(Given at Zen Center, San Francisco)


Lecture #1

Getting Acquainted



Spell-checked 10/16/01

          I am glad to be here again and I am grateful to Reverend Michael Engdorf and the other Elders of the Zen Center for giving me this opportunity to be with you and to talk on the subject of Abhidhamma, which is my favorite subject. As Michael said, I gave some talks on Abhidhamma last year. Then we stopped. We intended to resume the talks soon, but I got sick and so I was hospitalized and had to take rest. Therefore the class was postponed until today.

          Since it has been nearly a year since I gave those talks, although there are some people here who were at the talks last year, (Many of those may have forgotten what I talked about last year.), so this time my talks or lectures will be a repetition of some of the talks I gave last year, but they will be better organized. Also this time you will not be left in the dark with regard to what I am going to talk about because handouts will be given to you one week in advance. Please bring the handouts when you come to the class.

          Also I am afraid I will have to ask you to do some reading before coming to the class if you are going to take the whole course. So there will be reading assignments beginning with the next lecture. I really want you to read those assignments. Please do not be afraid when you see ‘Read pages 20-40.’  or something like that. I will be using ‘A Manual of Abhidhamma’  as a reference book. I would like you to read that book or at least the references I give. If it says ‘Read pages 20-40.’ , in fact you will not have to read 20 pages because there are some pages where you will find PÈÄi passages. You can skip them. So actually you will be reading about two thirds of the pages. I think that in that way you will have a better understanding of the talk. And you will know before coming to the class what subject the talk will be on.

          The Abhidhamma that I am going to talk about is the TheravÈda Abhidhamma. There are two major divisions of Buddhism, TheravÈda and MahÈyÈna. Each has its own Abhidhamma. I belong to TheravÈda Buddhism, so what I talk about will be the Abhidhamma of the TheravÈda tradition.

          Some people say Abhidhamma is interesting. Some say it is dull, uninteresting. SayÈdaw U Thittila, a Burmese monk whom I will be quoting today, wrote that Abhidhamma is very interesting to thinking people. So let us see whether Abhidhamma is really interesting or not.

          I want you to close your eyes and focus your mind on the breath. Try to be mindful of the in-breath and the out-breath as they come and go. I want you to do three pairs of in-breaths and three pairs of out-breaths. Try to be really mindful of the in-breaths and out-breaths as they come and go. (pause) OK. Were you able to concentrate fully on the breath? Were you thinking of something else? Did some thoughts come to you - ‘What is this monk doing? We are supposed to study Abhidhamma and now he is making us practice meditation.’   I want to let you know that you can think of many things even in a very short time. The breath lasts for about four or five seconds, that is for one in-breath  or one out-breath. Even during these four or five seconds you can think of many things. Many thoughts come to you and go. Is it possible? It is because it has happened to you. It has happened to me. It has happened to everybody.

          Can thoughts be so fast, so quick? Abhidhamma says ‘yes’ . According to Abhidhamma thought moments, billions of thought moments can come and go in a fraction of a second. Since in a fraction of a second billions of thought moments can come and go, we can have a lot of thought in one in-breath or in one out-breath.

             Abhidhamma can explain what we experience and what we really do not understand and what we are not aware of. There are also many things in our daily life which Abhidhamma can explain.

          Also Abhidhamma is of practical value. Suppose on your way here you saw something ugly or you saw something bad. What would have been your response to that? Normally your response would be anger or some kind of displeasure because you saw something which was unpleasant. You may blame it on others–’Why do they have this unpleasant thing on the road so that people will have to see it?’  Or you may blame the vehicle, or you may blame anything except you. But if you know Abhidhamma, then you know that your seeing the ugly object, your seeing the displeasurable object is a kind of consciousness which is the result of your past Kamma. In other words you did something bad in the past and as a result you get this seeing consciousness in you, seeing the ugly thing, seeing the unpleasant thing. So you are not to put the blame on any other thing but yourself because it was you who did something in the past and now it is you who are getting the result of the past bad Kamma. When we understand Abhidhamma in this way we can accept things with equanimity. Whether they are good or bad, whether you are successful or a failure, you can accept it with equanimity because everything you experience in this life is the result of what you did in the past. So the study or the knowledge of Abhidhamma is of practical value.

          The knowledge of Abhidhamma is also very helpful when you practice meditation. We will come to that later.

