Seeing Abhidhamma as mechanistic

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Seeing Abhidhamma as mechanistic

Postby phil » Sat Feb 12, 2011 11:46 pm

Hi all

Some weeks, maybe a couple of months back, there was a reference in a thread to Abhidhamma being "mechanistic" and that image/term has stuck with me. I have been going through a revival of interest in Abhidhamma recently, and don't have trouble with seeing Abhidhamma as mechanistic, the working of impersonal dhammas performing functions. But I've read others say that this implies there is some kind of atta view implied there, that impersonal dhammas performing functions implies little selves, or something like that. For me this is no problem, because my level of understanding is so shallow that I want to study Abhidhamma (at least in the summarized form that it has been handed down in CMA etc) as theory pertaining to the deepest level of understanding. But I am wondering and have been wanting to ask if others see Abhidhamma in a way that is *not* mechanistic, not just impersonal dhammas performing functions. Or if you'd like to confirm my feeling that Abhidhamma is indeed mechanistic, and that that is fine...

If it is all right, I would like to ask that only people for whom Abhidhamma is an important part of their understanding of Dhamma respond here rather than those who (maybe understandably) shunt it aside as an interesting but corrupted junior to the suttanta. Thanks.
Last edited by phil on Sun Feb 13, 2011 2:56 am, edited 1 time in total.
I hope that every time I post it will be accompanied by a wish for the wellbeing of everyone in this sangha and all beings.
(so I don't have to write "metta" every time!)


Kammalakkhano , bhikkhave, bālo, kammalakkhano pandito, apadānasobhanī paññāti
(The fool is characterized by his/her actions/the wise one is characterized by his/her actions/Wisdom shines forth in behaviour.)
(AN 3.2 Lakkhana Sutta)
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Re: Seeing Abhidhamma as mechanistic

Postby phil » Sun Feb 13, 2011 12:01 am

For example, the other day I wrote about the congressman who sent semi-nude photos to a stranger to try to arrange illicit sex, and wrote that hiri and otappa "didn't work" or "didn't function" or something like that, at the moment (many moments) he did that. I have no trouble writing that, it seems having an idea of dhammas underlying behaviour and performing functions works for me...but it is all theory for me, I don't aspire to directly understand/experience those mechanistically functioning dhammas, but I do find understanding it in theory for now to be helpful. Does that go against the Buddha's "see for yourself" ideal?
I hope that every time I post it will be accompanied by a wish for the wellbeing of everyone in this sangha and all beings.
(so I don't have to write "metta" every time!)


Kammalakkhano , bhikkhave, bālo, kammalakkhano pandito, apadānasobhanī paññāti
(The fool is characterized by his/her actions/the wise one is characterized by his/her actions/Wisdom shines forth in behaviour.)
(AN 3.2 Lakkhana Sutta)
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Re: Seeing Abhidhamma as mechanistic

Postby tobes » Sun Feb 13, 2011 2:09 am

I not very learned in the Abhidhamma, but I think mechanistic is a misleading kind of metaphor. Abhidhamma is certainly often described in that way; as a dry, rational, schematic expression of scholasticism. And it can certainly be read in that way too.

But it is actually very dynamic and fluid; the various faculties, powers, path factors etc are not abstract concepts which fit together in some linear and geometric fashion.....they are aspects and potentialities of your own mind, and therefore are as malleable and dynamic as your own mind.

The metaphysics which underpins it all is paticca-samuppada and anatta: so the way everything fits together is quite the opposite of mechanical....it is more like intersecting rivers and streams.

:anjali:
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Re: Seeing Abhidhamma as mechanistic

Postby Sylvester » Sun Feb 13, 2011 8:02 am

"Mechanistic" may not capture the whole spectrum of some of the reservations about Abhidhamma. I think there are valid concerns that some contemporary presentations of Abhidhamma look very "DETERMINISTIC".

The problem becomes less so, IMHO, if a more formal and sustained distinction is drawn between the types of relations governing the nidanas of Paticcasamuppada. Some nidanas are rightly explained as conditions of "necessity", eg the necessity of feeling as condition for craving. Other nidanas are more properly explained as conditions of "necessity and sufficiency", eg contact as a sufficient condition for feelings (per MN 43).

Where it becomes more or less deterministic is where the relationship is one of sufficiency, eg contact as condition for feeling. But because the sufficiency principle does not govern each and every nidana, the possibility for escape presents itself, according to some Vipassana presentations that emphasise Vedananupassana (since vedana does not always lead to craving).

