Articles May 18, 2015

The Abhidhamma: A Field Guide to the Mind

Steve Armstrong

After practicing intensive meditation for about ten years as a layman and a monk, I was given a handbook of the Abhidhamma in order to assist a Burmese Sayadaw in learning English. It took some effort for me to get interested in the material, and I could only make sense of it by diagramming each chapter’s content. Once I became familiar with the material, I was amazed at how precisely and comprehensively it identified every experience I had known up to that point in my life—from mundane experiences of relative reality to experiences of deep tranquility and insight—all without any reference to an inherent being to whom it was all happening. My awareness practice after studying the Abhidhamma was much more confident and clear. I now believe Abhidhamma knowledge can be useful for anyone, but particularly for those who are actively practicing meditation and seeking to understand the mind.

The Abhidhamma is reputed to have been taught to the Buddha’s mother in Tavatimsa heaven and later told to Sariputta. But scholars believe that the Abhidhamma was compiled from an oral tradition a couple of hundred years after the Buddha’s demise. In any event, the Abhidhamma, or Buddhist psychology, is a detailed compilation and analysis of the teachings of the Buddha that are presented in the Discourses (suttas) and elaborated upon in the Commentaries and Sub-Commentaries. Through a comprehensive overview and systematic deconstruction of the experiences of life—from birth to death, from ignorance to liberation—the Abhidhamma reveals this seemingly personal unfolding as deeply conditioned impersonal processes. When one is entangled in conditioning and ownership by identifying with natural processes, life is a struggle and we suffer. With the development of awareness, the direction of the unfolding process gradually changes and liberation from conditioned suffering becomes possible.

Conventional and Empirical Views of Reality

A key to understanding the profundity of the Buddha’s liberation is distinguishing between conventional and empirical views of reality. Basic Abhidhammic knowledge of the unique mental and physical building blocks of life experience and how they are synthesized in each dynamically unfolding moment makes apparent this distinction between these two perspectives. While awareness practices take place on both the relative and absolute levels of reality, confusion between them poses a significant challenge to many sincere meditators. Familiarity with the Abhidhamma helps clarify the distinctions between relative (conventional/conceptual) and absolute (empirical) views of reality.

By using a phenomenological approach to awareness practice and to exploring the dynamic nature of the stream of consciousness, we can deconstruct each moment of life into the pixels of experience identified as the mind, mental states, and materiality. Such an approach reveals how these elements are synthesized in any moment and how they arise dependently conditioned. A further elaboration of the nature of their conditional relationships exposes the intricate weaving of the tapestry of all life. Without awareness, the lawfully unfolding process is embedded in delusion and suffering. By practicing awareness through mindfulness and developing wisdom through insight, over time one verifies the distinctions between the conditioning of mind, mental states, and materiality and comes closer to unconditioned liberation through realizing nibbāna.

The transition from entanglement within conventional views of reality to the empirical realization of unconditioned liberation involves exposing multiple layers of delusion via progressive and increasingly subtler purification of insightful understanding.

There are three topics of the Abhidhamma that I have found particularly useful in understanding the mind and the benefits of practicing mindful awareness: Buddhist Personality Types, The Stream of Life from Conception to Death, and the Progress of Insight.

Buddhist Personality Types

While many of us are familiar with the idea of personality from a Western psychology developmental perspective and the psychopathologies we are all heir to, the Abhidhamma offers an alternative view of the source of our “sense of self.” This view of personality emerges from an obscure section of the Abhidhamma called “Conditional Relations,” which the Buddha identified as being the first of his teachings to disappear from the face of the earth.

In order to realize that all experiences are conditioned, it becomes important to understand the nature of conditioning and the variety of conditional relations. It is obvious that we are conditioned by past experiences. Repetitive activity also conditions the frequent arising of states of mind. The intensity of an experience is a factor in how we will feel and how we react to it. Even future conditions exert a conditioning effect upon the present (e.g., possible future punishment conditions present behavior).

When any quality of mind appears with some significant continuity, it appears to be an inherent part of one’s self. It is then a slippery slope from an intense experience of an emotion, e.g., jealousy, to eternalizing that experience, i.e., “I’m always jealous!” The activity of identification with that thought then results in the wrong belief, “I’m a jealous person!” We then have a reified sense of self that we carry around as baggage from which we greet the world of experience.

The effects of “continuity conditioning” includes mental legacies—the deep-seated tendencies to react or respond in recurrent ways that are carried over from prior actions. Among the mental legacies to be aware of when looking at Buddhist Personality Types are The Parāmi Profile, The Index of Latent Torments, and The Six Default Mentalities. Together these reveal the beneficial and harmful habits of mind that appear to be the inherent ground of our personality.

For example, each of us has a baseline setting of each of the ten wholesome qualities known as the forces of purity, ˆ, generosity, loving-kindness, energy, resolve, understanding, etc. Some of these attributes can be easily identified in very young children prior to their family, societal, educational and religious training. While it is possible to further develop all wholesome qualities of mind through dhamma practices, there does seem to be a baseline from which further development takes place. The baseline of these qualities is referred to as our “mental legacy.” Though these qualities recur frequently and give rise to a sense of inherent selfhood, Right View of personality belief denies the permanency of these attributes.

