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Home Academic Work Articles Archive The Rise of the Concept of ‘Own-Nature’ (Sabhāva) in the Paṭisambhidāmagga

The Rise of the Concept of ‘Own-Nature’ (Sabhāva) in the Paṭisambhidāmagga

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The Rise of the Concept of ‘Own-Nature’ (Sabhāva) in the Paṭisambhidāmagga
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Noa Ronkin (Gal)

The Buddha’s teaching, as it is recorded in the first basket of the Pali Canon, the Sutta-piaka, is presented as the path leading to the solution of the fundamental problem of human existence, namely, dukkha, customarily translated as ‘suffering’. The Buddha’s message contains doctrinal concepts and theoretical statements on the nature of suffering, its cause and the way to its cessation, but these are merely guidelines for making sense of Buddhist thought and do not amount to a systematic theory.

Noa Ronkin (Gal)

I. The development of the Abhidhamma

The Buddha’s teaching, as it is recorded in the first basket of the Pali Canon, the Sutta-piaka, is presented as the path leading to the solution of the fundamental problem of human existence, namely, dukkha, customarily translated as ‘suffering’. The Buddha’s message contains doctrinal concepts and theoretical statements on the nature of suffering, its cause and the way to its cessation, but these are merely guidelines for making sense of Buddhist thought and do not amount to a systematic theory. The attempt to supply the Buddhist mindset with such a theory was introduced later on, with the advance of the Abhidhamma (abhidhamma meaning a discipline whose subject matter is the Dhamma, the teaching, or higher/further teaching). The Abhidhamma is a doctrinal, exegetical movement that gradually developed in tandem with distinctive theoretical and practical interests. These eventually resulted in an independent branch of inquiry and literary genre documented in the third basket of the Pali Canon, the Abhidhamma-piaka. The Abhidhamma attempts to spell out the Buddha’s Dhamma fully, to describe its underlying structure in ultimate terms that apply under all circumstances; that is, to establish Buddhist thought as a comprehensive philosophy.

Seeking to explain the dynamics of sentient life in the cycle of sasāra, the Buddha taught that to understand this repetitive experience is to see reality as it truly is: not a container of entities and ‘things’, but an assemblage of interlocking physical and mental processes that arise and cease subject to multifarious conditions. Having rejected the notions of a metaphysical substance and an enduring self, he analysed human experience in terms of conceptual and physical identity (nāma-rūpa), in terms of the five aggregates (khandha), in terms of the twelve sense spheres (āyatana) and in terms of the eighteen elements of perception (dhātu) – modes of analysis that are based on a concept­ion of phenomenal experience as a series of dynamic processes. Consider the following partial list of phenomena the Buddha discusses: greed, hatred, delusion, ignorance, grasping, craving, sense perception, becoming, aging, concentration, non-attachment, dispassion, equanimity, tranquility, trust, gladness, liberation-by-insight. Although these may all be referred to as ‘things’ in the broadest, non-technical sense, they are not substances. Rather, they are dhammas, conditioned physical and mental processes. [1]

Within the Abhidhamma framework the notion of the plurality of dhammas becomes the basis of a complex theory of human experience. In the Abhidhamma-piaka the plural form dhammas predominantly refers to the objects of mind-consciousness, mano­viññāa, the primary cognitive operation within the process of perceptual discrimination.[2] Dhammas are here psychophysical occurrences, or rather acts of conceptualisation by which the mind unites and assimilates sense data and ideas to a cognitive whole that makes sense. Their character is determined by the contact between the relevant unimpaired sense organ, its respective sense object and appropriate attention on the part of the mind. These psychophysical occurrences – the product of our cognitive apparatus – constitute our experience as presented in consciousness. Hence dhammas here designate the constituents of experience as taught by the Buddha, and in this sense the elements that make up one’s world. Whereas the Nikāyas depict the dhamma -occurrences as ongoing sequential processes, the Abhidhamma portrays them as psycho­physical events: short-lived, interlocking complexes of phenomena that undergo recurring phases of rise and cessation and that are made up of appropriate consciousness-types (citta), mental factors (cetasika) and certain groups of material phenomena (rūpa). Later on, and clearly in the post-canonical literature, these events are construed more radically as momentary (khaika).[3] For the Abhidhammikas dhammas are flashes of experience that make up world-creating processes; the irreducible elements of encountered phenomena and the final items revealed when the analysis of conscious experience is pursued to its ultimate limit. In contradistinction to the suttas’ listings of doctrinal concepts, the Abhidhamma analysis of human experience into dhammas results in a systematic structure by which every topic of the Buddha’s teachings is dissected and explained in relation to all other topics. The comprehensive theory resultant from this enterprise of analysis and synthesis was fixed in the post-canonical texts and is referred to by modern scholars as ‘the dhamma theory’.

Throughout the Abhidhamma’s formative period Buddhist thought was subject to a gradual process of institutionalisation, schematisation and concept­ual assimilation. Fundamental to this doctri­nal development is the concept of sabhāva (Skt. svabhāva), which we may provisionally translate as ‘own-nature’. This concept plays a major role in the systematisation of Abhidhamma thought, is bound up with the rise of the dhamma theory and its ancillary doctrines of momentariness and atomism, and is regarded as that which gave an impetus to the Abhi­dha­mma’s growing concern with ontology. To judge from the suttas, the term sabhāva was never employed by the Buddha and it is rare in the Pali Canon in general. Only in the post-canonical period does it become a standard concept, when it is extensively used in the commentarial descriptions of the dhammas and in the sub-commentarial exegesis.[4] The term sabhāva, though, does occur on various occasions in five canonical or para-canonical texts: the Paisambhidāmagga, the Peakopadesa, the Nettippa­karaa, the Milindapañha and the Buddhavasa. Although these texts are generally considered as late additions to the Canon, they may at least contain parts that predate the latest works of the Abhidhamma-piaka and that are certainly older than the main Pali commentaries. [5] By examining the meaning of the concept of sabhāva in the Paisambhidāmagga, the present article shows how this transitional text sheds light on the doctrinal development of the Theravādin Abhidhamma during its formative period.




 

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