SuttaCentral

EBT and the Mahayana differentiation of identitylesness of person (lack of pudgalatma) and identitylesness of dharmas (lack of dharmatma)

Hi, friends.

I’ve been studying the development of Mahayana Buddhism and checking if some of its core teachings are or aren’t already present in the EBTs. By the time of the appearance of the Theravada and Sarvastivada Abhidharma literature, it seems that already there was an established idea of there being three yanas: that of sravakas, pratyekabuddhas, and bodhisattvas. This was not taught in the early texts but appeared as a way to explain the difference between the enlightenment of disciples and that of a Buddha who is endowed with the 10 powers and is capable of turning the Wheel.

I’ve heard during a Vipassana retreat that Theravada literature developed the idea that the main difference between a savaka arhant and a sammasambuddha is the greater amount of merit the last one generated for a long time through practicing the 10 paramis. But I’ve never read about it in detail.

Sarvastivada Abhidharma affirms that arhats abandon all afflictions, and that Buddhas abandon not only afflictions but also their traces (vasana), thus abandoning also a type of non-afflicted ignorance.
(I’m taking Vasubandhu’s Abhidarmakosha as the reference here).

Asanga/Maitreya’s teachings further develop this idea about what a samyaksambuddha abandons (which a sravaka arhat don’t) and it is established that:

  • sravaka arhats realize the absence of the self of a person (pudgalatma) which is imputed on the aggregates. Clinging to this self is the source of all afflictions. Having abandoned it, all afflictions are abandoned and thus one attains the enlightenment of a sravaka.

  • samyaksambuddhas realize not only the absence of pudgalatma, but also the absence of the self of phenomena (dharmatma) which is the notion of there being existent things called form, feeling, consciousness, etc. Thus, in this case all mental proliferations and views are abandoned.

It seems clear that this description of the abandonment of the notion of pudgalamta and it being the source of afflictions can be found in the EBTs. Do you think the idea of abandoning dharmatma is also found in EBTs?

Just to bring some early suttas that seem to portray the abandonment of the notions of dharmatma:

Snp 4.5:

Concerning the seen, the heard and cognized,
not the least notion is fashioned by him,
that one who’s perfected grasps at no view,
by whom in the world could he be described?

Snp4.14:

One should completely extract
The root of proliferation and reckoning—
The notion, “I am the thinker”.

obs.:according to Maitreya/Asanga’s texts, the notion “I am the thinker” is a conceptualisation of an apprehender, which is part of the belief in dharmatma.

And SN 12.15, which is the only sutta quoted in Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhiamikakarika (I remember reading a comment here by @Sujato saying that Nagarjuna’s philosophy is quite in line with the early buddhist texts):

This world, Kaccana, for the most part depends upon a duality—upon the notion of existence and the notion of nonexistence. But for one who sees the origin of the world as it really is with correct wisdom, there is no notion of nonexistence in regard to the world. And for one who sees the cessation of the world as it really is with correct wisdom, there is no notion of existence in regard to the world.

Nevertheless, in EBTs there doesn’t seem to be an explicit mention that only fully enlightened buddhas would abandon those elements which seem similar to Maitreya/Asanga’s notion of dharmatma. Maybe that’s because the differentiation of Buddha’s enlightenment and the disciples’s enlightenment was not established at that time.
What do you think?

3 Likes

You find this idea in Theravada as well, although I couldn’t name a source for it.

I don’t think that this distinction really applies to the EBTs. It is a critique of the abhidhamma notion of sabhāva, which according to Nagarjuna, ended up reifying the concept of a phenomena in ways that parallel the metaphysical reification of a self. But the sabhāva does not appear in the EBTs, so the discussion is moot in that context. What is relevant, however is, that the reification of dhamma does not appear in the EBTs, so to that extent they support Nagarjuna’s critique. (You refer the critique to Asanga; I think it’s pretty widespread, I’m just mentioning Nagarjuna as he’s the main source for this specific issue.)

Of course all these philosophers were aware of the saying sabbe dhammā anattā, the question was how it was to be interpreted.

Indeed, the suttas don’t support this kind of distinction. It seems clear from the EBTs that there was more-or-less a greater range of knowledge available more easily to the Buddha. But it’s a difference in degree rather than kind. No really fundamental distinction is made; certainly not one of spiritual significance.

11 Likes

Do you mean commentary story like Pilindavacca and so on?

