Abhidhamma: Salient Features
Lecture No. 13, 25th March 2000

Author: Venerable Dhammasami,
Sri Saddhatissa International Buddhist Centre, London.

A Brief Study of Its Salient Features


        Q. What is Abhidhamma?

        A. Abhidhamma is one of the main portions of the Buddhist scriptures dealing with psychology of beings, analysing the mind, its associated factors like emotions and thoughts, how they are formed and how can we purify or become impurified. For example, Abhidhamma would analyse anger and its components, its conditions and its cessation without blaming someone who is angry but studying anger very objectively.

        Q. What is the benefit for a lay person in Abhidhamma study?

        A. You learn to identify emotions and thoughts objectively without creating or increasing ego in them. Thus, you are able to let go of your anger, for instance and free yourself from a burden of having to carry in your mind your anger. Anger is a burden, thus causes stress to all. Once you have successfully identified your emotion, you are in a position to master it. This is good in daily life as we all have emotions, thoughts and judgemental minds.

        Salient Features of Abhidhamma

        Abhidhamma provides lists of things as far as beings are concerned, and not only that but also the functions of those in the lists as well.

        Being a systematised presentation, you know by now that Abhidhamma articulates simultaneously a philosophy, a psychology, an ethic - all integrated into the framework of a programme for liberation from suffering.

        The world appears to many as unitary but is indeed multiple in its components and functions. This is what Abhidhamma talks about. With analysis and synthesis, Abhidhamma is coherent, philosophical and systematic.

        Abhidhamma is also a clarification of all the discourses found in the Sutta-pitaka. The Sutta -pitaka itself is full of interpretations as they were delivered to different people with different tastes; as such Sutta-pitaka is as diverse as human beings can be. Abhidhamma approaches the matter in a unified way without any compromise to the tastes of individuals.

        Its main subjects - consciousness (Citta), its associates (Cetasika), physical matter (Rupa) and Nibbana - are termed Ultimate Realities as they cannot be further analysed, not because they exist forever.

        Take for an example, a man " John". He can be analysed as a manager, an energetic man, as a family man etc. However, all the analyses are not final but can be broken further more into details. Abhidhamma would analyse him momentarily: (a) what kind of consciousness exists in him in a particular moment, (b) what factors are colouring that consciousness, (c) how that thought-process happens and ends, and (d) what are the conditions of that consciousness. This is final analysis that cannot be further reduced, hence ultimate reality.

        Special Terms

        The terms used in Abhidhamma are technical, not daily conventional ones. Therefore the terms employed in it are beyond nations, colour, gender and social status. For this and for all the subject matters are common to all, Abhidhamma is universal in its approach and analysis.

        Abhidhamma especially tries to prove that there are only phenomena in the world, nothing else hidden behind them - whatever people may want to imagine and call it like Brahma, God or soul. This is what is known as non-soul or no-self (anatta) doctrine.

        To see if ego or self really exists, Abhidhamma analyses all we can find under our eyes or perceive through our mind.

        Difference from modern psychology

        The difference from modern psychology is that Abhidhamma sets out to analyse "beings" - sentient and non-sentient- with a clear purpose that is to find out the causes of suffering and remove them so that we live happily as long as we live. Therefore, Abhidhamma has Nibbana as its ethical framework.

        Abhidhamma also studies a close relationship between mind and matter.


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