Book of Analysis, the aggregates (Vb1): translator's introduction

by R.E. Iggleden

[xv] In writing an introduction to this volume an attempt has been made to try to rectify the impression that seems to exist in the minds of many as to the nature of Abhidhamma teaching. It has been criticized as being dry, barren and scholastic, that it lacks interest and is of little practical value; in one well known work it was even referred to as, "a valley of dry bones".

To speak thus is to take an extremely superficial view of a very large and important section of the whole Buddhist Tipiá¹­aka, for it is in fact only by a knowledge of this very Abhidhamma teaching, detailed in the Abhidhamma Piá¹­aka and its Commentaries, that even the Discourses of the Buddha, i.e., the Sutta Piá¹­aka, can be understood in their full and proper meaning. The language of the Suttas, or Discourses, is often on first reading almost disarmingly simple; the Buddha, however, when he spoke, weighed carefully the meaning and implication of everything he said, for he had on so many occasions to discuss matters with other teachers of high moral and philosophical accomplishment in which the scope and implication of even a single word could be of the greatest significance.

There is no need, therefore, to make any attempt to "justify" the Abhidhamma books, they stand firmly and squarely on their own ground, both in tradition and content, as the basis and proper foundation upon which a correct knowledge and understanding of the Buddha's Teaching is built.

To say this, though, is not to imply that these Abhidhamma books are simple to read, or that the knowledge they impart is easy to assimilate. Admittedly, it is as difficult as it is extensive, but to those who wish to discover what lies behind the more usually read portions of the Tipiṭaka there is a mine of really interesting, deeply instructive and systematically arranged material. This, when studied not for its scholastic worth alone but with the proper and intended purpose that its fruits should be used to penetrate to the very core of the Buddha's Teaching—i.e., his [xvi] Teaching in terms of ultimates, Abhidhamma,—is absorbing and rewarding to the highest degree.

As this volume is a translation from the original Pāḷi Text of Vibhaṅga into English, it is clearly intended in the first place for those who are unable to read it in its original language or to refer to its Commentary. It was therefore considered that the most useful type of introduction would be one in which something was said about each separate chapter in the nature of explanation, and to show where possible in the space available that this is not just a book of theory but the record of practical investigation into the manner in which a being functions, to what difficulties he is subject and the proper mode of practice for his release from suffering. The aim is also to form a general picture of the whole work to show why this particular collection of subjects in this particular order was included in this volume. In the absence of a translation of the Commentary there was also perhaps a need to explain just a little of what is implied by the somewhat terse sentences and word definitions of the original.

Ideally, each volume of the Abhidhamma Piá¹­aka should be studied in proper order and in detail, under a skilled teacher, so that a comprehensive knowledge of the whole Buddhadhamma is gained. This is not easily achieved, but it is hoped that this introduction will throw some light on the fact that the so-called "valley of dry bones" is no skeleton, that it is by no means a dead thing but one that is very much alive and is indeed the very firm and sure foundation upon which the Buddha's extremely active and practical teaching is based.

The Abhidhamma Piṭaka, the third section of the Pāḷi Tipiṭaka, consists of seven books. The first three of these, viz., Dhammasaṅganī, Vibhaṅga and Dhātukathā, form a closely integrated group of fundamental importance to the correct understanding and interpretation of the teachings of the Buddha.

The first of these volumes to be translated into English was Dhammasaṅgaṇī. This was done by Mrs. C. A. F. Rhys Davids in 1904 under the title, 'Buddhist Psychological Ethics'. The third volume, Dhātukathā, was translated in 1962 in this present series under the title, 'Discourse on Elements', by Ven. Sayadaw U Nārada, a well known lecturer and teacher of Abhidhamma in Rangoon. The second volume, Vibhaṅga, is the subject of this [xvii] present translation, and it is perhaps fitting that its relationship to these other two works should be explained.

It has been said elsewhere that Vibhaṅga is virtually a rearrangement of the material already stated in Dhammasaṅganī. If this were so then its existence as a separate book would not be justifiable, it must therefore be assumed, as also it is a fact, that the contents of Vibhaṅga although related in certain direct ways to Dhammasaṅganī is separate from it and deals with matters not included in it.

