In the West, and even among some Asian traditions, Abhidharma study is rare. One of the three main “baskets,” or collections of texts of the Buddhist Pali canon—alongside the Vinaya, or monastic code, and the Suttas, the teachings—it was originally compiled by councils of the Buddha’s followers in the centuries after his death. It lays out what is essentially his systems theory: the text describes the nature, origin, and interaction of all psychological and material phenomena, including human consciousness itself.

As clinical psychologist and Soto Zen teacher Beth Jacobs puts it in The Original Buddhist Psychology: What the Abhidharma Tells Us about How We Think, Feel, and Experience Life, the Abhidharma is “comparable to a periodic table of experience.” Yet while the Abhidharma is a subject for fruitful study, it seems anything but student-friendly: it comprises mainly lists and charts that have grown and shrunk over centuries as Buddhist scholars expanded upon, then distilled, the teachings. (For example, it contains charts of predictable Buddhist topics like “Causes of Suffering,” lists of aspects of cognition such as “The Four Perversions That Distort Perception,” and enumerations of categories of individuals such as “Four Kinds of People Comparable to a Jar.”) In sum, it is a vast map of the Buddhist view of the mind and how it relates to the world, and it is notoriously abstruse.

Perhaps because of the difficulty of studying it in its entirety, the status of the Abhidharma varies across Buddhist traditions. Some hold it and its commentaries as equal in importance to the suttas themselves; for others it plays a much more minor role. Such is the case even within the Theravada Abhidharma of Southeast Asia that Jacobs explores in her book. (This, the Pali version of the compendium, is one of three canonical Abhidharmas that have survived, though there is evidence that there were once many more.) Jacobs aims to mitigate the difficulty of studying the Abhidharma by weaving in her experiences as a therapist and longtime Buddhist student to provide more accessible entry points to the text. Below, she explains how the Abhidharma view of the mind can supplement and expand upon the Western psychological perspective, and what benefit to our practice the study of it can bring—no matter how difficult.

–Marie Scarles, Associate Editor

What drew you to the Abhidharma? Fairly early in my Buddhist training I was in dokusan [private interview] with my teacher, Sojun Diane Martin Roshi. She was just beginning to think about slowing down as a teacher, and she wanted to give certain areas of her study to different students. She asked me if I’d be interested in studying the Abhidharma, and I naively said, “Sure,” without having any idea what it was. [Laughs.] You know, it just sounded good!

I think she must have detected the potential affinity I’d have for it, though, because when I started reading I was immediately drawn to it. I found it fascinating, like a buried treasure. This is a whole unexplored genre of Buddhist study that most people think of as being very technical and esoteric, but I think it is far more useful than people realize. I’ve been a therapist for 35 years, and if there’s anything that will make you wonder about causation and karma and consciousness, it is listening to people and their deep stories. The Abhidharma really organized a number of questions I had that came from that listening and gave me a broader frame of reference for my observations. For instance, there is a concept in the Abhidharma called the bhavanga, or life continuum, a level of consciousness that is present in the background throughout an individual’s lifetime whenever no active cognitive process is taking place, as in deep, dreamless sleep. Learning this gave me a way to think about subtle qualities of continuity I had noticed in people’s psychological makeup, despite great changes in the course of psychotherapy.

Related: The Buddha’s Original Teachings on Mindfulness

Outside of the academy and the monastery, the Abhidharma is not very well known to Western convert Buddhists. Yes, that’s true. It’s not very well known at all. And even among well-educated Buddhists, it’s got this very bad reputation.

Why is that? To begin with, it’s not easy to enter—it’s wildly complex and interwoven, so it’s really hard to summarize, and wherever you start, you need the next chapter to understand where you are. With every academic book I’ve read on Abhidharma, I pretty much needed to start over again when I was done. It’s that kind of study. It also has a reputation for being quite dry and technical: it consists of lists and matrices and explanations of those lists. It also doesn’t help that the academic and monastic people who have worked on it talk in very formal terms. Some of the translations call it the “higher or further” dharma, and it’s an area of traditional reverence.

