Mahayana Approaches to the Abhidharma?

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Mahayana Approaches to the Abhidharma?

Postby LionelChen » Fri Apr 26, 2013 6:38 am

I've been putting this off for quite sometime, only because I am a little wary of traveling through the "ten valleys of dry bones."

Sounds pretty much like a daunting task, yet it has often been related to me by various practitioners an understanding of the Abhidharma teachings may help with a more nuanced understanding of later Mahayana philosophical concepts. Off the top of my head, apparently its a great help with teasing out some of the points related to Yogacara and has some overlap with the more esoteric schools of thought.

In light of this, i guess i've come to ask a few questions.

1.) If you've studied the Abhidharma - why? What brought you to that point?

2.) And more importantly, for the tradition that you uphold, how did you go about doing it?

I've heard people who've joined Theravada groups to get a better more precise understanding. I've also heard of various Mahayana practitioners simply using the Abhidharmakosa.

3.) Has it had any affect on your understanding of the version of Mahayana/Vajrayana that you follow?

4.) And finally could you suggest any good materials or study aids (videos, books, whatever).

Thank you all for your thoughts and your help in this matter.
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Re: Mahayana Approaches to the Abhidharma?

Postby Indrajala » Fri Apr 26, 2013 12:28 pm

LionelChen wrote:Sounds pretty much like a daunting task, yet it has often been related to me by various practitioners an understanding of the Abhidharma teachings may help with a more nuanced understanding of later Mahayana philosophical concepts.


Yes, abhidharma is important to understanding key Mahāyāna concepts because most of the early proponents, like Nāgārjuna and others, were well-versed in abhidharma. While they rejected it as anything other than conventional wisdom and knowledge, it nevertheless formed a crucial component to classical Indian Buddhist thought. To thus understand Indian Buddhism in general you need to have read and comprehended the basics of abhidharma. As a subject of study it forms secondary roots to the original words of the Buddha.

You can easily discern who has this knowledge and who does not. Fortunately, it is free and open to all. There are no initiations required. You do not need to defer to a master. You do not need anyone's permission to read it.


1.) If you've studied the Abhidharma - why? What brought you to that point?


I was reading Nāgārjuna and Garfield's introduction discussed who he was refuting. After reading through the Chinese translation of the MMK I really realized I needed to also read Abhidharma works. The more I read about the development of Buddhism in India the more I understood the key function of Abhidharma.



2.) And more importantly, for the tradition that you uphold, how did you go about doing it?


I don't belong to any readily identifiable tradition or lineage. At the time I started I also didn't really belong anywhere either.

I simply got a hold of the books and started reading.


I've heard people who've joined Theravada groups to get a better more precise understanding. I've also heard of various Mahayana practitioners simply using the Abhidharmakosa.


Asanga's Abhidharmasamuccaya is from a more Mahāyāna perspective. It is however much shorter.

There are other works and modern support material and studies available. In Chinese a lot of literature has been preserved that was lost in India and never translated into Tibetan.

3.) Has it had any affect on your understanding of the version of Mahayana/Vajrayana that you follow?


Yes, because I see what emptiness entails in the context of classical Indian thought.
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Re: Mahayana Approaches to the Abhidharma?

Postby tobes » Sat Apr 27, 2013 2:34 am

I've been working through it lately - and to be honest I find it very daunting and difficult.

As Indrajala pointed out, you can't really understand the Madhyamakan tradition without understanding the Sarvastivadan Abhidharma.

Svabhāva has many different senses, and one cannot really understand the critique of svabhāva - i.e. that it is empty - without understanding how it functioned in Sarvastivadan metaphysics and soteriology; and why they felt they needed to posit it.

Beyond that, and perhaps even more importantly, there is a tremendous richness in the Abhidharma explanation of what I would call 'agency' or 'subjectivity' - such that if you look closely, all the keys to liberation revolve around.

