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Friday, May 8, 2009

Wesak 2009 Special : Complex concepts in Buddhism The well-being of humankind

Complex concepts in Buddhism The well-being of humankind


It is a well accepted fact that, by properly following the teachings of the Buddha, we will be able to lead a decent, contended and peaceful life in this birth (Bhavaya), as well as in next bhavaya and most importantly, we will finally be emancipated from all the worldly sufferings,by attaining Nibbana.


Teachings of the Buddha are contained in the Thripitakaya and most of the teachings of the Buddha meant for the wellbeing of the mankind can be found in Sutta section. The more complex sector of the three, Abhidhamma is the sector mainly devoted to discussing the four paramartha dhammas or four abstract realities in Buddhism: Chiththa, Chaithasika, Nirvana and Rupa ).

Although the complex concepts enshrined in Abhidhamma are somewhat difficult to comprehend, it is interesting to note that even a basic knowledge about these concepts can be very useful for the man, in his worldly affairs too.

Furthermore, it can also be observed that, findings and discoveries in modern sciences in certain fields are now in the process of showing signs of getting closer to the complex concepts enshrined in the Abhidhamma.

What follows is an attempt to consider such instances briefly.

Although, the path to Nirvana is mainly through Vidarshana meditation, a thorough understanding of the Abhidhamma greatly facilitates the success of Vidarshana. In Vidarshana meditation, prominence is given to Thilakshana meditation on the three Characteristics: anichcha, dukkha and Anathma of the nama and rupa. (Nama in fact consists of vedana -feeling, ‘sanna’, - perception, ‘sankhara’ - mental states, and ‘vinnana’ -consciousness).

A ‘person’ or an ‘individual’ is in fact the combination or co-existence of ‘rupa’ and ‘nama’. According to Buddhist Text, can exist neither independently or alone (this is aptly illustrated in text by the example of ‘two bundles of firewood leaning on to each other for support). When a person dies, unless the person has attained ‘Arhathship’, its nama component in a certain form leaves the body and finds a new rupa (a new body) through the chuthi - prathisandhi (decease consciousness and relinking consciousness) process and the old lifeless rupa component, without its nama, starts the process of decaying/decomposing.


‘Rupa’ is a concept meticulously and analytically considered in Abhidhamma, facilitating the Thilakshana Bhavana. Buddhist texts consider ‘Rupa kalapa’ or matter zones, formed by the combination mainly of the four basic elements described in Buddhism - ‘patavi’, ‘apo’, ‘thejo’ and ‘vayo’- as the smallest form of matter in existence (a super small / micro matter).


This is, supposedly, not only different from the atom that is explained in science, but also much smaller than the atom. In fact an atom can be considered to contain so many ‘rupa kalapas’. However, the atom was, a few decades back, considered in science as the smallest form of matter and also indivisible - ‘no further division was possible’. Interestingly enough, if we take time to refer to ‘Yogachara Bhumishasthraya’ , believed to be written between the 3rd and 4th centuries AD, it would not be difficult to find that a contemporary ‘Theory of the Permanence of Atom’ had been contradicted thousands of years ago!)

Another few decades had to pass before it was discovered in science itself that the atom in fact had three sub-atomic particles (the proton, neutron and electron).

Later on, more and more sub-atomic particles were discovered. However, the enthusiastic hunt in science for a super small particle is not over yet. Judging by the continuous emergence of an array of discoveries in science, it will not be surprising, if eventually, it will be discovered that even these sub-atomic particles are made of something even smaller or tinier - most probably made of the rupa kalapas discussed in Abhidhamma.

Other than the minuscule nature, another attribute of the ‘rupa kalapa’ is its very brief existence. It takes only a split second for the ‘rupa kalapa’ to come into being (uthpada), exist (sthithi) and cease (bhanga) in quick succession.

Originally, the atom or sub-atomic particles were not supposed to possess this ‘brief existence’ characteristic. However, it has been discovered recently that, there really exists an extremely short-lived tiny entity, comprising both matter and antimatter.

