When I started seriously reading the suttas, it was immediately clear that while individual suttas are perfect little pristine gems, the collections as a whole were a disorganized mess. After all, this was just a collection of people’s memorized put together in a fairly arbitrary order. There is no single place to learn about, say jhana or the Buddha’s life story or anything else. These things are scattered around over hundreds of pages of text.
So I was more or less immediately seized by the desire to collate the information of every sutta into a single organized text that has everything you need to know about Buddhism at your fingertips. Fortunately I didn’t do it, because it turns out that generation after generation of Buddhists had the same idea. That was the impulse that led to Buddhaghosa’s Path of Purification, Joseph Goldstein’s Path of Insight Meditation, and it was also the impulse that led to the Abbhidhamma. That’s really all those texts are. A collated version of the Buddha’s teachings.
Unfortunately, when those generations of monk scholars carefully combed through the suttas, they found that there were many questions that were left unanswered. “How exactly does kamma manifest? How does causality unfold over time? What is the true nature of reality?” My feeling is that the Buddha left some of these questions unanswered on purpose. Any answer he could provide would not lead to liberation, so he just set it aside. Unfortunately, the Abbhidhammists could not. They developed a whole system to satisfy these questions that grew out of the Buddha’s teachings but also added a great deal.
In particular, they developed the idea of dhammas. In the time of the Buddha dhamma meant: 1.) the true nature of reality, 2.) the Buddha’s teachings on the true nature of reality, or 3.) any teacher’s teachings. So a monk might ask another monk, “What is your teacher’s dhamma?” This is important, because it puts a completely different take on the fourth satipatthana than is usually understood (see my series on Vipassana).
The suttas see experience as unfolding over time more or less as we experience it. The Abbhidhamma understands experience as happening in incredibly tiny chunks called dhammas. This is very close to the idea of atoms from Greek philosophy. But for the Greeks, atoms mostly answered the question, “What happens if I keep chopping up this thing into smaller and smaller units?” Some thought you could just keep chopping forever. Others, the atomists, thought that there was a final limit. That proved to be sort of right. There are atoms of lead. But the atomists believed that you could have an atom of say, triangle or love.
For the Abbhidhammists, the focus was on experience rather than stuff. So you could have a dhamma of, say, insight. It’s a bit like the different between quantum mechanics versus classical and relativistic physics. In quantum mechanics, there is a smallest unit of energy (a quantum) and a smallest unit of distance (a Plank length). That’s pretty weird to consider, so I suppose a smallest unit of experience is no stranger.
In a certain sense, this is true. Life unfolds in moments, and there is a deep wisdom to this. It isn’t necessary to deal with all of life, only this moment. Then the next, then the next. Even if you don’t have the strength to deal with your whole life, maybe you have the strength the deal with one moment. And that’s all you ever need to deal with, just right now. Your life is not the totality of your moments but just the next moment.
But for my money it 1.) doesn’t really explain much about the nature of reality and 2.) it really doesn’t help much in terms of practice. But more important, it causes a lot of confusion about the point of meditation. In the Abbhidhamma system, we are supposed to carefully watch experience to the point where we can perceive time and our mind unfolding in terms of untold dhammas per second. If this is your meditation and you gain benefit from it, go to town. But for me it creates anxiety and doesn’t do much good. This digital view of the world tries to divide up the world into bits that exist in and of themselves, like a CD divides of the world into chunks of sound 1/44100 of a second at a time.
But our Buddha taught a vinyl reality. We canNOT break reality down into chunks of experience. Experience unfolds over time. The present is a stream of time that recedes from view in both directions. It cannot be either experienced or understood in discrete units. It does not exist in and of itself but dependent.
Don’t try to meditate or understand reality by breaking it up into something so refined that you can finally master it. You will not succeed. Liberation is not found by mastering reality but by mastering yourself.