Hope this helps a wee bit.
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Re: Seeing Abhidhamma as mechanistic

Postby Akuma » Sun Feb 13, 2011 8:10 am

phil wrote:Hi all (...)
But I've read others say that this implies there is some kind of atta view implied there, that impersonal dhammas performing functions implies little selves, or something like that.


Hi.
It was never the goal of Theravada to incorporate a more elaborate version of the different kinds of emptiness into their system so for them the elements, moments of cognition and mental factors are real in the sense that they have causal efficacy and that they have distinguishing characteristics. Since "self" would in their system imply tho that the dhammas would be also sukha and nicca (which would make the whole abhidhammic system nonfunctional) you can not say they are selves.
In addition neither rupas nor cittas have spatial coordinates. So I think one can select whichever view fits a given situation best here, concerning the question of "mechanistic".
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Re: Seeing Abhidhamma as mechanistic

Postby phil » Mon Feb 14, 2011 4:07 am

Thanks all for your comments. I'll leave it there for now and see if others want to add something. :smile:
I hope that every time I post it will be accompanied by a wish for the wellbeing of everyone in this sangha and all beings.
(so I don't have to write "metta" every time!)


Kammalakkhano , bhikkhave, bālo, kammalakkhano pandito, apadānasobhanī paññāti
(The fool is characterized by his/her actions/the wise one is characterized by his/her actions/Wisdom shines forth in behaviour.)
(AN 3.2 Lakkhana Sutta)
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Re: Seeing Abhidhamma as mechanistic

Postby Ben » Mon Feb 14, 2011 5:56 am

phil wrote:For example, the other day I wrote about the congressman who sent semi-nude photos to a stranger to try to arrange illicit sex, and wrote that hiri and otappa "didn't work" or "didn't function" or something like that, at the moment (many moments) he did that. I have no trouble writing that, it seems having an idea of dhammas underlying behaviour and performing functions works for me...but it is all theory for me, I don't aspire to directly understand/experience those mechanistically functioning dhammas, but I do find understanding it in theory for now to be helpful. Does that go against the Buddha's "see for yourself" ideal?


Hi Phil

I am not sure what exposure you've had to the Abhidhamma. For me, personally, it was useful to read A comprehensive manual of the Abhidhamma edited by Bhikkhu Bodhi. The book was recommended to me by Ajahn Dhammanando, who no longer posts here, as an excellent introductory text to the Abhidhamma. Ven Bodhi's commentary is to an earlier mediaeval commentary the Abhidhammattha Sangaha which sought to condense the Abhidhamma and is in verse and is still chanted today, particularly in Myanmar. Ven. Bodhi's notes really make the work outstanding and accessible to a lay, and dare I say 'western', audience. What I have also found particularly useful is to revisit the work at later periods so that the drip-effect of the continuity of daily practice, allows deeper insight and understanding possible. It was also useful to read CMA as it assisted me to develop a deeper understanding of Ledi Sayadaw's works. In fact, it might be useful to dovetail the reading of CMA with the Sayadaw's dipanis as I am sure they will throw insights on the other.
kind regards

Ben
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Re: Seeing Abhidhamma as mechanistic

Postby phil » Mon Feb 14, 2011 8:01 am

Ben wrote:
phil wrote:For example, the other day I wrote about the congressman who sent semi-nude photos to a stranger to try to arrange illicit sex, and wrote that hiri and otappa "didn't work" or "didn't function" or something like that, at the moment (many moments) he did that. I have no trouble writing that, it seems having an idea of dhammas underlying behaviour and performing functions works for me...but it is all theory for me, I don't aspire to directly understand/experience those mechanistically functioning dhammas, but I do find understanding it in theory for now to be helpful. Does that go against the Buddha's "see for yourself" ideal?


