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...... ... .  . .  .  .
Dr. Peter Della Santina

In this chapter I will discuss the methods through which the Abhidharma investigates our personalities and our relations to the world around us. There are two ways to depict a given person and his relation to the world around him: deductively and inductively. The rational or deductive method begins with an abstract idea and applies that idea to one's experience. The empirical or inductive method begins with the facts we encounter in experience; through observing and analyzing, interpreting and understanding these facts, we build up a picture of ourselves and the world around us.

In short, the rational method begins with the abstract and tries to apply it to the concrete, whereas the inductive method begins with the concrete and builds up a picture of reality gradually and progressively.

The inductive method, which is the one used in the Abhidharmic system, is quite close to the method of science, except that in science the focus of the inductive process is outward and in the Abhidharmic system the focus is inward, on the mind. This is why the Abhidharmic method is sometimes called introspection or, to use a traditional term, meditation.

When we say that the Abhidharmic method is empirical and inductive, we mean that it has to do primarily with mental experience. Sometimes we say that meditation is like internal or mental microscopy: it is a way of investigating very closely the facts of experience. The Abhidharmic method of introspection yields results because it manages, through meditation, to slow down mental processes to a point where we can see and understand them. In this respect there is a remarkable parallel between the Abhidharmic method and the scientific method. In science, when we want to find out how a certain transformation actually takes place, we slow down the process or speed it up. In Abhidharmic meditation, too, we can slow down mental processes so that we can see what is actually happening, or we can speed things up. If we could see our human life, from birth to death, within the space of five minutes, it would give us great insight into the nature of life. However, because this is usually not possible, we slow things down.

This is the basis of Abhidharmic meditation. The lists of mental factors and the like in the books of the Abhidharma may appear tedious and speculative at first glance, but in fact they are just the written form of the data we find in this very careful investigation of experience. Far from being speculative, the Abhidharma is the result of careful and close introspective analysis of experience. That said, you may question the use of studying the Abhidharma at all, thinking that it is surely more useful to sit in meditation and reproduce the Abhidharmic experience of reality in one's own meditation. This is true to the extent that, as in all aspects of Buddhist teaching, direct as well as indirect acquaintance is required.

With the Abhidharmic view of the elements, the picture we get when we analyze experience is certainly much more effective if it is a direct picture achieved through our own meditation. But even if it is an indirect picture gained through study, it is still of use to us, because when we sit down to meditate we will already have some intellectual acquaintance with the general outline of the picture we are trying to bring into focus. In this sense studying the Abhidharma can be useful in bringing about an indirect understanding of ourselves and the world around us in Abhidharmic terms.

There are two ways Abhidharmic investigation works: (1) through analysis, and (2) through synthesis, or relation. The basic structure of these two methods is given in the first and last books of the Abhidharma Pitaka, the Dhammasangani (Classification of Factors) and the Patthana (Book of Causal Relations), respectively. These are the two most important books of the Abhidharma. It is through the analytical method and the synthetic or relational method that the Abhidharma arrives at a basic understanding of not-self and emptiness.

Let us look first at the analytical method and then at the relational method; finally, we will combine the two, as, indeed, we must to reap the full benefit of the Abhidharmic method of investigation. In The Questions of King Milinda (Milinda Panha), it is said that the Buddha has accomplished a very difficult task: 'If a man,' Nagasena says in reply to King Milinda, 'were to take a boat out to the sea, and if he were to take a handful of sea water and were then able to tell you that in it this much water is from the Ganges, this much from the Yamuna, and this much from the other great rivers of India, this would certainly be a very difficult thing to accomplish. In the same way, the Buddha has analyzed a single conscious moment of experience--for instance, the experience of seeing a form--into its various component parts: matter, feeling, perception, volition, and consciousness.'

Analysis is the dissection of an apparently unitary, homogeneous whole into its component parts. This analysis can be applied not only to the self, as we find in the analysis of personal experience, but also to external objects: just as we can break down the personality into the five aggregates, so we can break down external phenomena into their component parts. For example, we can break down a table into its legs, its top, and so forth, and, even further, into the molecules and atoms of various elements that compose the table.

The purpose of dissecting an apparent whole is to uproot attachment to internal and external phenomena. Once we recognize that this apparently homogeneous self is really just a collection of components, our attachment to the notion of the self is weakened; similarly, once we realize that external phenomena are just collections of individual smaller components, our attachment to external objects is weakened. What do we have as a result of our analytical process? Internally, we are left with moments of consciousness; externally, we are left with atoms. If we consider the two together, we are left with elements, or factors of experience.

The mental and material elements of experience do not in themselves bring us to the ultimate understanding of reality because we are left with moments of consciousness and atoms of matter--elements of experience. These elements remain irreducible no matter how long and how far we go in our process of dissection. Although we come up with smaller and smaller parts, we are left with a picture of reality that is broken up into little bits and pieces as a result of dissection. This in itself is not an accurate and complete picture of reality.

