[L. 79 | 86] 29 December 1963

I expect this letter will be a little dull and prosy since I propose to talk about the cittavīthi and the Abhidhamma Pitaka. My purpose is rather to put you in a position to answer questions that may be raised about the rough treatment that these things receive in the Notes.

I have been refreshing my mind about the cittavīthi and its origins in the Abhidhamma Pitaka in order to make sure that CITTA is all in order. I find, to begin with, that I have given a wrong reference—it should be Chapter XIV, and not XXII, of the Visuddhimagga. This is not of much importance, and can easily be corrected; and, anyway, Ch. XXII is the correct reference for the second part of the note. Next, I see that the whole question of the origins of the cittavīthi is dealt with in the Ven. Ñānamoli Thera's translation, The Path of Purification, Ch. IV note 13 (p. 131).[1] The relevant passages from the Vibhanga and Patthāna are given in full, and it can be seen how the Sutta material is there interpreted (or, rather, misinterpreted) for the first time as a temporal 'succession of items each coming to an end before the next appears' (to quote my own words from CITTA). If, therefore, anyone asks why these two particular books are singled out for criticism and on what grounds they are criticized, it is necessary only to point to this footnote in The Path of Purification. Turning to Ch. XIV of that book (which chapter contains the principal account of the cittavīthi), I find the following footnote (no. 47, p. 515):

'For those who do not admit the cognitive series beginning with receiving, just as they do not admit the heart basis [don't worry about this—it has no connexion with the cognitive series], the Pali has been handed down in various places, in the way beginning "For the eye-consciousness-element as receiving (sampaticchanāya cakkhuviññānadhātuyā)"; for the Pali cannot be contradicted.' (Paramatthamañjūsa—Vis. Mag. Sub Commentary) The quotation as it stands is not traced to the Pitakas.
So you see that I am not the first to question the validity of the cittavīthi. Apparently there has been, in time past, enough opposition to it to call for official censure of scepticism about it, and quotation of passages from the Pali (i.e. earlier texts) in support of the doctrine. Alas! these would-be authoritative passages are not to be found even in the Abhidhamma Pitaka. The very fact that it is found necessary to assert the validity of a doctrine (instead of allowing it to speak for itself) is at once enough to arouse suspicions. Compare this passage from Kierkegaard:
Objective thinking...imparts itself without further ado, and, at the most, takes refuge in assurances respecting its own truth, in recommendations as to its trustworthiness, and in promises that all men will some time accept it—it is so certain. Or perhaps rather so uncertain; for the assurances and the recommendations and the promises, which are presumably for the sake of the others who are asked to accept it, may also be for the sake of the teacher, who feels the need of the security and dependability afforded by being in a majority. (CUP, pp. 70-1)
How often K. hits the nail on the head! And how quotable he is! So much for the cittavīthi.

In my last letter I sent you a translation of Anguttara V,viii,9, which contains this passage: '...they, being undeveloped in body, virtue, mind, and understanding, when discussing the advanced teaching and engaging in cross-questioning, falling into a dark teaching will not awaken.' I added a footnote to say that the word abhidhamma that occurs in this passage does not refer to the Abhidhamma Pitaka. This needs some further discussion.

In the Ven. Buddhaghosa Thera's Commentary (Atthasālinī) to the first book of the Abhidhamma Pitaka (Dhammasanganī), he gives the traditional account of the origin of the Abhidhamma Pitaka. This is to the effect that, during the three months of one vassāna[2] season, the Buddha stayed in the Tāvatimsa heaven (or perhaps Tusita, I forget) teaching abhidhamma to the assembled devatā. At the end of each day he repeated the day's instruction to the Ven. Sāriputta Thera, who handed it on to the other bhikkhus. This instruction was gathered together and now forms the books of the Abhidhamma Pitaka. According to the tradition, then, the matter contained in the present Abhidhamma Pitaka was in existence before the Buddha's final extinction at Kusināra.

