Suttanta Versus Abhidhamma Rivers

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Irrawaddi River, Bagan, 2015

There seems to be quite a bit of confusion about what the Abhidhamma is all about. If I were to describe a river based on Suttanta values and then describe it again in terms of Abhidhamma and commentary values, Abhidhamma will be very clear in its validity and purpose. I don’t recall the Buddha explaining rivers in Suttas in the way I will explain them. However, I will try to explain them “as if” they were spoken in the Suttas and also “as if” they were mentioned in the Abhidhamma and Commentaries.

The Suttas found in the second basket of the 3 baskets (Ti-piṭaka) are very general in nature and give “first look” or “surface” approach to describing the nature of things. The Abhidhamma which is the third of the Tipiṭaka digs a little deeper and goes into the vast details which fit into the same description. They are the technical footnotes to the suttas. The lists, the charts, the categories and matrix details common to the Suttas that do not need to be repeated over and over again for each Sutta. However, those who are less technical or deep in their personalities will get less inspired from such technical matters.

It is like merely knowing about e=mc² versus knowing how to calculate e=mc² as a physics professor does. I have often said that Buddha, Dhamma and Saṅgha can be related to e=mc². Someone like Einstein, who discovers the natural laws, is rare to appear in the world (dullabho). The laws he discovers are like the Dhamma. The physics professors are like those who can master those laws in the ultimate sense, but not powerful enough to discover them. The real Saṅgha are those who are enlightened and know the Dhamma like a physics professor. It is not a community of practitioners or those in robes. According to this e=mc² example, one needs to not only attend university, but to become a professor of full mastery to join the real Saṅgha. In this article we will use a “hypothetical mention of a river” as an example for comparison. That means, if a river were mentioned, this is how it would be spoken about.

The Buddha might describe a river as impermanent with a mere a single mention. “This river over here is impermanent, I say, but few see it that way.”

It is actually spoken as:

They (those who are uneducated) perceive water as water. But then they identify with water … Why is that? Because they haven’t completely understood it,


What does that mean to you? In the Suttas, the four elements are usually explained in terms of internal and external elements. Internally, earth elements are represented by the solid body parts and organs while water elements are represented by the blood, saliva, urine, etc. The Suttas go on further to explain the external viewed elements with earth as dirt or solid matter from the Earth, and water as found in the oceans, etc. A Suttanta person who is a Westerner in America would talk about how the Colorado river is soon to be dried up, dead and gone. The great river which was once roaring is now just a small trickle due to climate change. That is how they might imagine the standard Buddhist terms for impermanence (anicca) as, “arising, standing, perishing” for a river. They might think about pollution or the color of the river after a strong rain where it takes a few days or a week to clear up. They will think that water is water. However, the first thought impression for a Suttanta person would be the literal life and death of a river. This lifetime may be imagined as 100’s or 1000’s of years. The same is true with how the Suttantas think of the body as impermanent. They think of impermanence of their body as “one day I will die.” This is true and one day we will all die. Again the same would be said about pollution or a brown color to a river due to heavy rains in relation to the body getting sick. This is also true. However, there is no immediate way to see impermanence as a Suttanta in a moment to moment evaluation. If one is healthy, these changes are difficult to personally experience. This is why I used a hypothetical river quote as an example.

An Abhidhamma person would add more detail to this description. There is a Heraclitus saying that “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” This implies that the river, is constantly changing from moment to moment. This paints a metaphor of a river that is constantly flowing and always changing.

Abhidhamma and the commentaries force one to think in terms of momentary change where Suttanta makes the concept of momentary “optional” by omission of instructions and ambiguous speech for what has been memorized and finally written down as a “Sutta”. If the Buddha were to say, “This river is impermanent.”, then he could be speaking about either in general life and death of a river, or the momentary nature of a river. While the Suttanta could also think this way, generally speaking, they don’t. They take things for the obvious and stated values and try not to change anything or go deeper than what is said in that Sutta or other Suttas. If they add anything or explain anything other than the pure words of the Buddha in the Suttas, they become a commentary which they themselves are against. In the analogy of the river being a body, the impermanence mentioned by the Buddha pretty much speaks of birth, old age, sickness and death as impermanent qualities.

