– Is it necessary to learn carefully the Abhidamma?

QUESTION

By a Theravadan (NguyenThuy Monastery, Ho Chi Minh city):

– Venerable sir, there is a criticism on the studying Abhidhamma.

The story wrote:
During his first visit to England, Achaan Chah spoke to many Buddhist groups. One evening after a talk he received a question from a dignified English lady who had spent many years studying the complex cybernetics of the mind according to the eighty-nine classes of consciousness in the Buddhist Abhidhamma psychology texts. Would he please explain certain of the more difficult aspects of this system of psychology to her so she could continue her study?

Dharma teaches us to let go. But at first, we naturally cling to the principles of Dharma. The wise person takes these principles and uses them as tools to discover the essence of our life.

Sensing how caught up she was in intellectual concepts rather than benefiting from practice in her own heart, Achaan Chah answered her quite directly, ”You, madam, are like one who keeps hens in her yard,” he told her, “and goes around picking up the chicken droppings instead of the eggs.”

(Link: http://www.what-buddha-taught.net/Books2/Ajahn_Chah_A_Still_Forest_Pool.htm)

– Venerable sir, for you, is it necessary to learn carefully the Abhidhamma theory?

ANSWER

by Venerable Dhammapala (Pa Auk Myanmar)

– After His enlightenment, The Buddha reflected as follows: This Dhamma is not understood by those overcome by lust and hatred. Going against the stream, subtle(nipuṇaṁ), profound(gambhīraṁ), hard to see(du∙ddasaṁ), infinitesimal(aṇuṁ), those excited by lust cannot see it, being covered by a mass of darkness.
These are the words of The Buddha, about the Dhamma that needs to be understood for one to attain Nibbāna.
In the ‘Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna’ sutta, He says further: And how then, bhikkhus, does a bhikkhu contemplate dhammas in dhammas in relation to the five clinging-aggregates? Here, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu understands:
[1] ‘Such is materiality, such is materiality’s origination, such is materiality’s disappearance;
[2] such is feeling, such is feeling’s origination, such is feeling’s disappearance;
[3] such is perception, such is perception’s origination, such is perception’s disappearance;
[4] such are formations, such is formations’ origination, such is formations’ disappearance;
[5] such is consciousness, such is consciousness’s origination, such is consciousness’s disappearance.’
And in the ‘Khandha’ sutta of the ‘Khandha¬∙Saṁyutta’, He explains the five clinging-aggregates: What then, bhikkhus, are the five clinging-aggregates ?
[1] Any whatsoever, bhikkhus, materiality, past, future, or present, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, far or near, apprehendable by the taints, and clingable, this is called the materiality clinging-aggregate.
[2] Any whatsoever feeling, past, future, or present, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, far or near, apprehendable by the taints, and clingable, this is called the feeling clinging-aggregate .
[3] Any whatsoever perception, past, future, or present, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, far or near, apprehendable by the taints, and clingable, this is called the perception clinging-aggregate.
[4] Any whatsoever formations, past, future, or present, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, far or near, apprehendable by the taints, and clingable, this is called the formation clinging-aggregate.
[5] Any whatsoever consciousness, past, future, or present, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, far or near, apprehendable by the taints, and clingable, this is called the consciousness clinging-aggregate.
These are called, bhikkhus, the five clinging-aggregates.
And in, for example, in the ‘Abhijāna’ sutta of the ‘Khandha¬∙Saṁyutta’ , The Buddha explains:
[1] Materiality, bhikkhus, not directly knowing, not fully knowing, not having dispassion for, not abandoning, impossible is the destruction of suffering.
[2] Feeling, bhikkhus, not directly knowing, not fully knowing, not having dispassion for, not abandoning, impossible is the destruction of suffering.
[3] Perception, bhikkhus, not directly knowing, not fully knowing, not having dispassion for, not abandoning, impossible is the destruction of suffering.
[4] Formations, bhikkhus, not directly knowing, not fully knowing, not having dispassion for, not abandoning, impossible is the destruction of suffering.
[5] Consciousness, bhikkhus, not directly knowing, not fully knowing, not having dispassion for, not abandoning, impossible is the destruction of suffering.
