Theravāda budističko društvo

Atlas of Abhidhamma

An Atlas of Abhidhamma Diagrams [1]

Bhikkhu Nanajivako


Anatta, the teaching of no permanent "self" entity or soul, required for its explanation a theory of "psychology without soul". The essential task of abhidhamma literature was to work out this basic theory. ln modern Western science and philosophy the same problem arose in the 19th century with the task of establishing a basic science of physiological psychology. One of its best known Ametican founders. William James, has done most in this field to elicit also the philosophical aspects and implications of this new science and its relevance for the general world-view of our age. Among his philosophical essays the most significant for our analogy was "Does consciousness exist?" – challenging the classical theological tenet of the soul theory. James welcomed with the greatest enthusiasm the appearance of the basic works of the founder of a metaphysically much broader conceived vitalist philosophy, his younger French contemporary, Henri Bergson: The Creative Evolution, based on the function of an elan vital, interpreted as "the creative surge of life", as the primeval moving force of the whole process of the universal "flux" of existence, concrived as the "stream of life", of "consciousness", of "thought"; and Matter and Memory , explaining the relation of mind and matter as consisting of the pulsation of an apparently continuous flow of instantaneous flashes of memory (like pictures in a movie show). *Memory, by its active registration and connecting function of instant-events" was thus discovered as the missing link connecting the *hard and static" atomic "elements* of both mind and matter postulated by the earlier hypothesis of scientific materialism. Now, on the contrary, physics becomes "simply psychics inverted* and "cosmology, so to speak, a reversed psychology*. Thus vitalism meant the end of the "classicalt materialism in European philosophy and science.

This was underscored and elicited most extensively by the third best known vitalist philosopher, A.B. Whitehead. Speaking of "actual occasion", of "throbbing actualities" understood as "pulsation of experience" whose "drops" or "puffs of existence" guided by an internal teleological aim in their "concrescence" [analogous to the Buddhist sahkhara in karmic formations) join the "stream of existence" (bhavanga-soto), – Whitehead has taken over the terms under quotation marks from W. James and extended their interpretation in a "theory of momentariness" corresponding to the Buddhist khanika-vado (of course essentially, without any direct reference to the possibility of such analogies). [2]

As a direct offshoot from vitalism there appeared in Europe, after the First World War, an authentic philosophy of dukkharn whose representatives considered themselves to be the philosophers of existence, or "existentialis".

After the Secund World War, when the correctness of these trends in European philosophy and their need for orientation were most obviously felt and confirmed, European philosophy with all its classical and historical precedents was forcibly suppressed by a miIitant Anglo-American anti-philasophlcal embargo imposedby the so-called "logical positivists" and their reduction of philosophy to the exclusiveness of semanticist analyses and "protocols" of allowable and unallowable word-meanings, a trend criticised and rejected already by the Buddha under the designation of "logical analysts (takki-vimamsi) believing only in empty words [3] and "meanings" arbitrarily attrrbuted by "he rules invented for a game", as their modern successors formulated It.

Upajiva Ratnatunga applies in his presenration of the abhidhamma modern criteria and terms implicitly analogous to the vitalist model. He translates, for example, cittam with *tele-pulses" in physical sense-organs in explaining their "vital factors".  He describes "the occurring of a pulse of the vitality factor" and how it "generates a momentary mental sub-personality", "the experience of the life momentum" and the formation of the "ego cornplex" led in its instantaneous transformations by the stream of "cravings and desire for further physical experience". The basic "vitalising factor" – jivitindrigam – is translated as "the pulsation". In a "living being" experience… objects and phenomena exist because they are reached directly". And that is the exclusive criterium of their "reality".

The most significant and useful salient point in Ratnatunga"s model is, in my view, the essential restriction of the too wide extension of the range of abhidhamrna conceptual numerology, confusingly unpracticable for our modern means and capacities of scientific computerizing. Remaining within the limits of the programmatic draft explicated in the Preface, it is encouraging to see at the outset that the thematic range is restricted to "a very small area of the Abhidhamma philosophy", of "information gathered over the years" by the author in his specific quest "that is connected with how a living being gathers information about the physical world around its body and then reacts to the perception". Thus he "relized" that what was discussed in the philosophy was not the physical world, itself , but the living being"s observed and inferred experience of matter and material phenomena in its body and in the physical world around it".