The problem is that there are endless new books (both popular and scholarly) on Tibetan understandings of emptiness, and virtually nothing which attempts to unpack the richness of the Abhidharma. Theravadan sources are more plentiful, but of course, they are explaining a different bunch of texts. Nonetheless, it is a good starting point.

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Re: Mahayana Approaches to the Abhidharma?

Postby Indrajala » Sat Apr 27, 2013 4:54 am

tobes wrote:The problem is that there are endless new books (both popular and scholarly) on Tibetan understandings of emptiness, and virtually nothing which attempts to unpack the richness of the Abhidharma. Theravadan sources are more plentiful, but of course, they are explaining a different bunch of texts. Nonetheless, it is a good starting point.


Yes, in the English speaking world the Tibetan version(s) of Madhyamaka seem to be mainstream while the East Asian developments are largely unknown. There are actually a lot of commentaries on Abhidharma in Chinese, too. Plenty of ancient Indian works on the subject, too, preserved only in Classical Chinese.

There are English translations of Abhidharma literature as Indian literature rather than Tibetan or Chinese understandings of it, but these are scholarly works. There isn't much in the way of commentaries written for a contemporary readership.

I've come to think that Abhidharma is actually very high level material that few are willing or capable of learning. A lot of educated and literate Buddhists still wouldn't touch it with a ten foot pole.

There are no rituals associated with Abhidharma. You don't get to go at it intuitively with reference to imagery and iconography. You can't make up your own version of it unless you have extensive knowledge. There is nothing emotional about it. It doesn't talk about popular practices, blessings, lineages and so forth. It doesn't prescribe wearing ethnic garments and exercising proper table manners in the dining hall.

Abhidharma works are logically systematized guides to Buddhadharma. There are minimal cultural accretions.

This is why I've come to really like it. There's nothing secret or esoteric. You don't need anyone's permission to study it.

And, to be frank, if you learn even a bit of it you can see through other Buddhists' BS.
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Re: Mahayana Approaches to the Abhidharma?

Postby Ayu » Sat Apr 27, 2013 2:29 pm

Indrajala wrote:...
I've come to think that Abhidharma is actually very high level material that few are willing or capable of learning. A lot of educated and literate Buddhists still wouldn't touch it with a ten foot pole. ...


Indrajala wrote:... There's nothing secret or esoteric. You don't need anyone's permission to study it. ...


So why there are only a "few willing or capable of learning"? Because it is a challenge for a clear intellect?
A friend of mine tried to discourage me to learn about the Abhidharmakosa. He said it is the sience of the dieties and i would not be capable at all to understand it - and if it is understood falsely this could be dangerous. My inner feeling says the opposite: i should read it, study it, try to understand it and this will be of fundamental benefit.

I have to ask a maybe stupid question, in order to examine the problem:
If there is nothing secret and esoteric about it, why is it so high?
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Re: Mahayana Approaches to the Abhidharma?

Postby Indrajala » Sat Apr 27, 2013 3:34 pm

Ayu wrote:So why there are only a "few willing or capable of learning"? Because it is a challenge for a clear intellect?


It takes a strong mind capable of digesting metaphysics, cosmology, non-Buddhist perspectives and to some degree history. The discussions on meditation likewise demand a degree of experience to really grasp what is being said. Since much of it is written from an early classical perspective, abandonment of desires including sex is required. So, the discussion on meditation is coming from a perspective of celibacy.



My inner feeling says the opposite: i should read it, study it, try to understand it and this will be of fundamental benefit.


You should read it. Read the footnotes in the modern translations, too. Make notes and diagrams if it helps. Diagrams actually help a lot because things are explained systematically.

I have to ask a maybe stupid question, in order to examine the problem:
If there is nothing secret and esoteric about it, why is it so high?


Historically it has often been considered a basic and low teaching.

I'm simply saying, in my opinion, Abhidharma is a high teaching and despite the poor appraisal it receives at times is actually quite difficult to grasp. You can't study and implement it based on emotion and intuition.
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Re: Mahayana Approaches to the Abhidharma?