In a sutta from the chapter on impermanence in the ‘Saḷ∙Āyatana∙Saṁyutta’, The Buddha also explains: The all, bhikkhus, is to be known directly. And what, bhikkhus, is the all that is to be known directly?
[1a] The eye, bhikkhus, is to be known directly.
[1b] Sights are to be known directly.
[1c] Eye consciousness is to be known directly.
[1d] Eye contact is to be known directly.
[1f] And any feeling that arises because of eye contact, be it happy, or painful, or neither painful nor happy, that too is to be known directly.
This group of five phenomena that need to be known directly are the eye, sights, eye consciousness, eye contact, and any feeling arisen because of eye contact. And in the sutta, the Buddha then explains five more groups of five phenomena that need to be known directly:
2) the ear, sounds, ear consciousness, ear contact, and any feeling that arises because of ear contact, be it pleasant, painful or neither painful nor pleasant.
3) the nose, odours, nose consciousness, nose contact, and any feeling that arises because of nose contact, be it pleasant, painful or neither painful nor pleasant.
4) the tongue, flavours, tongue consciousness, tongue contact, and any feeling that arises because of tongue contact, be it pleasant, painful or neither painful nor pleasant.
5) the body, tangibles, body consciousness, body contact, and any feeling that arises because of body contact, be it pleasant, painful or neither painful nor pleasant.
6) the mind, other phenomena, mind consciousness, mind contact, and any feeling that arises because of mind contact, be it pleasant, painful or neither painful nor pleasant.
In summary, the all that needs to be known directly is:
• The six internal bases : eye-, ear-, nose-, tongue-, body-, and mind base.
• The six external bases : sight-, sound-, odour-, flavour-, tangible- and dhamma base.
• The six types of consciousness that arise because of the meeting of those bases: eye-, ear, nose-, tongue-, body-, and mind consciousness respectively.
• The six types of contact that arise with the six types of consciousness: eye-, ear-, nose-, tongue-, body-, and mind contact respectively.
• The feelings that arise with the six types of contact: happy feelings, painful feelings, and neither painful nor happy feelings, that arise because of eye-, ear-, nose-, tongue-, body-, and mind contact.
Then, in the ‘Dutiya A∙Parijānana’ sutta, The Buddha also says that the six internal bases, the six external bases, the six types of consciousness, need to be fully known, as well as the things cognizable along with the individual type of consciousness: for example, the things cognizable along with eye-consciousness. That is the mental factors associated with the fully-known eye-consciousness, which also need to be fully known.
This is what The Buddha calls ‘the all’, and He says: The all, bhikkhus, not knowing directly, not fully knowing, not having dispassion for, and not abandoning, impossible is the destruction of suffering.
In the ‘Mahā∙Gopālaka’ sutta of the Majjhima∙Nikāya, The Buddha also says: And how, bhikkhus, is a bhikkhu not knowledgeable about materiality? Here, bhikkhus, any whatsoever materiality, all materiality, a bhikkhu does not understand according to reality as: ‘The four great essentials, and materiality derived from the four great essentials.’ That is how a bhikkhu is not knowledgeable about materiality.
In that case, explains The Buddha, it is impossible that he should meet with growth, augmentation, and progress in this Dhamma-Vinaya.
According to The Buddha, if you want to attain Nibbāna, you need to know and see these things directly, clearly and distinctly. That is the meaning of contemplation(anupassanā).
Now we may ask:
• Do you understand what materiality is in practical terms, for contemplation?
• Do you understand what derived materiality is in practical terms, for contemplation?
• Do you know what the eye is in practical terms, for contemplation?
• Do you understand what the perception aggregate is in practical terms, for contemplation?
• Do you understand what the formations aggregate is in practical terms, for contemplation?
• Do you understand what contact is in practical terms, for contemplation?
• Do you understand the difference between contact, feeling, perception, and consciousness in practical terms, for contemplation?
• Do you understand the difference between eye consciousness and mind consciousness in practical terms, for contemplation?
• Do you understand what ‘things cognizable along with eye-consciousness’ are in practical terms, for contemplation?
We think you know whether you understand these things in practical terms, for contemplation.

