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Reality and Ethics in the Abhidhamma

Reality and Ethics in the Abhidhamma

The second paragraph in the first chapter of the Abhidhammattha Sangaha by Acariya Anuruddha reads:

“In the ultimate sense, the Abhidhamma speaks of four categories: mind (citta’s), mental factors (cetasikas), matter (rūpa) and Nirvana (Nibbāna).”

The Four Ultimate Realities in the Abhidhamma

Let’s take a closer look at these four categories. We begin with the last one, Nibbāna, the complete liberation from the unsatisfactoriness of existence. The Buddha never said what Nibbāna was, which according to him could not be expressed in words, but could only be experienced.

The Buddha compared it with the taste of a ripe mango. Try explaining what that tastes like! Sweet? Acid? Even the words of the best poet won’t won’t match tasting it. That’s the only way, to experience it for yourself. The same goes for Nibbāna.

The Buddha did however regularly indicate what Nibbāna is not. Unlike the other three categories, Nibbāna is unconditioned and Nibbāna is not impermanent. Another difference is that Nirvana is ‘supra-mundane’ and the other three are ‘mundane’.

A supra-mundane moment of mind is supra-mundane because it leads to a permanent transformation of mind. Once you have experienced such a mind-moment, you belong to the ‘Noble Ones’, and you are on the path that leads irrevocably to complete liberation. So it leads to that which is separate from, or above, this world (namely Nibbāna).

That is the difference between Nibbāna and the other three. It is worth mentioning that just like the other three categories, Nibbāna is also ‘without self’.

The second distinction we can make in the categories is between rūpa and the rest. Translating Rūpa as matter is not exactly right, but for this essay it will do. The distinction is therefore clear. Rūpa is material, the other three categories are mental.

What remains is citta (mind) and cetasika (mental factors). We have already indirectly indicated the differences between these terms and Nibbāna and rūpa and come to the following conclusion: citta and cetasika are mental, conditioned, transient and without self.

What are the similarities between the two? Chapter 2 paragraph 1 of the Abhidhammattha Sangaha reads:

“The 52 factors that are companions of mind, that arise and disappear together with mind, that have the same object and the same basis as mind, these are known as cetasikas.”

Mind, or the moments of this mind (citta) are therefore always accompanied by cetasika. The creation and disappearance, the object and the basis of the two are always the same. Citta and cetasika are mutual conditions for each other, so that they always exist together. These are the similarities.

But what are the differences? This is what Nina van Gorkum writes in her book cetasika’s:

“Citta and cetasika arise together, but they are different types of paramattha dhammas. In order to explain the difference between citta and cetasika the commentary to the first book of the Abhidhamma, the Atthasalini, uses the simile of the king and his retinue. The king is the chief, the principal, and his retinue are his attendants. Even so are the cittas which arise in our daily life the leaders in cognizing the object, and the cetasikas are the assistants of citta. The cetasikas have to perform their own tasks and operate at each moment of citta. Citta with its accompanying cetasikas arise each moment and then they fall away immediately.”

So the difference is in the hierarchy. Citta knows the object, perceives the object. The type citta (e.g. wholesome or unwholesome) that the object knows is a condition for the specific composition of cetasika that accompany the corresponding citta.

Each cetasika in turn has a specific function of its own which it fulfils in the perception of the object. You should just browse the list of 52 cetasikas to get an idea of how many different functions can be performed during a moment of consciousness.

Some functions are always performed regardless of the type of citta, others are much more specific. In addition, the intensity of the function may also vary.

I once asked Ahba if the 52 cetasikas really include all mentale functions, or if there are more. He answered with an example. He said:

“You have vitamin A, vitamin B, vitamin C, many kinds of vitamins. But they all are vitamins. It’s the same with the cetasika’s.”

So a lot of refinement is still possible, but with the 52 cetasika’s you have got the most important functions, the denominators.

Ethical qualities in the Abhidhamma

Above the terms ‘wholesome’ (kusala) and ‘unwholesome’ (akusala) were mentioned briefly, this is another very important classification in the Abhidhamma.

The Abhidhamma is often referred to in the West as psycho-ethical philosophy. That is quite a mouthful. The ‘psycho’ (psychological) character lies in the fact that it is a description of reality from the perspective of the mind. It is a philosophy because it concerns the most general and universal aspects of our existence.

But why is it ethical? I dare say that it is ethical above all else.

Sariputta, the disciple of the Buddha with the highest analytical wisdom summed up the Dhamma-Vinaya (the doctrine and discipline) as follows:

“Do good. Do no evil. Purify your mind.”

As you can see, according to him the core of the buddhist teaching lies in ethical qualities, in doing good and omitting evil deeds. The same can be seen in the sense of sammā-vāyāma (Right Effort), as the Buddha regularly taught:

“And what, monks, is right effort?”

“There is the case where a monk generates desire, endeavors, activates persistence, upholds & exerts his intent for the sake of the non-arising of evil, unskillful qualities that have not yet arisen.”