Postby Ayu » Sat Apr 27, 2013 4:11 pm

Thank you.
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Re: Mahayana Approaches to the Abhidharma?

Postby tobes » Sun Apr 28, 2013 5:46 am

Indrajala wrote:
tobes wrote:The problem is that there are endless new books (both popular and scholarly) on Tibetan understandings of emptiness, and virtually nothing which attempts to unpack the richness of the Abhidharma. Theravadan sources are more plentiful, but of course, they are explaining a different bunch of texts. Nonetheless, it is a good starting point.


Yes, in the English speaking world the Tibetan version(s) of Madhyamaka seem to be mainstream while the East Asian developments are largely unknown. There are actually a lot of commentaries on Abhidharma in Chinese, too. Plenty of ancient Indian works on the subject, too, preserved only in Classical Chinese.

There are English translations of Abhidharma literature as Indian literature rather than Tibetan or Chinese understandings of it, but these are scholarly works. There isn't much in the way of commentaries written for a contemporary readership.

I've come to think that Abhidharma is actually very high level material that few are willing or capable of learning. A lot of educated and literate Buddhists still wouldn't touch it with a ten foot pole.

There are no rituals associated with Abhidharma. You don't get to go at it intuitively with reference to imagery and iconography. You can't make up your own version of it unless you have extensive knowledge. There is nothing emotional about it. It doesn't talk about popular practices, blessings, lineages and so forth. It doesn't prescribe wearing ethnic garments and exercising proper table manners in the dining hall.

Abhidharma works are logically systematized guides to Buddhadharma. There are minimal cultural accretions.

This is why I've come to really like it. There's nothing secret or esoteric. You don't need anyone's permission to study it.

And, to be frank, if you learn even a bit of it you can see through other Buddhists' BS.



I sort of see it quite differently. I was influenced by that Theravadan chap - I forget his name - he wrote a commentary on the Dammasangi, in which he saw the Abhidharma as a phenomenological tradition, which is (or should be) immanently expressive of the meditative insights of (obviously well trained) contemporary practitioners.

In this sense, he saw it as a living, and perhaps, still evolving tradition - rather than logical schema or system.

A very inspiring vision.

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Re: Mahayana Approaches to the Abhidharma?

Postby LionelChen » Sun Apr 28, 2013 5:53 am

Indrajala wrote:
I've heard people who've joined Theravada groups to get a better more precise understanding. I've also heard of various Mahayana practitioners simply using the Abhidharmakosa.


Asanga's Abhidharmasamuccaya is from a more Mahāyāna perspective. It is however much shorter.

There are other works and modern support material and studies available. In Chinese a lot of literature has been preserved that was lost in India and never translated into Tibetan.

[quote]

Care to share any you may have found useful? :)
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Re: Mahayana Approaches to the Abhidharma?

Postby CaperAsh » Sun Apr 28, 2013 11:00 am

Please forgive if this has been covered but in terms of my two cents on this issue, I find the barrier is linguistic. For example late last year I purchased a new English language edition of Vasubandhu's Abhidharmakosha put together (over MANY years) by Gelong Lodro Zangpo, a monk at Gampo Abbey in Cape Breton Canada (where I also happen to live), and found after a few chapters that I simply couldn't get through it, not because of structural or conceptual complexity, but because the words chosen didn't work for me and spent so much time going to the glossaries, looking up endless acronym abbreviations. No doubt if I had persevered more I would have developed more facility, but to give one small example: the dhatus are translated as 'elements'. I don't know why elements was picked, but it doesn't click. And there are many words like that, none of them fit/click for me, so I found again and again, every single paragraph, that I simply had no idea what was being said.

So for me, I have not yet read a readable translation. The old French one is pretty good but I am not a French speaker so that too has problems. And I don't know Chinese, Sanskrit etc.

Again, just my two cents.

Now: if someone here is aware of some good texts - either basic of Mahayana - abhidharma in English, esp. those available online, I for one would be very grateful for that information, including links to the online stuff.