We think you know whether you are able to contemplate these things as impermanent in the present moment?
We can quote very many other suttas where The Buddha describes what needs to be done for one to attain Nibbāna. For example, again in the ‘Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna’ sutta: Here, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu
[1] lustful consciousness as ‘lustful consciousness’ understands,
[2] unlustful consciousness as ‘unlustful consciousness’ understands,
[3] hateful consciousness as ‘hateful consciousness’ understands,
[4] unhateful consciousness as ‘unhateful consciousness’ understands,
[5] deluded consciousness as ‘deluded consciousness’ understands,
[6] undeluded consciousness as ‘undeluded consciousness’ understands,
[7] contracted consciousness as ‘contracted consciousness’ understands,
[8] distracted consciousness as ‘distracted consciousness’ understands,
[9] exalted consciousness as ‘exalted consciousness’ understands,
[10] unexalted consciousness as ‘unexalted consciousness’ understands,
[11] surpassed consciousness as ‘surpassed consciousness’ understands,
[12] unsurpassed consciousness as ‘unsurpassed consciousness’ understands,
[13] concentrated consciousness as ‘concentrated consciousness’ understands,
[14] unconcentrated consciousness as ‘unconcentrated consciousness’ understands,
[15] liberated consciousness as ‘liberated consciousness’ understands,
[16] unliberated consciousness as ‘unliberated consciousness.
Do you understand all these explanations? Do you understand them in such a way that you can with your own vipassanā knowledge contemplate those many phenomena as impermanent, suffering, and non-self?
We think you know the answer.
If you study Abhidhamma, you may understand all these explanations. And when you then see all the phenomena that need to be contemplated, you will be able to understand: ‘This is such&such a phenomenon; it is not such&such a phenomenon,’ etc. And then you can methodically contemplate all the different types of consciousness, the different types of mental factor, the different types of materiality, and the different types of derived materiality. And then you will be able to report accurately to your meditation teacher what you have seen.
Even if you are in this life unable to develop sufficient concentration to penetrate to ultimate reality and see these many phenomena, you will by studying the Abhidhamma gain great insight into what The Buddha is talking about in these and many other suttas. Otherwise, it is impossible for you to understand them except on a very superficial and vague level. That is why these many suttas are never quoted by anyone, because they cannot explain what they mean in practical terms.
Please try to find a practical explanation of the five aggregates, according to which you can practise vipassanā. If you can find such a practical explanation of the five aggregates that is independent of the Abhidhamma, please send it to me.
This then is merely a brief answer to your question. You may from this brief answer decide for yourself whether it is kusala to say that learning The Buddha’s Abdhidhamma is collecting chicken droppings: you may for yourself decide whether this is a manifestation of Dhammagārava (respect for the Dhamma).