“He generates desire, endeavors, activates persistence, upholds & exerts his intent for the sake of the abandonment of evil, unskillful qualities that have arisen.”

“He generates desire, endeavors, activates persistence, upholds & exerts his intent for the sake of the arising of skillful qualities that have not yet arisen.”

“He generates desire, endeavors, activates persistence, upholds & exerts his intent for the maintenance, non-confusion, increase, plenitude, development, & culmination of skillful qualities that have arisen: This, monks, is called right effort.”

The teachings and methodology taught by the Buddha aim to promote the good, wholesome qualities and to remove the evil, unwholesome qualities forever.

That culminates in achieving complete liberation, becomingen an Arahant, after which it will never again be possible to have unwholesome qualities in the mind.

By wholsome is meant by definition that it concerns qualities that promote your liberation, while by unwholesome is meant the opposite, namely qualities that bind you more strongly to the suffering in the world.

I still think that this is something very special. The Buddha left his home to search for a solution to the unsatisfactoriness of existence and discovered that on the road to liberation you slowly but surely eradicate all negative, evil, harmful, unwholesome qualities in your own mind.

In fact, he came to the discovery that you have to eradicate those unwholesome qualities in your mind in order to move forward, that a clean mind and a free mind go hand in hand. That wholesome qualities are not a consequence but a condition for liberation, can be clearly seen in the following words of the Buddha (AN 10:1):

“Thus, Ānanda, the purpose and benefit of wholesome virtuous behavior is non-regret; the purpose and benefit of non-regret is joy; the purpose and benefit of joy is rapture; The purpose and benefit of rapture is tranquility; the purpose and benefit of tranquility is pleasure; the purpose and benefit of pleasure is concentration; the purpose and benefit of concentration is the knowledge and vision of things as they really are; the purpose and benefit of the knowledge and vision of things as they really are is disenchantment and dispassion; and the purpose and benefit of disenchantment and dispassion is the knowledge and vision of liberation. Thus, Ānanda, wholesome virtuous behavior progressively leads to the foremost.”.”

Now that we know that the ethical quality of action play such a crucial role, we also understand why the Dhammasangani, the first book of the Abhidhamma, gives the following three categories in its classification scheme for all ultimately real phenomena as its first subdivision:

“1. States that are wholesome, unwholsome, indeterminate.”

It’s good to take a moment to think about ‘indeterminate’. This brings a small detail of the ethical quality of wholesome and unwholesome into view.

Earlier I indicated that the words ‘wholesome ‘ and ‘unwholesome ‘ refer to the ‘result’. In other words, that they indicate whether or not the phenomena in question go in the direction of Nibbāna. They indicate what the effect of a phenomenon will be. And a result is always the result of a cause.

The intention of the action (trough the mind, through speaking or through the body) that causes this result is called kamma (karma) in Pali. As the Buddha said:

“Intention, I tell you, is kamma. Intending, one makes kamma by way of body, speech, and mind.”

Ethical terms such as wholesome and unwholesome thus indicate that the phenomenon have a karmic charge, that they will have an effect. Wholesome phenomena are karma for good ‘results’ (leading to Nibbāna) and unwholesome qualities are karma for bad ‘result’ (leadin away from Nibbāna).

The word ‘indeterminate’ indicates that the phenomenon will have no result. An indefinite phenomenon can be good or bad, namely if it is a result of a wholesome or unwholesome  phenomenon. It is not itself a cause for an ethical result.

In addition to mentally indeterminate phenomena (mind-moments), all matter is indeterminate . But this does not mean that these mental phenomena or matter are not conditions. They are certainly conditions and certainly conditioned. But they will have no ethical effect, no leading to or away from Nibbāna. Nibbāna is an indeterminate element as well, but at the same time unconditioned, in contrast wit the rest.

With this knowledge we can now look at citta (mind or mind-moments) and cetasikas (mental factors). Citta are subdivided in the Abhidhammattha Sangaha on the basis of exactly these three ethical qualities. Wholesome, unwholesome or indeterminate.

If you look closely you can see that citta’s are first divided into mundane and supra-mundane and then within the mundane group into a sensory sphere group and absorption group. It is only within the sensory sphere group that the words wholesome, unwholesome and indeterminate are spoken of. However, supra-mundane and absorption citta’s are always wholsome or indeterminate if they are a result.

I mentioned earlier in this text that each citta is a condition for a specific combination of cetasikas. So there are combinations of cetasikas that belong to wholesome citta’s, combinations of cetasikas that belong to unwholesome citta’s, and combinations of cetasikas that belong to indeterminate citta’s.

I am talking about ‘combinations of cetasikas‘ for a reason. Because, to make things even more complicated, there are cetasikas that only occur with wholesome citta’s and there are cetasikas that only occur with unwholesome citta’s. The cetasika’s that occur with indeterminate citta’s can also occur with the other citta’s (wholesome or unwholesome), and are not ‘unique’ for the specific citta, but the combination is.

Here we end this short explanation of the four ultimate realities and ethical qualities in the Abhidhamma. If you have any questions don’t hesitate to contact us.

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