The Abhidarma view is that consciousness is an action.

In my book, I’ve tried to do the heavy lifting to bring the Abhidharma to the popular reader without any watering or dumbing down, while also rearranging the way it’s usually presented so that readers have more of an entry point. Some will close the book and go to a more academic text; for others the book will be plenty of Abhidharma study in itself.

But I think it’s really important to bring the Abhidharma into the discussion and dialogue about early Buddhism. It adds a kind of ballast. We’re a top-heavy Buddhist culture, where the practices are stressed above all else. But the Abhidharma sets forth the original basis of why we’re doing these practices—to help the practitioner see phenomena and the mind as the Buddha saw them, and thereby reach nirvana.

You’ve described the Abhidharma as a map of mental states. Does the Western psychological tradition have anything like it? There have been a series of efforts in the West to map the domain of consciousness. What is different about the Abhidharma is that it isn’t dissecting consciousness; it’s contextualizing consciousness, which is vital to why it works and why it’s so useful.

What do you mean by dissecting versus contextualizing consciousness? Dissection would be like the Freudian division of id, ego, superego. Freud kept changing his theories because he was trying to pin down a model of the mind as a closed system, rather than seeing the flux of the mind within a broader frame of interactions. That’s one example of a classic Western-mind dissection. Another is the current trend in neuropsychology, where it’s “this part of the brain does that and that part of the brain does this, and there’s the anxiety loop and this loop and that loop.” There’s usefulness in that—I don’t mean to be disparaging. But neuropsychology is a field that embraces dissection of the mind.

The Western view of the mind looks at consciousness as a domain of localized awareness. But the Abhidharma view is that consciousness is an action, a capacity for meeting whatever its object is. So the resulting inquiries are very different. The Abhidharma is asking, What are the causes and conditions of all the factors that bear on conscious activity? What’s interacting with what? Whereas Western psychology asks, What are the components of the thing? Consciousness can be dissected and broken up in all kinds of ways, and this can be useful, but it’s not as useful as locating consciousness in a bigger, moving universe. Because when you’re asking what’s moving with what, you can adjust variables: you don’t get fixated on a structure or a self, and the investigation is very process-oriented, not content-oriented. If you think of consciousness as a thing, then you start to identify with it or own it or become overinvested in making it be something, and that’s how we get off to the races with all of the problems that give rise to dukkha, suffering. What happens here is that we kind of back up to the Buddha’s primary instruction to abandon clinging. The Abhidharma helps you abandon construction and dissection. Instead, you feel the moment-by-moment complex evolution of the activity of consciousness.

I was going to ask you if there is an area in the Abhidharma that you would like the Western psychological tradition to pay more attention to. It sounds as though this delineation of dissection versus contextualization might be part of that. Definitely. Western psychology, by not having a broader context, aims toward control of the mind. That’s another thing I’ve learned from 35 years of watching people try to control their minds in therapy: it doesn’t work so well. [Laughs.] It’s a much more freeing stance to look at the mind and say, “OK, it’s moving with all of these variables. What can we do to make the movement better, not the mind itself?” In simple terms, if someone suffers from chronic guilt, instead of trying to stop it through analysis, the person learns to recognize the guilt formation arising in a moment, looks at the context that provoked it, and becomes aware of the clinging that makes the situation so difficult. That kind of orientation helps with letting go of things in a way that Western psychology doesn’t manage so well.

Courtesy Beth Jacobs

It’s interesting that you say that Western psychology aims for control of the mind. I think many people are under the impression that’s what meditation is supposed to do. Many people do think of it that way, but this kind of study helps you break through that model. There’s no personal pronoun in the Abhidharma. There might be an illustration here or there, but there’s no story in it at all—you’re just looking at the complex process that lies under any content. So while it’s a very structured text, it breaks structures open, and in that way is paradoxically freeing. It helps you not to get snagged on anything in particular, and also not to take anything in particular for granted. Early on when I was studying it, I noticed that when I had been working on it and then walked away, I would have an unmistakably buoyant feeling. My Abhidharma hangover, I guess.