You may then also decide whether it is kusala to criticize the learning of the profound Dhamma just because some people become proud of their learning. And you may decide whether it is humility or pride that makes one say learning the profound Dhamma is the same as collecting chicken droppings.
We close this e-mail with some more quotations.
In the ‘Hatthisāriputta’ sutta, it says: Thus I heard: on one occasion, the Exalted One was dwelling at Bārāṇasi, in Isipatane, the Deer Park. On that occasion, a number of elder bhikkhus(sambahulā therā bhikkhū), after eating and returning from their almsround, sat together, assembled together, in the round hall, and engaged in Abhidhamma discussion(Abhidhammakathaṁ).
One of those elder bhikkhus was the Arahant Mahākoṭṭhita. You may then decide for yourself whether those elder bhikkhus were merely collecting chicken droppings.
Then in the ‘MahāGosiṅga’ sutta, the Ven. Sāriputta asks Ven. Mahāmoggallāna what kind of bhikkhu could illuminate the Gosiṅga Sāla-tree Forest. And Ven. Mahāmoggallāna answers: Here, friend Sāriputta, two bhikkhus engage in a discussion on the Abhidhamma(Abhidhammakathaṁ), and they question each other, and each being questioned by the other answers without failure, and their discussion proceeds in accordance with the Dhamma. That kind of bhikkhu, friend Sāriputta, could illuminate this Gosinga Sāla-tree Forest.
And the Ven. Sāriputta reports this to The Buddha, and The Buddha says: Sādhu, sādhu, Sāriputta! Moggallāna, speaking rightly, should speak just as he did, for Moggallāna is a Dhamma-teacher.
You may then decide for yourself whether the Ven. Mahāmoggallāna and The Buddha were referring to a bhikkhu who is expert in collecting chicken droppings.
Furthermore, in the the ‘Tatiya-Angatabhaya’ sutta, one of the future dangers explains by The Buddha is: Again and further, bhikkhus, there will (in the course of the future) be bhikkhus undeveloped in body, undeveloped in morality, undeveloped in mind, and undeveloped in wisdom. They (being undeveloped in body, undeveloped in morality, and undeveloped in mind), engaging in Abhidhamma discussion(Abhidhammakathaṁ), in catechism discussion, entering into a dark state(kaṇha∙dhammaṁ), will not understand.
Thus, bhikkhus, with Dhamma corruption, there is Vinaya corruption; with Vinaya corruption, there is Dhamma corruption.
According to the commentary, this means that they teach without understanding, only finding fault and making fun of the Ab-hidhamma.
You may then decide for yourself whether saying that learning the Abhidhamma is like collecting chicken droppings is making fun of the Abhidhamma or not.
Furthermore, in His analysis of Pācittiya rule No.72, The Buddha says: Anāpatti na vivaṇṇetukāmo, “iṅgha tvaṁ suttante vā gāthāyo vā abhidhammaṁ vā pariyāpuṇassu, pacchā vinayaṁ pariyāpuṇissasī”ti bhaṇati, ummattakassa, ādikammikassāti.
If without any intention to disparage the Vinaya one were to instigate another, saying: “Study the Suttas or Verses or Abhidhamma first and afterwards you will learn the Vinaya”: there is no offence in him.
You may then decide for yourself whether The Buddha means that study of the Abhdhamma is like collecting chicken droppings.
Finally, in the ‘Vitthata¬∙Bala’ sutta, The Buddha describes the Noble Disciple as follows: Here, bhikkhus, the Noble Disciple has learned much, remembers what he has learned, and consolidates what he has learned. Such teachings as are lovely in the beginning, lovely in the middle, and lovely in the end, with the right meaning and phrasing, and as affirm a holy life that is utterly perfect and pure: such teachings as these he has learned much of, remembered, recited, investigated, and penetrated well by view. This is called the learning power.’
You may like someone saying that the Noble Disciple’s study of the profound Dhamma is like collecting chicken droppings: you may then decide for yourself whether it is kusalakamma or akusalakamma to like someone’s criticizing the study of Abhidhamma, to like someone’s comparing such study to the collecting of chicken droppings.
We have now answered your question: first we showed you some sutta passages whereby you may decide whether or not one can attain Nibbāna without the practical knowledge of the five aggregates as it is explained in the Abhidhamma. Second, we showed you some sutta passages (and a passage from the Vinaya ) whereby you may decide whether Abhidhamma discussion is to be compared to collecting chicken droppings.

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