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Home Academic Work Articles Archive The Rise of the Concept of ‘Own-Nature’ (Sabhāva) in the Paṭisambhidāmagga - Page 3

The Rise of the Concept of ‘Own-Nature’ (Sabhāva) in the Paṭisambhidāmagga - Page 3

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The Rise of the Concept of ‘Own-Nature’ (Sabhāva) in the Paṭisambhidāmagga
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III. What is sabhāva in the Paisambhidāmagga?

The term sabhāva features at the end of the Paisambhidāmagga’s second division in Treatise XX, which deals with emptiness (suñña) (pp. 177–183). The treatise opens with a Sutta-quotation style (‘Thus have I heard’), describing an occasion on which ֵnanda, referring to the supposed claim ‘The world is empty’ (suñño loko ti), asks the Buddha to explain in what way it is so. In reply, the Buddha affirms the validity of that claim on the grounds that the world ‘is empty of self or of what belongs to self.’[26] He then expounds what exactly it is that is empty of self or of what belongs to self, enumerating the six sense spheres (saāyatana) along with their appropriate sense objects, that is, the twelve āyatanas, adding their six respective types of consciousness that arise from the contact between the sense organs and their objects, thus forming together the eighteen dhātus or elements of perception. Included in the above list is also whatever feeling arises from the contact between the sense organs and their objects, whether pleasant, painful or neither.[27] Bear in mind that the twelve āyatanas and the eight­een dhātus, along with the five khandhas, represent three methods of classifying the totality of dhammas that make up all conditioned phenomena; three modes of analysing human experience.

At this stage the Buddha lists various types of emptiness, one of which is empti­ness by change (vipariāma-suñña). To the question ‘What is emptiness by change?’ his reply is:

Born materiality is empty of sabhāva (sabhāvena suñña); disappeared materiality is both changed and empty. Born feeling is empty of sabhāva; disappeared feeling is both changed and empty… Born apperception… Born volitions… Born consciousness… Born beco­ming is empty of sabhāva; disappeared becoming is both changed and empty. This is emptiness by change. [28]

Obviously the entire meaning of this excerpt depends on how the phrase sabhāvena suñña is inter­pre­ted. Taking into account the context, namely, expounding the predication of the world by the term ‘empty’, and which dhammas are listed in the above mātikā, this extract means that the totality of human experience is devoid of an enduring substance or of anything which belongs to such a substance, because this totality is dependent on many and various conditions, and is of the nature of being subject to a continuous process of origination and dissolution. It should be noted that the passage deals with the totality of dhammas and with classes of them as they work together, not with each and every single dhamma separately. Inasmuch as the issue at stake is the dhammas in their totality and their being subject to constant change, it is close in spirit to the teaching of impermanence as expressed in the Nikāyas. [29] There it is frequently repeated that impermanent, conditioned phenomena are of the nature of origination and decay, whereby the word employed to denote this nature is dhamma. [30] In this context, then, the term sabhāva is interchangeable with dhamma in its sense of ‘nature’.

This sense may be taken as roughly corresponding to the non-technical and broad meaning of pakati. In the Pali texts pakati, the Pali equivalent of the Sanskrit prakṛti, is not a technical philosophical term and, unlike in the Sākhya-Yoga, it has a limited metaphysi­cal bearing. Pakati denotes the regularity with which things normally occur in nature: the normal custom or innate predispositions of persons, the order of occurrences in the environment and that which is common to all or shared by all. For instance, pakati is employed with reference to the innate character – virtuous or bad – of people, to the inborn capacities of sense perception or the natural strength of the body; when a habit has become so natural that one performs it automatically and effortlessly, or when it is raining during the rainy season. In this respect the Pali usage of pakati is similar to the meaning of the term dhammatā, namely, the regular orderliness of the encountered world. The word dhammatā is used in the suttas to denote events which are natural, normal and regular, such as the flowing of water, the blowing of wind or the behaviour of a monk endowed with right view. These events should not be understood as occurring because of dhammatā; rather their happening is itself dhammatā. In the commentaries, this sense of dhammatā – which has no metaphysical or ontologi­cal bearing – is equated with sabhāva as ‘nature’ and with niyāma as the ‘order of things’. [31]

The Paisambhidā­magga, then, endorses a broad notion of sabhāva as an essential nature that the dhammas share, but it is by no means clear that this nature necessarily defines what a dhamma is, or that a dhamma exists by virtue of this nature which it possesses.[32] Nor is the relation between lakkhaa, sabhāva and dhamma spelled out: nowhere is it stated that a dhamma is defined, identified or exists by its sabhāva; or that it is marked by a set of lakkhaas or by any single unique lakkhaa; or that a dhamma’s sabhāva is to be identified in any way with its set of lakkhaas, or yet again that the latter is possessed by or consti­tutes those sabhāva and dhamma. The text merely presents the Buddha as saying that things have no particular nature, sabhāva, in a way that parallels his saying that they have no self, attā – for instance, in the Anattalakkhaa-sutta at S III 66ff as later interpreted with anattā taken as a bahuvrīhi. This suggests that the Paisambhidāmagga’ssvabhāva. As ātman, too, was a brahminical term, history is more or less repeating itself.[33]

