The Paṭṭhāna: turning medicine into poison and poison into medicine

February 8, 2014 § Leave a comment

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I would like to consider a passage from the Paṭṭhāna. The Paṭṭhāna is the seventh book of the Theravāda Abhidhamma. The Abhidhamma (literally the ‘higher teachings’) are the third of the three baskets (tipiṭaka) or sections of the Pāli Canon. They are the philosophical manuals of Buddhism. The Paṭṭhāna (Burmese: pa htan), as part of the Abhidhamma, holds a special and revered place in Burmese Buddhism. There is an Abhidhamma nayt, an Abhidhamma Day held annually in October to celebrate the teaching of the Abhidhamma by the Buddha in the Tāvatimsa heaven.  The Buddha went there in the seventh year after his Awakening to preach the Abhidhamma to his mother who had been born there as a devaputta after passing away seven days after the birth of her son.

The Paṭṭhāna passage that I would like to consider describes how wholesome and unwholesome actions and practices of body, speech and mind give rise to various wholesome and unwholesome actions.

The simile of the raft from the Alagaddūpama-sutta (M I 130-142), at M I 134-5, suggests that the dhamma is similar to a raft. As a raft should be abandoned once the river has been crossed, so the dhamma is for the purpose of crossing over (to nibbāna), it should not be grasped once its purpose has been fulfilled. Even ‘good states’ should be abandoned, let alone ‘bad states’.[1] What the simile of the raft is stating, in my interpretation, is that even wholesome acts, if they become an object of attachment, can lead to an unwholesome outcome.

The Papañcasūdanī (in its commentary on the Alagaddūpama-sutta) illustrates the ‘good states’ which one should abandon, which one should not be attached to, using the examples of ‘calm and insight’. As an example of attachment to calm the commentary cites the Laṭukopama-sutta (M I 447-56) at M I 455-6. The Laṭukopama-sutta states that one should successively abandon each of the rūpa and arūpa-jhānas, and not become attached to them (Ps II 109). As an example of attachment to insight the commentary cites the Mahātaṇhāsankhaya-sutta (M I 256-71) at M I 260. In that sutta it is stated that the purified and bright-view (diṭṭhi parisuddhā pariyodātā), which sees the conditioned nature of phenomena, should not become an object of attachment (Ps II 109).[2] In other words, right-view should not, indeed cannot, give rise to craving.

It appears that a passage from the Paṭṭhāna makes a similar point to the simile of the raft. The text states that ‘kusala dhammas are related to kusala dhammas by object condition’.[3] The term ‘object condition’ (ārammaṇa-paccaya), the second of the twenty-four conditions of the Paṭṭhāna, indicates an object of thought or consciousness which causes other dhammas to arise.[4] The conditioned dhammas take the former dhammas as their object.[5] The ‘object’ (ārammaṇa) in this context are certain aspects of the Buddhist path. The text states that ‘after having offered the offering, having undertaken the precept, having fulfilled the duty of observance (one) reviews it’.[6] As I understand this passage, these various acts are being used as the object that will condition other mental states.[7] The text continues that one reviews such acts formerly well done (pubbe suciṇṇāni). Having emerged from jhāna one reviews jhāna (jhānaṃ paccavekkhati). It is explained that learners review change of lineage[8] and purification.[9] It is next stated that learners, having emerged from the path, review the path.[10] Learners or ordinary people practise insight into the impermanence, suffering and selflessness of the wholesome,[11] which must refer to the wholesome dhamma, the jhāna. Finally, by the knowledge of penetration into others’ minds they know the wholesome mind of other beings,[12] which I take to refer to the abhiññā of knowing others’ minds.

I would like to compare this passage to one a few lines later in the text which states how ‘the wholesome dhamma is related to the unwholesome dhamma by object condition’.[13] Again it is explained that the object condition (ārammaṇa-paccaya) is the same aspects of the Buddhist path. The text states that, after having offered the offering, having undertaken the precept, having fulfilled the duty of observance, one again reviews it (paccavekkhati) but this time ‘enjoys and delights in it’ (taṃ assādeti abhinandati).[14] The Paṭṭhāna next states that these acts are taken as object (ārabbha) and ‘lust, wrong-views, doubt, restlessness and displeasure arise’.[15] One ‘delights in these acts formerly well done’.[16] Again the text explains that taking them as object, ‘lust, wrong-views, doubt, restlessness and grief arise’. Next it is stated that, ‘having emerged from jhāna, the person enjoys and delights in them’.[17] For the third time it is stated that, taking the jhāna as object, there arises ‘lust, wrong-views, doubt and restlessness’. Finally it is said that, when the jhāna has disappeared, the person regrets it and there arises grief.[18]

