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Keeping the Larger Context in Mind When Studying the Abhidharma 

-Patric Zwahlen, BA student from Switzerland

We are privileged to have studied Mipham’s Gateway to Knowledge in the last and current semesters. Initially, I had trouble absorbing all the endless lists and definitions. Gradually, I understood the value of these illustrations better, and I developed a deep appreciation for being able to study this text. In addition, I found Ruppert Gethin’s work, Foundations of Buddhism, very helpful as it provided a larger context for understanding the benefits of studying Abhidharma. Gethin highlights that the Abhidharma is not just a dry, theoretical presentation that has little to do with Buddhist practice but rather a necessary supplement. Just as grammar is essential in language learning, the Abhidharma provides a contextual understanding of Buddhist philosophy that deepens one’s practice. Therefore, highlighting the philosophical context is a crucial complement to the Sutra Pitaka, which usually focuses on a particular audience and situation.  

Gethin highlights how the Abhidharma attempts to systematize the various discourses of the historical Buddha and build up an interconnected system of thought. Essential elements of the Abhidharma are the functioning of consciousness and according to mental factors, the relationship between karma and rebirth, and the connections between causes, conditions, and results. From this, the relevance of mindfulness and ethics on the Buddhist path follows because results arise not randomly but according to their specific causes and conditions. Gethin compares the technical presentation of the Abhidharma as a theoretical description of what the practitioner experiences in meditation. One feature of the Abhidharma is to break down reality into its parts, describe their aspects, and analyze their causal relationship.  

I want to emphasize two elements from Gethins’s text that inspired me. First, the comparison between the Abhidharma and grammar in the context of a new language. Secondly, the illustration of the relationship between Sutra and Abhidharma. Regarding the first point, Gethin explains that the presentation in the Abhidharma is like learning new grammar. Grammar is usually something relatively dry and theoretical. However, if someone wants to be able to speak a new language, it is of great benefit to know the grammar. With a comprehensive grammatical understanding, one will not only be able to speak a language more correctly but will also be able to explain the subtleties of the language to others. There is also a similar connection between the study of Abhidharma and the practice of meditation. Many experiences in meditation become clearer through understanding the Abhidharma, and the danger of misunderstandings decreases. The second point concerns the connection between Sutra and Abhidharma. Gethin emphasizes that the explanations in the Sutra Pitaka were each given to a specific audience in a particular context. The Abhidharma, however, is a systematization of what the Buddha explained in the various Sutras. It provides the necessary contextual understanding to comprehend the specific instructions in the Sutras correctly. Only when a practitioner properly implements the instructions given by the Buddha can the desired result be achieved. In this sense, the Abhidharma is of enormous value because it explains and defines various concepts and terms from the Sutras. Especially when studying texts such as The Gateway to Knowledge in detail, it is easy to forget the overall benefit of all these lists and definitions. Gethin’s illustration is a precious contribution to keeping the larger context in mind. 

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