What are Dhammā? – A Deeper Analysis

April 15, 2016; revised November 5, 2017; February 9, 2018

1. This is an advanced topic (yet, hopefully made easy even for those who are not into Abhidhamma). Please don’t hesitate to comment if something is not clear. A simpler version is at: “What are rūpa? – Dhamma are rūpa too!“.

  • In contrast to touching, smelling, and tasting, we do not directly “touch” the external world (matter) with our eyes, ears or the mind.
  • While we experience the “outside world” as it is (or objectively) with our five physical senses, what we interact with our minds are our own “perceptions, feelings, plans, and hopes” for that external world.
  • We will get into more details on those two aspects in the future, but in this post we will look at what “dhammā” are in relation to the mind. That will help us address those other two issues in the future.
  • It is to be noted that dhammā are rūpa below the suddhāshtaka stage; dhamma as in Buddha Dhamma or Abhidhamma refer to Buddha’s teachings.
  • As I mentioned in the “Abhidhamma – Introduction“, I very much want to make Abhidhamma easy to grasp for anyone. I also want to highlight the fact the Buddha Dhamma is well ahead of science (quantum mechanics) in understanding even our material world; science has not even begun to explore the mind.

2. Existence in this world of 31 realms is maintained via our attachments to “things” in this world. These “things” are rūpa.

  • When our minds contact these external rūpa, we generate brief sense enjoyments called assāda; see, “Assāda, Ādīnava, Nissarana“. Since we perceive these sense contacts to be long-lasting and enjoyable (and ignore the sufferings that we go through to acquire them), we willingly desire such sense pleasures.
  • However, any rūpa that arises is subjected to unexpected change (viparināma) and eventual decay and destruction, which is the basis of anicca nature.

3. Another factor that we have not discussed much in detail is that rūpa have different levels of texture or solidity.

  • The rūpa that we experience in the human realms (and those realms below us) are the densest form called dhātu. The deva realms above us have finer dhātu that we cannot see. In the rūpa lōkas, rūpi brahmas have even finer rūpa called mahā bhūta. And in the arūpa lōka, there are just traces of bhūta (just the hadaya vatthu) made of the smallest unit of matter called suddhāshtaka, and of course much finer gathi (or gathi).
  • You may want to review the concepts discussed in the following posts: “What Are rūpa? (Relation to Nibbana)“, “The Origin of Matter – suddhāshtaka“.

4. It is conventional knowledge is that we experience the external world with our five physical senses: We see with our eyes, hear with the ears, smell with the nose, taste with the tongue, and touch things with our physical bodies.

  • Is that all one experiences? Imagine being in a dark chamber totally isolated from the rest of the world. A good example is the punishment by the military called solitary confinement especially in the old days: one is kept in a totally isolated dark cell for many hours at a time.
  • Does such a person experience the outside world? Of course. He/she can think about all sorts of things: recall past events, think about the future, recall any place that he has been to, etc.
  • In fact, we do this any given day, not only by recalling past experiences, but also by imagining desired future events.

5. Sense contacts other than the five physical senses are due to the sixth sense: the mind. One is totally unaware of the external world only when one is totally unconscious.

  • So, what are the rūpa that we experience with our minds? These are dhamma! As stated in the phrase, “manañca paṭicca dhammē ca uppajjati manōviññāṇaṃ“, contacts of dhammā with the mana indriya leads to manō viññāna.

6. The arising of viññāna due to different types of sense inputs is described in abhidhamma (and also in “Cha Chakka Sutta (MN 148)“) as:

cakkhuñca paṭicca rūpē ca uppajjati cakkhuviññāṇaṃ“,

sōtañca paṭicca saddē ca uppajjati sōtaviññāṇaṃ“,

ghānañca paṭicca gandhē ca uppajjati ghānaviññāṇaṃ “,

jivhañca paṭicca rasē ca uppajjati jivhāviññāṇaṃ”,

kāyañca paṭicca phōṭṭhabbē ca uppajjati kāyaviññāṇaṃ”, and

manañca paṭicca dhammē ca uppajjati manōviññāṇaṃ

  • Thus it is clear that manō viññāna arise when dhammā make contact with the mana indriya, just like cakku viññāna arise when (vanna) rūpa or light make contact with the cakku indriya (eyes) or sōta viññāna arise when sadda rūpa (sound waves) make contact with the sōta indriya (ears).
  • kāya viññāna result from contacts which are the most coarse (pottabba or touch due to dhātu), and manō viññāna result from the contacts that are extremely fine, dhamma.

