The Theravada Abhidhamma

1 The Real Existents

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IN THE ENTIRE VOCABULARY of the Abhidhamma no other term is as central to defining its theory of reality as dhamma. In its characteristically Abhidhammic sense, it embraces not only the basic factors into which the whole of phenomenal existence is resolved but also that which transcends phenomenal existence — namely, the unconditioned reality of nibbāna.56 This rendering of dhamma in an all-inclusive sense is nevertheless not without antecedence. In the early Buddhist scriptures (Pāli suttas) too, we find it used in a similar sense. A case in point is the well-known statement sabbe dhammā anattā (all things are non-self).57 There is, however, a difference to be noted here. In the earlier texts sabbe dhammā means “all things” in a general sense, whereas the Abhidhamma uses it in a technical sense to mean “the basic factors into which all things can be resolved.” In this shift of the term’s meaning from a general to a technical sense we can trace most of the methodological differences between early Buddhism and the Abhidhamma. For it is within a framework where dhamma is postulated as the basic unit of reference that the Abhidhamma seeks to present all its doctrinal expositions. In this methodological difference we can also observe a shift in emphasis from an empiricist to a rationalist approach.

The dhamma theory of the Abhidhamma is based on the philosophical principle that all the phenomena of empirical existence are made up of a number of elementary constituents, the ultimate realities behind manifest phenomena. It is this principle that provides the rationale for all the 18modes of analysis and classification found in the Abhidhamma systematization. The dhamma theory is, however, not merely one principle among others in the body of Abhidhamma philosophy. It is the base on which the entire system rests. It would thus be quite fitting to call this theory the cornerstone of the Abhidhamma. Yet the dhamma theory was intended from the start to be much more than a mere hypothetical scheme. It arose from the need to make sense out of experiences in meditation and was designed as a guide for meditative contemplation and insight. The Buddha had taught that to perceive the world correctly is to see not self-entities and substances but bare phenomena arising and perishing in accordance with their conditions. The task the Abhidhamma specialists set themselves was to specify exactly what these bare phenomena are and to show how they interact with other bare phenomena to make up our commonsense picture of the world.

The dhamma theory was not peculiar to any one school of Buddhism but penetrated all the early schools, stimulating the growth of their different versions of the Abhidharma. Of these, the Sarvāstivāda version of the theory, together with its critique by the Madhyamaka, has been critically studied by a number of modern scholars. The Theravāda version, however, has received less attention. There are sound reasons for proposing that the Pāli Abhidhamma Piṭaka contains one of the earliest forms of the dhamma theory, perhaps even the oldest version. This theory, after all, did not remain static but evolved over the centuries as Buddhist thinkers sought to draw out its implications and respond to problems it posed for the critical intellect. Thus the dhamma theory was repeatedly enriched, first by the Abhidhamma commentaries and then by the later exegetical literature and the medieval compendiums of Abhidhamma, the so-called little finger manuals, such as the Abhidhammatthasaṅgaha, which in turn gave rise to their own commentaries and subcommentaries.

The present chapter seeks to trace the main stages in the origin and development of the dhamma theory and to explore its philosophical implications. The first part will discuss the early version of the theory as represented by the Abhidhamma Piṭaka. At this stage, the theory was not yet precisely articulated but remained in the background as the unspoken premise of Abhidhamma analysis. It was during the commentarial 19period that an attempt was made to work out the implications of early Abhidhamma thought, and it is this development that will be treated in the subsequent parts of this chapter.

