Monday, 10 March 2014

INTRODUCTION - GATEWAY TO ABHIDHARMA - Illuminating the Treasure of Knowledge

 Illuminating the Treasure of Knowledge


        In the golden age of Indian civilization, a great part of India was united under the prosperous rule of the national dynasty of the Guptas. Arts and sciences flourished and the Buddhists took a prominent part in this revival. Thus, after the first millennium of the history of Buddhism in India, a further important change, a new direction was given to Buddhist philosophy by two brothers, Arya Asanga and Acharya Vasubandhu.

       Evidently, in accordance with the spirit of the new age, the condemnation of all logic which characterized the preceding period was forsaken and Buddhists began to take a very keen interest in logical problems. The first outstanding feature of that period is a keen interest in logic, which towards the end of the period becomes overwhelming and supersedes the former theoretical part of Buddhism.

       As a religion Buddhism remained in this period much the same as it had been in the preceding one. Some changes were introduced to the theory of Nirvana, of the Buddha and of the absolute in order to bring it in line with the idealistic principle of the system.

       At that time Acharya Vasubhandu became a great teacher of many Indian masters in Magadha; his fame at that time must have been very great. Among the great names of later Buddhism the name of Vasubandhu occupies an exceptional position, he is the greatest among the great. He is the only Indian master who is given the title of the Second Buddha.

      His teaching was encyclopaedic, embracing all the sciences cultivated in India at that time. He had a great many pupils, but four of them attained celebrity. They became “Independent Scholars”, they freed themselves from the influence of their teacher and advanced further, each in the special branch of his studies. Those were; Sthiramati, master in the knowledge of phenomenology (Abhidharma), Arya Vimuktasena, master in perfection of wisdom (prajna-paramita), Gunaprabha, master in the law of discipline (vinaya) and Dignaga, master in logic and epistemology (pramana). 

         Works of all these masters are preserved in Tibetan translation. The major work of Vasubhandu is under the title of Abhidharma-kosa - “Treasure of Knowledge”, a manual for the class of Buddhist science (Abhidharma), which is preserved in Tibetan translation with many commentaries and sub-commentaries by Tibetan scholars.

       The study of Vasubhandu’s Abhidharma-kosa became the foundation of all scholarship, and Tibetan Buddhist (monastic) Universities: GADEN, SERA and DREPUNG have faithfully preserved the best achievements of Indian philosophy in the golden age of Indian civilization.


       The main subject of the thesis GATEWAY TO ABHIDHARMA” is Abhidharma or phenomenology and is written in Tibetan. It classifies the scriptural teachings of the Buddha concerning the training of higher wisdom encompassing the study of metaphysics and cosmology. 

       Abhidharma was defined by the great master Vasubandhu as pure wisdom. Its correlating mental factors and clear science leads to its attainment. Secondly, it is one of the three collections of canonical Buddhist texts, the other two being Vinaya and Sutra. Abhidharma texts contain a systematic analysis of the mind and the universe.

       The GATEWAY TO ABHIDHARMA exposes the five basic categories as objects of knowledge with special focus on Karma, the law of causation as the process generating the Universe. It also explains the subtle relationship between mind and body, the nature of the mind, the potential for individual growth and the generation of mental and physical health. 

       It further clarifies the method for achieving the ultimate aim of all sentient beings; obtaining happiness and a sense of fulfilment through proper physical and mental development. 

       The above subject matter brings together works of the Buddha, ancient Indian and Tibetan scholars as well as works by modern Buddhist scholars.


       During the course of the research I received direct advice from His Holiness the 14th  Dalai Lama at my first private audience with him on 4th December 1990 at Gaden Monastery, India. It was his visit to Gaden, Mundgod, inaugurating the new Gaden Tshogchen, the main building of Monastic University of Gaden. I sought out his audience mainly for some advice on my ongoing Abhidharma research for Geshe Lharampa dissertation for GELUKPA UNIVERSITY. The audience took quite a long time and at the end I was completely astonished by being in his presence. After returning from the audience I was still remembering vividly everything he said to me and immediately I wrote down a note of his words related to the research project. 

       The note says: 
“Very important arguments in Abhidharmakosa literature are its detailedness in descriptions on the causal law and the mind and mental factors. But cosmology in Abhidharmakosa doesn’t correspond to modern scientific facts. This principle could be interpreted better with Bodhisattvacaryavatara’s view, as it says ‘Causal law can’t be reached by ordinary conceptual thoughts and knowledge,’ as with logical proofs such as that mentioned in Chandrakirti’s Madyamikavatara: “A cup of water can be also real blood and real nectar respectively to the hungry ghost and devas in respect to their karmic results”. 

Also as said in Je-Rinpoche (Tsongkhapa) in his eloquent speech on the essence of interpretive meaning and definitive meaning that “Ultimately things should be analysed only with a stainless logical reason”, modern scientific facts are established by direct perception, that cannot be shown to be in error. Abhidharmic descriptions on cosmology could have been based on the common sense of that time and culture of that period or could it have been taken from ancient non-Buddhist Indian philosophical sources?

