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Understanding the Abhidharmakosa

Posted: Tue Dec 24, 2013 3:12 pm
by dimeo
I'm just starting to read the Abhidharmakosa from 4th century. I've some questions that I'm wondering about it now. I understand that the Abhidharma are a systematically summary of the 'higher teachings' in the suttas. I've read that it's a "foundational textbook" in Mahayana Buddhism that's widely studied.

My first question is mostly why is it considered so important? My first impression is that it is largely an attempt to set out a vocabulary and to number the quantities of aspects to each concept. Am I just needing to 'get past' the apparent indexing of things, and pay attention to the more insightful and profound statements hidden within the lists of things?

Here are examples of how the text looks like an attempt to teach concepts by defining a vocabulary:
"Space is 'that which does not hinder.' "
"... they are upānānaskandhas. They are called 'of battle'."

Here are examples of numbering precisely how much or how many things there are in each category:
"...the three unconditioned things are pure. Space and the two types of extinctions."
"Visible matter is twofold. Or twentyfold. Sound is eightfold. Taste is of six types. Odor is fourfold. The tangible is of eleven types."
"The (first) seven are threefold."
"There are five parts in the First"


My other question is why did the author go to such great (obsessively so) length to give all these quantities and numbers of everything. Instead of using stories, parables, metaphors and other ways of teaching spiritual concepts, why the attempt to list and number? It's almost like the author thought that there could never be another concept discovered (that hadn't been thought of yet) and would need to add later? Or is there a deeper meaning here, such as a huge effort to teach students the aggregate nature of reality through the suttas?


Another question: what about the teachings in Buddhism which are about liberation from cognitive discursive thought and letting go of grasping at things? This includes letting go of trying to name and number everything? Is seems somewhat contradictory to me that this text seems to be an example of attempting to name and numbering everything (a desire for perfect knowledge?).

Can anyone give a general comment as to what is profound about this book that Buddhists appreciate and have studied it for so many centuries? Anyone have any insight on this text to share?

Re: Understanding the Abhidharmakosa

Posted: Tue Dec 24, 2013 4:22 pm
by Malcolm
dimeo wrote: Can anyone give a general comment as to what is profound about this book that Buddhists appreciate and have studied it for so many centuries? Anyone have any insight on this text to share?
It presents the general anatomy and physiology of Buddhadharma.

Re: Understanding the Abhidharmakosa

Posted: Tue Dec 24, 2013 4:35 pm
by daverupa
It presents the general anatomy and physiology of Sarvāstivādin Buddhadharma ca. 4th-5th century CE.

Re: Understanding the Abhidharmakosa

Posted: Tue Dec 24, 2013 4:41 pm
by Malcolm
daverupa wrote:
It presents the general anatomy and physiology of Sarvāstivādin Buddhadharma ca. 4th-5th century CE.

Well, this not exactly true. The Kosha's verses, true, are based on Sarvāstivādin; the the bhaṣyaṃ is Sautrantika.

In any event, it was the major Abhidharma text on the subcontinent for the last 800 years of Buddhadharma's presence on the subcontinent. If someone wants to understand Indian Buddhadharma's basics, the Kosha is the go to text.

Re: Understanding the Abhidharmakosa

Posted: Tue Dec 24, 2013 5:27 pm
by daverupa
Malcolm wrote:The Kosha's verses, true, are based on Sarvāstivādin; the the bhaṣyaṃ is Sautrantika.
Sure, but I hadn't seen the bhasyam mentioned yet so had not commented with it in mind.
In any event, it was the major Abhidharma text on the subcontinent for the last 800 years of Buddhadharma's presence on the subcontinent. If someone wants to understand Indian Buddhadharma's basics, the Kosha is the go to text.
Well, Indian Buddhadhamma covers more chronology than the last 800 years; the Abhidharmakosa is not a castle built in the sky. It is a trenchant summary position from within scholastic Buddhism, which may or may not matter to the OP, but there it is.

:anjali:

Re: Understanding the Abhidharmakosa

Posted: Tue Dec 24, 2013 7:44 pm
by Malcolm
daverupa wrote:
Malcolm wrote:The Kosha's verses, true, are based on Sarvāstivādin; the the bhaṣyaṃ is Sautrantika.
Sure, but I hadn't seen the bhasyam mentioned yet so had not commented with it in mind.
The two are inseparable, i.e. the one is always studied with the other.

