English Section

      Buddhism Today 

Vietnamese Section


...... ... .  . .  .  .
Abhidharma in Daily Life
Dr. Peter Della Santina

In this last chapter I would like to focus on some of the ideas considered in Chapters 30 through 40, relating them to daily life and to our practice of the Buddha's teaching. I have discussed the Abhidharma extensively, and some of the material is rather technical. Although it may not be possible to make complete use of what we have learned, I hope it will remain in the corner of your mind, and that you will be able to return to it and use it as time goes by.

I would like to begin by drawing your attention to the fundamental orientation of the Buddha and Buddhism toward the whole question of spiritual progress. You will recall that the majority of the thirty-seven factors conducive to enlightenment (see Chapter 40) relate to effort and to the mind. The emphasis in Buddhism has always been on these two aspects, in marked contrast to other religious traditions, where the most frequent answers to the question of spiritual progress refer to fate or grace--in other words, to some power outside us (whether an impersonal, unseen power, like fate, or a personal power, like God) that determines our progress and destiny. Fate and grace were typical answers given by other traditions in the Buddha's time, and they remain so today. Such approaches have one thing in common: they rely on something outside us, over which we have little or no control.

The Buddha, however, taught that it is one's own mind and effort that determine one's progress and destiny. Mind and effort are the keys to self-development, as is clearly reflected in the thirty-seven factors of enlightenment. This is why it has often been said that the mind is the most valuable thing we have. The mind has sometimes been likened to a wish-fulfilling gem, in that it can grant rebirth in fortunate or unfortunate states. It is on the basis of mind that one crosses the threshold of conditioned existence and enters the supramundane states of the noble ones. It is the mind which determines this, and it does so through intentional action, or karma--the expressed will of the mind, which results in the particular conditions in which we find ourselves.

We can also see the importance of the mind reflected in the four roads to power (see Chapter 40), which are mental factors that can affect and control matter. What we need to do is intensify, cultivate, and elevate the mind. We can see this clearly when we look at the five factors of absorption or intensification (jhananga) and the five hindrances (nivarana), two aspects of our ordinary, mundane consciousness (see Chapter 34). The five hindrances are typical of very low levels of conscious development, such as the consciousness of animals, which is saturated with these factors. The presence of these hindrances means that one's mind is totally conditioned and manipulated by various stimuli.

In opposition to these five hindrances are the five factors of absorption, which are also present even in the consciousness of animals. The five absorptions counter and eventually eliminate the five hindrances. Thus we can reduce the controlling power of the hindrances to whatever extent we can cultivate the absorptions. In a sense, we are standing at a crossroads. All ten factors, hindrances and absorptions, are present in our minds, and it is a question of whether we allow the hindrances to dominate or develop the factors of intensification so that they begin to dominate our minds. This is a very important battle because as long as the hindrances predominate we are very likely to see the results in this life and in the next life, in the form of rebirth in unfavorable or miserable states. But if our minds are raised by cultivating the five factors of absorption, we reach a higher level of development in both this life and the next.

Once we have intensified and elevated the power of our minds by developing the five factors of absorption, we can motivate and direct our minds in a particular direction. This is done through the five controlling faculties: faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom (see Chapter 40). It has been said that, to practice the Dharma, two things are essential: (1) faith and (2) wisdom. Wisdom is the main thing, while faith is the prerequisite. In some non-Buddhist traditions, faith means blind adherence, but in the Buddhist tradition, faith means confidence in the possibility of success. In other words, if we do not believe we can succeed, there will be no chance of achieving success no matter what we try to do. In this sense spiritual practice without faith is like a burned seed that will never put forth the seedling of spiritual progress, no matter how rich the soil or how carefully we tend it.

Faith and wisdom are the first and last of the five controlling faculties. Together with the remaining three faculties of energy, mindfulness, and concentration, they are present in the Noble Eightfold Path (see Chapters 5, 6, and 7). Energy, mindfulness, and concentration correspond to the three factors of right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration of the mental development group of the Eightfold Path.

Faith is related to the morality group of the Eightfold Path because it is faith, after all, which compels us to observe the rules of good conduct and believe in the law of karma at the beginning of our practice. Unless and until we have achieved supernormal levels of consciousness (like the Buddha and his foremost disciples, who were able to directly perceive the effects of wholesome and unwholesome actions), we must rely on faith to create the foundation of our practice of morality. Wisdom corresponds exactly to the wisdom group of the Eightfold Path. In the five controlling faculties, therefore, we have in germinal form the eight steps of the Noble Eightfold Path.

To summarize, to progress toward our goal of enlightenment, we need to intensify, elevate, and motivate our minds. The way we can do this is (1) to cultivate the five factors of absorption to reduce the influence of the five hindrances, and then (2) to develop the five controlling faculties and connect them to our practice of the Noble Eightfold Path. When the five controlling faculties become unshakable, they develop into the five powers (see Chapter 40), which bring with them the supramundane states of the noble ones.

Wisdom, which is the last group of practice in the Noble Eightfold Path, is particularly relevant to the Abhidharmic studies we have undertaken because wisdom is the understanding of ultimate reality, and the Abhidharma is concerned with the presentation of ultimate reality. When we speak of wisdom, we have two components principally in mind: (1) not-self and (2) emptiness.

We have discussed the analytical and relational approaches to the analysis of personal experience in the teaching of not-self and in the teaching of dependent origination, respectively. When we consider not-self, we need to think of the self in relation to the five aggregates. Just as the erroneous idea of a snake exists dependent on and in relation to the rope and darkness, so when we look for the self in relation to the aggregates, we find that it does not exist in any way. The self cannot be found in any of the aggregates of consciousness, feeling, perception, volition, and form. The self cannot possess the aggregates in the way we might own a car. The self does not control the aggregates. It does not control the mind, nor does it control the body. The self is not in any way ascertainable within or without the aggregates. Having arrived at this understanding of not-self, we might look for a moment at the aggregates. At this point, we move from an analysis of personal experience in terms of the five aggregates to an analysis of the five aggregates in terms of dependent origination.

The five aggregates do not originate by chance, nor do they originate without any cause. They originate dependently--dependent on the afflictions (ignorance, craving, and clinging) and on karma, volition, and becoming. It has been said that interdependent origination is the greatest treasure of the Buddha's teaching. Understanding interdependent origination is the key to undoing the knot that has kept us bound for so long in samsara. The Buddha himself said that he who sees interdependent origination sees the Dharma, and that he who sees the Dharma sees the Buddha. This is a very encouraging remark, for if we can begin to see our daily experience in terms of interdependent origination--in terms of the conditioned, relative, and empty nature of the factors of experience--then we will see the Dharma, and through seeing the Dharma, we will see the Buddha. It will then no longer be true to say that we cannot see the Buddha, that the Buddha is not present here and now.

I hope that this study of the Abhidharma will not remain an intellectual exercise but will be applied to our daily lives, however slightly. Although it may be difficult to apply everything covered in the course of these last twelve chapters, I think all of us who have studied the Abhidharma will no longer make the mistake of thinking of reality in terms of a unitary, independent, and permanent self and the essential, substantial objects around us. Insofar as we have moved toward a new way of understanding reality in terms of factors and functions that are interdependent and relative, we have moved some way toward seeing the Dharma and the Buddha.


[Taken from Peter Della Santina., The Tree of Enlightenment. (Taiwan: The Corporate Body of the Buddha Educational Foundation, 1997), pp. 349-353].


Sincere thanks to Ti.nh Tue^. for typing this article.


Updated: 3-5-2000

Return to "Buddhist Philosophy"

Top of Page