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Abhidhamma Studies: Buddhist Explorations of Consciousness and Time

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  • Posted June 6, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    A philosophical treat

    In Abhidhamma Studies, the Ven. Nyanaponika Thera has done something truly unique. For many of those who have a cursory acquaintance with its contents, the Abhidhamma is an impenetrable thicket of terms and tables. It is seen either as the dense high philosophy of monks who succeeded the Buddha, or the loftiest teachings of the Buddha, meant for gods and enlightened monks. In this book, Nyanaponika Thera brings the Abhidhamma down to Earth and gives us just a glimpse of the insights it yet waits to unfold.

    In his introduction, Nyanaponika Thera argues that the Abhidhamma is only relevant as an organic, growing discipline engaging the minds of courageous and insightful souls. This work is not a dry summary of the contents of the seven books of the Abhidhamma, but an introduction to the method of the Abhidhamma.

    The degree of rigor, consistency, depth, breadth, and purpose one finds in the Abhidhamma cannot help but suggest the presence of a sublime mind. As the author unpacks a small fragment of this teaching, one becomes mesmerized by the subtlety of this system. More importantly, the practical application of the system becomes readily apparent.

    The Abhidhamma is a great boon for anyone attempting to understand causality at a deeper level. Nyanaponika Thera gives a beautiful exposition of the system's two-fold method of analysis and synthesis. Through analysis, the Abhidhamma dissolves the solidified reality of "I" and personality into a multitude of mental factors. Through synthesis, the Abhidhamma shows the relations which exist between these factors, and how they challenge or support one another. Nyanaponika Thera's insights will mirror the experience of all those who have taken some time to witness the mechanics of their own mind. More importantly, his writing offers a tool to refine our own observations. A critical insight offered by the author is that the way we observe can affect the course of what we are observing. For instance, we might find that our mind is see-sawing between agitation and tranquility. If we focus unwisely on the agitation, we may very well increase the agitation to the point where tranquility leaves the scene altogether. Similarly, if we focus wisely on the tranquility, the agitation may very well subside. The author offers many examples of how mental factors engage and balance one another, and for those who are devoted to maintaining continuous mindfulness, these observations are invaluable.

    Abhidhamma Studies succeeds on multiple levels. As an introduction to the system and method of Abhidhamma, it reveals this branch of the Pali Canon to be a perennial philosophy, a body of thought which not only provides timeless philosophical, psychological, and ethical insights, but also opens myriad channels of exploration and exposition. As applied Abhidhamma, it demonstrates the power of both the system and the method, delivering practical insights for anyone engaged in serious meditation. Most importantly, this work demonstrates the value of a clear and focused mind directed toward understanding the subtlest mechanics of reality. It invites us to establish a continuous awareness of the causal mechanics of our mind, destabilizing the ego and paving the way to wisdom.

    For those with a philosophical inclination, this book is a nourishing gourmet meal. Enjoy!

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