- Philosophy and Psychology
- in the Abhidharma
- Dr. Peter Della Santina
One of the functions of the Abhidharma is definition. Definition is
important because, to successfully communicate about a rather technical subject, we must
know precisely what our terms mean. Thus I would like to look at a number of terms used
frequently and popularly in speaking about Buddhist thought. I would like to arrive at an
understanding of the definitions of these terms and then relate them to the nature of the
teachings of the Buddha.
Buddhism has often been called a religion, a philosophy, and, in recent
years, a psychology. 'Religion' refers to belief in, or recognition of, a higher, unseen
power that controls the course of the universe. Moreover, religion has an emotional and
moral component and has to do with rituals and worship. Because Buddhism does not
recognize the existence of such a power and does not universally emphasize rituals and
worship, it is difficult to categorize Buddhism in general--and particularly the
Abhidharma--as a religion.
In its original sense, 'philosophy' means the 'love of wisdom and
knowledge.' More generally, it means investigation of the nature of the laws or causes of
all being. This definition might apply to Buddhism except that it remains somewhat vague,
due to the various meanings of the words 'nature' and 'being.' This has led to two
approaches in philosophical thinking, called metaphysics and phenomenology. Metaphysics is
the study of absolute or first principles. It is also sometimes called the science of
ontology, which means the study of essences or, in simple terms, the study of things in
themselves. Phenomenology, in contrast, is the description of things as they are
experienced by the individual; it is the science of epistemology, the study of things as
they are known, as they appear to us. Insofar as Buddhism is philosophical, it is
concerned primarily with phenomenology.
'Psychology' is the study of the mind and mental states. Like
philosophy, it has two aspects--pure psychology, which is the general study of mental
phenomena, and psychotherapy, or applied psychology, which is the application of the study
of mental phenomena to the problem of disease and cure, disturbance and adjustment. We
might explain the difference between pure and applied psychology by means of an analogy.
Imagine that a man climbs to the top of a hill and surveys the
countryside without any particular purpose in mind. His survey will take in every
detail--the hills, the woods, the rivers and streams--without discrimination. But if he
has a purpose in mind--for instance, if he intends to reach another hilltop in the
distance--then his survey will focus on the particular features that will help or hinder
him in his progress toward that goal. When we speak of applied psychology or
psychotherapy, we mean a study of the mind and mental states that focuses on those
phenomena that will help or hinder one's progress toward mental well-being.
Having looked briefly at the definitions of religion, philosophy, and
psychology, we can begin to see that the phenomenological aspect of philosophy and the
therapeutic aspect of psychology relate best to an understanding of the Buddha's teaching.
The Abhidharma, like Buddhist thought in general, is highly rational and logical. If we
look closely at the methods of exposition and argument in the Abhidharma, we find the
beginning of dialectics, which is the science of debate, and also the beginning of logical
argument and analysis. This is particularly evident in the fourfold classification of the
nature of questions. It is said that familiarity with and ability to use this
classification is indispensable for anyone who wants to engage fruitfully in discussion
and debate about the Dharma, because to answer a question correctly, one has to understand
the nature of the question.
The first class of questions is the most direct and refers to those
that can be answered directly and categorically, such as 'Do all living beings die?' To
this the answer is 'Yes, all living beings die.' The second class can only be answered
with qualifications, for instance, 'Will all living beings be reborn?' This kind of
question cannot be answered directly and categorically because it has two possible
interpretations. Thus it must be analyzed and answered individually, taking into account
each of the possible meanings: 'Living beings who are not free from the afflictions will
be reborn, but those who are free from the afflictions, like the Arhats, will not be
reborn.' The third class of questions must be answered with counter-questions, as, for
instance, 'Is man powerful?' Here the reference point of the question must be determined
before the question can be answered: in other words, is man powerful with reference to the
gods or to animals? If the former, then man is not powerful; if the latter, then man is
powerful. The aim of the counter-question is to determine the reference point that the
questioner has in mind. The fourth class of questions are those in which we are
particularly interested here. These are questions that do not deserve an answer; the
famous inexpressible propositions to which the Buddha remained silent fall into this
category. Traditionally, there are fourteen unanswerable questions. We find them, for
instance, in the Chulamalunkya Sutta. These fourteen questions are grouped into three
The first category contains eight questions that concern the absolute
or final nature of the world: Is the world eternal or not eternal, or both or neither;
finite or not finite, or both or neither? You can see that this category includes two sets
of questions, and that both sets refer to the world. The first set refers to the existence
of the world in time, and the second to the existence of the world in space. The second
category contains four questions: Does the Tathagata exist after death or not, or both or
neither? These questions refer to the nature of nirvana, or ultimate reality. The third
category contains two questions: Is the self identical with or different from the body?
