Chapter 2

The Teaching of the Abhidhamma

We read in the “Expositor”, the Commentary to “Buddhist Psychological Ethics, the first of the seven Books of the Abhidhamma (I, Introductory Discourse, 1-4), that the prefix “abhi” in Abhidhamma is used in the sense of preponderance and distinction. The Abhidhamma exceeds and is distinguished from the other Dhamma, namely the Suttanta. In the Abhidhamma all realities are classified fully and in all details. We read in the “Introductory Discourse” of the “Expositor” that the Buddha, during the fourth week after his attainment of Enlightenment, sat in the “Jewel House”, contemplating the seven books of the Abhidhamma. I paid respect at this place when we were in Bodhgaya. Near the Jewel House is a stupa commemorating the cremation place of the great Commentator Buddhaghosa, and I also paid respect there. Buddhaghosa, who lived in the first half of the fifth century A.D. , compiled and translated from Singhalese into Pali the ancient commentarial materials he found in Sri Lanka. He also wrote the “Visuddhimagga”, an Encyclopedia on Buddhism.

If the Buddha had not attained enlightenment nobody would know that what we take for a person or self, for things or for the world are only different phenomena which do not last and which are not self or belonging to a self. The Abhidhamma is not theory, it explains everything that is real and that appears in our daily life. Realities that appear in our daily life have each their own characteristic that can be directly known, without having to think about them. The Buddha did not need any words in order to penetrate the truth of realities, but he used words when he explained the truth to others.

We read in the Commentary to the “Dhammapada”( Buddhist Legends, Part 3, Book 14, Story 2) that the Buddha, after having performed the “Twin miracle”1, ascended the Heaven of the Thirtythree (Tavatimsa) and taught the Abhidhamma for the sake of his mother who had passed away on the seventh day after his birth, as is always the case for the Bodhisatta’s mother. When the Buddha wished to return to the world of men, Sakka, the King of the Devas, created three ladders: one of gold, one of jewels and one of silver. The devas descended upon the ladder of gold, Maha-Brahma and his retinue upon the ladder of silver, and the Exalted One himself upon the ladder of jewels. The Buddha came down at the gate of the city Sankassa. We visited this place and paid respect. We went up the hill that marks the place and there we had a Dhamma discussion. Acharn Sujin reminded us to have patience with regard to the development of the eightfold Path. She said that at the Buddha’s time there were four kinds of people with different capabilities to grasp the Dhamma. Some people could realize the Truth immediately when they heard the teaching (ugghatitannu), others after a more detailed explanation (vipacitannu), others could gradually realize the truth through advice and questioning, wise consideration and association with a good friend in Dhamma (neyya puggala), and others again did not attain enlightenment, although they had heard much, learnt much, knew many things by heart (pada parama) 3 . The first two types of people do not exist anymore in this world. If someone can attain enlightenment it is only after wise consideration of the Dhamma and mindfulness of realities over and over again.

We read in the Commentary to the “Middle Length Sayings” (III, 134, Baddhekaratta Sutta, Discourse on “One Single Excellent Night” 2), that the Buddha, in the Heaven of Thirtythree, taught the Abhidhamma in alternation with the Baddhekaratta Sutta to the devas who could not penetrate the profound and detailed teaching of the Abhidhamma on rupa and arupa (nama) that have the three characteristics (of dukkha, impermanence and non-self). We read in the “Bhaddekaratta Sutta of Lomasakangiya” that the deva Candana approached the venerable Lomasakangiya and asked him whether he remembered the exposition and analysis of the Baddhekaratta Sutta. It appeared that both of them could not remember this, but Candana remembered the verses. He related that the Buddha had taught these when he dwelled in the Heaven of the Thirtythree. They are the following verses:

The past should not be followed after, the future not desired.
What is past is got rid of and the future has not come.
But whoever has vision now here, now there of a present dhamma,
The unmovable, unshakable, let him cultivate it 4 .
Swelter at the task this very day. Who knows whether he will die tomorrow?
There is no bargaining with the great hosts of Death.
Thus abiding ardently, unwearied day and night,
He indeed is “Auspicious” called, described as a sage at peace 5 .
The Buddha taught people to develop right understanding of what appears at the present moment, and this is satipatthana. The Abhidhamma explains in detail all realities of our daily life, and therefore it is very meaningful that he taught in the Heaven of the Thirtythree Abhidhamma in alternation with satipatthana. During our journey Acharn Sujin reminded us frequently not to follow after the past nor to desire for what has not come yet, but to be aware of what appears now. Seeing, hearing, attachment or aversion fall away immediately, but we keep on thinking of what is past already, or we may wish to be aware of what has not arisen yet. If there is mindfulness of the characteristic of reality that appears now, understanding can grow.

