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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 categories:

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 happiness.

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 this article.


Updated: 3-5-2000

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