Hi Phil

I am not sure what exposure you've had to the Abhidhamma. For me, personally, it was useful to read A comprehensive manual of the Abhidhamma edited by Bhikkhu Bodhi. The book was recommended to me by Ajahn Dhammanando, who no longer posts here, as an excellent introductory text to the Abhidhamma. Ven Bodhi's commentary is to an earlier mediaeval commentary the Abhidhammattha Sangaha which sought to condense the Abhidhamma and is in verse and is still chanted today, particularly in Myanmar. Ven. Bodhi's notes really make the work outstanding and accessible to a lay, and dare I say 'western', audience. What I have also found particularly useful is to revisit the work at later periods so that the drip-effect of the continuity of daily practice, allows deeper insight and understanding possible. It was also useful to read CMA as it assisted me to develop a deeper understanding of Ledi Sayadaw's works. In fact, it might be useful to dovetail the reading of CMA with the Sayadaw's dipanis as I am sure they will throw insights on the other.
kind regards

Ben


Thanks Ben. I have a well-thumbed copy of CMA and books by Nina Van Gorkom. That is probably as deep I will go, for now, but I do feel that having even limited theoretical understanding of Abhidhamma helps us *consider* the world in a radically new way, but I resist any impulse towards aspiring to directly understand reality in the way laid out by Abhidhamma. But as theory it is fascinating and I think it is helpful somehow but I can't figure out just how, yet. No worries. :smile:
I hope that every time I post it will be accompanied by a wish for the wellbeing of everyone in this sangha and all beings.
(so I don't have to write "metta" every time!)


Kammalakkhano , bhikkhave, bālo, kammalakkhano pandito, apadānasobhanī paññāti
(The fool is characterized by his/her actions/the wise one is characterized by his/her actions/Wisdom shines forth in behaviour.)
(AN 3.2 Lakkhana Sutta)
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Re: Seeing Abhidhamma as mechanistic

Postby phil » Tue Feb 15, 2011 2:59 am

May I ask a couple more questions? Do those of you who value Abhidhamma see it as pariyatti and the suttanta as more closely related to what you aspire to directly understand, experience througth your practice? Or is Abhidhamma equal in that respect to the suttanta for you? Has anyone come to see Abhidhamma as a kind of paradigm (? or perfectly described model, is that what paradigm means?) of the way dhammas perform functions but that it's a paradigm (?) that performs its function for Buddhist practicioners mainly as pariyatti? I guess this is not the case because I have heard Burmese sayadaws teaching their meditation method in Abhidhamma terms.

But for me it seems Abhidhamma is a perfectly expressed and inspiring model of how the deeply developed mind understands reality, and it is helpful for me to shake up my locked in, long-acquired view of the mind by considering the mind in the light of that perfect model which can only be theory for one such as me (with understanding such as "mine.") Any gradual development of understanding seems more likely to come in sutta terms, if you will. (For example, I have not found any teaching in the suttanta about millions of mind moments in what we take to be a second of thinking or seeing or whatever, I suspect that is only in Abhidhamma. But happy to learn otherwise!) If this seems that I'm going against my own stated request for this thread that Abhidhamma not be shunted aside as a junior to the suttanta, my apologies. I don't really mean to shunt it aside or reduce it in importance, but I guess if I say that I suspect it is through contemplating the suttanta that direct understanding comes, that's what I'm doing. Didn't intend to, I'm trying to work things out here....

In any case, I'll just throw that jumbled question out there and see if anyone would like to add a few more comments. No worries if not. :smile:
I hope that every time I post it will be accompanied by a wish for the wellbeing of everyone in this sangha and all beings.
(so I don't have to write "metta" every time!)


Kammalakkhano , bhikkhave, bālo, kammalakkhano pandito, apadānasobhanī paññāti
(The fool is characterized by his/her actions/the wise one is characterized by his/her actions/Wisdom shines forth in behaviour.)
(AN 3.2 Lakkhana Sutta)
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Re: Seeing Abhidhamma as mechanistic

Postby tobes » Wed Feb 16, 2011 1:57 am

phil wrote:

But for me it seems Abhidhamma is a perfectly expressed and inspiring model of how the deeply developed mind understands reality, and it is helpful for me to shake up my locked in, long-acquired view of the mind by considering the mind in the light of that perfect model which can only be theory for one such as me (with understanding such as "mine.")


Hi Phil,

I can't really respond to all of those questions, but the statement I highlighted is kind of interesting: because I think that in many respects the Abhidhamma is not just about how the deeply developed mind understands reality, but also, how the confused and undeveloped mind understands reality......and most critically, the connections between them; how the movement from undeveloped to developed is possible. Even probable.

I also think that the most beautiful, efficacious and inspiring part of the Abhidhamma is found in the potentialities ascribed to the undeveloped mind: there is nothing very entrenched about confusion; confusion is held together by a number of dependent conditions (very clearly spelled out). It seems very tenable that when those dependent conditions are seen reflexively, they lose their efficacy....and so, confusion is dispelled.