          Now let us go to the first lecture. The plan of lectures is just a plan to let you know what to expect in the lectures. There are twelve lectures this time. Please look at the first lecture. This lecture is going to be an introductory lecture helping you to get acquainted with Abhidhamma.  Before going right into Abhidhamma a background or historical knowledge of Abhidhamma is I think helpful if not essential.

          There are two major divisions of Buddhism nowadays. One is TheravÈda or Southern Buddhism and the other is MahÈyÈna or Northern Buddhism. TheravÈda Buddhism can now be found in SrÊ La~kÈ, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, and also now in the West. Initially it spread to southern countries like SrÊ La~kÈ, Myanmar, Thailand and so on. Therefore it is conveniently called Southern Buddhism.   MahÈyÈna Buddhism is a branch or later development in Buddhism. It spread toward northern countries. When I say south and north, I mean from India, from the middle of India. MahÈyÈna Buddhism spread toward northern countries like Nepal, Tibet, Mongolia, China, Korea and Japan. So it is conveniently called Northern Buddhism. These are the two major divisions of Buddhism nowadays. There are many subdvisions especially in MahÈyÈna Buddhism. The Abhidhamma we are going to study in these classes is the Abhidhamma according to the TheravÈda tradition.

          How were the Buddha’ s teachings recorded and handed down? When Buddha taught, he just taught. He just spoke. He did not write any books. Actually there were no books at his time. Maybe materials for books were difficult to obtain. There was no tradition of writing books. So the Buddha spoke and his teachings, his discourses were remembered by his disciples. They were learned by heart by his disciples. He taught for 45 years.

             Immediately after his death the surviving disciples met together and decided to hold a Council. The First Buddhist Council was held about three months after the death of the Buddha. At that Council all the teachings of the Buddha were collected and scrutinized. When the 500 Arahants were satisfied that a certain teaching was authentic, then they showed their acceptance by reciting it in unison. So the 500 monks recited this Sutta. This Sutta became the authentic teaching of the Buddha. In this way all the Buddha’ s teachings were collected, scrutinized and accepted as his authentic teachings.

          About 100 years after the death of the Buddha there was a split in the SaÑgha, in the community of monks. When there are many people, then opinions come to differ. There were some disputes. So there was a split in the SaÑgha. The split concerned mostly some disciplinary rules of monks. The monks who belong to the TheravÈda tradition or TheravÈda group held a second Council at that time. The teachings handed down to them by oral tradition, from teacher to pupil, were reaffirmed at the Second Council and accepted as the authentic teachings of the Buddha.

          At the time of King Asoka there was another Council, the Third Council. It was 234 years after the death of the Buddha. During the time of King Asoka there was another Council and it was called the Third Buddhist Council. There were many sects at that time. According to our records there were more than 18 different Buddhist sects or schools. So the group of original SaÑgha held a meeting with the support of King Asoka of India. That was the Third Buddhist Council. These three Buddhist Councils were accepted by both TheravÈda and MahÈyÈna traditions.

          After the Third Council, King Asoka sent missionaries to other countries. One group was sent to SrÊ La~kÈ. The head of that group, Venerable Mahinda, converted the king there and the people to Buddhism. So Buddhism was established in SrÊ La~kÈ at that time and spread to other parts of the island.

          About the first century B.C. there was a great rebellion in SrÊ La~kÈ. So monks fled to other places. After that rebellion - I cannot go into details because I have to cover all this in one hour. I will give you references if you are interested in knowing more about these Councils. At that time the monks who had carried the teachings orally thought that in the future monks would not be able to keep them intact. So they decided to write down the teachings of the Buddha on palm leaves. They met at a place which is near Kandy. It is called AluvihÈra. There they wrote down the teachings on palm leaves. It is about the first century B. C. or according to our reckoning 450 years after the death of the Buddha.

          King Asoka sent missionaries to other countries also. We Burmese believe one group headed by Venerable SoÓa and Venerable Uttara reached lower Burma and established Buddhism there. In the eleventh century Buddhism which was flourishing in lower Burma was brought to upper Burma. You may have heard of the city of Pagan. At that time a king named Anawrahta (or Anuruddha in PÈÄi) was reigning. He brought TheravÈda Buddhism and also the TipiÔaka from lower Burma to upper Burma. The whole of Burma became a predominantly Buddhist country from that time on. Buddhism has continued to flourish in Burma until the present time.

