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Home Academic Work Articles Archive The Rise of the Concept of ‘Own-Nature’ (Sabhāva) in the Paṭisambhidāmagga - Page 2

The Rise of the Concept of ‘Own-Nature’ (Sabhāva) in the Paṭisambhidāmagga - Page 2

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The Rise of the Concept of ‘Own-Nature’ (Sabhāva) in the Paṭisambhidāmagga
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II. Some remarks on the chronology and framework of the Paisambhidāmagga

Albeit included in the Khuddaka-nikāya, the Paisambhidā­magga is clearly a work of the Abhidhamma.[6] Erich Frauwallner explains the absence of this treatise from the Abhidhamma-piaka as due to its being the latest of the Abhi­dhamma works, and dates it to a time when the compilation of the Canon had essentially been completed.[7] A conceptual mapping of the Paisambhidāmagga, though, suggests that at least parts of the text are earlier than the main body of the Abhidhamma-piaka. If so then this early textual layer belongs to and may shed light on the formative period of the Abhidhamma and its doctrinal move away from the Nikāya thought-world. To settle this hypothesis we should briefly deal with the Paisambhidāmagga’s method.

Translated as The Path of Discrimination,[8] the Paisambhidāmagga is a treatise whose purpose is to expound the actual way by which one comes to discriminate and comprehend the Buddha’s teachings. This type of discrimination (paisam­bhidā) has four aspects. The first aspect is the discrimination of dhammas: dhammas in this context refer to the princi­ples or elements constituting human experience, such as eye, knowledge or recogni­tion, but also to such items as the four noble truths, the five faculties and five powers, the seven factors of awakening or the eight factors of the path. These are taken in the sense of objects of thought, and testify to what Gombrich has identified as a movement from thinking about the Buddha’s teachings to thinking with them, thus seeing the world through Buddhist spectacles, as it were. [9] The second aspect is the discrimination of the dhammas’ attha. Attha here signifies the dhammas’ operation or function, for the enumerated atthas are those of establishment (upahāna­ho), of investigating (pavicayaho), of calm (upasamaho), of non-distraction (avikkhepaho), and others, all with reference to their corres­pond­ing dhammas.[10] The discrimination of attha, then, concerns what the dhammas do and how they act – an aspect fit for the process-oriented construal of the dhammas as dynamic occurrences. The third aspect is the discrimination of the language (nirutti) expressing the dhammas and their atthas, and the fourth is the discrimination of perspicuity or penetration (paibhāna). The latter is ‘meta-knowledge’, namely, the apprehension of instances of the first three kinds of discrimination, which are regarded as its supporting object (ārammaa) and its domain (gocara). Discrimi­nation of penetration, then, is the knowledge of the differences between the various types of dhamma, their functions and the language in which they are articulated.[11]

The Paisambhidā­magga presents a practice based on the coupling of calm (samatha) and insight (vipassanā), which is made possible when the practitioner gains such fourfold discrimination of the nature of reality as taught by the Buddha. The move away from the suttas is evinced by the attempt to provide a more systematic and all-embracing account of this path than previously supplied by the Buddha’s scattered descriptions on various occasions. To this end, the Paisambhidāmagga distinguishes and discusses the prior doctrinal concepts in their manifold aspects. Commenting on this method, Frauwallner opines that the Paisambhi­dā­magga differs from the older Abhidhamma works in that ‘several “excrescences” of the “method” which are so unpleasantly obtrusive in the old Abhidharma are missing here.’[12] May it not be the case, however, that the reason for the loose systematic structure of the Paisambhidāmagga is that major parts of it overlap with, or perhaps even predate, the main body of the Abhidhamma-piaka?

First, to judge from the Paisambhidvmagga’s method of explaining the dhammas, the work is considerably prior to the Ahakathā period.[13] In the commentaries the method of explaining the dhammas is based on a fourfold scheme of stating the distinguishing characteristic (lakkhaa), manifes­tation (paccu­pa­hāna), immediate cause (padahāna) and function (rasa in a special technical sense) peculiar to each dhamma. Concentration (samādhi), for example, which is equated with one-pointedness of mind, is assigned the chara­cter­istic of non-scattering or non-distraction, the function of combining co-nascent dhammas, the manifestation of calm or know­ledge and being the immediate cause of happiness. [14]Thus, each dhamma is defined by means of a particular characteristic peculiar to itself, in addition to the ti-sakhata-lakkhaa shared by all conditioned phenomena, namely, anicca, dukkha and anattā.