First it is necessary to explain briefly what is the purpose of Dhammasaṅganī, In the English translation it is known as, 'Buddhist Psychological Ethics', this however is not a translation of its title but more a guide to the nature of much of its mode of expression, it is more nearly rendered by, 'Compilation of States'. The main body of the work deals with the enumeration and definition of the various methods, in groups of three (Tika) and in groups of two (Duka), by which the whole analytical teaching of the Buddha may be expressed in accordance with his different modes of analysis. Thus to quote the first of the Triplets, it defines in detail good states (kusaladhammā), bad states (akusaladhammā), neither good nor bad states (abyākatadhammā). Then follow a further 21 Triplets of which the final defines states visible and impingent (sanidassanasappaṭighadhammā), states not visible but impingent (anidassanasappaṭighadhammā), states not visible and not impingent (anidassanāppatighadhammā). It should here be mentioned that the term 'states' (dhammā) is used in perhaps a broader sense than is usual in English, for not only does it refer for example to discrete states of consciousness whose individual classification depends on appropriately associated mental concomitants (cetasikā), but also to those same mental concomitants themselves. Moreover, material quality (rūpa), the four great essentials (mahābhūta), the dependent material qualities (upādāya rūpa) and even Nibbāna (asaṅkhata dhamma) are included within this term.

Discussion of these 22 Triplets constitutes nearly three quarters of the whole volume, and most of the remainder defines in detail the one hundred Couplets of which the first is, "States that are roots (hetudhammā)"," States that are not roots (na hetudhammā) " and the last, " States that are cause of bewailing (saranadhammā)", " States that are not cause of bewailing (aranadhammā)".

This compilation of Triplets and Couplets, together with [xviii] certain other matters contained in Dhammasaṅgaṇī, gives a bare statement with definitions of what It is necessary to be familiar with in order to gain a full and proper understanding of what is implied in the more general statements made by the Buddha in the course of his teaching.

There were, however, a number of topics to which the Buddha devoted particular attention in some of his discourses, to which could be afforded a special degree of further analysis to demonstrate that whereas a general statement of a subject could be made that was a perfect and correct statement in itself, further inquiry into that subject would show that in the light of other statements made by him the Buddha could demonstrate that statement of general truth to be also one of particular truth.

Vibhaṅga deals specifically with a number of these topics, showing in some both the method of analysis and the definitions used by the Buddha in general discourses (Suttantabhājanīya) and the technical analysis and definitions (Abhidhammabhājanīya) used when the same matter was discussed from a strictly philosophical aspect. Coupled with this there is in a large number of the chapters a special section entitled Interrogation (Pañhāpucchaka), which shows in detail how each of the special terms used are to be defined within the framework of Triplets and Couplets previously enumerated in Dhammasaṅgaṇī.

It should always be remembered that at the time of the Buddha, India stood at a very high level of civilization, and that its philosophers were specialists to a supreme degree in matters of analysis, logic and argument. The Buddha, therefore, in the course of his forty-five years of teaching, was called upon not only to give discourses to general audiences of lay people, but to show to philosophers of the highest Standard of learning and ability that the views they held were capable of being disproved in accordance with strict philosophical analysis. The terminology he used, therefore, needed to be precise in statement, exact in definition and capable of being expressed within whatever framework of classification it was necessary to use to show what was Right View (Sammādiṭṭhi), and what was False View (Micchadiṭṭhi). Abhidhamma books show these methods of classification as determined by the Buddha and used by him to demonstrate both generally and in analytical ex-actitude the profundity of truth in the whole of his teaching.

The title chosen for this translation is, "The Book of Analysis", [xix] as being a translation of the term Vibhaṅgappakarana. The work itself is divided into eighteen chapters, each of which is called a vibhaṅga, or analysis. Thus the opening chapter entitled, "Analysis of the Aggregates" deals exhaustively with each of the five aggregates (khandha), explaining the extent and limitation of the various aspects into which each individual term is analysed, The Buddha in his method of teaching would never permit of loose thinking. If, in accordance with the Buddha's exhortation, one is to be mindful of and examine with detachment the constituent parts of the body or the rising and passing away of conscious states, such examination must be done thoroughly so that the exact strueture of those states may be understood and eventually their true nature comprehended.

As to the mode of translation employed, attempt has been made to give as literal a rendering of the Pāli as the grammatical structure of English will allow, and to include in each sentence equivalents for every word of importance in the corresponding passage of the original. To achieve this, style has in many cases had to be sacrificed in order that the more terse manner of the original may be sustained. It has also frequently been found necessary to employ phrases of a more or less explanatory nature as translations of otherwise single Pāli terms. This has been done where a purely literal rendering could easily obscure the proper meaning. It is hoped that the index to this work will indicate where this has had to be done.