          In the 1871 the last king of Burma, whose name was King Migdon, supported the monks to hold another Council. There were three Councils in India. The writing down of the texts on the palm leaves was called the Fourth Council although it was not officially named the Fourth Council. It is like the Fourth Council, so it is considered the Fourth Council. The Buddhist Council held in 1871 in Burma was called the Fifth Buddhist Council. That year was actually 2400 years after the death of the Buddha. The significant thing about the Fifth Buddhist Council is that not only was the TipiÔaka written and copied on palm leaves and on copper plates , but it was also inscribed on marble slabs. There are altogether 729 marble slabs. Each slab is about five feet high, four and one half feet across and about five inches thick. A famous Burmese author called it the biggest book in the world. Each marble slab is housed in a brick st|pa or brick Cetiya. It is very fortunate that these marble slabs and their houses were not destroyed during the Second World War although there was fighting around that place between the Japanese and the Allies. They are still intact. If you go to Burma and you visit Mandalay (I am glad that I am a native of Mandalay.), you can easily go to that place and look at these marble slabs. I have some pictures of them in the National Geographic Magazine. These are the places where the marble slabs are housed. They are small Cetiyas, 729 or 730 of them. This is a picture of one marble slab. It is difficult to take pictures right in front because there is no space. So one must take pictures from the side. There are altogether 729 marble slabs comprising the TipiÔaka. These were created at the Fifth Buddhist Council.

          Then after that king, there was another king. He was the last of the Burmese kings. He was captured by the British and Burma became a British colony. After the Second World War in 1948 Burma became independent.

          After the independence the political leaders and the religious leaders met together and decided to hold another Council, the Sixth Buddhist Council. The Sixth Buddhist Council was held in Rangoon, Burma in 1954. It went from 1954 until perhaps 1958 or 1959. The PÈÄi portion of the books were recited and came to conclusion in 1956 to coincide with the 2500th anniversary of the death of the Buddha. The outcome of that Sixth Buddhist Council was a very good edition of the TipiÔaka in PÈÄi and also the Commentaries and the Sub-Commentaries. This Sixth Buddhist Council edition is supposed to be the best edition of the TipiÔaka.

          So the teachings of the Buddha were handed down from generation to generation by oral recitation, by word of mouth, until they were written down about 450 years after the death of the Buddha. From that time on they were passed on to the present time on palm leaves and then books.

          When at the First Council they collected, recited and scrutinized the Buddha’ s teachings, the 500 Elders assembled there classified the Buddha’ s teachings into different divisions. Among them two divisions are worthy of note. One is the division into NikÈyas or collections. According to that division Buddha’ s words are divided into five NikÈyas or five collections–a collection of long discourses, a collection of medium length discourses, a collection of kindred discourses,  collection of gradual discourses and a collection of minor discourses. There are five collections.

          Again the words of the Buddha are divided into three PiÔakas, three baskets, or three learnings. The word ‘PiÔaka’  can mean a basket or learning. These three PiÔakas are Vinaya PiÔaka (That is the disciplinary rules for monks, nuns and novices.), Sutta or Suttanta PiÔaka (It is the discourses given both to monks and lay people.) and the third PiÔaka is Abhidhamma PiÔaka. A glimpse of it we re going to see today and during the course of these classes.

          I want you to understand that the division of five NikÈyas is not a subdivision of the three PiÔakas or visa versa. They are different divisions. One division is into five and another division is into three. Some people were mistaken taking the five NikÈyas to be a subdivision of Sutta PiÔaka. That is not true.

It is strange that according to the division into five NikÈyas, Vinaya PiÔaka and Abhidhamma PiÔaka are included in the minor discourses although they are not minor. There are five volumes in Vinaya PiÔaka and twelve volumes in Abhidhamma PiÔaka. I do not know why this is so. It is not explained why they are included in minor discourses. Nonetheless they are included in the minor discourses.

Mostly we will be talking about PiÔakas. Let us say that Buddha’ s teachings are divided into three divisions, three PiÔakas, three baskets - rules for monks, nuns and novices, discourses for all people and the Abhidhamma which has something of philosophy, psychology and ethics in it.

          We should understand the meaning of the word ‘Abhidhamma’  according to the exposition given in the TheravÈda tradition. Many people interpret this to be an ‘added Dhamma’ . ‘Abhi’  means more. So they interpret it as the Dhamma added later. The traditional exposition of this word ‘Abhi’  is that here it means excellent. And ‘Dhamma’  means teaching here. So ‘Abhidhamma’  means excellent teaching. Here ‘excellent’  just means excellent in the method of treatment, not that Dhamma taught in Abhidhamma is better than that taught in the Sutta PiÔaka. The same Dhammas are taught in Sutta PiÔaka and Abhidhamma PiÔaka. So we cannot say that the teachings taught in Abhidhamma PiÔaka are higher than those taught in Sutta PiÔaka. Abhidhamma is called ‘excellent teaching’  because of the method of treatment.