Thxs.
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Re: Mahayana Approaches to the Abhidharma?

Postby Indrajala » Sun Apr 28, 2013 1:27 pm

CaperAsh wrote: I don't know why elements was picked, but it doesn't click. And there are many words like that, none of them fit/click for me, so I found again and again, every single paragraph, that I simply had no idea what was being said.


This is why I favour using Sanskrit terms as much as possible. We should all get in the habit of it.
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Re: Mahayana Approaches to the Abhidharma?

Postby Indrajala » Sun Apr 28, 2013 1:40 pm

LionelChen wrote:Care to share any you may have found useful? :)


There are a lot of commentaries written in Chinese by Chinese authors, but also Japanese ones.

If you're really serious, you could even look for ones not included in the main canons, though you'd probably have to have a very good library to have access to them.

When I was reading the Abhidharma-kośa-bhāṣya in class in Japan, we used the Sanskrit plus old translations in Chinese and Tibetan. I also referred to the English translation. It was quite insightful seeing how everything differed against the Sanskrit. Sometimes the Sanskrit was so vague that it seemed Xuanzang, for example, was getting the meaning from elsewhere.

As for modern works, Sarvastivada Buddhist Scholasticism (Handbook of Oriental Studies/Handbuch Der Orientalistik) is one place to start, though getting a hold of that work might be problematic.
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Re: Mahayana Approaches to the Abhidharma?

Postby Huifeng » Mon Apr 29, 2013 2:20 am

Re: Mahayana Approaches to the Abhidharma?

The Mahaprajnaparamitopadesa (大智度論) is an excellent example of integrating early sutra, Abhidharma, Mahayana sutra and Madhyamaka points of view.

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Re: Mahayana Approaches to the Abhidharma?

Postby tobes » Mon Apr 29, 2013 8:07 am

Indrajala wrote:
LionelChen wrote:Care to share any you may have found useful? :)


There are a lot of commentaries written in Chinese by Chinese authors, but also Japanese ones.

If you're really serious, you could even look for ones not included in the main canons, though you'd probably have to have a very good library to have access to them.

When I was reading the Abhidharma-kośa-bhāṣya in class in Japan, we used the Sanskrit plus old translations in Chinese and Tibetan. I also referred to the English translation. It was quite insightful seeing how everything differed against the Sanskrit. Sometimes the Sanskrit was so vague that it seemed Xuanzang, for example, was getting the meaning from elsewhere.

As for modern works, Sarvastivada Buddhist Scholasticism (Handbook of Oriental Studies/Handbuch Der Orientalistik) is one place to start, though getting a hold of that work might be problematic.


I think the real point that you've made in various guises, is that you basically have to be a Buddhologist, trained in multiple languages to really understand the Abhidharma.

But it shouldn't be so, should it?

I think it is the next task of Buddhist thinkers to liberate the Abhidharma from its scholastic veil.

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Re: Mahayana Approaches to the Abhidharma?

Postby Indrajala » Mon Apr 29, 2013 9:34 am

tobes wrote:
I think the real point that you've made in various guises, is that you basically have to be a Buddhologist, trained in multiple languages to really understand the Abhidharma.


I said no such thing.

The English translations will suffice. There is plenty of secondary literature. There are a lot of modern Indian works that go into the details and comment on various Abhidharma texts. These are all in English.
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Re: Mahayana Approaches to the Abhidharma?

Postby tobes » Tue Apr 30, 2013 10:39 am

That's true - there is some really insightful scholarship coming out of India. It's a pity that it doesn't usually make it to the west.

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Re: Mahayana Approaches to the Abhidharma?

Postby Greg » Tue Apr 30, 2013 7:20 pm

tobes wrote:That's true - there is some really insightful scholarship coming out of India. It's a pity that it doesn't usually make it to the west.

:anjali:


We could probably get the books at a reasonable price, but it is hard to know what is available.
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