The Early Version of the Dhamma Theory

Although the dhamma theory is an Abhidhammic innovation, the antecedent trends that led to its formulation and its basic ingredients can be traced to the early Buddhist scriptures that seek to analyze empiric individuality and its relation to the external world. In the discourses of the Buddha there are five such modes of analysis. The first is that into nāma and rūpa.58 This is the most elementary analysis in the sense that it specifies the two main components, the mental and the corporeal aspects, of the empiric individuality. However, what we must not overlook here is that nāma-rūpa, when it occurs in the twelve-factored formula of dependent arising, conveys a more specific sense. In this specific sense, nāma means five mental factors that invariably arise with consciousness — namely, feeling (vedanā), perception (saññā), volition (cetanā), contact (phassa), and attention (manasikāra). Rūpa in nāma-rūpa means the four great material elements and the materiality that depends on them.59 In this specific sense, therefore, we cannot consider nāma-rūpa as an exhaustive definition of empiric individuality. Nāma-rūpa represents only a part of the individuality, the other part being represented by viññāṇa, which is consciousness. That viññāṇa is not part of nāma is shown not only by the statement that nāma-rūpa has viññāṇa as its condition (viññāṇa-paccayā nāma-rūpaṃ) but also by the other statement that viññāṇa has, in turn, nāma-rūpa as its condition (nāma-rūpa-paccayā viññāṇaṃ).60 What both statements show is the reciprocal conditionality of viññāṇa and nāma-rūpa and not that one could be subsumed under the other. What has been observed so far should show that it is not correct to translate indiscriminately nāma-rūpa as mind and matter, or to define the psychophysical personality as consisting of nāma and rūpa. The textual or the doctrinal context should be taken into consideration to determine whether the two terms are used in the general or in the specific sense.


The second mode of analysis is that into the five khandhas (aggregates): corporeality (rūpa), feeling (vedanā), perception (saññā), mental formations (saṅkhāra), and consciousness (viññāṇa).61 The third is that into six dhātus (elements): earth (paṭhavī), water (āpo), temperature (tejo), air (vāyo), space (ākāsa), and consciousness (viññāṇa).62 It will be noticed that in the second analysis attention is focused more on mental aspects, for while they are represented by four aggregates, what is nonmental is counted as one. In the third, on the other hand, attention is focused more on nonmental aspects, for while they are represented here by five elements, what is mental is counted as one. It is very likely that the two analyses were made to supplement each other. The fourth analysis is that into twelve āyatanas (bases of cognition): the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind, and their corresponding objects: the visible, sound, smell, taste, touch, and mental objects.63 The fifth analysis is that into eighteen dhātus (elements of cognition). It is an elaboration of the immediately preceding mode obtained by the addition of the six kinds of consciousness that arise from the contact between the sense organs and their objects. The six additional items are the visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, tactile, and mental consciousnesses.64

Now the purposes for which Buddhism resorts to these different modes of analysis are varied. For instance, the main purpose of the khandha analysis is to show that there is no ego either inside or outside the five khandhas that go to make up the empiric individuality. None of the khandhas belongs to me (n’etaṃ mama), they do not correspond to “I” (n’eso’ ham asmi), nor are they my self (n’eso me attā).65 Thus the main purpose of this analysis is to prevent the intrusion of the notions of “mine,” “I,” and “my self” into what is otherwise an impersonal and egoless congeries of mental and physical phenomena. The analysis into twelve āyatanas shows that what we call individual existence is a process of interaction between the internal (ajjhattika) sense organs and the external (bāhira) sense objects. The analysis into eighteen dhātus shows that consciousness is neither a soul nor an extension of a soul substance but a mental phenomenon that comes into being as a result of certain conditions.66 There is no independent consciousness that exists in its own right.


In similar fashion, each analysis is used to explain certain features of sentient existence. It is, in fact, with reference to these five modes of analysis that Buddhism frames its fundamental doctrines. The very fact that there are at least five kinds of analysis shows that none of them is taken as final or absolute. Each represents the world of experience in its totality, yet represents it from a pragmatic standpoint determined by the particular doctrine it is intended to illuminate.