2 Likes

Yes, that’s right. It also comes up regarding Sariputta, and doubtless others too.

3 Likes

What does the notion of sabhava means in the Theravada Abhidhamma? Does it mean that dhammas have an intrinsic nature by which they would exist? Do you agree in that case it implies in the reification of phenomena like in the Sarvastivada Abhidharma?

I think Nagarjuna’s idea of sunyata denies not only doctrinal notions of true existence (such as those from Abhidharma) but also the non-doctrinal, “instinctive” or “co-emergent” notion that things exist (or don’t exist). He says that the Buddha abandoned all views or mental proliferations, similarly to what the Snp and SN quotes above say.

There are suttas that talk about the 10 powers, and also about the 3 knowledges which the Buddha achieved. So there is some difference between what a samasambuddha and a savaka arahant achieve, even if only a difference of the degree of one’s realization.
In some early suttas there seems to be more emphasis on the affective aspect of enlightenment (liberation from afflictions), and some other early suttas seem to emphasize a more cognitive aspect (liberation from ignorance/delusion). These are surely working together, but a degree of cognitive realization of anatta which leads to abandoning afflictions would be enough to cease the process of birth.
A more thorough realization of anatta would be required for one to achieve this state beyond grasping to views or to the notions of existence or non-existence (and to achieve qualities such as the 10 powers).

Maybe that is the source from which later masters and texts differentiated the sravaka’s realization of the lack of pudgalatma and the samasambuddha’s realization of the lack of dharmatma?

I would say that Nagarjuna critiques not only what Abhidharma literature developed, but also the widespread notions about what things are, such as what is referred to in the Kaccanagotta Sutta:

From the perspective of Chandrakirti’s commentary of Nagarjuna, both sravaka arhats and samyaksambuddhas realize selflessness of phenomena (contrary to what Asanga says). But they would realize it in different degrees, as you mentioned. Would that perspective be more cogent with the EBTs?

Or would you maintain that all this discussion is not rooted or not related to what is taught in the EBTs? In that case, what do you think are the hints given in the early texts concerning the differences of the paths and realizations of a savaka arahant and a samasambuddha?

2 Likes

Well, these are complex notions and I am no expert, but it is used to define a dhamma in the sense of “basic phenomena”:

attano sabhāvaṃ dhārentīti dhammā
They are called “phenomena” because they bear their own intrinsic essence.

The idea is that each dhamma has something specific and inalienable about them, which allows them to be differentiated from other dhammas. This constitutes their irreducible nature or essence.

I think so, yes. A proper answer to this would look at the usage of sabhāva in the texts, and also as it is used by modern Theravadins.

But a cursory search, for example, in Narada’s well-respected Manual of Abhidhamma, shows such examples as:

Intrinsically (sabhāvato) Nibbāna is peaceful (santi).
Past is defined as that which has gone beyond its own state (attano sabhāvaṃ)
(Time) does not exist by nature (sabhāvato), it is merely a concept.

Yes. I think traditional Theravadins ābhidhammikas unquestioningly accept that dhammas, whose intrinsic essence is defined by the sabhava, truly and absolutely exist in an ontological sense. I don’t think traditional Theravada has ever understood Nagarjuna’s critique, or taken him seriously at all. Modern apologists sometimes try to reconcile the two, but in doing so, I think that they misrepresent what traditional ābhidhammikas actually believe.

Well, this would be how we ended up with the two schools of Madhyamaka!

Good point. Nagarjuna spoke to a specific nexus of historical dialectic, but like all great philosophers, his work has a much greater significance.

Maybe! I’m not familiar enough with Chandrakirti to say. But sure, so long as we’re sticking with degree rather than kind, I think we’re probably on safer ground.

I wouldn’t go that far. Clearly the EBTs treat the Buddha as special in ways that the savakas are not. And it is a genuine question for any Buddhist exegetic to understand exactly what is going on. The suttas offer enough perspectives on this to allow a range of views.

The main point is that the Buddha discovered the path and the savakas follow him. Personally I wouldn’t want to push the matter much further than that.

6 Likes

Bhante-

Thanks fot the responses! Can you expound a little on the below?

I don’t think traditional Theravada has ever understood Nagarjuna’s critique, or taken him seriously at all. Modern apologists sometimes try to reconcile the two, but in doing so, I think that they misrepresent what traditional ābhidhammikas actually believe.