In Sutta PiÔaka when the Buddha explained the five aggregates, he explained in a very brief form. In one of the Suttas in the SaÑyutta NikÈya he explained these five aggregates. It only occupies one page. The same five aggregates are treated in the second book of Abhidhamma. They are treated in very great detail. That treatment occupies 69 pages. So the method of treatment in Abhidhamma is much more analytical and is much more detailed and is much more comprehensive than the treatment in Sutta PiÔaka. That is why it is called ‘Abhidhamma’.

          Then what is Abhidhamma? Abhidhamma is ultimate teaching in contrast to conventional teaching in Sutta PiÔaka. The difference between Sutta PiÔaka and Abhidhamma PiÔaka is that in the Sutta PiÔaka the Buddha used conventional language. But in the Abhidhamma PiÔaka the Buddha used terms of ultimate reality or ultimate truth. In Sutta PiÔaka Buddha used the words ‘man’, ‘woman’, and so on. However in Abhidhamma PiÔaka these words are not used. Instead those words that denote the realities such as five aggregates, twelve bases, sixteen elements and so on–these are the terms that are used in Abhidhamma. Abhidhamma PiÔaka is very different from Sutta PiÔaka. The ultimate things or the ultimate realities are treated in very minute detail in the Abhidhamma PiÔaka.

Beings are composed of mind and matter. You have a physical body and you have mind. What we call ‘a being’ is just a combination of these two things, mind and matter. In Abhidhamma you will not be called a person, a man, or  a woman, but if at all, you will be called mind and matter or a group of mind and matter. So mind and matter are minutely analyzed in the Abhidhamma.

Mind is divided into Citta (consciousness) and Cetasikas (mental factors). What we call ‘mind’ according to Abhidhamma is comprised of two things. One is consciousness and the other is mental factors. We will come to these in the second lecture.

Mind is minutely divided. Cittas are said to be of 89 or 121 types. The mental factors are said to be 52. All these Cittas and Cetasikas are explained or elucidated in different ways.

Matter is also treated in four - enumeration of matter (There are 28 material properties.), the causes, their groupings (That means how they are grouped together in different ways.), and also when they arise for a being, in a given life, and when they finally disappear. All these things connected with matter or material properties are described in the Abhidhamma PiÔaka.

When we study Abhidhamma we will study mind. We will study consciousness. We will study mental factors. We will study matter or material properties. We will study NibbÈna also.

          So what is Abhidhamma? Is it philosophy or psychology, or ethics, or what is it? I will give you a quote from a book called ‘The Path of the Buddha’. I don’t know if you have a copy of this book in the library. ‘The Path of the Buddha’ is printed and published in this country. It is a very good book. The editor of that book asked authors belonging to different sects or different divisions of Buddhism to write about what they really understand. So TheravÈda monks were asked to write about TheravÈda Buddhism and MahÈyÈna monks were asked to write about MahÈyÈna Buddhism. So I think that book is quite reliable. If for example you are a TheravÈda monk and write about MahÈyÈna Buddhism, sometimes you may make mistakes because you don’t understand fully the other type of Buddhism or teaching. This author’s plan was very good. He lets the TheravÈda monks write about TheravÈda Buddhism and MahÈyÈna monks write about MahÈyÈna Buddhism. That book is reliable I think.

In that book Venerable U Thittila (He is a Burmese monk.) wrote: ‘It is a philosophy in as much as it deals with the most general causes and principles which govern all things. All things animate and inanimate are governed by some kind of order. In Abhidhamma all these are taught. It is also an ethical system because it enables one to realize the ultimate goal, NibbÈna. Because it deals with the working of the mind, the thought processes and the mental factors it is also a system of psychology. Therefore Abhidhamma is generally translated as the psycho-ethical philosophy of Buddhism.’ It is philosophy. It is psychology. It may be ethics also. Mostly I think it is psychology because it deals with consciousness and mental factors and how they interact with each other, how they come into combination with each other, and many many things. So it is more psychology than philosophy.