The purpose of our referring to the five types of analysis is to show that the dhamma theory of the Abhidhamma developed from an attempt to draw out their full implications. It will be seen that if each analysis is examined in relation to the other four, it is found to be further analyzable. That the first, the analysis into nāma and rūpa, is further analyzable is seen by the second, the analysis into the five khandhas. For in the second, the nāma component of the first is analyzed into feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. That the analysis into khandhas can be further analyzed is shown not only by the use of the term khandha, which means “group,” but also by the next analysis, that into six dhātus. For, in the latter, the rūpa component of the former is analyzed into five — namely, earth, water, temperature, air, and space. That the analysis into six dhātus is also further analyzable is seen from the fact that consciousness, which is reckoned here as one item, is made into four in the khandha analysis. That the same situation is true of the analysis into twelve āyatanas is shown by the next analysis, that into eighteen dhātus, because the latter is an elaboration of the former. This leaves us with the last, the dhātu analysis with eighteen items. Can it be considered final? This supposition too must be rejected, because although consciousness is here itemized as sixfold, its invariable concomitants, such as feeling (vedanā) and perception (saññā), are not separately mentioned. It will thus be seen that none of the five analyses can be considered exhaustive. In each case one or more items is further analyzable.

This, it seems to us, is the line of thought that led the Ābhidhammikas to evolve still another mode of analysis that in their view is not amenable to further analysis. This new development, which is more or less common to all the systems of Abhidharma, is the analysis of the world of experience 22into what came to be known as dharmas (Sanskrit) or dhammas (Pāli). The term dhamma, of course, looms large in the discourses of the Buddha, found in a variety of connotations that have to be determined by the specific context. In the Abhidhamma, however, the term assumes a more technical meaning, referring to those items that result when the process of analysis is taken to its ultimate limits. In the Theravāda Abhidhamma, for instance, the aggregate of corporeality (of the khandha analysis) is broken down into twenty-eight items called rūpa-dhammas (material dhammas). The next three aggregates — feeling, perception, and mental formations — are together arranged into fifty-two items called cetasikas (mental factors). The fifth, consciousness, is counted as one item with eighty-nine varieties and is referred to as citta.67

Thus the dhamma analysis is an addition to the previous five modes of analysis. Its scope is the same, the world of conscious experience, but its divisions are finer and more exhaustive. This situation in itself does not constitute a radical departure from the earlier tradition, for it does not as yet involve a view of existence that is at variance with that of early Buddhism. There is, however, this situation to be noted: since the analysis into dhammas is the most exhaustive, the previous five modes of analysis become subsumed under it as five subordinate classifications.

The definition and classification of these dhammas and the explanation of their interconnections form the main subject matter of the canonical Abhidhamma. The Abhidhammikas presuppose that to understand any given item properly is to know it in all its relations, under all aspects recognized in the doctrinal and practical discipline of Buddhism. Therefore, in the Abhidhamma Piṭaka, they have classified the same material in different ways and from different points of view. This explains why, in the Dhammasaṅgaṇi and other Abhidhamma treatises, we encounter innumerable lists of classifications. Although such lists may appear repetitive, even monotonous, they serve a useful purpose, bringing into relief not only the individual characteristic of each dhamma but also its relations to other dhammas.

One widespread misunderstanding of the dhamma theory of the Theravāda Abhidhamma is that it amounts to some kind of radical pluralism. As the Venerable Nyanaponika Thera observes, “It has been a regular 23occurrence in the history of physics, metaphysics, and psychology that when a ‘whole’ has been successfully dissolved by analysis, the resultant ‘parts’ themselves come in turn to be regarded as little ‘wholes.’”68 This is the kind of process that culminates in radical pluralism. As we shall soon see, about a hundred years after the formulation of the dhamma theory such a trend surfaced within some early schools of Buddhist thought and culminated in the view that the dhammas exist in all three divisions of time — future, present, and past. Such a situation is certainly not true of the Theravāda Abhidhamma for the simple reason that the whole edifice of its dhamma theory is based not only on analysis (bheda) but also on synthesis (saṅgaha). The analytical method dominates in the Dhammasaṅgaṇi, which according to tradition is the first book of the Abhidhamma Piṭaka; here we find a complete catalogue of the dhammas, each with a laconic definition. The synthetical method is more characteristic of the Paṭṭhāna, which according to tradition is the last book of the Abhidhamma Piṭaka; for here we find an exhaustive catalogue of the conditional relations of the dhammas. The combined use of these two methods shows that, according to the methodological apparatus employed in the Abhidhamma, a true picture of the nature of reality must be based on both analysis and synthesis.