Therefore, it appears that, a super small matter (‘rupa kalapa’) of brief existence mentioned in Buddhist Texts based on the teachings of The Buddha, more than two thousand five hundred years back is now in the process of being established scientifically.

Even a small object or particle of matter has millions of ‘rupa kalapas’, which are the building blocks of larger matter - the cells/tissues. As the ‘rupa kalapa’ in its cessation gives birth to another ‘similar’ set of ‘rupa kalapas’, a dynamic equilibrium is maintained - at a given moment - in a given particle/object and as a result of this, a significant diminishing of matter or change of matter cannot be observed in short time.


When we are in our twenties and thirties we do not show much difference in our appearance and we are not too much worried about the ‘anithya’ ( impermanence of matter). However, when the living organisms get older, this re-creation or reproduction ability of the ‘rupa kalapas’ becomes weak due to a number of reasons, breaking the apparent equilibrium mentioned above, exhibiting externally too, a marked change in matter and that could be where our ageing process becomes externally visible.

Hence, it is evident that, if we have a fair/basic knowledge about the ‘rupa kalapas’, the beginning our old age (during forties and fifties) provides a golden opportunity for us to reflect on the ‘anithya’ or ‘impermanence’ of ‘sanskara’.

But what we do instead is using the wonders of cosmetics to hide our age and disregard the golden opportunity offered by nature.(when The Buddha coerced Rupa Nanda-the proud beauty queen of the time- to see /witness the ‘life time ageing process of a beautiful women’ in a matter of seconds, she immediately grasped the reality of life -’Anichcha ‘-impermanence, ‘Dukka’ -suffering, and ‘Anathma’ -soullessness- and became ‘arahath’.)


The newly formed ‘rupa kalapas’ are not always similar or identical to their predecessors. Some external agents or ‘prathyas’ can affect the nature of the newly formed ‘rupa kalapas’, thus making them different from their predecessors. (due to its very brief existence, the prathya cannot get a chance to affect the existing rupa kalapas).

This extremely short-lived nature of the ‘rupa kalapa’ and the ability the external agents (‘prathyas’) posses to influence the nature of the newly produced ‘rupa kalapa’ explain why the cells/tissues of living organisms change or deform - sometimes causing diseases ( and sometimes curing diseases as well) - due to external factors such as chemicals (including drugs/medicines), rays (X-rays,UV rays), physical contact, lack or excess of nutrition etc.

The fact that ‘the ability of external agents (‘prathya’) to modify the nature of the tissues is due to the attributes of the ‘rupa kalapa’, as detailed in Buddhist texts, can be very useful in science including the medical science.

There is a lesson for us too. Care must be taken in exposing (or over exposing) our bodies or organs to unfamiliar and untested agents (‘prathya’), because these can affect the cell structure, due to ‘rupa kalapa’ deformations, causing unnecessary problems and complications.

The same could be true with respect to exposing our minds also to unsuitable ‘prathyas’! (consequent to our ‘loba’, ‘dvesha’ and ‘moha’). They would deform or distort our minds or ‘chitthas’ , keeping us tied up to ‘samsara chakraya’ and dragging us further and further away from the path to ‘Nirvana’.

Extensively discussed details related to the nature of ‘rupa’ found in ‘Abhidhamma’, significantly facilitate the much emphasised ‘Thilakshana Meditation’ (‘aniththa’, ‘duhkka’ and ‘anaththa’) in ‘Vidharshana’, leading to ‘Nirvana’.

However, this brief discussion above on just one topic from the ‘Abhidhamma’ clearly indicates how beneficial the teachings of the Buddha could be, for the wellbeing of the human beings even with respect to his worldly (‘lowkika’) matters. An in-depth study of the other more complex ‘Paramartha Dharma’, specially the ‘chiththa’ and ‘chaithasikha’ which are directly related to the human mind would be more beneficial for human beings, who are now in the fast track towards ‘development’, paying minimal or least attention to this important entity - the mind.

The writer is a lawyer and a former Director of Education.

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