The Abhidhamma is a little different and goes even further. If we were to take an imaginary cross sectional area the size of 1cm³ in the center of a flowing river, we would see that collections of drops of water that are entering that area, and then leaving that area. If we timed our video camera to have a frame rate to be the same speed as the river flowing, we could say, that 1cm³ of water entered, stood, and then left that small area. We can go to a finer detail with a much smaller cross sectional area that is only the size of a single water molecule. Again if we set our video frame rate much faster to catch and see a single water molecule enter, remain and exit this very small cross-sectional area in 3 frames, then we can see these qualities clearly for each moment of “river water flow”. At this stage, we stop seeing a river. We see only molecules. We are getting closer to what reality is, but we must go further.

We can go further and further, until we get the smallest immutable piece of matter which is called Paramattha in Abhidhamma. The goal of Abhidhamma is to only see Paramattha or immutable phenomenon in its individual form. It is similar to seeing the pixels on a computer screen. When you get that close, you can see it is impermanent moment to moment because every screen has a refresh rate even when the picture is not moving. You can see that the mind is interpreting the reality from data to create emotions from a collection of pixels as a picture. When we look at things in such tiny ways based on physical and momentary time measurements, we lose the idea that “water flows” or even “water moves.” Pixels don’t move either. It becomes more about binary matter rather than water. With this methodology, we can also see the four elements more clearly in a single binary piece of matter too. It has hardness and delimitation which is real earth element. Its bonding abilities are cohesion while its lack of bonds is flowing. It has temperature as “fire”, and it has inertia is the “air” element. These are all present within the same particle. These “qualities” of materiality arise as a group, remain as a group, and pass away together as a group. This is the goal of Abhidhamma and also the goal of Traditional Buddhism in the Suttas as well. The Buddha never said this was wrong and the moment the Suttanta person adds anything or explains anything not mentioned in the suttas, he is breaking his own rules. He is saying, “Don’t listen to the time tested Abhidhamma and ancient commentaries. Listen to my own commentary instead.” Furthermore, a Suttanta person cannot answer this actual opening statement said by the Buddha in the first Sutta of the Middle Length Discourses.

“Take an uneducated ordinary person who has not seen the noble ones, and is neither skilled nor trained in the teaching of the noble ones. They’ve not seen good persons, and are neither skilled nor trained in the teaching of the good persons. They perceive earth as earth. But then they identify with earth, they identify regarding earth, they identify as earth, they identify that ‘earth is mine’, they take pleasure in earth. Why is that? Because they haven’t completely understood it, I say.

They perceive water as water. But then they identify with water … Why is that? Because they haven’t completely understood it, I say. … fire.. air..


When we look at a river in the smallest forms, this riddle of “He sees water as water” can be explained very clearly. “The simple minded person sees just regular water that flows in a river.” “They see water as water”. The Abhidhamma person sees water or any material nature as something very different from normal people see it. They see it on the pixelated level. One who considers deeply, one whose mind is quick, and whose mind is sharp literally dives into the material, by zooming into unimaginable magnifications while setting the frame rate and shutter speed at unimaginable speeds.

The Buddha definitely said, “The body is impermanent”. Was he talking about from birth to death or was he taking a more modern scientific approach to how long the cells in the body last before being replaced? Or, was he talking in terms of atoms, quarks and something deeper that arises and passes away? When we go down to the smallest immutable level, we can then contemplate impermanence on an extreme ultimate momentary basis. This is the physics explanation of matter, but kalāpa is the Abhidhamma’s explanation. It is a little different and not seen by scientific devices. It can only be seen by the mind, yet it is confirmed by many actual meditators with such mental magnification power. Kalāpa is a group of materiality in the form of a particle. It can explain many things, such as how kamma affects the birth, health, the lifespan of a human, how we stay warm, our looks, or how our body grows or heals itself. It also explains a connection between the mind and body with mind produced materiality and how a human face can have darkness or radiance depending on the person’s mental mindset.