          How important is Abhidhamma? If you ask a Burmese monk, he will say it is very important. Is Abhidhamma really necessary or not? To us it is really necessary. It is not only necessary, it is essential. Abhidhamma is necessary for correct and thorough understanding of Buddha’s teachings in the Suttas.

          There are many people who say that we don’t need Abhidhamma to understand the Suttas. They say that they just read the Suttas and that they understand. But I want to ask them how much they really understand, how correctly they understand. When I read English translations of the Suttas and other texts, I often find places where I cannot agree with the translation. It is a very frequent experience with me. Whenever I pick up a book and read it, I find something with which I cannot agree with the author. This is so because most authors do not understand Abhidhamma. Therefore they make many mistakes.

             Abhidhamma is essential, I said ‘essential’, for a correct and thorough understanding of Buddha’s teachings in the Suttas. You will not understand even the Suttas fully if you do not understand the Abhidhamma. I can give you many examples.

   I give only one here. It is a famous verse from the book called ‘The Dhammapada’. That verse is: ‘Not to do evil, to cultivate good, to purify one’s mind, this is the teaching of the Buddhas.’It’s very simple. It’s not difficult to understand. Do you need Abhidhamma to understand it? What do you think?

          In order not to do evil - ‘evil’in PÈÄi or in terms of Abhidhamma is ‘Akusala’, unwholesome states or unwholesome actions. Evil is to be understood in this sense. In order not to do evil or in order to avoid evil, you must understand what is evil, understand what is unwholesome. Also in order to cultivate good you must understand what is good, what it is that is good. If you do not really understand what really is Akusala and what really is Kusala, then you won’t be able to avoid one and to cultivate the other. So it really is important that you understand what is evil and what is good according to Buddhism.

          In Buddhism unwholesome deeds or acts are those associated with attachment or greed, ill will or anger, and delusion or ignorance. Anything or any state of mind which is associated with one or two of these roots is called ‘evil’or ‘Akusala’according to Buddhism.

          I always pick up this example. When you eat are you doing evil? If I say you may be doing evil when you eat, what will you think? ‘Evil’ is defined as that which is associated with attachment, or ill will, or delusion or ignorance. If there is some attachment in your state of mind, then that is Akusala. So when you eat good food, when you are attached to good food, when you eat with relish, then there is this kind of attachment to food. So you are having Akusala at that time. It may not be very bad Akusala. There are different levels of Akusala. Some are so bad that you will go to hell. Still even this is called Akusala in Abhidhamma language. If you want to avoid Akusala or evil altogether, then you have to be careful when you eat. You have to be careful not to have attachment to food when you eat.

          This is accomplished in two ways. Especially for monks when they eat, they must do reflection on food, on eating. That is why talking during eating is discouraged among monks. Actually if a monk talks while he is eating, he is not supposed to be a well-behaved monk because he should be reflecting on his food–‘I eat this food not to beautify myself, not to take pride in my body, but just to keep my body alive so that I am able to practice Buddha’s teaching.’ We monks have to reflect on food again and again during eating so that we do not become attached to food.

          The other way of avoiding attachment, especially attachment but there can also be anger (Sometimes when you have to eat something you don’t like, then you may be angry.), is to eat mindfully. At VipassanÈ retreats the yogis or meditators have to eat with mindfulness. That means every activity in the act of eating, every small activity has to be made the object of meditation. When you look at the food, you must be mindful of looking or you may say to yourself ‘looking, looking,’ or ‘seeing, seeing’. When you stretch out your hand to pick up the food, then you say ‘stretching, stretching, stretching’. When you take the spoon in your hand, then you say ‘taking, taking, taking’. Then when you take the food also ‘taking’. When you bring the food to your mouth, ‘bringing, bringing, bringing’. Then when you put the food into your mouth, ‘putting, putting, putting’. When you chew, ‘chewing, chewing, chewing’. When you swallow, ‘swallowing, swallowing, swallowing’. You have to be mindful all the time that you eat. So you don’t have any time to get attached to it. One yogi reported to me after she had done this only one time : ‘I don’t have any desire to eat again. It takes so much effort to put one spoonful in the mouth. There is so much suffering there.’ In order to avoid evil while eating we have to do one of these two things.

          If you know what is evil, you can avoid it. If you do not know what is evil and what is good, sometimes you may be doing evil thinking you are doing good. ‘To cultivate good’ means actions or deeds which are associated with non-attachment, goodwill or loving-kindness, and non-delusion. These are called good. To cultivate good means that you try to have in your mind these good qualities of non-attachment or generosity, goodwill or loving-kindness (That is non-hatred.), and non-delusion or wisdom. When one of them is arising in your mind, then you are said to be cultivating good.