I only very recently started a study on Nagarjuna and Abhidhamma, so I am not picking up what you are putting down

2 Likes

Sadhu! If you don’t mind me tagging along after your quote, bhante, the Abhidhammika takes the Buddha’s instruction to contemplate form as “a glob of foam; feeling, a bubble; perception, a mirage; fabrications, a banana tree; consciousness, a magic trick,” and says “Hey! Look what I found in this form! It’s U L T I M A T E L Y R E A L F O R M! It turns out it was just form after all.” :see_no_evil: :hear_no_evil: :speak_no_evil: The critique being that the Abhidhammika has undertaken the project of Venerable Nagasena and deconstructed the chariot, but has then concluded that there are paramartha chariot-parts which cannot be further deconstructed, and that furthermore it is only because of the existence of the paramartha chariot-parts that the chariot cannot be said to exist, and therefore realizing the paramarthas are vital for your realization concerning the “chariot.”

In fact, even the experiencer is re-analyzed to ultimately exist in Abhidharma in addition to the experienced (i.e. “form” here), in the form of ultimately extant citta and cetasika.

1 Like

Can you be more specific?

By “modern apologists” I was thinking of some western interpreters who I have read or heard around the traps, who say things like “abhidhamma provides a mental map that is helpful for navigating the mind”. I mean that’s fair enough, and I would agree that it is a mental map, and whether it’s helpful is subjective. But it’s really not how Abhidhamma was seen traditionally.

A “map” is an abstracted concept (upādāya paññatti) which offers a very lo-res copy of reality for pragmatic purposes. Traditional interpreters see the Abhidhamma more like, say, the periodic table, a precise and scientific analysis of exactly what is there.

2 Likes

Bhante-

I was actually focusing more on your statement on the disconnect between the traditional commentators and Nagarjuna. I understand development of prajnaparamita literature and the works of mahayana authors like Nagarjuna in reaction to the Abhidhamma among other thingd, but what I don’t understand entirely was why the early mahayana thought the abhidhamma was such a big deal, and as a corollary question, why the abhidhammika failed to engage any of those critiques that mahayana authors presented

2 Likes

You may find more fertile soil in the Sarvastivada Agamas than in the Theravada Nikayas. While they don’t go so far as to say dharmas are empty of intrinsic nature, there are passages glossing emptiness that say as much in more words. It wouldn’t have been such a leap to say all dharmas are empty and have passages in the Agamas to read in support of it. It’s ambiguous, though, because those passages often are dealing with the five aggregates, which can refer to the person or to the constituents of experience. However, emptiness is often couched in terms of impermanence and change rather than emptiness of self, which is the way Theravada sources often gloss emptiness.

Here are a few passages to consider.

SA 80:

The Buddha said to the monks: “Suppose a monk sits down in an empty place at the root of a tree and well contemplates bodily form as being impermanent, being of a nature to wear away and to fade away. In the same way he examines feeling … perception … formations … consciousness as being impermanent, being of a nature to wear away and to fade away. Examining those aggregates as being impermanent, of a nature to wear away, to be unstable, and to change, his mind is delighted, purified, and liberated. This is called emptiness. One who contemplates in this way, even though not yet able to be free from conceit, purifies his knowledge and vision.

SA 232:

“It is said ‘the world is empty’, but in what regard is it said that the world is empty?”

The Buddha said to Samṛddhi: “Eye is empty, empty of eternal and unchanging nature, empty of anything belonging to self. Why is this so? This is nature as it is.

(If we look up the Pali parallel for this sutra, SN 35.85, it just glosses emptiness as empty of self.)

SA 273

“Therefore, monks, with regard to all empty compounded things you should know, rejoice in, and be mindful of (awake to) this:

“All empty compounded things are empty of any permanent, eternal, lasting, unchanging nature; they are empty of self and of belonging to self”.

3 Likes

Oh, okay.

I’m not sure that I get your question. Why wouldn’t they? It was the dominant approach in Buddhism, and, controversies within the Abhidharma fold notwithstanding, had to be dealt with. The early Mahayana sutras make it clear that this was not merely an intellectual debate; they were opposing the whole tendency for engaging in pointless intellectual debate rather than finding freedom. Mahayanists were jockeying for a place within an already-established and highly powerful and philosophically serious field.

