Abhidhamma - A path to Awakening?

I would like to hear views on if someone can awaken if they practice with the framework of the Theravādin Abhidhamma? I’m interested to hear reasons as to why this is or is not possible, based on what the EBT tells us? As someone who is coming to appreciate the Abhidhamma again, I thought it would be interesting to see if one can reach nibbāna by relying upon it even if it was not something explicitly taught by the Buddha? By Abhidhamma here I mean the original Abhidhamma texts and the Abhidhamma commentarial tradition and associated concepts such as sabhāva, two truths, momentariness and so on.

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No. Because that’s not the point of the Abhidhamma.

The Abhidhamma is a systemization of the philosophical implications of the Buddha’s teachings. It wasn’t meant to be “practiced.”

Can you describe how you’re imagining “practice with the framework of the Abhidhamma?” What would that even look like?

Bhante, what I understand it would mean is that rather than basing contemplation on sutta lists such as elements, aggregates, feelings, awakening factors, dependent origination, etc, one might use the more detailed lists from the (Canonical) Abhidhamma. Not something I’ve tried, but I understand that some find the extra detail helpful.

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Here’s something quite practical from Bhante @Dhammanando, illustrating the use of detailed analysis to “solve” meditation problems:

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Definitely not. The notion of a mind-moment is incoherent right from the start. Phenomenologically, there is no such thing as a discrete moment of time. Like the self, if you actually search your own experience for some hypothetical discrete, instantaneous mind-moment, you will never be able to find it outside of an idea you have of such a thing. That the Abhidhamma’s phenomenology is so utterly deluded at such a fundamental place is a good indication of the value of the enterprise as a whole. “Noticing a large object take 7 mind-moments, while a medium object takes 4…” It gets so blatantly ridiculous at times it beggars belief.

I take it from this that you think then that Theravāda and the commentarial tradition is a complete waste of time? That no noble ones of any degree are found therein?

Followers of the Abhidhamma always say it’s to be used as an aid to practice and meditation, and if we read some Abhidhamma texts they certainly seem concerned with just that. The Dhammasaṅgaṇī for example. We also see it in commentarial texts such as the Abhidhammattha-saṅgaha, which is framed in terms of practice and meditation. If you read any work by the likes of Ledi Sayadaw the Abhidhamma suffuses all of their practice and view of the Dhamma. It’s not just a way to organise the teachings to Abhidhammikas. It’s a living meditative tradition.

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Well, Theravāda as a whole is quite a diverse spectrum of views, and I have never read any of the commentaries. All I can say is that if someone bases their understanding of temporality on the Abhidhamma, that understanding will be necessarily deluded. Whether or not such a delusion would be prohibitive of the noble attainments would be speculation.

What makes a Theravādin or a Pudgalavādin is their Abhidhamma. If you are saying their practice is inherently deluded then you are saying there are no awakened ones of any sort in that tradition.

It’s an interesting question I think. So, if the dhamma is like a raft, need it be philosophically accurate or does it just need to get you to the other side?

My initial take is that it may be possible for the Abhidhamma practitioner to be freed by “touching with the body” i.e be freed by meditative attainment, but not perhaps be “freed one way” by “wisdom”. (assuming the charge of substantivism is true).

What I am getting at is that if the dhamma is like a raft, and the Abhidhamma is like a later model of the raft that perhaps has some philosphical problems, if the later raft allows you to experience with the body the attainments which destroy your “lust for life” and irrevocably assures you of “complete freedom”, and if at that point you “see through” all conditioned things, including the now no longer needed Abhidhamma system then there is no soteriological problem.

Presumably this is what one who has been awakened by the older sutta methods does with the suttas also.

My only caveat is that my impression is that in the suttas it is taught that some who do not manage the meditative attainments nevertheless with their penetrating intelligence, understand the philosophy to such a degree that they are freed, even freed of reliance on the specifics of the philosophy.

My take, form what I can tell once much more popular than it is now, (but maybe I am just hanging with the wrong crowd), is that the implicit philosophy of the suttas is anti-substantialist, anti-metaphysical, takes conditionality to be prior to logic and prior to the mind body distinction, and sees language as limited by this scope also, the upshot being that I can sort of envision how someone might be able to “Cross the flood” with this dialectic even without meditative experience of cessations, but I am not convinced that a philosophy of substances and moments and persons as fictions can achieve this.

Of course, I am in absolutely no position to judge if the abhidhamma is guilty of the philosophical charges laid against it, i have heard arguments from more informed people on both sides, but if its true then yeah, hard to see how it is liberating as philosophy.

Like there might have been a kind of trade-off, sacrificing philosophical subtlety for detailed and systematic support for students to actually reliably achieve the meditative attainments, since at the end of the day you will be leaving the raft behind regardless.

Metta

The Buddha engages with metaphysics in the suttas/sutras. For example, epistemology and ontology.

So, if the dhamma is like a raft, need it be philosophically accurate or does it just need to get you to the other side?

Interestingly, in the Mahāsāṃghika version all the raft parable means is no longer relying upon conceit to awaken (compare to the sutta which says we should rely upon conceit to give up conceit).