That this notion of sabhāva represents a shifting point between the Sutta and the Ahakathā periods and does not yet carry the technical sense attached to it in the commentaries is shown by comparing the Paisambhidāmagga with its exegesis in Mahānāma’s Commentary, the Saddhammappakāsinī, (6th century CE ). In his commentary Mahānāma seeks to present the text as a systematic exposition of the way to arahantship. In doing so, he draws heavily on the Visuddhi­magga and his exegesis is often laden with metaphysical implications that exceed the laconic, aphoristic account of the original text.[34] Mahānāma initially analyses the compound sabhāva as saya bhāvo, or sako bhāvo, that is, ‘essence by itself’ or ‘essence of itself’, explaining this to mean ‘arising by itself’ (sayam eva uppādo) or ‘own-arising’ (attano yeva uppādo). Given this interpretation, to translate bhāvo as ‘nature’ is inappropriate, for the commentator points to the narrower and more technical sense of essence.[35] Mahånåma then turns to an explication of the coupling sabhåvena suññaµ. First, he states that essence, bhåva, is but a figurative designation for dhamma, and since each single dhamma does not have any other dhamma called ‘essence’, it is empty of essence other than itself. This, in fact, reveals a different analysis of sabhåva, as ‘the essence that it has of itself’ (sakassa bhåvo). It thus follows that every single dhamma has a single ‘essence-hood’ (ekassabhåvatå).[36]

In ordinary language the term ‘essence’ is often employed synonymously with ‘nature’, but there is a significant difference between the two. Essence is bound up with the notion of necessity, for it singles out what necessarily determines an individual – i.e., a distinguishable particular – as that very item, thus assuming the role of an item’s individuator. An essence has the status of a particular: it is not a property had by a certain object (whether a substance, process or event), but the latter’s definition, and hence it cannot be predicated of other members within the domain of that object. In this sense essence is detached from ontology altogether: it does not account for the existence of its possessing item – a dhamma in our case – but determines what this item is in distinction from any other item of that kind. What something is and that it is are two distinct issues and the latter is not necessarily implied by the former. Unlike an essence, a nature does not individuate its associated particular and may be common to many different particulars within a certain domain; its metaphysical status is that of a universal. Essence, though, may also have an ontological significance: a renowned line of thought in the history of metaphysics holds that essence is meant to account for its associated particular’s existence as an individual. Accordingly, an essence is what constitutes its possessing particular as the very item it is: it does not merely define the individuality of this particular within its domain, but is the cause of this particular’s being an actual, unified individual. This causal role, too, is not shared by a particular’s nature: the essence alone is the cause of there being an actual particular. A particular’s nature is the sum total of the concurrent attributes this particular possesses; it is neither what determines the particular’s individuality nor the cause of its existence as such.[37]

Mahānāma oscillates between an epistemological and ontological interpreta­tions of sabhāva as essence: his initial explanation of sabhāva as saya/sako bhāvo draws on the epistemological sense of essence as an individuator of a dhamma. His analysis of sabhāva as sakassa bhāvo/ekassabhāvatā, though, relies on the ontological aspect of essence as the cause of a dhamma’s being. The meaning suggested here is that a dhamma is independent of other dhammas for its exist­ence; it bears its own reality all by itself. The sabhāva is the cause of the dhamma’s actual existence and its evidence. The commentator begins by analy­sing sabhāva as sva+bhāva, ‘own-nature’, but eventually divides the compound into sat+bhāva, ‘real essence’. The latter has ontological repercussion for the dhammas’ existential status which the former explanation lacks.[38]

This exegesis over-interprets the concise indications of the original text and may give the impression that Mahānāma was here trying to accommodate the text to the intellectual milieu of his own epoch. Interestingly, he next offers an alternative elucidation of sabhāvena suñña ­– and a preferred one, as implied by the particle athavā that normally introduces the preferred explanation in a commentary – namely, ‘empty through having emptiness as its individual essence’.[39] This interpretation is more in harmony with the Paisambhidāmagga’s spirit. Yet even here Mahānāma discloses the influence of his contemporary intellectual milieu: first, he refers to ‘every single dhamma’ (ekassa dhamma­ssa), thus attesting to the view that the emptiness of essence is a distinguishing mark unique to every single dhamma. The Paisambhidāmagga, as already noted, is concerned with the totality of dhammas and the universal nature they all share. Second, Mahānāma rejects the argument that the latter rendering of sabhāvena suñña means that the dhammas are completely empty, having no reality at all, by claiming that dhammas exist as real things, though only momentarily.[40] The commentator refers to dhammas as sat, as real existents, whereas the Paisambhidā­magga neither ascribes to the dhammas any ontological status nor mentions the doctrine of momentariness.

To sum up, the Paisambhidāmagga sheds light on the conceptual shift from the Nikāya worldview to the Abhidhamma’s and specifically on the origination of the concept of sabhāva. It contains one of the rare canonical occurrences of this term in Pali literature; indeed it may be the earliest one. Although the text antici­pates the post-canonical explanation of the dhammas based on their sabhāva and other later concepts such as lakkhaa or hitassa aññathatta, these are indistinct and not yet endowed with their later technical meanings found in other para-canonical texts and clearly in the Ahakathā. If Buddhist thought eventually teased out an ontology from the concept of sabhāva and the dhamma theory – a possibility that calls for a re-assessment of what is meant by ‘ontology’ – then the Paisambhidāmagga demonstrates that this state of affairs is not attributable to the beginning of the Abhidhamma.

Wolfson College, Oxford
July 2003


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