These are two ways of practising the dhamma, of using the raft. The first way, the wholesome way, reviews various practices, reviews the jhāna, reviews change of lineage, reviews purification and reviews the path. It practises insight into the nature of the jhānas. But the raft is put down. The dhamma is not made into an object of attachment. The second way is to make what is wholesome unwholesome. This time one enjoys and delights in the various practises and, taking them as object (taṃ ārabbha), there arises lust, etc. Enjoying and delighting in the jhānas, taking them as object, there arises lust, wrong-views, doubt and restlessness. This causes grief when the jhānas disappear. One carries the raft. The dhamma is made into an object of attachment.

The Paṭṭhāna is making an important point, which is that spiritual practice must be undertaken in a certain way. This Abhidhamma passage is explaining in technical terms what can be found in earlier parts of the canon. If you hold on to right practice, to what is wholesome, the result may be unwholesome. The dhamma should not be made an object of attachment. What is sammā-diṭṭhi has the possibility of becoming micchā-diṭṭhi if the view is held to with attachment, if one enjoys and delights in it. It is stating that the various observances and the jhānas are kusala, they are wholesome, but the way they are used can cause them to become unwholesome. The medicine is turned into poison.

As if to make these points even clearer the Paṭṭhāna then explains how some unwholesome dhammas are related to other unwholesome dhammas. This is quite straightforward. The text states that ‘an unwholesome dhamma is related to an unwholesome dhamma by object condition’.[19] In this case, one enjoys and delights in lust. Taking lust as object causes lust, wrong-views, doubt, restlessness and displeasure to arise.[20] Alternatively, one takes wrong-view, doubt, restlessness or displeasure as object, and the same factors arise.[21]

However, of some interest is that the Paṭṭhāna also explains how an unwholesome dhamma can be related to a wholesome dhamma. The text states that ‘an unwholesome dhamma is related to a wholesome dhamma by object condition’.[22] It is stated that ‘learners review the eradicated defilements and the uneradicated defilements, and they know the defilements addicted to before’.[23] They are aware of what is unwholesome, and this awareness is wholesome. The text continues that ‘learners or ordinary people practise insight into the impermanence, suffering and not-self of the unwholesome’.[24] This is the same practice carried out on the jhānas; this time, however, the objects of practice are unwholesome dhammas. The point that is being made is that even actions and practices that are usually destructive can be made constructive by correct reflection upon them.

The Paṭṭhāna is stating how various acts can be used in different ways. Good acts can be used in a destructive way, and destructive acts can be used in a positive way. One could even suggest, using the final example, that the Paṭṭhāna is describing how we can learn from bad experiences. Or, to put this another way, all experiences can be used and be of benefit on the Buddhist path.[25] The poison becomes the medicine. By the same token, even wholesome acts, whether physical or mental, can be unwholesome. The medicine becomes the poison. The Paṭṭhāna is stating explicitly what is often only implicit in the Nikāyas. Various observances, precepts and the practising of the jhānas should be wholesome, but can give rise to lust, wrong-views, doubt and restlessness. On the other hand unwholesome dhammas, if apprehended and used in a certain way, can produce wholesome states. If there is no greed, hatred and delusion, any experience can be of benefit. A wholesome dhamma can produce unwholesome action, and an unwholesome dhamma can produce wholesome action.


[1] dhammāpi vo pahātabbā pageva adhammā, M I 135. I follow the reading of Bhikkhu Bodhi here (The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, p. 229). However, Richard Gombrich has recently argued that the phrase should be translated as, ‘you will let go of my teachings, let alone things I have not taught’ (How Buddhism Began, p. 24). Gombrich argues that the Buddha is stating that the teachings ‘should be let go of, let alone adhammā, non-teachings’ (ibid.), in the sense that the words and formulation of the teaching should not be clung to, but one should try to understand the spirit of the teachings. Abandoning the content of the teachings, abandoning the dhamma, is not being advised by the simile. The simile is not pointing to the abandonment of all ‘objects [dhammā] of thought’ ( ibid., p. 25).

[2] As Steven Collins has suggested, it is not only concepts, even correct concepts, that can be harmful, but that states of mind produced by meditation are instruments towards liberation, and should not become the object of attachment; see Selfless Persons, p. 121-22; see also Carol Anderson, Pain and its Ending, p. 38.