There was another funny moment during my study when I was looking at the 17 steps of a perceptual process. I was looking at it, and thinking, “You know, there are steps of perception charts in neuropsychology books.” So I dug one out and had both of them on the table. There was the Abhidharma chart—17 steps to full visual perception—next to “From Stimulus to Discrimination of a Visual Response” in the psychology book. I realized they were the same thing, and they corresponded in very specific ways. I was so blown away by that. I mean, I know it’s just translation from one system to another. But the system in the biopsychology book was the system I had always known, so when I realized that these Abhidharma people were presenting something that occurs in about a third of a second, broken down into 17 fairly accurate steps of brain movement, I was amazed. It cracked something open for me. They did this without any imaging equipment—it was just from the meditative process, which can actually slow down the perception of time, that they were able to perceive these steps in literally a blink of an eye.

The Abhidharma says a lot about time, and they write about these vast realms of beings and time frames that are quite astronomical. You realize that just as we see a range of colors or hear a range of sounds, we experience time in a range of ways. That’s another example of how the Abhidharma opens things up. It opens up worlds. And then you walk out the door and things actually look a little fresher and livelier. You notice things differently when you realize the arbitrariness of our perceptual range. Our senses could work in so many different ways. When we observe animals, we can see how different perceptual systems can be—cats hear more acutely than we do and dogs smell so much more, for example.

Do ethical concerns play a role in the Abhidharma? The version I studied was the Theravada Abhidharma, which is naturally very influenced by the Theravada ethical structure. So there are whole sections in it about what is wholesome, what is unwholesome, what are beautiful mental factors and what are not beautiful mental factors, and so forth. And that comes with a strict gradation of ethics.

But for me the bottom line is that the Abhidharma helps you be more consonant with reality, so that you’re moving with the variables of your own existence in a more harmonious way. Not looping back, not fixating and getting stuck on your associations, but moving with the immediate perceptions that are in front of you and around you. To me, that is the essential ethical basis of it.

Western psychology and Buddhism ultimately say the same thing: don’t get stuck, don’t go backward, don’t retrigger. There are so many different terms for that. Even the SSRIs, the popular antidepressant medications, work on a chemical mechanism that prevents reuptake, and that’s a good present-day metaphor for this important point.

The Theravada monk and renowned translator Bhikkhu Bodhi says that the Abhidharma helps to interpret the phenomena that appear during meditation, while meditation translates the concepts in the Abhidharma into lived experience. Did you notice this in your own life while you were working on the book? In relation to my own sitting practice, I have found the explanation of the word citta in the Abhidharma to be very helpful. Citta is the essential unit of a consciousness activity; it’s a microscopic, almost atomic-level way of thinking about consciousness. When I sit, instead of thinking, “What is nonthought?” or, “Drop thought,” or anything like that, I’ll think, “Watch the flow of citta.” It shifts the scale of what I’m doing and simplifies it, because citta is a very bare and plain terminology for watching the mind’s activities.

I find the Abhidharma makes Buddhist philosophy so accessible, because when you adopt an Abhidharmic perspective, how can you get really hung up on a self? It has a way of making the whole concept not so relevant. Or when you look at causation, which is the same thing as the study of interdependent origination, you see so plainly that there’s no place where you just can start and say, “Well, this leads to this.” Wherever you start, there’s a lot that’s already in motion affecting a lot that’s already in motion. So Abhidharma study is a way to talk about basic Buddhist philosophy that actually brings it to life. It doesn’t reify it at all, but makes it felt.

Then again, it is a tough study. It is dense and complex and you have to hold a lot in your mind. It’s just that as you’re holding it in your mind, other areas open up that you might not have anticipated, and that is, I think, how all Buddhist study is. You’re working in one direction, and the next thing you know, another direction has opened up.

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