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.
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