To arrive at the ultimate picture of reality, we need to couple the analytical approach with the synthetic or relational approach. That is why a great Buddhist scholar and saint, Nagarjuna, once expressed his reverence for the Buddha as 'the teacher of interdependent origination.' The truth of interdependent origination pacifies and calms the agitation of thought-construction. This is an indication of the importance of relation, interdependence, or conditionality in understanding the real nature of things. It is also why scholars have focused on the Book of Causal Relations, which supplies the other half of the Abhidharmic method of investigation.

Just as, through analysis, we arrive at the insubstantiality of personality and phenomena (because we see that they are made up of component parts), so, through the process of relational investigation, we arrive at the emptiness of personality and phenomena (because we see that the component parts which constitute them are all conditioned by and relative to each other). We arrive at this insubstantiality and emptiness by focusing on the teaching of interdependent origination. We can see how, within a given thing--be it the personality or an external object--the component parts depend on one another for their existence. For instance, within a single phenomenon, such as an apparently unitary table, there are several component parts (the legs, the top, and so forth) that depend on each other for their existence as part of a table.

Similarly, the table depends on its antecedent causes (the wood, the iron, and action of the craftsman who put it together) and also on proximate conditions (like the floor on which it stands). We can also explore the idea of interdependence in relation to three dimensions: time, space, and karma. For instance, the table is dependent in terms of time in the sense that, prior to the table existing, a series of events occurred--the cutting of lumber, the construction of the table, and so forth. This sequence of events led to the arising of the table. Similarly, the table is dependent in terms of space in the sense that it stands on the floor, and so forth. The third dimension of conditionality operates beyond time and space.

This dimension is explained by karma, because karma has its effects depending on time and space, yet it is not directly apparent in time and space. Because of karma, an action done at a very distant point in time and space can have its effects here and now. Conditionality is therefore not only temporal and spatial, but also has a karmic dimension.

Let us take two examples to establish more firmly what we mean by the analytical approach and the relational approach. Take a chariot, which is a phenomenon, an identifiable entity. We apply the analytical approach to the chariot by breaking it down into its component parts: the wheels, axle, body, shaft, and so forth. Application of the synthetic method looks at the same chariot in terms of the lumber that goes to it, the action of the builders who put it together, and so forth. Alternatively, we can take the classical examples of the flame in an oil lamp, which exists dependent on the oil and the wick, and the sprout, which depends on a seed, soil, sunlight, and so forth. The analytical and the relational methods together yield the ultimate picture of things as they really are. They yield this ultimate picture through careful investigation. We use the analytical method to break things up into the component parts of an apparent whole; then we use the relational method to show that these component parts do not exist independently and separately but depend on other factors for their existence. There are many places in the Buddha's teaching where methods of investigation are used singly and then in combination. For example, we apply mindfulness first to internal phenomena, then to external phenomena, and finally both to internal and external phenomena. By using analysis and relation together, we overcome many problems. Not only do we overcome the idea of self, substance, and personality, we also overcome the problems that result if we believe in the independent existence of separate factors and ideas like existence and nonexistence, identity and difference.

The analytical and the synthetic approaches are actually reflected in the chemistry of the brain. Neurologists have discovered that the brain is divided into two hemispheres, one whose function is analytical and one whose function is synthetic. If these two functions are not in harmony, not in balance, personality disturbances result. Someone who is too analytical tends to overlook the more intuitive, dynamic, fluid aspects of life, while someone who is too relational tends to lack precision, clarity, and focus. Thus even in our personal lives we need to combine analytical and relational thinking.

The psychological and neurological dimensions of these two approaches are also clear in the development of western philosophy and science. Philosophies in which the analytical approach is predominant have left us with realistic, pluralistic, and atomistic systems like the philosophy of Bertrand Russell. By the same token, in the latest developments of science, such as quantum theory, we find a more relational view of reality gaining ground. When we look at the history of philosophy and science in the West, we can see that each of these two approaches to investigation has been dominant at one time or another.

Perhaps we are reaching a point where we can combine the two even in western science and philosophy. Perhaps we can arrive at a view of reality not too different from the one that the Abhidharma arrives at through the experience of introspective meditation--a view of reality that is both analytical (in that it rejects the idea of a homogeneous whole) and relational (in that it rejects the idea of independent, separately existing bits and pieces of reality). We would then have a very fluid and open view of reality in which experience saturated by suffering could be dynamically transformed into experience free from all suffering.


[Taken from Peter Della Santina., The Tree of Enlightenment. (Taiwan: The Corporate Body of the Buddha Educational Foundation, 1997), pp. 284-290].


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


Updated: 3-5-2000

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