          If we don’t understand what is evil and what is good, we won’t be able to follow the advice of this one stanza correctly and fully. Abhidhamma is really very important, not just important but essential for the correct and thorough understanding of Buddha’s teachings in the Suttas.

          Now what about meditation and getting the fruit of meditation which is the realization of truth? Is Abhidhamma essential for the realization of truth? This is another question. Abhidhamma is essential for the correct and thorough understanding of the Buddha’s teaching, but is the knowledge of Abhidhamma essential for the realization of truth?

          During the time of the Buddha many people came to him and he preached to them. And they gained enlightenment. They realized truth. There is no report that says that they were students of Abhidhamma. I don’t think that they knew about Abhidhamma at that time. Many people gained enlightenment when they heard  the Buddha preach. Therefore in my opinion Abhidhamma is not essential although it is extremely helpful for the realization of truth or extremely helpful for the practice of meditation.

          A knowledge of Abhidhamma is a very good thing to have before you practice meditation, but it is not essential. There are many people who think if you want to practice VipassanÈ meditation, you must understand Abhidhamma. That turns many people away. Anybody can watch himself or herself. Anybody can watch his thoughts, his sensations. That is VipassanÈ. You don’t need an extensive knowledge of Abhidhamma to practice VipassanÈ meditation, but it is good if you have some knowledge of Abhidhamma. For example you know about mind and matter, you know about consciousness and mental states, and you know about the aggregates and others. Then this knowledge will help you when you practice VipassanÈ meditation. VipassanÈ is a practice that leads to self-realization, self-experience. For such people Abhidhamma is theory and VipassanÈ is practice. They can combine theory and practice.

          It is one thing I like in this country. Almost all the people I have met are interested in the practice of meditation. If we can combine the practice of meditation with the knowledge of Abhidhamma, then they help each other. When you have knowledge of Abhidhamma and you practice meditation, then not too much has to be explained to you about your practice, about your findings or experience in meditation. It is like reading a map before going to a city. Before going to the city, you are familiar with the map. When you go to the city and see buildings, you know how things are more or less. You don’t have to be told. In the same way when you have a certain knowledge of Abhidhamma, not too extensive, and you practice meditation, then when you experience something through meditation, you know this is this, that is that and so on.

          The knowledge gained through the practice of meditation is the real knowledge. You may learn Abhidhamma from books, from talks, but that is second-hand knowledge. The real knowledge comes only when you experience it for yourself. During meditation you will find out or you will discover many things about yourself, your mind, your body and all these things. Such knowledge is the real knowledge. Only when you understand through your practice does that knowledge become your own. Otherwise it is just second-hand knowledge or book knowledge.

          The practice of VipassanÈ meditation can deepen your understanding of the knowledge of Abhidhamma. Knowledge of Abhidhamma can help you in clarifying your experience in meditation. The knowledge of Abhidhamma and the practice of meditation help each other. They should go together. Knowledge of Abhidhamma alone without practice will not help much because the knowledge is still second-hand. If you have only VipassanÈ meditation without any knowledge of Abhidhamma, then you will be doubtful at every turn of a corner. You will always have to rely on the teacher to explain to you everything that you experience. So a knowledge of Abhidhamma and the practice of meditation must go together hand in hand helping each other. So Abhidhamma is extremely helpful although not absolutely essential for the realization of truth or to comprehend things as they really are. 

          There are some who think Abhidhamma is not necessary for the understanding of the Suttas. I don’t want you to believe me. I don’t want you to take my word. I want you to see for yourself, to find out for yourself whether a knowledge of Abhidhamma is necessary for understanding the Suttas. So please study Abhidhamma and then you see whether the knowledge of Abhidhamma is really necessary or really essential. You decide for yourself. Following others and accepting others’ talk is not good for anybody. Do not take my word. Do not believe anything, but try to understand the Abhidhamma for yourself. Then see if that knowledge of Abhidhamma helps you in understanding the Suttas correctly and better. So I leave it to you.