Of course, none of what I said there is different from what you'd find in the sutta's; it's more that it all fits together into something of a smooth and dialectical system in the Abhidhamma.

:anjali:
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Re: Seeing Abhidhamma as mechanistic

Postby Ben » Wed Feb 16, 2011 2:59 am

Hi Phil,
phil wrote:May I ask a couple more questions? Do those of you who value Abhidhamma see it as pariyatti and the suttanta as more closely related to what you aspire to directly understand, experience througth your practice? Or is Abhidhamma equal in that respect to the suttanta for you? Has anyone come to see Abhidhamma as a kind of paradigm (? or perfectly described model, is that what paradigm means?) of the way dhammas perform functions but that it's a paradigm (?) that performs its function for Buddhist practicioners mainly as pariyatti? I guess this is not the case because I have heard Burmese sayadaws teaching their meditation method in Abhidhamma terms.

But for me it seems Abhidhamma is a perfectly expressed and inspiring model of how the deeply developed mind understands reality, and it is helpful for me to shake up my locked in, long-acquired view of the mind by considering the mind in the light of that perfect model which can only be theory for one such as me (with understanding such as "mine.") Any gradual development of understanding seems more likely to come in sutta terms, if you will. (For example, I have not found any teaching in the suttanta about millions of mind moments in what we take to be a second of thinking or seeing or whatever, I suspect that is only in Abhidhamma. But happy to learn otherwise!) If this seems that I'm going against my own stated request for this thread that Abhidhamma not be shunted aside as a junior to the suttanta, my apologies. I don't really mean to shunt it aside or reduce it in importance, but I guess if I say that I suspect it is through contemplating the suttanta that direct understanding comes, that's what I'm doing. Didn't intend to, I'm trying to work things out here....

In any case, I'll just throw that jumbled question out there and see if anyone would like to add a few more comments. No worries if not. :smile:

I'll answer by providing my approach. I engage with the Dhamma, primarily via practice: dana, sila, samadhi (kayagata-sati) and panna (vipassana). Its practice that has at its heart virtue and meditation. However, I also incorporate pariyatti into my practice by reading the suttas, commentaries inc. later scholastic material as well as the Abhidhamma commentaries. Pariyatti, to borrow the phrase from the 'pariyatti' website: 'supports the path of liberation'. In fact, I would say it is indispensable but not a replacement for sila, samatha and vipassana bhavana.
The one writer that I feel very close to, is Ledi Sayadaw who was an expert in both the Suttas and the Abhidhamma. His dipanis borrowed heavily from both to expound and make clear the Dhamma, for both inspiration and clarification for practice of lay persons.
So for me, as I mature in practice, any insights I gain along the way from meditation help me to make sense of the suttas and commentarial material, which in turn illuminate the way forward with regards to my practice. All aspects of my practice seem to support and complement each other.
I hope that goes someway to answer your question. If not, then at least it gives you something from my own perspective.
kind regards

Ben
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Re: Seeing Abhidhamma as mechanistic

Postby phil » Wed Feb 16, 2011 6:52 am

HI Tobes and Ben,

Thank you for your comments, they helped me to kind of at least settle my mind down around the Abhidhamma. I went through a period where I thought the Abhidhamma was too deep to read about for a person like me (my mind does not tend naturally towards insight, not even perception of annicca) without inadvertently blocking any evenual access to *really* understanding it by overreaching in the short term, but I think I am over that. I guess the fact that my mind does not tend towards insight of fleeting mind states (I'm a genius at playing with concepts to motivate wholesome behaviour I think) means that I need the help that Abhidhamma provides in giving hints about insight and helping my thick mind to flex its muscles a bit in the right direction. And another kind of flexing will continue to develop through meditation in my veering-between-monkey-minding-and-nodding off way. (Strong hindrances to concentration here, very strong, but happy persistence is there.) And of course through whatever degree of satipatthana is developing in daily life.
I hope that every time I post it will be accompanied by a wish for the wellbeing of everyone in this sangha and all beings.
(so I don't have to write "metta" every time!)


Kammalakkhano , bhikkhave, bālo, kammalakkhano pandito, apadānasobhanī paññāti
(The fool is characterized by his/her actions/the wise one is characterized by his/her actions/Wisdom shines forth in behaviour.)
(AN 3.2 Lakkhana Sutta)
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