While the first category of questions refers to the world and the second to what is beyond
the world, this last refers to personal experience. Do we die with our bodies, or are our
personalities altogether different from and independent of our bodies? The Buddha remained
silent when asked these fourteen questions. He described them as a net and refused to be
drawn into such a net of theories, speculations, and dogmas. He said that it was because
he was free of the bondage of all theories and dogmas that he had attained liberation.
Such speculations, he said, are attended by fever, unease, bewilderment, and suffering,
and it is by freeing oneself of them that one achieves liberation.
Let us look at the fourteen questions in general to see whether we can
understand why the Buddha took this stand. Generally, the fourteen questions imply two
basic attitudes toward the world. The Buddha spoke of these two attitudes in his dialogue
with Maha Kachchayana, when he said that there are two basic views, the view of existence
and the view of nonexistence. He said that people are accustomed to think in these terms,
and that as long as they remain entangled in these two views they will not attain
liberation. The propositions that the world is eternal, that the world is infinite, that
the Tathagatha exists after death, and that the self is independent of the body reflect
the view of existence. The propositions that the world is not eternal, that the world is
finite, that the Tathagata does not exist after death, and that the self is identical with
the body reflect the view of nonexistence.
These two views were professed by teachers of other schools during the
time of the Buddha. The view of existence is generally the view of the Brahmins; that of
nonexistence is generally the view of the materialists and hedonists. When the Buddha
refused to be drawn into the net of these dogmatic views of existence and nonexistence, I
think he had two things in mind: (1) the ethical consequences of these two views, and,
more importantly, (2) the fact that the views of absolute existence and nonexistence do
not correspond to the way things really are.
For example, the eternalists view this self as permanent and
unchanging. When the body dies, this self will not die because the self is by nature
unchanging. If that is the case, it does not matter what this body does: actions of the
body will not affect the destiny of the self. This view is incompatible with moral
responsibility because if the self is eternal and unchanging, it will not be affected by
wholesome and unwholesome actions. Similarly, if the self were identical with the body and
the self dies along with the body, then it does not matter what the body does. If you
believe that existence ends at death, there will be no constraint upon action. But in a
situation where things exist through interdependent origination, absolute existence and
nonexistence are impossible.
Another example drawn from the fourteen unanswerable questions also
shows that the propositions do not correspond to the way things really are. Take the
example of the world. The world does not exist absolutely or not exist absolutely in time.
The world exists dependent on causes and conditions--ignorance, craving, and clinging.
When ignorance, craving, and clinging are present, the world exists; when they are not
present, the world ceases to exist. Hence the question of the absolute existence or
nonexistence of the world is unanswerable.
The same may be said of the other categories of questions that make up
the fourteen unanswerables. Existence and nonexistence, taken as absolute ideas, do not
apply to things as they really are. This is why the Buddha refused to agree to absolute
statements about the nature of things. He saw that the absolute categories of metaphysics
do not apply to things as they really are.
As for the Buddha's attitude toward psychology, there is no doubt that
he placed a great deal of emphasis on the role of the mind. We are familiar with the
famous verses in the Dhammapada where the Buddha speaks of the mind as the forerunner of
all mental states. The text says that happiness and suffering result from acting with a
pure mind and an impure mind, respectively. We need only look at the canonical texts to
recognize the importance of mind in Buddhist teachings. There we find the five aggregates,
four out of five of which are mental, and the thirty-seven factors of enlightenment, the
majority of which are mental. No matter where we look, we will be struck by the importance
of mind in the teachings of the Buddha.