The Buddha taught that what we take for a person are in reality mental phenomena, nama, and physical phenomena, rupa. Seeing or hearing are namas, they experience something, they experience an object. Seeing experiences what is visible, colour or visible object. Hearing is quite different from seeing, it experiences sound. Visible object is rupa, a physical phenomenon that does not experience anything. Visible object impinges on the eyesense that is also rupa. Eyesense does not experience anything but it is a condition for seeing. Both visible object and eyesense are conditions for seeing. In the same way sound and earsense are conditions for hearing, odour and smellingsense for smelling, flavour and tastingsense for tasting, tangible object and bodysense for body-consciousness. The five senses are rupas that are called the doorways through which the relevant sense objects, that are rupas, are experienced. Through the mind-door all kinds of nama and rupa can be experienced.

We are inclined to cling to a concept of self who is seeing, hearing or thinking, but in reality there are different moments of consciousness, cittas, that experience one object at a time and that do not last. When hearing arises there cannot be seeing at the same time. We cling to an idea of our body that belongs to us, but in reality the body consists of different kinds of physical phenomena, rupas, that arise and fall away.

When we were in the Jeta Grove we saw gardeners at work who were gathering grass and sticks, just as in the Buddha’s time. Later on Acharn Sujin reminded us of the Sutta in the “Kindred Sayings” about grass and sticks that are gathered and then burnt. We read in the “Kindred Sayings”(IV, Salayatana vagga, Kindred Sayings on Sense, Second Fifty, Ch 5, §101, Not yours) that the Buddha said:

‘What is not of you, monks, put it away. Putting it away will be for your profit and welfare. And what, monks, is not of you?
The eye, monks, is not of you. Put it away. Putting it away will be for your profit and welfare.

Objects are not of you... eye-consciousness... eye-contact... that pleasant or unpleasant or indifferent feeling which arises owing to eye-contact...

Tongue is not yours...mind, mental objects, etc. are not yours. Put them away. Putting them away will be for your profit and welfare.

Just as if, monks, a man should gather, burn or do what he likes with all the grass, all the sticks, branches and stalks in this Jeta Grove, pray, would he say “This man is gathering, is burning us, doing what he pleases with us”? ’ 

‘Surely not, lord.’

‘Why not?’

‘Because, lord, this is not our self, nor of the nature of self.’

‘Even so, monks, the eye is not of you. Put it away. Putting it away will be for your profit and welfare. Objects and the rest are not of you. Put them away. Putting them away will be for your profit and welfare.’
Grass and sticks are physical phenomena, they are rupas outside that are not part of the body, they do not belong to anyone. However, also the rupas of the body do not belong to us, they arise because of the appropriate conditions and then they fall away. When right understanding is developed all objects can be seen as non-self, anatta, and there can be detachment from the concept of self.

The Buddha taught about realities, dhammas, that appear one at a time through the five senses and through the mind-door. He taught about mental phenomena, nama, and physical phenomena, rupa. Consciousness or citta is nama. There is one citta at a time and it cognizes an object, be it visible object, sound or one of the other sense objects, or a mental object that can be experienced through the mind-door. There is one citta at a time but it is accompanied by several mental factors, cetasikas, that each perform their own function while they assist citta in cognizing an object. Feeling and remembrance, for example, are cetasikas accompanying citta. Thus, what we take for a person is in reality citta and cetasika, which are both nama, and rupa. Citta, cetasika and rupa do not last, they arise and fall away. If one does not learn about the Buddha’s teaching and develop more understanding of nama and rupa, the world seems to be full of people and things which last. We take fleeting realities for things that exist, such as a person, a table, a cup or a chair.

Citta, cetasika and rupa are real in the ultimate or absolute sense, they are different from conventional truth or concepts (pannattis). What is true in the ultimate sense is called in Pali: paramattha dhamma 6 . We can also refer to paramattha dhammas as dhammas, realities. When we speak about the Buddha’s teachings we refer to it as the Dhamma, but the word dhamma has several meanings. Dhamma can mean that which has its own characteristic and is devoid of self. In that sense it is the same as dhatu, element. Nama and rupa are only elements, devoid of self.

Paramattha dhammas have each their own characteristic which is unalterable. Seeing has its own characteristic that cannot be changed, no matter how we name it. We can call it by another name, but seeing is always seeing, its characteristic cannot be changed. Seeing experiences what is visible, colour or visible object. Visible object has its own characteristic and when it appears it can be directly experienced without having to name it. Anger is a type of nama that has its own characteristic which cannot be changed. Anger is always anger, no matter how we name it. Hardness is a kind of rupa that can be directly experienced through the bodysense, no matter how we name it. When we touch a cup or a chair we know their different meanings in conventional sense: we drink from a cup and we sit on a chair. However, when we touch them hardness may appear. We can verify that hardness is only an element, a kind of rupa that has the characteristic of hardness, to be experienced through the bodysense, no matter it is hardness of a cup, a chair or a hand. We can directly experience it without thinking of it, without naming it. It is important to learn the difference between paramattha dhammas and concepts. Right understanding developed through satipatthana has as object paramattha dhammas, not concepts. Concepts are not real in the ultimate or fundamental sense, they are objects of thinking.