I think the northern ābhidhammikas did, to some extent at least, but not, so far as I know, the Theravadins. That said, I’m not familiar enough with the Sarvastivadin Abhidharma to say too much about it.

Given that the Mahavihara was certainly exposed to Mahayanist and other then-modern ideas, we might expect more of a substantive response. There is, as noted by Nyanamoli in his translation, a quote of Nagarjuna in the sub-commentary to the Visuddhimagga, but it just dismisses it. The Kathavatthu was open for adding new arguments until the early Mahayana period, but stops short of addressing these major philosophical differences.

2 Likes

Hey bhante, when you say traditional interpreters, who are you referring to? Is this how Abhidhamma is understood mainly in say, Burmese Buddhism?

I ask because one can get a much less essentialist reading in the works of people like Y Karunadasa, a modern Sinhala expert on the topic. For example, in his ‘‘Buddhist Analysis of Matter’’, he notes that dhammas are not seen as having an independent existence, and are postulated “only for the purposes of description”. He is of the view that the whole Abhidhamma project is basically just paññati. In another book of his, ‘‘The Theravada Abhidhamma’’ (2010), Karunadasa states that they are only provisional, “an attribution made for the convenience of definition.”

Now, I’m sure his interpretation is traditional in the sense that he cites classic Theravada Abhidhamma texts to support all this, but perhaps what you mean by traditional interpreters is traditional monastic abhidhammikas who study in a traditional south asian monastic setting as opposed to modern universities (as Karunadasa has done).

4 Likes

Bhante- thanks for the insight! That’s actually a short answer to my question I am very interested in the development of Mahayana as a counterpoint to what I think they saw as an “academic” Buddhism in the abhidhammikas. I think my interest in understanding in this stems from two points, namely a desire to understand the origination of the Mahayanist movement and mahayana sutras, but also because I think they are a very interesting historical parallel to the Theravadin reform movements that have been initiated especially in the Burmese and Thai Forest traditions in the past century and a half as a reaction against a sort of dry rote intellectualism that had been predominating in the Theravadin world prior to that

1 Like

Yes.

Well, I’m not very familiar with his work, but he is one of that generation of Sinhalese intellectuals who was highly sophisticated, with an international education, and a long career working in Buddhist philosophy. Among his books are Early Buddhist Teachings: The Middle Position in Theory and Practice, which would suggest that, like his contemporary and colleague David Kalupahana, he had a keen interest in the relation between Nagarjuna and early Buddhism. In other words, he would count as a “modern apologist” rather than a “traditional interpreter”.

If that’s true, and if he did try to reconcile the apparently essentialist teachings of the Abhidhamma, then I have little doubt he would so in a way that is more persuasive and grounded than most such attempts.

Yes, although it’s worth noting that some of the strongest advocates for Abhidhamma are in the lay community. In Thailand, for example, Ajahn Sucin and her students such as Nina van Gorkom; in Myanmar, Goenkaji. There is an academic thesis that Abhidhamma is for monastics, but that certainly isn’t the case in modern Theravada.

Indeed! And there is a lot of support for this in early Mahayana sutras. There’s been quite a bit of academic work in the origins of the Mahayana, but I haven’t kept up with it for the last few years.

2 Likes

Nagarjuna’s attack on the Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma largely does not apply to Theravāda, since he was attacking the Sarvāstivādin idea of there being a “substance” to the dhammas. To quote from the Abhidharma Mahāvibhāṣā Śāstra:

The Venerable Dharmatrāta says that there is change in mode of being (bhāva- anyathātva). The Venerable Ghoṣaka says that there is change in characteristic (lakṣaṇa-anyathātva). The Venerable Vasumitra says that there is change in state (avasthā-anyathātva). The Venerable Buddhadeva says that there is change in [temporal] relativity (anyathā-anyathātva).

[1] The advocate of “change in mode of being” asserts that when dharmas operate (pra-√vṛt) in time, they change on account of their modes of existence/being (bhāva); there is no change in substance. This is like the case of breaking up a golden vessel to produce another thing—there is just a change in shape, not in varṇa- rūpa. It is also like milk, etc., turning into curds, etc.—just the taste, digestibility, etc., are given up, not the varṇa-rūpa. Similarly, when dharmas enter into the present from the future, although they give up their future mode of existence and acquire their present mode of existence, they neither lose nor acquire their substantial essence (AKB: dravya-bhāva). Likewise, when they enter the past from the present, although they give up the present mode of existence and acquire the past mode of existence, they neither give up nor acquire their substantial nature.