In this connection, we find the following verse in the Nāmarūpapariccheda, an Abhidhamma compendium of the medieval period, which draws our attention to the importance of the two complementary methods of analysis and synthesis:

Analysis and synthesis are praised by the wise,

liberation in the Sāsana [comes from] analysis and synthesis,

the purpose of the method of analysis and synthesis is ultimate,

[here] is explained the heading of analysis and synthesis.69

Bheda is the commentarial term for “analysis.” It is sometimes paraphrased as “the resolution of the compact” (ghana-vinibbhoga) into its component parts, or “of the aggregation (samudāya) into its constituents (avayava).”70

Thus if analysis plays an important role in the Abhidhamma’s methodology, no less important a role is played by synthesis. Analysis shows 24that what we take to be one is really many, what appears to be a unity is only a union of several factors. Its purpose is to dispense altogether with the notion of “self” or “substance,” the belief that there is an inner and immutable core in our objects of experience. However, analysis can achieve this objective only partially, for when it dispels the notion of “substance” from what is analyzed, all that it does is to transfer the notion of “substance” from one locus to another, from the whole to the parts, from the thing that is analyzed to the factors into which it is analyzed. The notion of the “substantial forest” vanishes, yielding place to a multiplicity of equally substantial trees. This inadequacy of the analytical method could be remedied when it is supplemented by synthesis (saṅgaha) — that is, the interrelating of the factors obtained through analysis. Synthesis shows that the factors into which a thing is analyzed are not discrete entities existing in themselves but interconnected and interdependent nodes in a complex web of relationships, so that none of them could be elevated to the level of a substance or discrete self-entity. Thus both analysis and synthesis combine to demonstrate that what is analyzed and the factors into which it is analyzed are equally nonsubstantial.

It is only for purposes of definition and description that things are artificially dissected and presented as discrete entities. The truth of the matter is that the phenomenal world of experience exhibits a vast network of relational categories where nothing can exist in splendid isolation. As the subcommentary to the Visuddhimagga observes, if the Abhidhamma resorts to analysis it is “because the nature of things that are amenable to analysis can be elucidated only through analysis.”71 We find more or less the same idea in the subcommentary to the Abhidhammāvatāra, when it says: “Whatever distinguishable characteristic there is among the dhammas that have come into oneness as dhammas, it is but proper to hold it out as a separate entity, because it results in the clear understanding of the meaning.”72

In fact, the Theravāda commentarial exegesis was not unaware of the possibility of misrepresenting the dhamma theory as some kind of pluralism. The commentary to the Itivuttaka says that one could mistakenly transgress the bounds of the dhamma theory (atidhāvanti) by ignoring the causal relationship of the dhammas and by focusing only on the principle 25of plurality (nānattta-naya), a situation that, it says, could lead to the extremist view of annihilation (uccheda): “This self and the world indeed get annihilated with no prospect of causal continuity.”73 The subcommentary to the Dīghanikāya has a similar observation to make: “The erroneous grasping of the principle of plurality (nānatta-nayassa micchāgahaṇa) is due to the undue emphasis on the radical separateness (accanta-bheda) of the dhammas. This is the cause of the dogmatic adherence to the notion of ‘annihilation’ (ucchedābhinivesassa kāraṇaṃ).”74 What both subcommentaries seek to show is that the dhamma theory is not a reductionist view of existence leading to nihilism. Reductionism is the binary opposition of substantialism. The Abhidhamma view of existence sets itself equally aloof from both extremes.

If the dhamma theory is not radically pluralist, it does not represent some kind of monism either. Any such interpretation, as the Pāli commentaries say, is due to overstressing the principle of unity (ekatta-naya) and undue focusing on the absolute nondistinctness (accantaṃ abhedagahaṇa) of the dhammas. This necessarily paves the way to the wrong view that the dhammas constitute an unanalyzable absolute unity.75

The rejection of both alternatives means that dhammas are not fractions of a whole indicating an absolute unity, nor are they a concatenation of discrete entities. They are a multiplicity of interconnected but distinguishable coordinate factors. They are not reducible to, nor do they emerge from, a single reality, which is the fundamental postulate of monistic metaphysics. If they are to be interpreted as phenomena this should be done with the proviso that they are phenomena with no corresponding noumena. For they are not manifestations of some mysterious metaphysical substratum but processes taking place due to the interplay of a multitude of conditions.

