PART I... Each contains eight inseparable characteristics: solidity (earth), cohesion (water), temperature (fire), movement (wind), color, smell, taste, and nutritive essence. The apparent elements break down to sub-components of existence.
This is crucial to understand because, by penetrating conventional truth with wisdom, we are able to realize ultimate truth.
Ultimate truth refers to things that cannot be further broken down into smaller components. They cannot be further broken down because they are the final and irreducible sub-components of existence that exist by reason of their own intrinsic nature (sabhāva).
For example, "earth" element in the human body (or any animate thing) exists as the intrinsic characteristic of relative hardness or softness. "Fire" element exists as the intrinsic characteristic of relative heat and cold.
Whereas body is a conventional truth, its elements are ultimate truth -- the final, irreducible components of existence. No amount of analysis can further break them down.
Of these two realities, Abhidharma deals primarily with ultimate truth.
This book is divided into three parts. Part I describes ultimate reality, which in Abhidharma is fourfold: Three folds comprise the totality of conditioned existence. Consciousness and mental factors are what we conventionally call the “mind.” Matter is what we conventionally call the “body.”
The coming together of mind and matter is what we conventionally call “I,” self, living being, person, animal, or whatever the case may be. It is surprising, but “I” is simply a conventional truth, a concept, whereas consciousness, mental factors, and matter are ultimate truths.
These three ultimate truths are conditioned dharmas (things, phenomena). They are produced by causes and conditions and are subject to alteration, dissolution, and passing away. These three are indeed subtle and profound dharmas that cannot be seen by the ordinary
However, they can be discerned by intensified-mind developed by concentration and wisdom.
Nirvana, the fourth ultimate reality, is unconditioned. That is to say, it is not produced by any cause or condition. It stands by itself. Therefore, it does not change. Nirvana can be experienced here and now. The path is one of undergoing a gradual training of morality, concentration, and wisdom detailed by the Buddha, who pointed out the way to enlightenment.
Part II of the book describes rebirth and Dependent Origination. The basic law of karma, the lawful regularity of causes and effects, is generally recognized. What is generally not understood is how karma acts as a link at the time of death.
The near-death cognitive process is detailed showing that at the moment of rebirth, consciousness (called death-proximate consciousness) in the present life gives rise to rebirth-linking consciousness connecting to the next life. They are linked together by the karma (action or seed) that ripens at death without a transmigrating soul crossing over life after life. This process of death and rebirth is impersonal, merely the arising of suffering. How does this suffering arise, and how is it to cease?
The Buddha revealed the problem of suffering and its solution, explaining it in a profound teaching called Dependent Origination. On account of not seeing this truth, he and we went on suffering for an inconceivably long time bound to the wheel or round of death and rebirth. The two root causes of the dilemma are ignorance and craving. They give rise to suffering (dukkha, unsatisfactoriness, distress).
With the cessation of causes and conditions, effects cease. Dependent Origination reveals the conditional arising of an “ego” or “individual,” conventionally speaking, how it cycles through the beginningless wheel of rebirth, undergoes the round of existence and death.
The profound teaching of Dependent Origination consists of 12 interrelated factors. These factors are links in a causal chain. The chain encompasses all three periods of time: past, present, and future lives. Each factor is entirely dependent on the preceding factor as its support or condition; it in turn becomes the condition or support for the subsequent factor.
The factors are merely mind and matter governed by causality. The final cessation of all suffering is brought about by practicing the Noble Eightfold Path, which is the Buddha's threefold training of morality, concentration, and wisdom. This book is a guide along that path.
Part III describes the actual practice (concentration and insight) that brings about the realization of what has been learned. Concentration is frequently overlooked nowadays in favor of mindfulness. But we will see that mindfulness is not enough for the realization of nirvana, which is why the Buddha included the factor "right concentration" in the Noble Eightfold Path and defined it in terms of absorptions (jhānas). There are many ways to develop concentration. The easiest is perhaps mindfulness of breathing (anapanasati).
Because it is one of the easiest serenity meditation (samatha) subjects to learn and because a practitioner is able to develop it to the level of absorption, it is systematically detailed here. But it is taught in such a way as to be easily understood and followed. With it antidotes to the Five Hindrances that obstruct serenity and insight (sensual desire, ill-will, sleepiness, restlessness, and doubt) are also detailed. After successfully reaching the first level of absorption, one can directly proceed to the development of insight by discerning mental factors one by one.
In order to realize that the body ultimately consists of four elements (manifesting as many forms of derived materiality), two related meditations are introduced -- contemplating the body's 32 parts as taught in the ancient discourses and as taught at Pa Auk meditation centers.
And finally a moment-to-moment insight practice is revealed that emphasizes mindfulness and wisdom that releases one from clinging and suffering. The practice begins as sense objects impinge on sense bases and is applicable in formal meditation and daily life.
Unraveling the mysteries of the human mind may seem like an overwhelming task. But it is exactly for this reason that Abhidharma is studied, making it a systematic path that produces immediate results for ordinary people.
The subject, in practice, is actually easily understood. In theory it can be made endlessly complex to no advantage. Combining philosophy and practice unravels the mystery and, with patience and effort, brings one to full comprehension.
This book is not intended for light reading, in spite of the fact that it may be approached lightly. It is intended to be a serious practice manual. Without practice, the topic seems ponderous and metaphysical, requiring readers to be slow, exacting, and careful not to jump to unfounded conclusions. Many of these intellectual pitfalls are avoided by simple and consistent practice.
The ease with which one comprehends Abhidharma will of course vary from person to person, depending on the quality of one’s existing understanding of Buddhism. But the purpose of the book is to present the subject in direct, simple, and straightforward language without assuming previous knowledge of Buddhism, which should enable even beginners to understand deeply.
The subjects are interrelated and in sequence. Evaluating, presuming, and concluding without actually reading and practicing are pitfalls best avoided. The mind, like a parachute, only works when it is open. It is up to each person to practice what the Buddha taught as a practice not as a theory. Read, question, and apply the antidotes consistently and in this way honor the Buddha who pointed out the path to the end of suffering.
“Those who understand the meaning and the truth and who practice in accordance with the truth few, while those who fail to do so are many. Those who are stirred by things that are truly stirring are few, while those who are not are many. Those who strive with balance are few, while those who do not are many” (AN I, xix: 1).
Be one of the few.