[2] The advocate of “change in characteristic” asserts that when dharmas operate in time, they change on account of characteristic (lakṣaṇa); there is no change in substance. A dharma in each of the temporal periods has three temporal characteristics; when one [temporal] characteristic is conjoined, the other two are not severed. This is like the case of a man being attached to one particular woman— he is not said to be detached from other women. Similarly, when dharmas abide in the past, they are being conjoined with the past characteristic but are not said to be severed from the characteristics of the other two temporal characteristics. When they abide in the future, they are being conjoined with the future characteristic but are not said to be severed from the characteristics of the other two temporal characteristics. When they abide in the present, they are being conjoined with the present characteristic, but are not said to be severed from the characteristics of the other two temporal characteristics.

[3] The advocate of “change in state” asserts that when dharmas operate in time, they change on account of state (avasthā); there is no change in substance. This is like the case of moving a token [into different positions]. When placed in the position (avasthā) of ones, it is signified as one; placed in the position of tens, ten; placed in the position of hundreds, hundred. While there is change in the positions into which it is moved, there is no change in its substance. Similarly, when dharmas pass through the three temporal states, although they acquire three different names, they do not change in substance. In the theory proposed by this master, there is no confusion as regards substance, for the three periods are differentiated on the basis of activity (kāritra).

[4] The advocate of “change in [temporal] relativity” asserts that when dharmas operate in time, they are predicated differently [as future, present, or past], relative to that which precedes and that which follows (cf. AKB: pūrvāparam apekṣyānyo’nya ucyate avasthāntarato na dravyāntarataḥ); there is no change in substance. This is like the case of one and the same woman who is called “daughter” relative to her mother, and “mother” relative to her daughter. Similarly, dharmas are called “past” relative to the succeeding ones, “future” relative to the preceding ones, “present” relative to both.

As we can see, within Sarvāstivāda the idea developed that dhammas are real existents (dravya) with a substance. Dravya is then a substance metaphysics. The dhammas thus exist as substances bearing their own intrinsic nature (sabhāva). It is this substance which persists through the 3 periods of time. Vedanā always exists as vedanā and can never change into anything else but vedanā. What we experience as vedanā is simply the manifestation of this primary existent, but the vedanā itself always is. This idea was attacked by Nāgārjuna, as well as by other Sthavira schools. In his attacks Nāgārjuna argued that there can be no substance, or intrinsic existence. For him, dhammas are empty of intrinsic existence because of their conditioned nature. Paṭiccasamuppāda then was the means by which Nāgārjuna attacked the excesses of Sarvāstivādin realism. In doing so, he claimed, he was simply re-asserting the middle way of the Buddha. With all this in mind, some recent thoughts of mine have led me to believe that it is actually us Theravādins and our Abhidhamma which best represents the middle way.

When analysing experience we can choose either analysis or synthesis. Analysis involves the breaking down of phenomena into its constituent parts, whilst synthesis looks at the relationship between phenomena. These two ways of looking at reality can lead to extreme views if one is given preference over another (or if the other is completely absent). If we take the analysis approach to reality we can use it to break down some thing, say a car, into its parts and claim that the car has no substance or core. Its merely a construct of different phenomena that have come together. If the reduction goes further then, eventually, a situation can arise where you end up in a plurality. Instead of a car you now of a plurality of parts, but these parts then become the truly existing primary substances out of which other things are made. What you end up with is not the abolition of substance in phenomena, but merely the transfer of substance from one phenomenon into many. This, then, leans towards the wrong view of permanence. This over reliance on analysis was then what lead to the extreme realism of the Sarvāstivādins. The other way to analyse dhammas is to look at their synthesis. That is to say, their relation to each other. In Buddhist terms this would be to look at their conditionality. The synthesis approach can reveal the insubstantiality of phenomena. It can show how they are impermanent and cannot exist independently, thus negating a self. Under such an examination it would be found that there is no distinct “thing” or, more pertinent to us Buddhists, no distinct self. This method of analysis, however, can also lend itself to extremes. If it becomes the sole method of looking at phenomena then phenomena would lose all of their distinctiveness, since you would not be able to point out a distinctive phenomenon from the web of conditionality. By focusing upon conditionality and the non-distinctiveness of and non-separateness between phenomena a conclusion will be reached of unity. There would be no plurality of dhammas. Instead all would be unity, a unity of non-distinctiveness. That is to say, dhammas then do not exist and so all is empty. From this point of view Nāgārjuna is then not the answer to the extreme of Sarvāstivādin realism. Under such a view Nāgārjuna is then simply the polar opposite of the Sarvāstivādins. He then occupies an opposing extreme view, rather than the middle position of the Buddha. The question then arises, where is this middle way found? I would propose that it is found in the Mahāvihāra (that is to say, Theravāda).