In thus evolving a view of existence that cannot be interpreted in either monistic or pluralistic terms, the philosophy of the Abhidhamma accords with the “middle doctrine” of early Buddhism. This doctrine avoids both the eternalist view of existence, which maintains that everything exists absolutely (sabbaṃ atthi), and the opposite nihilistic view, which maintains that absolutely nothing exists (sabbaṃ natthi).76 It also avoids, on the one hand, the monistic view that everything is reducible 26to a common ground, some sort of self-substance (sabbaṃ ekattaṃ), and, on the other, the opposite pluralistic view that the whole of existence is resolvable into a concatenation of discrete entities (sabbaṃ puthuttaṃ).77 Transcending these two pairs of binary extremes, the middle doctrine explains that phenomena arise in dependence on other phenomena without a self-subsisting noumenon that serves as the ground of their being.

The interconnection and interdependence of these dhammas are not explained on the basis of the dichotomy between substance and quality, what the Pāli Buddhist exegesis calls “the distinction between the support and the supported” (ādhāra-ādheya-bhāva).78 A given dhamma does not inhere in another as its quality, nor does it serve another as its substance. The so-called substance is only a figment of our imagination. The distinction between substance and quality is denied because such a distinction leaves the door open for the intrusion of the theory of a substantial self (attavāda) with all that it entails.

It is with reference to conditions that the interconnection of the dhammas should be understood. The conditions are not different from the dhammas. The dhammas themselves constitute the conditions. As one Pāli exegetical work observes, “Here is found neither a self nor a non-self; it is the dhammas that generate dhammas.”79 How each dhamma becomes a condition (paccaya) for the arising of another (paccayuppanna) is explained on the basis of the system of conditioned genesis (paccayākāra-naya). This system, which consists of twenty-four conditions, aims at demonstrating the interdependence and dependent origination of all dhammas in respect to both their temporal sequence and their spatial concomitance.80

The Dhamma Theory and the Buddhist Controversy on the Concept of “Person”

The foregoing was a brief summary of the earlier phase of the dhamma theory as presented in the books of the Abhidhamma Piṭaka. About a hundred years after its formulation, it gave rise to one of the most important controversies in the history of Buddhist thought relating to the 27question of determining the validity of the concept of “person” in relation to the reality of the dhammas. If dhammas are the basic factors of sentient existence, what exactly is the position of the person (puggala) in relation to the dhammas? Is the person as real as the dhammas? If so, is the person known in a real and ultimate sense (saccikaṭṭha-paramaṭṭhena)? This in brief is the issue that led to the controversy, and its relevance to our subject is that it led to a further clarification of the nature of the dhammas.81

As background, let us first clarify the early Buddhist teaching on the concept of “person.” Strictly speaking, early Buddhism does not deny the concept of “person” as such, if by “person” is understood not an enduring entity distinct from the five khandhas, nor a substance persisting in time, nor an agent within the khandhas, but simply the sum total of the five causally connected and ever-changing khandhas. From the point of view of the dhamma analysis, this definition can be restated by substituting the term dhamma for the term khandha, for the dhammas are the basic factors obtained by analyzing the khandhas.

Is there then no difference between early Buddhism and Abhidhamma as to the status of puggala, the person? The answer is both yes and no. Yes, because both early Buddhism and Abhidhamma do not recognize the person as an entity, separate and distinct from the mental and physical factors (khandhas/dhammas) into which “person” is analyzed. No, because as we shall soon see, the Abhidhamma introduces two levels of reality, one consensual (sammuti) and the other ultimate (paramattha) — a distinction that we do not read in the early Buddhist scriptures (Pāli suttas), despite their containing identifiable antecedent trends. It is in the context of the schema of two levels of reality that the Abhidhamma’s stance regarding this question is clarified. The position held here is that while the dhammas constitute the ultimate reality, the person is subsumed under consensual reality. Therefore, strictly speaking, the controversy is not whether the person exists or not but whether the person exists in a real and ultimate sense (saccikaṭṭha-paramaṭṭhena).82