When we see people walking, we cling immediately to shape and form, to a conglomeration of things, to a concept of a whole. In reality seeing sees just visible object, no people. Thinking thinks of the concept of people who are walking; thinking is a paramattha dhamma, it is nama, but the concept it thinks of is not a paramattha dhamma. Thinking is conditioned by seeing. Acharn Sujin asked us: “Can there be people without visible object?”

When we are reading we are immediately absorbed in the story we read and we have different feelings about it, we feel happy or sad. At such moments we live in the world of concepts and ideas that are real merely in conventional sense. When we are reading, different cittas experience different objects. The citta that sees experiences only colour or visible object which impinges on the eyesense. Other types of cittas think of the meaning of the letters and of the whole story. Acharn Sujin reminded us that in real life we are also as it were “reading”. We are looking at lines and shapes and we define these as this or that person.

We should not try to avoid thinking of concepts of people and things, but we can learn the difference between paramattha dhammas and concepts. When the object citta experiences is not a paramattha dhamma it is a concept. The Buddha spoke time and again of all the objets appearing one at a time through the six doors so that people would understand what paramattha dhammas are. Through mindfulness of paramattha dhammas as they appear one at a time, understanding of their nature of anatta can be developed.

Acharn Sujin often reminded us that everything is dhamma. It is true that dhammas appear all the time: seeing, visible object, hearing, sound, thinking. Usually we are absorbed in our thoughts about the conventional world, we do not realize that there is dhamma. Acharn Sujin said that when we learn that everything is dhamma, we should not leave it at that, but that we should develop understanding until we know through our own experience that everything is dhamma. If there never is awareness of what appears through the eyes at this moment, realities cannot appear as just dhammas. Our life can change: first we were clinging to a self who sees or hears, but now we can learn that there are only different dhammas each with their own characteristic.

Dhammas are ephemeral, many conditions must coincide for one moment of seeing. We take seeing for granted and we think that it lasts, that we can control it. We see and then we remember what it is, but it is no longer there. How could we direct or control a reality that has fallen away already? Nama and rupa do not belong to anybody, they are beyond control, non-self. We cannot select the dhammas that appear now, seeing or hearing have arisen already. We have to see, we have to hear, we have to be born again and again so that we see, hear and experience objects through the six doors. We cannot select what reality arises at a particular moment, but understanding of them can be gradually developed.

The Buddha taught the Abhidhamma to the devas in the Heaven of the Thirtythree, and he also taught vipassana when he expounded the Discourse on “One Single Excellent Night”. He used conventional expressions in the sutta, when he said that one should not cling to the past nor desire for the future, but attend to the present moment. We read in the Commentary to the “Discourse on no Blemishes” (Middle Length Sayings I, no 5):

There is a twofold teaching of the Buddha, the Blessed One: the teaching in the conventional way and the teaching by way of ultimate realities. There is a human, a being, a woman, a man, a man of the warrior caste, a brahman, a god, and Mara. Such is the teaching in the conventional way. Impermanence, dukkha, anatta, the aggregates, the elements, the sensefields, satipatthana. Such is the teaching by way of ultimate realities.

Here the Blessed One taught to those in the conventional way who by means of it, after having heard the teaching, penetrated the meaning and abandoned ignorance, and were skilled to attain distinction. But he taught by way of ultimate realities to those who, after having heard the teaching, penetrated the meaning and abandoned ignorance, and were skilled to attain distinction.

Also when the Buddha taught by way of conventional terms he explained what is dhamma: namely, what appears right now.



1. This miracle consisted in the appearance of flames from the upper part of the body and streams of water from the lower part, and then alternatively, there were streams of water from the upper part of the body and flames from the lower part. Moreoever, flames of fire and streams of water also proceeded each in alternation from the right side of the body and from the left side. The Twin Miracle and his ascent to the Heaven of the Thirtythree took place in the seventh year after his enlightenment.
2. In the Middle Length Sayings III there is a series of four suttas (no. 131-135) the first one of which is the Bhaddekarattasutta. There are different translations of the title. The P.T.S. translates it as “Discourse on the Auspicious”, whereas Ven. Bodhi translates it as “One Single Excellent Night”. The following suttas in this series of four are the Bhaddekarattasutta of Ananda, of Mahakaccana and of Lomasakangiya.
3. See “Designation of Human Types”, Ch IV, § 5.
4. This is from the translation of Ven. Nanananda, Wheel 188, Kandy. The P.T.S. translation has: knowing that it is immovable, unshakable.
5. The Thai translation has: he is called someone who has only one night of development. Night in Pali stands for day and night. Someone who knows that he may only have one day and night has a sense of urgency to develop insight.
6. Parama means highest. Paramattha dhamma is what is real in the highest, the ultimate sense, what is fundamentally true.