No less important than this restriction of the basic subject matter is the author"s critical attitude and its criterium in using Pali terms in their technical meaning and their contextual explanation. "The subject matter of the Abhidhamma philosophy is very involved and the Pali terms used in describing the concepts were intended to be very precise. In consequence any error in the translation of Pali terms leads to confusion. Instead of translating Pali terms, the process of how the living being observes objects and phenomena in the environment of the body and reacts to the perception, has been described using a model that could stimulate much of the living being"s behaviour as described in the philosophy… The English terms used in this book are those used for the same concepts in a more comprehensive book now under preparation in which I am covering a somewhat larger area." U Ratnatunga cannot conceal his "hesitation to publish what I know", confessing that he "tried to put the information together, in much the same way as an archeologist would do in attempting to reconstruct a shattered clay pot from the pieces found at an ancient site". – "The Abhidhamma texts appear to have been obscured by errors in memorising and errors in copying and also by misinterpretations largely through failure to grasp the fundamentals that have been set out in this book."

Toward the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century a revival of abhidhamma studies in the traditional ambience of the Theravada Buddhist world was noticed mainly in Burma, from where it spread to neighbouring countries. The best known centres of this renewed trend in Buddhist studies were established by Ledi Sayadaw between 1887 and 1923. At that time (since 1900) also the first English translations of abhidhamma books, prepared in collaboration with Burmese scholars, were published by the Peli Text Society. At the same time European students of Buddhism started going to Burma for special abhidhamma studies. Most of the early Western bhikkhus were ordained there and continued their missionary work as abhidhamma scholars. The best known among them was the German Nyanatiloka Mahathera, ordained in Burma in 1903. In 1911 he founded his Island Hermitage in Ceylon (Dodanduwa) whose head he remained until his death in 1957. His main contribution to abhidhamma studies was the "Guide through the Abhidbamma-Pitaka" first published in Colombo 1938, and later in the Buddhist Publication Society"s editions. His German disciple, Nyapaponika Mahathera, published his "Abhidhamrna Studies" first in 1949, in the Island Hermrtage Publications. This book was later reprinted by the Buddhist Publication Society (Kandy). In the series of the same edittons there appeared in English translation some works of Ledi Sayadaw (not to be confused with the later meditation teacher, Mahasl Sayadaw) and others on the "Abhidhamma Philosophy", including recent editions of Narada"s "Manual of Abhidhama", containing the English translation of the Abhidhamrnattha-sangaha. Short summary presentations of "Ahhidhamma Philosophy" in diagrams were often preferred also by authors with intentions more popular and superficial than U. Ratnatunga"s work. To him we should be grateful now if he continues with less "hesitation to publish what he knows" in turn, adequated to our 20th century capacities and habits of understanding the anthropological and historical backgrounds of such investigation.

In the meantime there arises a question of critical importance for the reader: To whom and how will the present schematic atlas be useful and helpful for the actual study of abhldhamma? Certainly not to the unprepared beginner, the assutava puthujjhano. Its value will be much increased by the following more comprehensive book. Yet there are already in the Buddhist world many students who have tried to study such intricate summaries as the Abhidhammattha sangaha, or even to learn by heart at least parts of it in parivenas. Speaking of my own experiences with a few translations of this historically latest layer of dry bones survived archeologically, or rather palaeontologically, I found out after many years and attempts to approach it that there was the need of such a pedagogical talent as the Vajirarama Narada Mahathera, a disciple of the late Pelene Vajiranana (who stirred up the interest of U. Ratnatunga in the abhidhamaa philosophy in 1930), to help me correct at least a few terms heaped up in single statements.


[1] Upajiva Ratnatunga: "Mind and Matter". Lake Hnuse, Colombo 1982. [Natrag]

[2] More informarion on these analogies is contained in my articles "Aniccarn – The Buddhist Theory of Impermanence" and "Karma – The Ripening the Fruit" (for the Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, Wheel Nos 186/7 and 221-224). The latter has heen reprinted in the Pali Buddhist Review 1, 1 London 1976. [Natrag]

[3] Sangarava-suttam (M 100). [Natrag]