When form is perceived in small particles, something that appears as satisfying is actually something totally different. It loses its “mind interpreted” form and becomes raw sense data that arises and passes, like someone only seeing individual pixels on a computer screen.

This can and should be applied to the mental components that make up a self as well, such as: feeling, perception, volitional formations, and consciousness. These are connected with the five senses including the mind as a sixth. When we look at sense data, we also have a “stream” or a “river” of data (data stream) to come in contact with the relative sense of the six senses at an intensely fast “refresh rate”. The faster the refresh rate, the more “realistic” something seems as far as technological devices are concerned. A security camera will have a very slow refresh rate to save space or bandwidth. The new flagship phones have 120 refreshes per second (120 Hz). YouTube now supports 60 frames per second at 4K resolution. The higher the resolution, the better the quality. That is why 8K resolution is better than 360p (360px X 640px). The same is true with digital sound. So the same is true with our own five senses with the mind as the sixth . Even how we taste is a “stream of data” that passes over the taste buds.

A drink can be seen from a Suttanta perspective as, “I wanted it, now I have it, I drank it, it tasted good, now it is finished. I am satisfied now, but tomorrow I will want another one.” The Abhidhamma person sees the momentary information on a more detailed level hundreds or thousands of times in each stage. While the Abhidhamma person is drinking he should see it as uncountable sense data merely passing over the tongue sensors in small time sliced moments in time. Just like someone looking at individual frames of a video very slowly, or even the pixels of each frame, one should taste in the same way, seeing that each “taste moment” never lasts long enough to get full enjoyment while drinking a tasty drink. I encourage you to take a moment to see for yourself how all the senses can be viewed on a time-slice way, one by one as you direct your mind to each of the individual senses: sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch sensations and thoughts. How fast does individual “touch sensation” data flow through your mind right now? You can know for yourself if this Dhamma article is correctly spoken.

So which one is correct? Should we look at the general lifetime of something as being impermanent or the momentary lifetime? The Abhidhamma perspective is not a separate school of thought. It is a (w)holistic approach with details that compliment what the Suttas actually say. The famous Sutta, which was second after the very first sermon of The Buddha, is called the Anattalakkhaṇa Sutta. In this Sutta there is a stock phrase of how we should look at both mind and matter. A stock phrase means that it is repeated again and again throughout the vast number of Buddhist scriptures called the Tipiṭaka. This is typically called the 11 ways to look at mind and matter. Here you will see the words, gross (generally) and subtle (fine detail). Therefore we should not only look at the big picture, but also the fine detail right down to the pixels. The answer is looking at the river in both the Suttanta and Abhidhamma ways are correct and looking at the river in only one single way is not enough. We must see both the general and detailed natures of the river.

 ‘‘Tasmātiha, bhikkhave, yaṃ kiñci rūpaṃ atītānāgatapaccuppannaṃ ajjhattaṃ vā bahiddhā vā oḷārikaṃ vā sukhumaṃ vā hīnaṃ vā paṇītaṃ vā yaṃ dūre santike vā, sabbaṃ rūpaṃ – netaṃ mama, nesohamasmi, na meso attāti

Wherefore, monks, whatever is material form…feeling…perception…volitional formations…consciousness, past, future, present or internal or external, or gross or subtle, or low or excellent whether it is far or near—all body should, by means of right wisdom, be seen, as it really is, thus: This is not mine, this am I not, this is not my self.

Mv MMPara22 anattalakkhaṇa sutta

2 thoughts on “Suttanta Versus Abhidhamma Rivers”

  1. Do you think the particles and dharmas described in the abhidhamma are real forces, qualities of the objective world (like quarks, quanta and gluons), or are they pure phenomena of the mind, the content of experience that is analyzed in meditation, like a reflection in a mirror not is actually a face, but only a reflection?

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