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Developing Motivation in Studying Difficult Things: The Case of a Struggling Student of Abhidharma 

-Hilda Loviisa Mölsä, MA-BS student from Finland

This fall semester I have found myself re-studying the Abhidharma classic Gateway to Knowledge. Often described as dry and technical, Abhidharma serves to clarify and elaborate on the sūtras, offering a system of interpreting and systematizing the profound insights of Buddhist teachings. Initially my motivation to delve into the study of Abhidharma was lukewarm. The prospect of slogging through a realm of lists after lists didn’t align with my preference for flowery language, aesthetically pleasing presentations and practically applicable material. Studying Abhidharma, in all honesty, felt somewhat unappealing.  

As I needed to cultivate motivation for myself, I realized that I needed a different approach. As I ventured deeper into exploring various sources and alternative explanations my own approach went through something of a transformation.  

One remarkable quality of Buddhist teachings lies in their adaptability to suit each individual’s unique capacity for understanding. My capacity for memorizing lists is low—just seeing a list in a text makes my brain shut off and start dreaming of dal bhat—but my capacity for engaging in philosophy, stories and poetry is high. The Gateway to Knowledge serves as a mnemonic summary. For a student of Abhidharma struggling with motivation like myself, discovering alternative, more narrative sources can be extremely helpful. For me, this revelation has not only rekindled my interest but also enriched my journey of understanding and appreciating Abhidharma. Exploring different sources like the Pāli canon, comparing the Abhidharmakośa with the Abhidharmasamuccaya, researching the connections of philosophical development of different Buddhist schools, and listening to explanations of contemporary teachers proved incredibly helpful for me, shedding more light on the Gateway to Knowledge as a very concise summary of just a portion of the vast teachings of Abhidharma. 

In addition to alternative textual sources, I discovered the practical applicability of Abhidharma material, which helped me see it as more than just dry lists. Abhidharma provides a source for analytical insight into the workings of the mind and reality. A correct understanding of Abhidharma deepens one’s understanding of Buddhist philosophy and psychology in a broader framework of Buddhist teachings. Studying Abhidharma can deepen one’s understanding of some of the core Buddhist concepts, such as the Four Noble Truths, impermanence, suffering, and the nature of reality. By breaking down reality into its constituents, it can substantially deepen and enhance spiritual insights gained in meditation. 

The connection between Abhidharma and meditation practice is particularly compelling. A detailed understanding of the mind contributes to the development of motivation, concentration and wisdom, as well as clarification of uncertainty. Abhidharma classics offer in-depth analyses of the mind, consciousness, and mental processes, fostering personal growth and self-awareness. Moreover, studying Abhidharma can help clear misunderstandings as they arise in Buddhist studies by providing clarity and context, and contributing to a deeper, more holistic understanding.  

To conclude, in order to make sense of Abhidharma, we need to study it in a way that aligns with our individual predispositions, as well as put it into practical use. One way to use these lists and enumerations is in deconstructing our understanding of reality and our sense of self. With practical application of the teachings we may benefit from their study not only in the classroom, or in passing exams and forgetting everything afterwards, but in understanding the way the mind works in daily life. Thus, studying Abhidharma need not be a burdensome task for those who may find it initially unappealing. By exploring alternative sources, recognizing its practical applications, and tailoring our approach to our own learning style, we can develop a deep and enriching connection with this profound branch of Buddhist philosophy. 

Photo: a cute cow for attention 

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