          Do not easily accept what other people say about Abhidhamma whether it is essential or whether it is not essential. Try to see for yourself. That is what I want you to do. You may read a book. It may say that Abhidhamma is not necessary, that it is very dull, that there is nothing original in it. You may take that to be true and then you may not want to study the Abhidhamma at all. I don’t want that to happen to you. People like me say Abhidhamma is very interesting. So you must learn Abhidhamma. Without Abhidhamma you cannot do anything. So don’t take my word also. Try to find out for yourself. In order to find out for yourself you have to read a little. You have to understand Abhidhamma. Then see if it helps you in understanding the Sutta PiÔaka better.

             SayÈdaw U Thittila wrote: ‘Abhidhamma is highly prized by profound students of Buddhist philosophy, but to the average student it seems to be dull and meaningless. This is because it is extremely subtle in its analysis and technical in its treatment, and so it is very difficult to understand without the guidance of an able teacher. That is probably why the Abhidhamma is not as popular as the other two PiÔakas among Western Buddhists.’

          In order to study Abhidhamma you need a teacher. You cannot just read a book and understand because there are no books as of yet that can take the place of a teacher. There are some books on Abhidhamma, but you still need a teacher or a friend to help you.

          There are seven books of Abhidhamma. These seven books are as follows: DhammasangaÓÊ, Vibha~ga, DhÈtukathÈ, PuggalapaÒÒatti, KathÈvatthu, Yamaka and PaÔÔhÈna. I just want you to know there are seven books in Abhidhamma. Each treats the topics of Abhidhamma in a different way.

          Then there are Commentaries of the Abhidhamma. Those were written or compiled and edited by the Venerable Buddhaghosa Thera in the fifth century A.D. His Commentaries are commented on by another monk named Œnanda Thera. His Commentaries are called Sub-Commentaries. The Sub-Commentaries are again commented on by a later monk called DhammapÈla Thera. He probably lived in the seventh century. They are called Sub-sub-Commentaries.

          There are many treatises, many books on Abhidhamma, too numerous to mention here. The most important book for the study or for an introduction  to Abhidhamma is the book called Abhidhammatthsa~gaha in PÈÄi. That book was written in about the eleventh century A.D. by a monk named Anuruddha Thera. He was a native of South India, but he wrote this book in SrÊ La~kÈ. It is the most popular handbook for the study of the fundamentals of Abhidhamma. It is an indispensable guide to the Abhidhamma PiÔaka.

          It is still a textbook for beginners in Burma and other countries. This book is so popular that it is made into a textbook for beginners in Abhidhamma in our country. In Burma every monk, every novice, and every nun is expected to understand Abhidhamma. The moment you enter the Order (You may be only 12 or 13.) you are given a copy of the Abhidhammatthasa~gaha and you are asked to learn it by heart. You may not understand what it says, but you have to learn it by heart. Later on the explanations and understanding follow. It is the way we study or we learn Abhidhamma in our country.

             Although it is called a book,  it is just a very small book. Although it is small, it contains all the essential things in Abhidhamma. It is the gateway to the Abhidhamma PiÔaka. Without it we cannot hope to go into the real Abhidhamma PiÔaka. That is why without the knowledge of the fundamentals of Abhidhamma given in that book and in other treatises, you cannot pick up a real Abhidhamma book and understand it. You may pick up a book on Abhidhamma, like the first book, the DhammsangaÓÊ, but you may find it very dull and uninteresting, difficult to understand and so on. This book is very helpful. If you are not against memorizing, I would like to recommend that you take this book by heart. In the PÈÄi Text Society edition it comprises only 46 pages. It is in PÈÄi. Since novicehood we have learned this by heart. I still can say by heart maybe not all of them, but many I can say by heart.

          This is the book we use for beginners to introduce them to Abhidhamma. The translation of this book we will use as a reference for this class.

          I want to say something about Abhidhamma studies in Burma. Burma is a country where Abhidhamma is still active. Abhidhamma is still widely studied. Actually, as I said, every monk, novice and nun is expected to understand Abhidhamma. It became a popular subject ever since TheravÈda Buddhism or since the TheravÈda PiÔaka was introduced into upper Burma in the eleventh century. Burmese monks of old got interested in Abhidhamma. Abhidhamma became popular with them. They wrote many books both in PÈÄi and in Burmese, and also in mixed Burmese and PÈÄi.

          We have what we call night lessons. These lessons are very helpful to make you thoroughly acquainted with the teachings in Abhidhamma. Students learn a portion of a chapter during the day. Then at night they go to the teacher and recite what they have learned during the ay. The teacher will explain to them the difficult points in the teaching. That was done without the lights on. That is why we call them night lessons. There are night lessons on the first book, on the third book, on the sixth book and on the seventh book of Abhidhamma. These night lessons are very helpful in making us very familiar with the teachings in Abhidhamma. Abhidhamma is a compulsory subject for monks, nuns and novices in Burma.