The main argument of the Pudgalavādins, those who believed in the ultimate reality of the person, is that in order to give a rational explanation to concepts such as “moral responsibility” and “rebirth” it is necessary to postulate a constant factor besides the constantly changing 28dhammas. This constant factor, which they call “person,” is neither the same as the five aggregates nor different from them. The first part of this definition shows where the Pudgalavādins differ from other Buddhists, and the second where they differ from non-Buddhists who admit a soul entity. The Theravāda position is that if the concept of “person” is of this nature, it cannot be described either as conditioned (saṅkhata) or as unconditioned (asaṅkhata) and that what is not so describable (person) does not exist in a real sense.83

The Pudgalavādins resort to scriptural authority as well in defense of their theory. One scripture they cite in this connection is the “Discourse on the Bearer of the Burden” (Bhārahāra Sutta). It speaks of a burden (bhāra), the bearer of the burden (bhārahāra), the taking up of the burden (bharādāna), and the laying down of the burden (bhāra-nikkhepana).84 This discourse, it is claimed, recognizes the person (bearer) distinct from the five aggregates (burden).85 Another discourse of the same genre is the one on “What Does Not Belong to You” (Na Tumhākaṃ Sutta). It says that what does not belong to you, you should abandon. “What does not belong to you” is identified as the five aggregates.86 This also seems to suggest that there is a person besides the things that do not belong to him.

However, this kind of discourse need not be understood in a literal sense. Early Buddhism, it may be noted here, makes a clear distinction between two kinds of statement. One has its meaning already drawn out (nītattha) and thus made “explicit,” and the other has its meaning yet to be drawn out (neyyattha) and thus by extension made “implicit.”87 The allusion is to definitive and nondefinitive statements. The two discourses mentioned above do not appear to be definitive statements. For if they are understood in a literal sense, they contradict a vast majority of other discourses that deny the reality of the person distinct from the sum total of the five aggregates.

For the Theravādins “personalism” (pudgalavāda) amounts to a veiled recognition of the soul theory (ātmavāda). In fact, the Kathāvatthu makes no distinction between “person” (puggala) and “self/soul” (atta) in its refutation of personalism. Even the Vijñānakāya of the Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma presents the opponent of personalism as one who 29advocates emptiness (śūnyavādin).88 For early Buddhism as well as for Abhidhamma, “emptiness” means “absence of self.” They are mutually convertible expressions. It is no matter for surprise, therefore, that no Buddhist school came under the severe criticism of other Buddhists as did the Pudgalavādins. They were rather derisively referred to as “heretics in our midst” (antaścara-tīrthaka).89

One question that arises here is whether in denying the ultimate reality of the person, the Theravādins have overstressed the reality of the dhammas. Does the description of dhammas as saccikaṭṭha (exist in a true sense) and paramaṭṭha (exist in an ultimate sense) mean that they are real and discrete entities existing in their own right? Has the Abhidhamma veered toward an absolutist interpretation of the dhamma theory? This question is important because an affirmative answer is found in some contemporary scholarly writings. This is particularly so in those writings that seek to extol the merits of the Madhyamaka at the expense of the Abhidhamma.

Such a conclusion, it appears to us, is not tenable. For if the dhammas are described as real and ultimate, this means not that they partake of the nature of absolute entities but that they are not further reducible to any other reality, to some kind of substance that underlies them. That is to say, there is no “behind the scenes” substance from which they emerge and to which they finally return. This means, in effect, that the dhammas represent the final limits of the Abhidhammic analysis of empirical existence. “Without having been the dhammas come into being (ahutvā sambhonti), and having been they disappear [without any residue] (hutvā paṭiventi).” As one Pāli commentary says, “existence in an ultimate sense” (paramatthato vijjamānatā) means “the fact of having arisen due to conditions” (paccaya-sambhūtatā).90 How could one say that what exists due to conditions exists in an absolutist sense?