In the Paisambhidāmagga, though, the method of explaining the dhammas consists in stating their atthas, following the second of the four discrimina­tions.[15] The lakkhaas of the dhammas are, indeed, brought forward, yet they do not refer to the actuality of these dhammas as entities of any sort, nor to particular, distinguishing features peculiar to each and every dhamma. Rather, they signify the impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and insubstantiality of the dhammas in their totality, as well as the rise, fall and change which they all have in common. For instance, the term lakkhaa is repeatedly employed throughout Chapter Six of Treatise I in the first division of the text, which deals with the knowledge of the rise and fall (udaya-bbaya-ñāa) of dhammas. There it is stated of each of the five khandhas, which are qualified as presently-arisen (paccu­ppanna) and as born (jāta), that the characteristic (lakkhaa) of its generation is rise whereas the characteristic of its change is fall.[16] Further on, in Treatise XII of the second division, which concerns the four noble truths, we also find an extensive usage of the term lakkhaa. It is there stated that the four truths have two lakkhaas: the conditioned (sakhata) and the unconditioned (asakhata). The conditioned are, in their turn, qualified by the marks of rise (uppāda), fall (vaya) and change of what is present (hitassa aññathatta). In the case of the unconditioned it is said that no such marks are discerned.[17] Lakkhaas as the dhammas’ characteristics are but concepts referring to the common features of the conditioned dhammas in their totality rather than to the individuality or actual existence of any given dhamma. The idea of lakkhaa thus falls short of being either an epistemological determinant ascertaining the discernibility of a dhamma’s particular nature or an ontological determinant attesting to a dhamma’s existential status.

The Paisambhidāmagga is not of one piece and is probably not all of the same date. Like the other canonical Abhidhamma works, it is likely to have grown by expansion of its mātikās and presupposes much of the Sutta-piaka – in fact, its first part is based on the Dasuttara-sutta of the Dīgha-nikāya.[18] It seems that the Paisambhidā­magga presupposes the Dhamma­sagai, for it is acquainted with the latter’s analysis by ‘planes’ (avacaras) and with its first triplet (I 83–85), and occasionally quotes descriptions or definitions from it.[19] Yet the Paisambhidāmagga generally manifests a lesser degree of systema­tisation in its dhamma categorisation compared to the Dhammasagai and is not aware of the latter’s elaborate triplet-couplet mātikā.[20] It may thus be the case that the two texts originated from a common source around the same time. Warder has indeed suggested that ‘a substantial part of the Paisambhidāmagga may have been elaborated in the same period of the composition of the Dhammasagai, parallel to it and using some of its contents in an earlier form.’[21]

In support of dating the text to as early as the third century BCE, Warder adduces the text’s view of the nature of insight (abhisamaya). The Paisambhidāmagga bespeaks the Theravādin idea that the penetration of the four noble truths in the path moments occurs as a sudden flash of intuition, a single breakthrough to knowledge (ekābhi­samaya), rather than as separate intuitions of each truth.[22] The idea of a spontaneous insight arose in the wake of the Sarvāstivāda schism and is propounded for the first time in the Kathāvatthu. This supports the impression that the Paisambhi­dā­­magga was composed during the period of the great doctrinal divisions as a summation setting out the doctrines accepted by the Thera­vāda, perhaps as a positive counterpart to the Kathāvatthu. [23] Cousins also notes that the Paisambhidāmagga is certainly a work of the period of the first doctrinal split related to the Second Council of Vesālī.[24] On the basis of all these pieces of evidence the suggestion that the Paisambhidāmagga may have been composed during the period of the doctrinal divisions among the ancient schools – a period that witnessed the formation of the Abhidhamma – is more convincing than the claim that this text is the latest of the Abhidhamma works.

Nevertheless, while this suggestion applies mainly to the first division of the Paisambhi­dā­magga, some parts of the second division are probably later than the Dhammasagai. These introduce several concepts that are not to be found in the latter, and hence the last major stage of the Paisambhidāmagga’s composition is likely to have taken place in the early or mid second century BCE, with only minor later additions.[25] The Paisambhidāmagga is therefore a transitional text residing somewhere in between the suttas and the Ahakathā. It introduces new concepts and ideas that depart from the Nikāya outlook, while at the same time its method of explaining these concepts and ideas is not yet as crystallised as that of the commentaries, and the ideas themselves are not fully worked out, or indeed are still latent. One such concept that belongs to the textual layer posterior to the Dhammasagai is sabhāva. The third and final section examines the meaning of sabhāva in this text and concludes with some remarks on the implication of this concept for the alleged Abhidhamma ontology.


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