On first examining the chapters in Vibhaṅga it is not easy to see the reason behind the order in which they are placed; if, however, the two works Dhammasaṅgaṇī and Vibhaṅga are considered together, a general plan does emerge. In Dhammasaṅgaṇī the aim has been to compile and to classify under particular group headings the various states (dhammā) comprising all mental and material conditions. The outline of this universal system of classification exists as the mātika of Dhammasaṅgaṇī, and it is the explanation of this mātika—or matrix—that is the purpose of Dhammasaṅgaṇī. In Vibhaṅga the field of research in narrowed to particular topics, but the same basis of analysis is retained as an important aspect of every subject to which it is applied.

When making a survey of Vibhaṅga it will be seen that there are eighteen separate chapters some of which possess three main sections, viz.,

[xx] "Analysis According to the Discourses" "Analysis According to Abhidhamma" and "Interrogation",while others contain only two main sections, viz., "Analysis According to Abhidhamma" and "Interrogation", or, alternatively, "Analysis According to the Discourses" and "Analysis According to Abhidhamma".

Finally, certain vibhaṅgas have none of these particular sectional divisions, but adopt either numerical or subject headings.

Examination of the distribution of these chapter structures gives a first clue to the reason for their order, and shows that they are divided into groups which commence with chapters having three main sub-divisions, and ending where appropriate either with two main sections or with chapters possessing their own special internal structure.

On this basis the complete work separates into three major divisions as follows:

  1. Division 1:
    1. Vibhaṅgas 1–4 inclusive, each having three modes of analysis: i.e., Discourses, Abhidhamma and Interrogation.
    2. Vibhaṅga 5 having two modes of analysis: i.e., Abhidhamma and Interrogation.
    3. Vibhaṅga 6 having two modes of analysis: i.e., Discourses and Abhidhamma.
  2. Division 2:
    1. Vibhaṅgas 7–13 inclusive, each having the three modes of analysis: i.e., Discourses, Abhidhamma and Interrogation.
    2. Vibhaṅga 14 having two modes of analysis: i.e, Abhidhamma and Interrogation.
  3. Division 3:
    1. Vibhaṅga 15 having the three modes of analysis: i.e., Discourses, Abhidhamma and Interrogation.
    2. Vibhaṅgas 16-18 inclusive, which have either purely numerical or subject sub-divisions.

The first major division deals with the mental and material structure of beings, and shows two invariable processes to which beings are always subject, viz., suffering and dependent origination.

[xxi] The second division deals with the various aspects of skilful practice which release beings from those processes.

The third major division forms in some respects an appendix to the other two, in that it analyses subjects which though implicit in them yet need further expansion and are not so readily dealt with in the manner of the earlier divisions.

In connection with the relationship between Dhammasaṅgaṇī, Vibhaṅga and Dhātukathā, it should here be added that although Vibhaṅga devotes an entire section to analysis of the elements (dhātu) the subject is of itself of such an intricate and far reaching nature that the Buddha gave particular and detailed attention to its technicalities. It is this great expansion of the analysis of elements that bears the title Dhātukathā, and forms the third volume of this important trilogy.

(1) Analysis Of The Aggregates (Khandhavibhaṅga)

Returning now to the first major division consisting of six vibhaṅgas which deal with the mental/material structure of beings, together with the conditions and forces to which they are subject. According to the teaching expounded by the Buddha, beings, so-called, no matter to which plane of existence they belong, are not possessed of any permanent identity, individuality, self, soul or spirit, but are to be considered only as temporary manifestations of several constituents or aggregates which in themselves though constantly changing nevertheless show continuity of process. Thus, although the expression 'rebirth' is frequently used, it is not to be understood that the same being from one existence is reborn into a future existence by virtue of there being a soul or spirit as the factor providing inherent continuity. It is that, after a period during which a group of aggregates have exhibited their continuity of process in mutual association, they separate; and, according to their several qualities at the moment of separation, associate again with other appropriate aggregates to produce in a perfectly automatic way a new being, which, although having no direct relationship to its predecessor, by way of a permanent unchanging soul or spirit, is nevertheless the direct outcome of resultants of the activities of that predecessor, and so on. From this very cursory statement of the process of [xxii] serial existence it is to be appreciated that while this current of constant change takes place there is, by definition, no stability of any kind, and that a so-called being of such structure cannot be regarded as steady, reliable, peaceful, permanent, not subject to change, not subject to ageing, death, sorrow, lamentation, physical pain, mental pain or despair.

