations)
When I first started to write this book my sources were the Visuddhimagga and the Atthasālinī (Expositor), the commentary to the Dhammasangaṇi, written by Buddhaghosa. I also used the Abhidhammattha Sangaha, an Encyclopedia of the Abhidhamma, written by Anuruddha (2). These works helped me greatly with the study of the Abhidhamma itself, of the Dhammasangaṇi and some of the other books of the abhidhamma I gradually acquired later on.
The commentaries give a detailed explanation and nomenclature of the different cittas, moments of consciousness, which each perform their own function, and they deal with the different processes of cittas experiencing an object through a sense-door or through the mind-door. Although not all the details concerning the processes of cittas can be found in the scriptures themselves, the commentaries are firmly based on the scriptures. The essence of the subjects explained by the commentaries can be found in the scriptures. The Dhammasangaṇi, which is an analytical exposition of realities, enumerates different cittas arising in processes. The Vibhaṅga, under “Analysis of the Elements”, refers to cittas performing their functions in processes and also the Paṭṭhāna refers to processes of cittas under the heading of some of the conditions it deals with. Moreover, the Paṭisambhidāmagga (Khuddaka Nikāya) mentions (I, Treatise on Knowledge, in chapter XVII, under “behaviour of citta”, viññāṇa cariya) different functions of citta in a process. I hope that these few references show that the commentator did not give his own personal views, but was faithful to the tradition of the original scriptures.
In the last four chapters of this book I explain about the cittas which attain jhāna, absorption, and the cittas which attain enlightenment. Some readers may wonder why they should know details about these subjects. It is useful to study details about jhāna and enlightenment because people may have wrong notions about them. The study of the Abhidhamma will help one not to be deluded about realities. Moreover, it will help one to understand the suttas where there is often reference to jhāna and to the attainment of enlightenment.
I have added some questions after the chapters which may help the reader to ponder over what he has read.
The late Bhikkhu Dhammadharo (Alan Driver) and also Mr. Jonothan Abbott gave me most helpful corrections and suggestions for the text of the first edition of this book. I also want to acknowledge my gratitude to the “Dhamma Study and Propagation Foundation” and to the publisher Alan Weller who have made possible the third edition of this book.
Nina van Gorkom