Various religions and philosophies have their particular starting
points. The theistic religions begin with God. Ethical teachings like Confucianism begin
with man as a social entity. Buddhism begins with the mind. It is therefore not surprising
that we often choose to describe the Buddha's teaching as a psychological one, and that we
also describe it as psychotherapy, since the symbolism of disease and cure is prominent in
the teaching of the Buddha. The Four Noble Truths are a reflection of the ancient scheme
of disease, diagnosis, cure, and treatment used in early medical science, and we might
also recall that the Buddha was called the king of physicians.
The Buddha was interested in cure, not in metaphysical categories. We
find his use of various techniques of cure throughout the discourses in the Sutra Pitaka.
For instance, take the Buddha's teaching about the self. In the Dhammapada the Buddha
taught that the wise man can attain happiness by disciplining himself, and yet in other
places in the discourses, we find the Buddha expounding the doctrine of not-self, the idea
that nowhere in the psycho-physical components of experience is the permanent self to be
found. For the explanation of this apparent contradiction, we need to look at the Buddha's
dialogue with Vachchhagotta, who asked the Buddha whether or not the self existed. The
Buddha remained silent, and after a time Vachchhagotta left. Ananda, who happened to be
nearby, asked the Buddha why he had not replied. The Buddha explained that if he had said
that the self existed, he would have been siding with those Brahmins who believed in the
absolute existence of the self, but if he had told Vachchhagotta that the self did not
exist, it would have been confusing for Vachchhagotta, who would have thought,
'Previously I had a self, but now I no longer have one.' The Buddha
chose to remain silent because he knew Vachchhagotta's predicament. Similarly, when
confronted by those who did not believe in rebirth, he taught the existence of the self,
whereas to those who believed in the reality of karma, in the fruit of good and bad
actions, he taught the doctrine of not-self. This is the Buddha's skill in the means of
instruction. We can see how this ties in with the Buddha's rejection of absolute
categories when we look at his use of the symbol of the water-snake. Here we find the
Buddha saying that the factors of experience are similar to a water-snake. When a person
capable of handling a water-snake and knowledgeable in the method of capturing one
attempts to catch one, he will do so successfully. But when a person unaccustomed to
handling a water-snake and ignorant of how to capture one attempts it, his attempt will
end in lamentation and pain. Similarly, phenomena--the factors of experience--are nothing
in themselves. They are not absolutely existent or absolutely nonexistent, neither
absolutely good nor absolutely bad; rather, they are relative. Whether they result in
happiness or pain, in progress along the path or in retrogression, depends not on the
phenomena themselves but on how we handle them.
If things are handled in the right way, through a conscious and
deliberate adjustment of the mind, phenomena can be used for one's progress along the
path. A knife, for instance, is neither true nor false, yet someone who grasps it by the
blade is surely in error. When we relate to phenomena in terms of craving, ill-will, and
ignorance, this results in suffering. When we take them otherwise, this results in
To summarize, we can use terms like 'philosophy' and 'psychology' in
relation to the Buddhist tradition as long as we remember that we are interested in
philosophy not as it concerns essences and absolute categories but as a description of
phenomena, and that we are interested in psychology insofar as it concerns psychotherapy.
These qualities of the philosophy and psychology of the Abhidharma are unique in the
history of human thought. Nowhere else, in the ancient or modern world, in Asia or the
West, has such a phenomenology and psychotherapy evolved.
What is unique about Buddhist phenomenology and psychotherapy is its
rejection of the idea of a permanent self and its affirmation of the possibility of
liberation. In all other systems, even those of western philosophical phenomenology and
psychotherapy, we find an inability to reject the idea of a permanent self--the very
rejection so characteristic of the teaching of the Buddha and of the Abhidharma. And
nowhere within modern psychology do we find that possibility of ultimate and absolute
freedom so central to the teachings of Buddhism.
[Taken from Peter Della Santina., The Tree of Enlightenment. (Taiwan:
The Corporate Body of the Buddha Educational Foundation, 1997), pp. 276-283].
Sincere thanks to Ti.nh Tue^. for typing