The first vibhaṅga, Analysis of the Aggregates (Khandhavibhaṅga) illustrates in detail the nature of the fivefold primary analysis of a being. One of its purposes is to show to those who may accept the idea of the existence of a soul or spirit as a constituent part of a being that such a concept is unnecessary to the understanding of the structural nature of beings. It is to show that whatever may be observed or formulated from the behaviour of beings, either in general or in particular, is classifiable under one or other of the five aggregates, viz., the aggregates of material quality, feeling, perception, mental concomitants and consciousness. No quality or feature that is in any way discernible falls outside this fivefold system of classification.

This first chapter, then, deals with these five groups or aggregates, showing the meaning of and the field covered by each. It demonstrates that each is complete in itself and that in function and manifestation they are mutually exclusive.

At this point something should be said concerning the three main types of analysis into which the various vibhaṅgas are divided, and of which this first chapter is a representative example.

As indicated earlier the system sub-divides into three categories, viz., Analysis According to the Discourses (Suttantabhājanīya), Analysis According to Abhidhamma (Abhidhammabhājanīya) and Interrogation (Pañhāpucchaka).

This first major division opens with an analysis of the five aggregates according to the manner of the Discourses. What is this manner? First of all it will have been noticed in the course of examining the many discourses of the Sutta Piṭaka that the method adopted by the Buddha in delivering a discourse almost always involves analysis of the basic subject into its component parts. This analytical method is indeed a primary characteristic of the Buddha's Teaching, and is the foundation of his method of training to enable beings gradually, by the process of the elimination of loose thinking, to be able to see things as they really are (yathābhūtaṃ). [xxiii] It will be rernembered that at the time of the Third Council, during the reign of the Emperor Asoka, the Ven. Moggaliputtatissa, in questioning the many bhikkhus as to the nature of the Buddha's Teaching, accepted only those who stated that teaching to be one of analysis, and that one who adhered to and proclaimed that teaching was a Vibhajjavādin—an analyst.

Analysis According to the Discourses as exemplified in Vibhaṅga, therefore, is a method of breaking down a subject into its component parts, followed by a system of word definitions such as is to be found in many parts of the Sutta Piṭaka. How then does this differ in method from the second form, Analysis According to Abhidhamma?

The difference lies in the nature of the basic terms used to analyse the subject concerned. The Sutta method of examination depends on an explanation of the subject in terms of conventional language such as might easily be understood by the average audience. Thus, in the case of the vibhaṅga on aggregates, each of the aggregates is first examined in terms which bear reference to its relationship with other qualities. The type of relative qualities referred to are as to whether the subject of the examination is in the past, present or future, whether it is internal or external, gross or subtle, superior or inferior, distant or proximate, consists of the four great essentials and their dependent qualities, and so on. In other words the subject is classified in terms of everyday description such as those in which we usually consider the objects surrounding us, such as are recognized by the ordinary man as being straightforward, relatively simple, not subject to wide misinterpretation, and which are readily understood by the large majority of people without there being conflict of opinion as to the validity of the classification. It is an examination in terms of the obvious qualities which an object possesses and which enable it to be considered, compared or classified on a similar level with other objects. It is the primary method of examination which must be observed before any deeper or more searching inquiry is made. It may be argued that, when compared with the very searching and accurate system for the classification of objects and substances which exist at the present time, the Suttanta method is not very exact. The answer to this is that it was not the Buddha's intention to concentrate on the precise classification of objects in terms of their physical qualities, but view them in terms necessary for the [xxiv] proper understanding of their position and value in the psycho-ethical sphere.

Nevertheless, in order to introduce the idea of precision to the minds of those whom he taught, the Buddha, even in this preliminary type of analysis, used a system of word explanations and definitions in which the terms examined could clearly be seen to act as collective synonyms, expressing all the shades of meaning inferred by the many alternatives included. Thus, by first making use of the Suttanta method of classification, the object under examination is put into a correct perspective with other objects, and little doubt is left as to its basic nature in every day terms.

