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  • Abhidhamma Studies: Buddhist Explorations of Consciousness and Time
  • Douglas W. Shrader
Abhidhamma Studies: Buddhist Explorations of Consciousness and Time. By Venerable Nyanaponika Thera. Fourth edition. Edited with an introduction by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1998. Pp. 160. Paper $16.95.

The delightful, thought-provoking Abhidhamma Studies: Buddhist Explorations of Consciousness and Timeby the Venerable Nyanaponika Thera is the fourth incarnation of a text originally composed shortly after World War II, published in 1949 (Frewin and Co., Ltd.). The Buddhist Publication Society issued a second, revised and enlarged edition in 1965 as well as a third edition, with relatively minor corrections, in 1976. The present edition, edited by Bhikkhu Bodhi, incorporates a variety of welcome changes, reflecting considerable effort and devotion to the task. In addition to authoring a superb introductory essay, Bodhi has "reformulated a few awkward sentences..., reorganized the notes, provided additional references, and supplied a bibliography" (p. viii). Perhaps the most intriguing and potentially significant change is evident in the title itself. Originally subtitled Researches in Buddhist Psychology, an apt but relatively uninformative description of its contents, the title now announces, even to the uninitiated, the book's unique, captivating subject matter: Buddhist Explorations of Consciousness and Time.

This book is essential reading for any serious student of Buddhism. Additionally, it will appeal to those interested in a wide variety of both phenomenological and ontological issues: the manifold of experience, the nature of consciousness, the analysis of time, concepts of anattā(ego selflessness) and paticca-samuppāda(dependent origination), and so forth. An intermediate to advanced level of familiarity and understanding of basic Buddhist doctrines is recommended. It will prove particularly useful to scholars and students who have been intimidated by the vast, often cryptic, Abhidhamma literature.

Apparently, the Buddha and his teachings were as enticing and yet profoundly puzzling and enigmatic to his contemporaries and followers as they remain to millions today. They challenge everything we commonly take to be real. That which appears substantial, we are told, is not. Contrary to our own (unexamined) inner/ subjective experience, as well as the teachings of most major world religions, we neither arenor havea self, for there is no self either to be or to have. The attempt to reconcile the teachings of the Buddha with existing beliefs and assumptions concerning the nature of reality led to a proliferation of competing philosophical schools. Each school developed its own distinctive Abhidhamma literature, ostensibly representing a deeper understanding of the teachings of the Buddha. In practice, the literature served to distinguish one school from another, guarding against and/or [End Page 637]correcting the "erroneous" teachings of the other schools. Over a period of approximately three centuries, the Abhidhamma Pitaka grew rapidly…in terms of the sheer volume of literature as well as complexity of doctrine. Paralleling that increase, it came to play a position of ever greater prominence, rivaling even the canonical collections of the Buddha's word (the Sutta and Vinaya Pitakas). Together the three became known as the Tipitaka: "Three Baskets of the Doctrine."

Unfortunately for scholars, the only Abhidhammas to survive the widespread persecution of Buddhism in India during the twelfth century A.D.were those that had been transported to, and transplanted in, other lands. Specifically, the Theravāda Abhidhamma (seven books in Pāli) found an enduring home in Sri Lanka. The Sarvāstivāda Abhidhamma (also seven books) along with the Śāriputra-abhidharmaśāstra(probably the Dharmaguptaka School) were carried to China, where they were translated from Sanskrit into Chinese. Of these, it is the Theravaāda collection— particularly its first book (the Dharmasanganī) as well as the seventh book (the Patthana)—that forms the subject matter of Ven. Nyanaponika's study. The other two schools have long since vanished, except, as Bhikkhu Bodhi points out, that "a late exposition of the Sarvāstivāda Abhidhamma system, Vasubandhu's Abhidharmakośa, continues to be studied among Tibetan Buddhists and in the Far East" (p. x).

Abhidhamma Studiesis divided into five chapters and two appendixes. Chapter 1, which was added in the second edition, provides a brief historical overview of "The Abhidhamma Philosophy." Those who approach the Abhidhamma...


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