In accordance with this tradition, all the other Commentaries of the Ven. Buddhaghosa Thera insist that wherever the word abhidhamma occurs in the Suttas it refers to the books of the Abhidhamma Pitaka. Moreover, the Ven. Buddhaghosa Thera, in the Atthasālinī, utters anathema—perhaps this is too strong, but I don't recall the actual words—against people who doubt that the Abhidhamma Pitaka is really the Buddha's ipsissimum verbum. (As above, with the cittavīthi, this circumstance points to a solid body of scepticism about the authenticity of the A.P., and to the commentator's subconscious uneasiness about the soundness of his position, requiring him to have the majority on his side.)

The word abhidhamma occurs in the Suttas, sometimes alone, and sometimes together with the word abhivinaya, just as the simple word dhamma is sometimes linked with the simple word vinaya. This leads at once to the question: If the word abhidhamma refers to the Abhidhamma Pitaka, in distinction from the word dhamma, which refers to the Dhamma (i.e. Sutta) Pitaka, are we not entitled to look for an Abhivinaya Pitaka as well as a Vinaya Pitaka? But there is no trace of such a thing; and it is quite clear that abhivinaya means something like 'advanced discipline', which is part and parcel of the Vinaya Pitaka. (We can ignore here the possibility that vinaya, as well as abhivinaya, means something more than just the rules. Literally, it means 'leading out', and as vineti it occurs in the Anguttara Sutta that I translated for you, where it is rendered as 'to direct'—'they are unable to direct them in higher virtue, higher mind, and higher understanding'.)

Similarly, we have no a priori reason for supposing that abhidhamma means more than 'advanced teaching', understood as the more difficult and essential parts of the Sutta teaching. It is a constant feature of Indian philosophical or religious texts that they are attributed to some ancient and famous teacher in order to give them authority (in the West, on the contrary, the more modern the text the better); and this holds true even of the obviously later Pali books (the Ven. Mahākaccāna Thera is credited with the Nettipakarana and with a grammar, while the Ven. Sāriputta Thera has the Patisambhidāmagga and, possibly, the Niddesas attributed to him). It is thus wholly to be expected that attempts should be made to secure the authority of the Abhidhamma Pitaka (assuming that it is, in fact, a later production) by identifying it with the abhidhamma of the Suttas. Add to this the fact that the Atthasālinī and the other commentarial works of the Ven. Buddhaghosa Thera are perhaps nine hundred years later than the Abhidhamma Pitaka that they set out to defend, and you will see that if we find internal reason for rejecting the books of the A.P. as not authoritative (i.e. if we find that the texts of these books cannot be reconciled with our understanding of the Sutta texts) there is nothing very much to compel us to accept them as the Buddha's own Teaching.

My teacher, the late Ven. Nāyaka Thera, said in private that nobody had ever become arahat through listening to the books of the Abhidhamma Pitaka. He did not, however, say that they were wrong. But if you refer to the passage from the Anguttara Sutta that I have quoted above, you will see that a teaching that does not lead to awakening (or enlightenment)—that is, if it sets out to do so—can be called a kanha dhamma, a 'dark teaching'. This prompts the thought that the books of the Abhidhamma Pitaka originated, not as tradition describes, but as the kanha dhamma resulting from mistaken abhidhamma discussion by monks undeveloped in body, virtue, mind, and understanding.

Be all this as it may, the Notes refer to the A.P. only in connexion with two specific things—the cittavīthi and the paticcasamuppāda—and there is no indiscriminate criticism of the A.P. as a whole.

Editorial notes:

[79.1] Path of Purification, p. 131, note 13: This long note begins:

Bhavanga (life-continuum, lit. Constituent of becoming) and javana (impulsion) are first mentioned in this work at Ch. I §57 (see n. 16); this is the second mention. The 'cognitive series (citta-vīthi)' so extensively used here is unknown as such in the Pitakas... [Back to text]
[79.2] Vassāna (Sinh: Vas): Rains. The rainy season, following the four months of the hot season and preceding four months of cold, lasts (in the Ganges Valley area) from July to November. During three of these four months monks are expected to live in one place and not wander about; and thus the Vas is sometimes regarded as a period of retreat. [Back to text