On entering the field of Analysis According to Abhidhamma it is immediately apparent that the basis from which the system arises is very different from that of the Suttanta method. Here we are using terms which are not related to a more or less physical examination of the object, but to a psychological and ethical structure which does not concern itself with the more conventional ways of examination. The very term Abhidhamma gives the first clue to the basis of this different method, for its meaning, Higher or Ultimate Doctrine or Teaching, indicates that the purpose of any analysis undertaken in this manner is not designed to view things or states in the terms of conventional inquiry, but in terms of ultimates. The question may here be reasonably asked— 'in what sense is the word ultimate used?' The initial answer to this is straightforward. The whole aim of the Buddha's Teaching, and the essential practice to which that Teaching is directed, is to the final cessation of suffering. This means a complete breaking up of the causal system which brings about that continuity of process which we call birth, growth, decay and death. In order that these causes and their associated states and processes may be fully understood, it is clearly not sufficient to examine the relevant conditions in terms only such as are used in the Suttanta analysis. It was the great achievement of the Buddha, in the period immediately following his Enlightenment, that he understood fully and formulated exactly the full nature of the individual states and their relationships in the activities which maintain that continuity of process; moreover, he understood and formulated fully the manner in which theory and practice must be directed to the utter destruction of that process and its attendant suffering. The ultimates which the Buddha uses, therefore, are those states, terms, conditions [xxv] or processes which with reference to this full understanding and destruction of suffering cannot be broken down into further contributory states. Thus, when good states (kusalā dhammā) are referred to it means states which tend, to a greater or lesser degree, to release from suffering. Good roots or bad roots indicate the source from which a particular state arises; feeling is either pleasant, painful or neither painful nor pleasant, there is no emotion or attitude to be understood in connection with it as a state. Thus all the states of consciousness, mental factors, roots, aggregates, bases, elements, controlling faculties, and so on, are each 'things in themselves'—ultimates—, it is therefore in terms of these ultimates that Analysis According to Abhidhamma is conducted. It is analysis directed wholly and entirely to that understanding which, in conjunction with hard practice, will destroy utterly the conditioned state and thereby attain Nibbāna.

The third section of analysis translated as Interrogation is of a different order, for in making direct use of the Triplet and Couplet system it does in effect refer the student directly back to Dhammasaṅgaṇī.

As noted earlier when the Triplets were mentioned, each group of three statements is an all embracing unit, meaning to say that whatever phenomenon or state there is, mental or material, mundane or supramundane, it may be included under one or other of the three headings. Moreover, as there are twenty-two Triplets, each of which is a complete basis for the classification of all states, and as each Triplet is a self-contained or discrete unit so far as its field of inquiry is concerned, the whole method of analysis by way of the series of Triplets is exhaustive as a mode of inquiry into the nature of states and phenomena to one who is concerned with the theory and practice of release from suffering, and the constant round of rebirth.

With regard to the Couplets the same general statements are true, but in this case the analytical basis is arranged in groups of two headings instead of three, and there are one hundred of these pairs.

It will thus be appreciated that from a psycho-ethical point of view the systems of analysis and of the classification of states as expounded by the Buddha are very thorough and complete. Moreover, it is not difficult to realize why, with such an authoritative [xxvi] system, the Buddha, during the period of his teaching when faced by questioners from the many religious sects then existing in India, was always able to explain where the disputant was incorrect in his reasoning, and was able to reframe his question and answer it in a categorical manner, gaining the greatest respect from all who heard him speak.

It must be emphasized that although the general impression concerning the Abhidhamma Teaching is that it is a purely scholastic system suited only to those concerned with theory, analysis for the sake of analysis and the definition of terms, this is not so at all. The whole body of the Abhidhamma Piá¹­aka is so designed and put together that it may be used in an essentially practical manner to enable those who strive seriously toward ultimate release to be possessed of the proper tools with which to work. To attain to utter and final release from suffering is not an easy thing which can be accomplished with little difficulty or effort. It is of all things the most exacting and precise of paths to follow, if it is followed correctly. Release cannot be attained if there is no real understanding of things as they really are. Real under-standing can only come by the deepest consideration of every aspect of the nature of being, and it is by the careful classification of one's thoughts in the eliminating of false arguments and theories, coupled with proper activity directed to the one end only, that right understanding gradually arises.

In this first vibhaṅga, therefore, we are introduced to a full analysis of the five aggregates of being, using the three methods of examination discussed above.

This examination of the aggregates makes a clear statement of the absolutely basic components of a being. It does not, however, go further than that, and it is left for certain subsequent vibhaṅgas to detail more fully those aspects of a being which, although fully covered by the aggregates, yet display quite special characteristics. Among these are the bases (āyatanā) analysed by the three methods in the second vibhaṅga.

It’s actually by R.E. Iggleden.

Waltham St. Lawrence is the village in Berkshire where he lived.

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O, dear, that’s a bad mistake! Let me fix it.


It still says “walthamst.lawrence” in a tag next to “Essays”, underneath the title.

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