Well, Indian Buddhadhamma covers more chronology than the last 800 years; the Abhidharmakosa is not a castle built in the sky. It is a trenchant summary position from within scholastic Buddhism, which may or may not matter to the OP, but there it is.
The beauty of the Kosha is that is covers pretty much every major Abhidharma trend until the fifth century, based as it is in the Mahāvibhasa, etc. Abhidhamma is a different thing, and was largely irrelevant to continental Buddhadharma and remains so.

Re: Understanding the Abhidharmakosa

Posted: Tue Dec 24, 2013 8:45 pm
by Ayu
For to understand buddhistic texts better, it is good to meditate about the certain passages.

Re: Understanding the Abhidharmakosa

Posted: Wed Dec 25, 2013 10:10 am
by tobes
dimeo wrote:
Another question: what about the teachings in Buddhism which are about liberation from cognitive discursive thought and letting go of grasping at things? This includes letting go of trying to name and number everything? Is seems somewhat contradictory to me that this text seems to be an example of attempting to name and numbering everything (a desire for perfect knowledge?).

Can anyone give a general comment as to what is profound about this book that Buddhists appreciate and have studied it for so many centuries? Anyone have any insight on this text to share?
Its dimensions are manifold - it contains a systematic soteriology, moral psychology, phenomenology of mind, cosmology and metaphysics.

I would say that one of the biggest errors that contemporary Buddhists tend to make is to take the view that the Abhidharma is just a big scholastic exercise in conceptual proliferation, and offers us nothing except that (a tendency which must be relinquished, so therefore, why waste your time...). What's missed in that view is that those schools which talk about the necessity of liberating from cognitive discursive thought etc can only really be understood in a dialectical relationship with the Abhidharma. For example, whilst Nagarjuna clearly takes at aim at certain metaphysical postulates of the Sarvastivadin's, he nonetheless presupposes (and I would argue, in certain ways retains) much of the content preserved in the Kosa.

So it follows that if you want to adopt the advice of those schools, you should be interested in both the content and context of the Abhidharma.

It is easier said than done though. The best English commentaries are generally published in India and can be hard to track down. Just flipping through the Kosa itself is not going to reveal much. You should consider it like all of the great works that human civilisation has produced - great works require very deep and systematic study. i.e. You have to think on it.

Anyway, if only I followed my own advice......

:anjali:

Re: Understanding the Abhidharmakosa

Posted: Wed Dec 25, 2013 8:23 pm
by hop.pala
The abidharmakosa is an very impotant teaching its on the splinting of the consciousness.Very important teaching.

Re: Understanding the Abhidharmakosa

Posted: Thu Dec 26, 2013 1:07 am
by Huifeng
I see that Malcolm's beaten to writing the post I was about to write... :tongue:

Though I'd be more inclined to say that it's neither strict Vaibhasika Sarvastivada nor Sautrantika -- for the former, read the Vibhasa and then Samghabhadra's own Vaibhasika commentaries on Vasu's karikas; and for the later, try to pick and scrape anything by Srilata, Kumaralata etc. from Samghabhadra or the Vyakhya (easier said than done).

Really only a primer for Mahayana in terms of Yogacara / Vijnaptimatra, for a number of other Mahayana flavors it's perhaps not that useful at all.

For those who are interested, Ven. Sangpo's recent reworked translation, in 4 vols, is worth checking out. I've just finished teaching an MA level Abhidharma course here at FGU, which included numerous readings in the Kosa-bhasya. At first I used Pruden's from de la Vallee Poussin, but in the end I found Ven. Sangpo's English far superior -- he managed to get the weird wording out and make much more sense vis-a-vis the Sanskrit and Chinese.

~~ Huifeng

Re: Understanding the Abhidharmakosa

Posted: Thu Dec 26, 2013 3:36 pm
by pueraeternus
Huifeng wrote: For those who are interested, Ven. Sangpo's recent reworked translation, in 4 vols, is worth checking out. I've just finished teaching an MA level Abhidharma course here at FGU, which included numerous readings in the Kosa-bhasya. At first I used Pruden's from de la Vallee Poussin, but in the end I found Ven. Sangpo's English far superior -- he managed to get the weird wording out and make much more sense vis-a-vis the Sanskrit and Chinese.
Thanks Venerable. A most timely post - I was contemplating getting the Sangpo translation, but it is very new (2012), so wasn't sure.