Failure of the Abhidharmic prospective of cosmology will not affect the principles of Buddhism and its real meaning, that is the Four Noble Truths and the Causal law of nature. Nowadays accusations are sometimes made towards general Buddhist theory and practices simply due to some confusion with regard to an Abhidharmic description of cosmology.

       Therefore, it would be good if you could write something regarding how to harmonize those disputing views through finding right interpretations. Surely it’s difficult to make a conclusive discussion immediately, but it might become very useful for further research. It doesn’t matter even if somebody thinks that in negating Abhidharmakosha’s viewpoint of the cosmic world he would be a nihilist. It is good to consider the broader picture, rather than being narrow minded. Once you have finished the thesis we can discuss again if times permits.”

       The complete introduction of the text was presented to His Holiness the Dalai Lama in the year 1993. He expressed his well-wishing and encouraged me, saying that he would look at it again, once its computerization has been completed.

       The research for the above thesis was undertaken from 1st July 1990 to 1st. July 1992. The thesis was presented with approval of the supervisor Khen-Rinpoche of Gaden Jangtse, Je-Tsun Sonam Kunga. The thesis has been checked and discussed by  Ga-Shar Khenpo Gyuto Khensur Lungrik Namgyal (currently Gaden Tripa), Ser-Jey Khenpo Geshe Losang Tsering and Dre-Gomang Khentsab Geshe Yong-Jong.  It was the first dissertation submitted for the Geshe Lharam examination by a candidate educated solely in India.  

      The dissertation was written completely in my own handwriting due to the limited possibility of using typewriters and computer system for Tibetan calligraphy. Therefore, it hasn’t been thoroughly edited according to modern standards.         

       Of course I would like the dissertation to be part of a wider analysis, comparing sources from Southern Buddhist traditions, known as Theravada, with Northern Buddhist traditions. Also I would like my work to be accessed by the diverse traditions of Tibetan Buddhist such as Sakya, Kagyu and Nyingma etc. Again I feel in this era of globalisation this work should cut through World religions and World cultures to make the arguments on an International level! 


      Just after the exams, Prof. Tsultrim Kalsang of Japan had agreed to finance its publication at Loseling Printing Press, Mundgod. However, owing to the future possibility of computer systems and acceptance by the Asian Classic Input Project to computerize it, the publication has been interrupted.  I would like to take this opportunity to thank Prof. Tsultrim Kalsang for his generosity.
       Its computerization had begun once at Ser-Mey computer centre under the Asian Classic Input Project in 1994 with the support of Michael Roach. But the computerization was unfortunately stopped half-way mainly due to my absence from India, having moved to Europe in end of year 1995.

       From the middle of the year 2004 the library of Gaden Jangtse Monastic University has taken the initiative of computerizing the text upon my request. The computerization has been done with great care and enthusiasm by the staff and special care for corrections has been given by Geshe Lobsang Choney. I would like to thank the staff and the Geshe-La. In the year 2005 I spent three weeks (March 29th – April 18th) in Gaden Monastery, India for final editing at the library of Gaden Jangtse Monastic University and for making a few printed copies in provisional book form in the city of Hubli.
         During the computerization the text was left in its original form, except the position of the footnotes were changed in order to provide easier access.  A provisional printed copy of the computerized final draft was presented to His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala on 21 January 2006 for his review and blessings.


       I would like to give special thanks to His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama whose views and teachings have been the main source of inspiration in my heart, specially appreciating in interpretation of great Sakyamuni’s teachings as an universally practical spiritual value to the world of the 21st century. I regard him as my root guru as I received the Lam Rim and Lo Jong and major vajrayana practice teachings from him.

       And thanks for his very precious advice and instructions bestowed regarding the process of the thesis, which made this book uniquely significant. 


       My supervisor, the late Je-Tsun Sonam Kunga Rinpoche, very kindly read in detail the thesis and expressed his contentment. Such approval made me very confident with my own work! In fact, I have studied under his guidance for about 14 years at Gaden Jangtse, and he has been my main teacher and became a very kind guide, opening my eyes towards a world of great treatises of Buddhadharma. 

      I would like to dedicate this book as a symbol of my respect and admiration for the late Je-Tsun Sonam Kunga Rinpoche, for being a very learned, great practitioner and immensely gentle teacher, whose life corresponded exactly to those of authentic Kadampa Geshes of previous eras. Dedicated especially in memory of his tireless effort for  teaching great treatises of Dharma with Bodhicitta heart to hundreds of disciples, including myself.

      Also I would like to add thanks to my parents, who have been very courageous loving parents and have shown natural enthusiasm in practicing virtuous actions. 

      It is my great joy that finally I am able to bring this book to light, 12 years after its manuscript was completed.  I would like to express my gratitude towards those good hearted friends and benefactors, who have provided my sustenance and help for the realization of this work.

     May it also bring about causes and conditions for the happiness of all sentient beings.

Geshe Gedun Tharchin, Lharampa
Rome, Italy