[3] kusalo dhammo kusalassa dhamassa ārammaṇa-paccayena paccayo, Paṭṭh 154.

[4] See Bhikkhu Bodhi, A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma: The Abhidhammattha Sangaha of Ācariya Anuruddha (Kandy, 1993), p. 315.

[5] In the Abhidhamma six objects are recognised: visible form object, sound object, smell object, taste object, tangible object and mental object, these give rise to the various cittas and cetasikas of the Abhidhamma system.

[6] dānaṃ datvā, sīlaṃ samādiyitvā, uposathakammaṃ katvā, taṃ paccavekkhati, Paṭṭh 154.

[7] Cf. the ten wholesome and unwholesome courses of action conditioning right-view and wrong-view.

[8] This term implies one who is no longer a puthujjana but an ariya, with nibbāna as their aim, this is the ‘change of lineage’.

[9] sekhā gotrabhuṃ paccavekkhanti, vodānaṃ paccavekkhanti, Paṭṭh 152.

[10] sekhā maggā vuṭṭhahitvā maggaṃ paccavekkhanti, Paṭṭh 152.

[11] sekhā vā putthujjanā vā kusalaṃ aniccato dukkhato anattato vipassanti, Paṭṭh 152.

[12] cetopariyañāṇena kusala-cittasamangissa cittaṃ jānanti, Paṭṭh 152.

[13] kusalo dhammo akusalassa dhamassa ārammaṇapaccayena paccayo, Paṭṭh 154-5.

[14] The Pañcappakaraṇa-aṭṭhakathā interprets ‘enjoys’ (assādeti) as ‘experiences and takes pleasure by means of the cittas associated with greed and accompanied by joy’ (somanassasahagatalobhasampayuttacittehi anubhavati c’ eva rajjati ca) and ‘delights’ (abhinandati) as ‘delighting in views’ (diṭṭhābhinandanāya), Paṭṭh-a 269.

[15] rāgo uppajjati, diṭṭhi uppajjati, vicikicchā uppajjati, uddhaccaṃ uppajjati, domanassaṃ uppajjati, Paṭṭh 154-5.

[16] pubbe suciṇṇāni assādeti abhinandati, Paṭṭh 155.

[17] jhānā vuṭṭhāhitvā jhānaṃ assādeti, abhinandati, Paṭṭh 155.

[18] jhāne parihīne vippaṭisārissa domanassaṃ uppajjati, Paṭṭh 155. The Paṭṭhāna is perhaps suggesting that ‘lust, wrong-views, doubt and restlessness’ can be experienced by those on the path. This would be somewhat different from the passage in the Dhammasaṅgaṇi which I considered above.

[19] akusalo dhammo akusalassa dhammassa ārammaṇa-paccayena paccayo, Paṭṭh 155.

[20] rāgaṃ assādeti abhinandati. ārabbha rāgo uppajjati, diṭṭhiṃ uppajjati, vicikicchā uppajjati, uddhaccaṃ uppajjati, domanassaṃ uppajjati, Paṭṭh 155.

[21] diṭṭhiṃ assādeti, abhanandati, taṃ ārabbha rāgo uppajjati, diṭṭhi uppajjati vicikicchā uppajjati, uddhaccaṃ uppajjati, domanassaṃ uppajjati, vicikicchaṃ ārabbha vicikicchā uppajjati, diṭṭhi uppajjati uddhaccaṃ uppajjati, domanassaṃ uppajjati, uddhaccaṃ ārabbha uddhaccaṃ uppajjati, diṭṭhi uppajjati, vicikicchā uppajjati. domassaṃ uppajjati, domanassaṃ ārabbha domanassaṃ uppajjati. diṭṭhi uppajjati, vicikicchā uppajjati, uddhaccaṃ uppajjati, Paṭṭh 155.

[22] akusalo dhammo kusalassa dhammassa ārammaṇapaccayena paccayo, Paṭṭh 155.

[23] sekkhā pahīne kilese paccave kkhanti, vikkhambhite kilese paccavekkhanti, pubbe samudāciṇṇe kilese jānanti, Paṭṭh 155.

[24] sekkhā vā puthujjanā vā akusalaṃ aniccato dukkhato anattato vipassanti, Paṭṭh 155.

[25] I may well be describing the process that formed the basis for tantric practice: indulgence in what is unwholesome can be used in a way that is wholesome.

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