Within the Theravāda Abhidhamma we find two canonical texts; the Dhammasaṅganī and the Paṭṭhāna. The Dhammasaṅganī represents the analysis side of the Abhidhamma. Here dhammas are grouped together and are individually analysed. The Paṭṭhāna is the synthesis aspect of the Abhidhamma method. In this text the conditionality of dhammas is examined via first principles. Here then we find both the analysis method and the synthesis method within one system. Dhammas are examined via their individual characteristic in the Dhammasaṅganī, but they are never granted the status of primary existents with an underlying substance. This is avoided due to the examination of synthesis via their conditionality in the Paṭṭhāna. The Dhammasaṅganī thus shows that dhammas can be distinguished and so exist, but they are not primary substances due to the analysis of the Paṭṭhāna which reveals their mutually conditioned nature. Dhammas then are phenomena that bear their own characteristics (sabhāva) but this sabhāva is not an eternal substance. It is merely a distinctive phenomenon that comes to be via conditionality, when the conditions are right. Once the conditions change the sabhāva changes and the dhamma ceases, for a dhamma is one in the same as its characteristic. The Theravādin Abhidhamma thus avoids the extremes of All exists and All does not exist. The extreme of truly existing substantial dhammas and the extreme of the non-existence of dhammas by way of the negation of their sabhāva. The extremes of Permanent substances and Nihilism are thus avoided. Dhammas are then empty of substance but not their distinctiveness and existence. The middle way then is not found in the Abhidharma Mahāvibhāṣa Śāstra of the Sarvāstivādins, nor is it found in the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā of Nāgārjuna. It is instead found in the Theravādin Abhidhamma and the Visuddhimagga of Ven. Buddhaghosa.

"Analysis and synthesis are praised by the wise,
liberation in the Sāsana comes from analysis and synthesis;
the purpose of the method of analysis and synthesis is the ultimate"

Nāmarūpapariccheda

Substance metaphysics was, of course, the Sarvāstivādin answer to how past kamma can have an effect in the present/future. The dhammas then in Sarvāstivāda thus function along a similar fashion to Plato’s forms or even Epicurus’ atoms. They are primary substance existents, out of which everything else is constructed. This is a totally different idea to what we find in Theravāda. Within Theravāda the Dhammasaṅganī does break down objects into their parts, into dhammas. In the Aṭṭhakathā the dhammas are then defined as those that “bear their intrinsic characteristic, or are born from causes in relation”. Here then we see that even in the definition an attempt is made to balance the analysis with a synthesis. Within Theravāda then a dhamma is an actuality that bears a unique characteristic, thus distinguishing it from other phenomena and so showing it exists, but it does not exist separate from that characteristic. As the actuality comes to be due to causes and conditions, when the conditions change the actuality loses its characteristic and so the dhamma ceases. There is no substance then that persists through the 3 times. No noumenon from which dhammas actualise themselves in the present, yet then remain as eternal point substances. Dhammas arise and cease without a substance that endures. Vedanā arises and ceases but its always a new vedanā. Its not an expression of vedanā that arises and ceases, with the “real” vedanā persisting behind it. To quote the Vism. on this point:

  1. He understands thus: “There is no heap or store of unarisen mentality materiality [existing] prior to its arising. When it arises, it does not come from any heap or store; and when it ceases, it does not go in any direction. There is nowhere any depository in the way of a heap or store or hoard of what has ceased. But just as there is no store, prior to its arising, of the sound that arises when a lute is played, nor does it come from any store when it arises, nor does it go in any direction when it ceases, nor does it persist as a store when it has ceased (cf. S IV 197), but on the contrary, not having been, it is brought into being owing to the lute, the lute’s neck, and the man’s appropriate effort, and having been, it vanishes—so too all material and immaterial states, not having been, are brought into being, and having been, they vanish.”

