The Abhidhamma, a Buddhist Map of the Mind Part 1

In the spring edition of The Spirit Rock News, I read a fascinating article by meditation teacher Steve Armstrong about the Abhidhamma (or Buddhist psychology), which serves as a Buddhist map of the mind. During the second generation of the Community Dharma Leader training sponsored by Spirit Rock, I studied this Buddhist psychology text. Tonight I will start the first of a two-part series of Dharma talks based on the Abhidhamma.

According to legend, the Buddha taught the Abhidhamma to his mother in Tavatsima heaven, the second of six deva worlds, the first being the Catummaharajika world. To reach Tavatimsa at the top of Mount Sineru, the Buddha covered in three gigantic strides the distance of sixty-eight thousand leagues from the earth.

More down-to-earth Buddhist scholars believe that the Abhidhamma was compiled from an oral tradition a couple of hundred years after the Buddha died.  It is a detailed compilation and analysis of the Buddha’s teachings that are presented in the Discourses (or suttas) and elaborated upon by Buddhist disciples in the Commentaries and Sub-Commentaries.

Through a comprehensive overview and systematic deconstruction of the experiences of life—from birth to death, and from ignorance to liberation—the Abhidhamma shows that this seemingly personal process is a series of deeply conditioned impersonal events. When we become entangled in habitual conditioning and the illusion of ownership by identifying with processes that are unfolding naturally, we struggle and suffer. As we practice mindfulness and develop awareness, we gradually experience more and more moments of liberation from conditioned suffering.

A key to understanding the profundity of the Buddha’s liberation is to distinguish between conventional and objective views of reality.  Many meditators become confused between relative and absolute levels of reality.  It is helpful to use a phenomenological approach to awareness practice and to the exploration of the dynamic stream of consciousness.  In this way, we can deconstruct each moment of life into the pixels of experience identified as the mind, mental states and materiality.  We begin to notice how these elements are synthesized in every moment and how they arise dependently conditioned. Without awareness, this naturally unfolding process is clouded by delusion and suffering.

I’ll give an explicit example of dispersing clouds of delusion: In Contemplative Chaplaincy classes, my teacher Koshin Paley Ellison, co-founder of the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care, repeatedly stops us interns whenever we stray from immediate engagement with the present moment in our interactions.  He points out when I attempt to escape difficult emotions by talking about far-away, dramatic events from the past. Despite my annoyance at his observations, I recognize their truth. I appreciate that Koshin cares enough about me to draw attention to times when I am not present and grounded. For decades, I have entertained people with stories about my travels around the world.  Koshin is aware enough to note my habitual pattern of using charm instead of deep listening.  Although my ego feels bruised by his interventions, I am grateful that he insists upon direct engagement in the here and now.  My current practice “off the cushion” is to stay with what is actually happening in interpersonal interactions, instead of diverting attention to other seemingly more exciting topics.

By practicing mindfulness and cultivating wisdom through insight, over time we can verify how the mind, mental states and materiality are conditioned, and we move closer to unconditioned states of liberation.  The transition from enmeshment with conventional views of reality to an objective view of unconditioned liberation involves progressively subtler and purer insightful understanding, seeing through multiple layers of delusion.

Steve Armstrong points to three topics of the Abhidhamma, which are useful for understanding the mind and the benefits of practicing mindful awareness: Buddhist personality types, the streams of life from conception to death, and the progress of insight.  (I will discuss the first tonight and the other two in the second talk about the Abhidhamma.)

For those of us who are familiar with theories of personality and psychopathology in Western developmental psychology, the Abhidhamma offers an alternative view of the source of our “sense of self.”  In order to realize that all experiences are conditioned, we must understand the nature of conditioning and conditioned relationships. It is obvious that we are conditioned by past experiences.  Repetitive activity also conditions how frequently certain states of mind arise.  Even future conditions can have a conditioning effect upon the present moment.  For example, we tend to modify behaviors if we are worried about being punished for them.

When any quality of mind appears with significant continuity, we usually consider it as an inherent part of the self.  If an intense emotion arises, such as jealousy, we tend to externalize that experience: “I’m jealous.” Identifying with that thought results in the wrong belief: “I’m a jealous person.”  Then we have a falsely solidified sense of self that we carry around as baggage.

The effects of “continuity conditioning” include mental legacies or deep-seated tendencies to react or respond in recurring ways that are carried over from prior actions.  Buddhist personality types reveal beneficial and harmful mental habits that appear to be an inherent ground of our personality. For example, everyone has a baseline setting (or mental legacy) for each of ten wholesome qualities on the Parami Profile:

Dāna pāramī : generosity, giving of oneself

Sīla pāramī : virtue, morality, proper conduct

Nekkhamma pāramī : renunciation

Paññā pāramī : transcendental wisdom, insight

Viriya pāramī : energy, diligence, vigor, effort

Khanti pāramī : patience, tolerance, forbearance, acceptance, endurance

Sacca pāramī : truthfulness, honesty

Adhiṭṭhāna pāramī : determination, resolution

Mettā pāramī : loving-kindness

Upekkhā pāramī : equanimity, serenity

The last two paramis are also Brahma Viharas or Divine Abodes, which are practiced to open the heart. We can observe some of these ten wholesome attributes in very young children prior to any training by family, society, education or religion.  Dharma practice helps us further develop these innate human tendencies.  Although these qualities recur frequently and give rise to a sense of inherent self-hood, in Buddhism right view of personality considers these attributes to be impermanent.

The Abhidhamma also refers to “Six Default Mentalities”: When greed or attachment is the primary or default setting of the mind, we seek pleasure. When anger or aversion is the default setting, we judge and criticize. When delusion is the mind’s default setting, we are besieged by doubt. Through dedicated Dharma practice, we can transform these unwholesome default settings into wholesome attributes: The faith type of personality channels greed into seeking what is good and wholesome. The wisdom type transforms aversive discrimination into wise discernment. And the speculative type turns wavering doubt into steady equanimity. As we face and comprehend the dynamics of our primary default settings, we know which wholesome qualities to focus on developing in our practice.

In my own case, greed is my default setting.  I have an enthusiastic temperament and am interested in almost everything that enters my field of awareness or my imagination.  Mark is a witness to how readily I become overextended by wanting to experience engagements with friends, new restaurants, best-selling books, theatrical performances, symphony concerts, and travels to exotic places.  I often need an afternoon siesta for replenishment.  Silent meditation retreats give my restless mind a respite from constant activity and stimulation. The Contemplative Chaplaincy internship harnesses my faith type of personality and channels my abundant energy into compassionate service with terminal AIDS patients at Omega House hospice.

The Abhidhamma’s “List of Latent Torments” outlines a map of human suffering: attachment to physical, social, spiritual, and psychological sensual pleasures; various degrees of aversive reactions, ranging from lashing out with rage to internalized depression and to annoyance or peevishness; and wrong views regarding self, the Dharma, meditation practice, and liberation.  As we become increasingly mindfully aware, we free ourselves from delusion, and we see more and more clearly the terrain of our habitual conditioning.  We may be shocked to recognize the strength and recurrence of unskillful reactions, but it is only with awareness that we can address deeply seated habits.

Take a moment to reflect upon your own type of personality and your own kind of habitual responses, which separate you from the immediacy of the present moment.  One of the blessings of the Dharma path is the opportunity to free our innate Buddha nature and let it shine.