The Abhidhamma – Who Needs It?

tossbookThe Suttas, the the part of the Pali Canon that contains the words of the Buddha, is what I consider “my scripture”.  The other two parts are the Vinaya, the rules for monks, and the Abhidhamma, the philosophical discourses.  I haven’t dug into either of these to any significant degree.  The first because I’m not a monk, and the second because I just don’t get most of it.  The Abhidhamma doesn’t speak to me the way the Suttas do at this point in my practice.

The parts I do get, however, have benefited me greatly.  What I have learned from the Abhidhamma has come from authors like Jack Kornfield and Walpola Rahula, who include insights from these teachings in their books.  A teaching that has helped my practice immensely is the concept of thought moments.  The Abhidhamma explains that what we imagine to be our continuous conscious experience is actually made up of individual mental events that appear and disappear in rapid succession.  Dozens can come and go in the space of a second.  The fundamental nature of our mental experience is this fizzy froth of constantly changing states and conditions.

Perceiving this process, however vaguely, during meditation provides insight into how our sense of identity is constantly recreated moment by moment in the mind.  It is this perspective that leads to the Buddhist idea that our self concept dies and is reborn not only between lifetimes, but in every moment of our lives.

This teaching also shows the possibility of interrupting our usual unthinking reactions to physical and mental events.  Ordinarily when an unskillful thought or feeling arises, one based in greed, aversion, or delusion, we attach to it without noticing what we are doing.  We feed on it and identify with it.  We generate additional negative thoughts and feelings in response to it, creating an unwholesome environment in our minds that brings forth bad moods and selfish, unkind, foolish actions.  This unthinking, reflexive response is how we create dark karma for ourselves.  With mindfulness we can often notice these responses the moment that they arise, and in that instant stop our habitual unskillful response and substitute something more helpful.  We can prevent ourselves from automatically identifying with and reacting to every random thought and feeling we have, instead recognizing them as just the weather of the mind.  This leads to a sense of freedom and peacefulness.  We don’t always have to be a prisoner of our conditioning.  In Buddhism, free will isn’t something you either have or don’t have depending on some obscure philosophical argument.  Free will is something that you learn to have.  It is a skill you develop.

“Just as in the great ocean there is but one taste — the taste of salt — so in this Doctrine and Discipline there is but one taste — the taste of freedom.”

–Uposatha Sutta: The Observance Day

Finding that quote lead me to yet another great essay by Bhikkhu Bodhi on what the Buddhist concept of freedom really means:  The Taste Of Freedom.

So, as abstract as it is, we all need a little Abhidhamma.