CHAPTER XX Purification by Knowledge & Vision of What Is & Is Not the Path

So, whilst the Sarvāstivādin over reliance on analysis lead them to a substance metaphysics of persisting dhammas the Theravādin approach, which I think is much more consistent with the theory of momentariness, avoided this by balancing the analysis with synthesis.

Nāgārjuna’s analysis, on the other hand, is purely that of synthesis, that of conditionality. He relies on paṭiccasamuppāda to such an extent that all distinctiveness between dhammas is erased. To erase their distinctiveness is to erase their existence. What is indistinguishable is a unity of nothingness. Nāgārjuna’s criticism thus succeeds in abolishing sabhāva, this is true, but the point he misses is that we aren’t supposed to erase sabhāva for in doing so you commit yourself to a lopsided view of reality. In other words, you lapse into the very extreme that the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā was supposed to avoid. Nagarjuna then in attacking the substance metaphysics of the Sarvāstivādins went too far for the Buddha taught via analysis, via breaking down a person into parts (the aggregates), and via synthesis (paṭiccasamuppāda). He didn’t rely solely on analysis, for that leads to a plurality of real and existing substances that endure but neither did he rely solely on synthesis for that abolishes everything. The Buddha taught via the middle. He taught via analysis and synthesis in order to see reality correctly, from a balanced point of view. The Buddha, for example, didn’t say that consciousness really exists as an enduring substance but neither did he say that it does not exist at all. He said it exists (analysis) dependent upon conditions (synthesis). In Abhidhamma terms, citta exists bearing its characteristic of cognising but when the conditions change it then ceases. Within Theravāda an Arahant is able to distinguish the real dhammas apart from what is conventional and untrue. In other words, Awakening does not require the abandonment of all ontological thinking. It merely requires the correct view of reality. That of analysis and synthesis in balance. The middle way then is not a stepping out from all points of view, but of having a balanced point of view.

Take a look at the Snp 4.5, on the issue of going beyond views.

He said consciousness is like a magic trick (sutta SN 22.95). This is what Nagarjuna explained. His view was not that there is nothing.

Sorry, I’m writing from my cell phone and can’t link the suttas I’m referring to.

Also, from your description of the Theravada Abhidhamma, I can say it is quite similar to Sarvastivada’s. Their idea of svabhava was also not of an eternal form like in Plato.
Samgabhadra defines an existent as ‘that which can be an object to a cognition’. And that is their doctrine of existence in the 3 times. It is not a definition based on a eternal entity, but based on same characteristics which are cognized. So it’s rather an epitemological theory rather than an ontological one (like Plato’s form theory).

For them, things have an unchanging svabhava because, as you said, vedana is vedana now, later or earlier. It is always vedana, and not rupa, because vedana has an intrinsic characteristic of what is vedana, it’s svabhava.
They not only believed in momentariness, ksana, but, if I remember correctly, the Sarvastivadins were those who first developed this doctrine. At their time, they were the most prominent and influencial school of Abhidharma.

The thing is: svabhava is not present in the EBTs. To question or refute it doesn’t imply in going astray from Buddha’s middle way.

I like the definition in the SN 22.95 “Lump of Foam” sutta:

“However one may ponder it,
And carefully investigate it
It appears but hollow and void
When one views it carefully”

Take a look at the Snp 4.5, on the issue of going beyond views.

I’m quite familiar. It was a favourite of mine when I was on the Ñāṇananda/Nagarjuna bus. The question of course is, what is meant by a view? By the way, have you read the commentary to it?

He said consciousness is like a magic trick (sutta SN 22.95). This is what Nagarjuna explained. His view was not that there is nothing.

That sutta is an exercise in Abhidhamma thought. There is consciousness (analysis) but it is impermanent (synthesis) and so it is empty of self. Being empty of self does not mean empty of existence and indeed the Buddha did talk of things that exist (atthi), nibbāna being one of them. Nagarjuna’s over-correction to Sarvāstivādin realism lead him to conclude that there is no distinctiveness between dhammas, which is the same as saying that dhammas do not exist. That is the same as saying that consciousness does not exist. If you want to say consciousness exists, which it quite clearly does since we are having this conversation, then you need to distinguish it from other phenomena. In other words, realise its sabhāva. This, of course, being merely a convenient way of speaking since there is no citta apart from its characteristic of cognising. Citta is cognising.