  1. “How is that called the parable of riding a raft? It refers to relying on conceit to cease conceit. Once conceit is fully ceased, there are no more afflicted thoughts and confused ideas. It’s like a jackal skin that’s hard to work with. When it’s hit with a fist, there’s no sound, and the leather lacks toughness. This is likewise. When a monk’s conceit is gone, there’s nothing to uplift or lower [his mind].

The Numerical Discourses | 43. The God [Rohitassa] | 5. The Parable of the Raft (dharmapearls.net)

Yes, we’ll, but think we are kind of quibbling over terms here, I’m sort of saying that his metaphysics and epistemology where of a ‘critical’ flavour, for example his silence on the 10 questions is a bit of critical epistemology.

Similarly the talk of reaching the ends of the cosmos in this fathom long body is a kind of “anti-ontological ontology” - in fact I would say the whole idea of conditionality is a kind of anti-ontological ontology.

As for conceit, I think that can cover the dhamma to, if you are attached to dhamma then you have a conceit- the dhamma, only by freeing oneself from all conceits , including dhamma, could a person be free from attachment.

Conceit is etymologically related to conceive the way deceit is to deceive, the whole message of the Buddha is that any liberation reliant on “conceiving” is “conceited”.

conceit (n.)

late 14c., “a thought, a notion, that which is mentally conceived,” from conceiven (see conceive) based on analogy of deceit/deceiveand receipt/receive. The sense evolved from “something formed in the mind” to “fanciful or witty notion, ingenious thought” (1510s), to “vanity, exaggerated estimate of one’s own mental abilities” (c. 1600) through shortening of self-conceit (1580s).

Metta

He also spoke of things which do and do not exist in the world, which are positive and negative ontological statements.

As for conceit, I think that can cover the dhamma to, if you are attached to dhamma then you have a conceit- the dhamma, only by freeing oneself from all conceits , including dhamma, could a person be free from attachment.

Conceit is etymologically related to conceive the way deceit is to deceive, the whole message of the Buddha is that any liberation reliant on “conceiving” is “conceited”.

The way the texts use it, it means a sense of “I” due to grasping.

I read the text you mentioned and it makes no mention at all of a sense of I due to grasping…

  1. “Māra said to me, ‘What’s your reason for destroying these conceits?’

“I replied, ‘Pāpīyān, you should know, there are the concentration of kindness, concentration of compassion, concentration of joy, and concentration of equanimity and the concentration of emptiness, concentration without aspirations, and concentration without attributes. From the concentration caused by kindness, the concentration of compassion is discerned. Conditioned by the concentration of compassion, the concentration of joy is attained. Conditioned by the concentration of joy, the concentration of equanimity is attained. From the concentration of emptiness, the concentration without aspirations is attained. Because of the concentration without aspirations, the concentration without attributes is attained. Using the power of these concentrations, I will do battle with you. When their practice is complete, then suffering is ended. When suffering is ended, then the bonds are ended. When the bonds are ended, then I’ll attain Nirvāṇa.’

  1. “Māra said to me, ‘Ascetic, you’ll destroy the teaching with the teaching?’

“I replied, ‘It’s possible to destroy the teaching with the teaching.’

It does talk about destroying the teaching with the teaching though, and I can’t see how your gloss on conceit explains that.

The loss of a sense of subjectivity is hardly the same as being enlightened, otherwise there would be heaps of people with severe brain injuries or dementia who would have to be called “enlightened”.

I had more in mind the Pāli suttas, and from what I know of the sutras (which is less than the suttas).

I don’t read the suttas as if the same word wherever it occurs means the same thing and you can put them all together in the same way to work out a grand system that fits together the exists “underneath” the suttas.

I guess that’s why I’m not an abhidammika :slight_smile:

Somethings change, others stay the same. The sutra in question is framing the raft in terms of using a sense of self to travel along, and it is this which is given up at the end contrary to the Madhyamaka’s “non-implicative negation” (as phrased by the Tibetans)

I guess that’s why I’m not an abhidammika

Well, that and your take on existence & non-existence.

It’s a fascinating question. I can’t begin to answer it. I think the first step - for me - to groping towards an answer would be listening to more teachers that were coming out of the Abhidhamma teachings. I’ve made a conscious effort to focus on the Suttas. So I haven’t been made aware of what the Abhidhamma offers.

Does anyone have any suggestions for good teachers, books, or talks on Abhidhamma?

Ledi Sayadaw is very inspirational to me. The Abhidhamma completely fills his teachings on the Dhamma. You can access some of his manuals on the Dhamma here for free: Ledi Sayādaw (aimwell.org)

“A Manual of the Excellent Man” and “A Manual on Nibbāna” are very good. Then of course the classic Abhidhammattha-saṅgaha: A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma (saraniya.com)

There is also this website, ran by a nun I believe, with lots of material for free: ‘Abhidhamma.com Texts’

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Yes, it is certainly correct. The Abhidhamma works lay emphasis on the teachings in idealistic and systematic theory, rather than in a practical sense.