If the dhammas are described as ultimately real (paramattha), this also means that none of them is a substance or a quality. This will become clear if we consider parallel theories in the substantialist schools of Indian philosophy. According to the Vaiśeṣikas, for instance, color, sound, odor, and savor are qualities of the elemental substances (mahābhūtas). For the 30Abhidhamma, on the contrary, they are not qualities inhering in some kind of substance. Rather, they are some of the basic factors into which material existence is resolved. This is precisely why they are called dhammas.

As mentioned above, the Abhidhamma recognizes two levels of reality, the ultimate (paramattha) and the consensual (sammuti). If the dhammas come under the first, it is because they are not further analyzable, and thus they become the objects of the highest level of cognition. If composite things, like tables and chairs, come under the second, it is because they are analyzable and are therefore known as objects of conceptual thought. Analyzability is the mark of things composite, and nonanalyzability is the mark of things elementary. This distinction between two levels of reality is of course implicit in the very notion that all phenomena of conditioned existence are resolvable into a number of basic constituents. However, it was in the Theravādins’ response to the Pudgalavādins that this distinction came to be formally articulated.

In the early Buddhist discourses we do not see such a distinction explicitly stated. It is of course true that analysis plays an important role in them. But its purpose is not so much to validate two levels of reality. The purpose of the khandha analysis, for instance, is to show that individuality as well as the aggregates into which it is analyzed are equally unsubstantial and that nothing can be identified as one’s own self. Its purpose is to evolve a rational psychology to explain the totality of the human experience without resorting to unverifiable entities. What is more, in the early Buddhist discourses, unlike in the Abhidhamma, the term paramattha is not used in an ontological sense to mean that which really exists. The term is exclusively used as another expression for nibbāna to emphasize the fact that nibbāna is “the highest good,” “the highest ideal.”91

The Dhamma Theory and the Buddhist Controversy on the Concept of “Tri-temporal Existence”

Another doctrinal controversy the dhamma theory gave rise to was whether the dhammas exist in the three divisions of time. If the dhammas, 31as generally accepted, exist only in the present, how could one satisfactorily explain Buddhist teachings that involve both past and future phenomena? The doctrine of karma, for instance, says that past karma can have its effect either in the present or in the future. The phenomenon of memory involves remembering of thoughts and images that have already ceased to exist. It is said that two or more consciousnesses cannot exist at one and the same time.92 It follows, then, that when we examine our own thought it is really our past consciousness that becomes the object of our present consciousness. The same consciousness cannot examine itself, just as a fingertip, which can touch many a thing, cannot touch itself.93 It is said that a person who has developed the faculty of retrospective cognition (pubbenivāsānussati-ñāṇa) can recall past births. Another case in point is the theory of cognition. An instance of cognition requires a series of thought moments to culminate in full cognition. Accordingly, if both mind and matter are of equal duration, it follows that the object of perception is always inferred and not directly perceived. For when the cognitive process culminates in full cognition, the original sense datum that has impinged on the sense organ has already ceased to exist. In view of these and other Buddhist doctrines that involve both past and future phenomena, the speculation arose as to whether past and future dhammas too really exist in some manner.

There were in fact some antecedents that served as a background to such speculations. The early Buddhist discourses often allude to past and future things in order to stress the kind of impact they could have on the present. It is true the past is defined as that which has already lapsed (yad atītaṃ . . . pahīṇaṃ taṃ) and the future as that which has yet to come (appattañ ca anāgataṃ).94 But in a sense past and future are as real as the present. The ordinary worldling is said to be often engrossed in memories of the past and in expectations of what is yet to come. When feelings of attachment to things pleasant and feelings of repulsion to things unpleasant arise, they are said to arise in respect to things belonging to the past and the future as well. “And, how, monks, is this desire generated for things in the past? One remembers and turns over in one’s mind thoughts about things based on desire in the past. As one does, so desire 32is generated. Becoming desirous, one is fettered by those things. I call this a fetter, monks — that heart full of lust. That is how desire is generated for things in the past based on desire.”95 The same holds true for the future and the present.

We find this idea in the early Buddhist statement on sense perception as well. It shows how at the end of a perceptual process the ordinary individual comes to be assailed and

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