Also, from your description of the Theravada Abhidhamma, I can say it is quite similar to Sarvastivada’s. Their idea of svabhava was also not of an eternal form like in Plato.
Samgabhadra defines an existent as ‘that which can be an object to a cognition’. And that is their doctrine of existence in the 3 times. It is not a definition based on a eternal entity, but based on same characteristics which are cognized. So it’s rather an epitemological theory rather than an ontological one (like Plato’s form theory).

For them, things have an unchanging svabhava because, as you said, vedana is vedana now, later or earlier. It is always vedana, and not rupa, because vedana has an intrinsic characteristic of what is vedana, it’s svabhava.
They not only believed in momentariness, ksana, but, if I remember correctly, the Sarvastivadins were those who first developed this doctrine. At their time, they were the most prominent and influencial school of Abhidharma.

Yes, we can share similar views or terminology but in this instance the ideas are different. As I said, for the Sarvāstivādins a dhamma is the same as its characteristic and it has a substance which endures through time. What we experience then as citta or vedanā is merely the dhammas activating (for want of a better word) in the present due to conditions. Once the conditions change, the activation ceases but the substance of vedanā endures as it has inherent permanent existence. For us Theravādins we would agree that a dhamma = its characteristic. Citta is different to vedanā because it simply cognises. What we would disagree with is that there is some enduring substance to the dhamma. With us a dhamma comes to be when the causes and conditions are right. When the conditions change, the dhamma ceases. When the conditions are right an act of cognising occurs. When the conditions change the cognition ceases with no substance that endures.

For them, things have an unchanging svabhava because, as you said, vedana is vedana now, later or earlier. It is always vedana, and not rupa, because vedana has an intrinsic characteristic of what is vedana, it’s svabhava.
They not only believed in momentariness, ksana, but, if I remember correctly, the Sarvastivadins were those who first developed this doctrine. At their time, they were the most prominent and influencial school of Abhidharma.

I’m aware that we both share the theory of momentariness. This was my point. That the Theravādin Abhidhamma is more consistent with it, since enduring substances are incompatible with the idea.

The thing is: svabhava is not present in the EBTs. To question or refute it doesn’t imply in going astray from Buddha’s middle way.

Well the Buddha broke down a person into parts. Whilst acknowledging that the distinction between, say, consciousness, perception and feeling can be somewhat blurred one could still tell them apart (Mahāvedalla Sutta). Its not a stretch of the imagination to see how this is looking at their individual characteristics. Of course, Nagarjuna’s ideas aren’t really found in the suttas either. He does use them, wrongly in my opinion, but he does so in order to attack Sarvāstivādin realism. In doing so he somewhat over-corrects through an over reliance on synthesis. Synthesis is the antidote to Sarvāstivādin realism and the excess of their analysis approach, but not in the lopsided manner of Nagarjuna. To Nagarjuna’s extreme over-correction the antidote is analysis. As I already mentioned, Nagarjuna does abolish sabhāva but Right View has nothing to do with abolishing sabhāva let alone ontological claims. He also seems to fall into the spectrum fallacy. Whilst its true that dhammas can arise together and it can be difficult to tell them apart, that does not mean they then do not exist. A spectrum of colours does not mean that blue or red do not exist.

I like the definition in the SN 22.95 “Lump of Foam” sutta:

Notice in that sutta that the Buddha uses both analysis and synthesis. That is to say, the Dhammasaṅgaṇī method and the Paṭṭhāna method. Via analysis there is only the 5 aggregates. Via synthesis (which is implied in the sutta) they are without an enduring substance or self. Notice, however, that the conclusion of them being hollow and void does not mean the aggregates do not exist and cannot be distinguished from each other. Dhammas exist bearing their intrinsic characteristic, or from conditions in relation (analysis) but the dhamma is empty of substance or self due to its conditioned state (synthesis). If you begin to abolish sabhāva then you abolish any hope of understanding synthesis, that is to say paṭiccasamuppāda. If you abolish paṭiccasamuppāda then you abolish Right View, and without Right View there is no awakening. So, to go back to what you said earlier, to refute sabhāva is to move away from the middle way for it refutes Right View.

Imo momentariness if you wish is but a device of usefulness in practice . Ultimately , it is still a concept of point a vs point b .