          Not only monks, nuns, and novices study Abhidhamma. Lay people also study Abhidhamma in our country. They become proficient in Abhidhamma and even write books for other lay people. Abhidhamma is still a living learning in Burma. It is very popular with Burmese monks.

          Since we are taking the subjects from the Abhidhammatthsa~gaha, we use the translation of the Abhidhammatthsa~gaha as a reference book or textbook in this class. Actually there are three English translations of the original book. The first one is called ‘The Compendium of Philosophy’. It was written by a Burmese layman, not a monk, U Shwe Zan Aung. It first appeared in 1910. It has been reprinted three or four times since then.

          The second translation is called ‘The Abhidhamma Philosophy’. It was written by Bhikkhu J. Kashyap. He was an Indian monk, a famous Indian monk. He wrote two books on Abhidhamma, two volumes. Volume one is the translation of the Abhidhammatthasa~gaha. It appeared in 1942 and I saw a reprint of that book last year. So it was recently reprinted.

          The third translation is called ‘A Manual of Abhidhamma’ by NÈrada MahÈthera. He was a Sinhalese monk. He was also very famous. He passed away I think last year. His translation first appeared in 1956. That book has also been reprinted. We will be using his book as  a reference book or textbook for the class because it is easier to understand and also easier to obtain. It may be cheaper than ‘The Compendium of Philosophy’. ‘The Compendium of Philosophy’ is published by the PÈÄi Text Society of London and it is very expensive. So we will be using ‘A Manual of Abhidhamma’ as a reference book for the class.

          If you are interested in the historical background here, which I have given, I would like to give you some references. When talking about the Buddhist Councils or the history of Buddhism from the time of the Buddha down to the present time, I have to go to the sources rather than the secondary or later books. For the account of the First, Second and Third Buddhist Councils there are books in PÈÄi which I think are the oldest records of these Councils. You can read about these Councils in some books. One book is called ‘DÊpavaÑsa’. This is the old chronicle of Ceylon written in PÈÄi. There is also a translation of this book. This is the oldest account of these Councils I think in PÈÄi literature. It may be difficult to obtain this book. In this book in chapters 4-7 the three Buddhist Councils are described.

          There is another book called ‘MahÈvaÑsa’. I think you have a copy in the library. If you want to read the MahÈvaÑsa, please read chapters 3-5 for the First, Second and Third Buddhist Councils.

          The third one is also in the library. It is called ‘Inception of Discipline’. That is a more connected account of the first three Buddhist Councils because the first two are written in PÈÄi verse. So they are a little different than the third book. ‘The Inception of Discipline’ is written in prose. In that book please read pages 3-55. It is a long account of the Buddhist Councils.

          If you want to read a modern author, then this is the book. It is called ‘2500 Years of Buddhism’. It was edited by Professor B. P. Pavat of India. It was published by the Indian government. I think it is available in some bookstores here.

          For the writing down of the Buddha’s teachings on palm leaves you should read the ‘DÊpavaÑsa’, chapter 20 and the ‘MahÈvaÑsa’, chapter 33.

          About the Fifth and Sixth Buddhist Councils again this book and probably me because I cannot find other books on the Fifth and Sixth Buddhist Councils. There are other books, but I don’t have the copies with me. Fortunately I happened to be among those involved in the Sixth Buddhist Council. Actually I was one of the editors of the PÈÄi Texts published by the Sixth Buddhist Council. So I know a lot about the Sixth Buddhist Council.

          With regard to the divisions of the Buddha’s teachings, the NikÈyas and PiÔakas, please read ‘Inception of Discipline’, pages 15-19 and page 24.

          There is another book in the library called ‘Expositor’. ‘The Expositor’ is the translation of the Commentary on the first book of Abhidhamma. For the meaning of the word ‘Abhidhamma’ please read ‘The Expositor’, pages 3-5. Also on the seven books of Abhidhamma you may read ‘Expositor’, pages 8-13. That is, if you are interested in getting more information, more original information, more ancient information on these Councils and these things. OK. Thank you very much.


SÈdhu!     SÈdhu!    SÈdhu!


Venerable U SÊlÈnanda gave instructions not to interrupt his talk with questions. I did not transcribe these additional remarks. No questions were recorded.