The Six Default Mentalities refers to the familiar greed, hatred or deluded types of personalities. A more refined understanding of these mentalities identifies the characteristics of each of them. For example, when greed or attachment is the primary or predominant default setting of the mind, one seeks pleasure. When anger or aversion is the default setting of the mind, one discriminates then criticizes with aversion. When delusion is the default setting of the mind, one is besieged by doubt. However, each of these three unwholesome default settings when transformed through dhamma practices reveal that seeking the good or wholesome is the attribute of the faith-type. Practice transforms aversive discrimination to the discernment of the wisdom-type and doubt to the equanimity of the speculative-type.

Access to this knowledge offers the opportunity for a clear-eyed appraisal of one’s default settings and encouragement to capitalize through specific practices on the characteristic of each unwholesome tendency to further enhance the wholesome qualities of mind. If you don’t recognize your own default settings, ask a close or intimate friend, they’ll know!

The Index of Latent Torments identifies the contours of the map of suffering, e.g., attachment to physical, social, spiritual, psychological, or sensual pleasures; the gradient of aversive reactions, from striking out with rage to internalized depression and the niggling annoyance of peevishness; and wrong views of kamma, self, Dhamma, practice, liberations, etc. When the straightness of mind that arises with each moment of mindfulness gains momentum, we can no longer deceive ourselves, and the terrain of our habitual indulgence and limitations is revealed. While it can be shocking to recognize the strength and recurrent frequency of unskillful reactions, it is only with this knowledge and awareness that we are encouraged to address these deeply seated habits.

These teachings on conditional relations offer a map to recognize and understand these mental legacies—their source, characteristics, manifestations, and functions in the mindstream and the resultant malleability of personality that practice enhances.

The Stream of Life through Birth and Death

The Abhidhamma offers a description of mental life—the flowing stream of consciousness which is an extremely rapid arising and passing away of successive moments of consciousness with their attendant mental states. After identifying the variety of mental states and the types of consciousness and their synthesis in each moment of experience, the Abhidhamma reveals the forces at play in the dynamic unfolding of the stream. The particular sequence of moments of consciousness is conditioned by kamma, the elements of material reality, intention, development of mind (concentration and insight), etc.

With this knowledge, the terrain of mind revealed through practice is more easily identified and understood. Within this, we are offered a description of the stream during sense door activation, mind door activation, and the successive streams necessary for mentally constructing the concepts of ordinary, consensual reality. The sequence of the arising of different functions performed by individual moments of consciousness creates a stream of consecutive cognitive processes that eventually result in the creation of a consensual reality.

Recognizing that every sense door is constantly being bombarded by sense stimulation and that the mind is incessantly processing everything that is coming in, as well as reflecting on it in order to create the “ordinary reality” that we all take for granted as being how we think it is, is it any wonder we’re exhausted? The amazing thing is, this all happens automatically, unseen by untrained attention and not understood by a heavily deluded mind.

By beginning to train attention to stabilize on a meditative object, the habits of mind exert a tremendous conditioning effect, making it very difficult to stay with the intended object. The processes of creating ordinary reality still try to run the show, but the strength of the intention to stay on the object slowly develops to prevent it. In order to stay continuously with an intended object, some degree of processing ordinary reality must be sacrificed. This accounts for many of the dramatic effects—fantasmagoria, psychedelia, spiritual goodies, time distortions, body distortions, etc.—experienced by meditators as they begin to train attention not to process ordinary reality.

The Evolution of Liberating Knowledge

The Buddha’s prescription for realizing the liberated mind is encoded in the Fourth Noble Truth: The Path to the End of Dukkha. The eight factors of the Noble Path are divided into three trainings:

  1. Sīla (ethical training) — purifying speech and behavior of transgressive torments.

  2. Samādhi (stability of mind) — purifying the mind of obsessive torments.

  3. Pañña (wisdom) — purifying understanding of latent or dormant torments.

The development of wisdom occurs through the practice of insight (vipassanā) that unfolds naturally with the development of continuous awareness or mindfulness.

Of the many maps of the dhamma journey, the map of the progressive stages of insight, knowledge is one of the most refined and comprehensive. Insight knowledge begins with the most elementary direct empirical knowledge of experiences being known and matures with the realization of nibbāna, the unconditioned, upon stream-entry and successive stages of enlightenment.

The well-defined map of the progress of insight identifies the experiences to be expected, the challenges to be faced and surmounted and the knowledge to be gained, clearly articulating the gradual development of liberating wisdom that has been refined and re-affirmed by generations of meditators. The clarity and comprehensive qualities of this map of the path inspires confidence, imparts knowledge, guides right effort and clarifies awareness. A rudimentary knowledge of the map of the journey supports self-correction and is an invaluable aid to practice.

Distinguishing relative and absolute/empirical perspectives of reality is an essential prerequisite for true vipassanā to arise, as is an understanding of the conditionality or cause-and-effect relationship of the mental and material conditions. With the unfolding of the insight of the impermanent, unreliable, and insubstantial nature of all conditioned things, one enters the terrain of exalted joy, bliss, ecstasy; pseudo-nibbāna; the dukkha-ñānas (progressive knowledge of dukkha/ unsatisfactoriness); the “rolling-up-the-mat” stages of practice; the emptiness of suññata; the vipassanā jhānas; of distinguishing between tranquility, joy, bliss, equanimity, boundless love, space, infinite consciousness and peace; as well as understanding the conditioned and the unconditioned. With full awareness of all of the above, the knowledge of their place on the path becomes clear, and by not clinging to any of them, one develops the path of liberation.