7. Thus, we can categorize our six types of contacts with the external world according to the “coarseness” of the contacts.

  • The body contacts (touch), taste, and smell are the coarse contacts; they involve direct touching (pottabba), and those involve solid particulates (taste and smell).
  • Vision involves light particles (photons) interacting with the physical eye. Light was not even considered a particle until Einstein, Compton and others proved that in the early 1920’s.
  • In the language of physics, sound involves phonons which have even less energy than light photons, i.e., they are “even softer”.

8. We can also see that the sense elements in the body also get less and less coarse in that order. It must be noted that the sensing elements in the ear are not the ear that we see, but very sensitive area deep inside the ear.

  • According to Buddha Dhamma (and confirmed by science), two things respond to each other and last longer when in heavy usage, if they have similar densities. For example, if a steel rod rubs against a wooden rod, the wooden rod will soon wear out. But two steel rods (or two wooden rods) can be rubbing against each for long times.
  • Thus going from touch, smell, taste, sight, and hearing, both the external influences — touch, tasty things, smells, light (photons), sound (phonons) — and the sense elements (body, tongue, nose, eyes, ears) become finer in that order.

9. The finest sensing element is the “mana indriya” which is inside the brain. It is likely to be one of the following: thalamus, amygdala, or hippocampus. I have not had enough time to investigate the functions of these sensitive elements of the brain, but according to Buddha Dhamma, the “mana indriya” is inside the brain and is analogous to the eyes or the ears; more details will become clear as we discuss below.

  • What come down in the legend as the “third eye” is this “mana indriya“. It is supposed to be located behind the forehead.
  • The rūpa that come into contact with the mana indriya are finer than a suddhāshtaka, and are still in the “gathi” stage, but they are on the way to become suddhāshtaka. They are not coarse enough to be “seeing” even with abhiññā powers, and do not make contact with other five coarse senses. Thus they are called, “anidassan appatighan dhammāyatana pariyāpanna rūpan“.
  • Here, “anidassana” means “cannot be seen” and “appatigha” means “cannot be touched or sensed with even the finest instrument”. And, “dhammayatana pariyāpanna rūpan” means “can make contact only with the dhammāyatana or mana indriya”.

10. In the post, “The Origin of Matter – suddhāshtaka“, we discussed how the smallest material element, a suddhāshtaka, is created by the mind with origins in four basic “gathi” of humans that arise due to avijja: “thada gathiya” (in Sinhala) means the “coarseness”, corresponding to patavi; “bandena gatiya” means the “bind together” which leads to liquidity corresponding to āpo; “thējas gatiya” means the “fiery or energetic”, corresponding to tējo; and, “salena gatiya” means the “motion”, corresponding to vāyo.

  • craving for these material things lead to four more gathi due to tanhā: Due to our tendency to think highly (“varnanä karanava” in Sinhala), another gathi of “varna” is created as different manifestations of the satara mahā bhūta. Similarly, three more units called gandha, rasa, and ōja are created due to tanhā corresponding to our desire to be in touch with them, keep them close (rassa), and to re-generate them.

11. Before these eight inseparable units solidify into what we call matter, there is the precursor stage of gathi: cultivation of gathi leads to bhūta, which are in the suddhāshtaka stage. Further solidification of bhūta leads to mahā bhūta. The fine rūpa of brahmas are composed of mahā bhūta.

  • The gathi stage of rūpa — the origins of rūpa — are also called “manō rūpa: these are really what we visualize in our minds. We can visualize scenes from the past, and those are manō rūpa. In the process of making gathi, we constantly think about associated material things; those are manō rūpa.

12. mahā bhūta, upon further condensation, become dhātu. The bodies of devas are made of finer dhātu, and our bodies — as well as all material things we see — are composed of denser dhātu.

  • Therefore, the origins of all matter is gathi! But our gathi (of normal humans) actually do not lead to the formation of significant amounts of even suddhāshtaka. So, we still have a long way to go before we can explain how these solid objects in our world were formed as described in the Agganna Sutta.

13. Just like the eye is receiving visual information or the ear the sounds, the “mana indriya” is receiving “dhammā“. And dhammā are much finer than light or sound rūpa. In fact, all five physical senses deal with signals transmitted via solidified particles made out of suddhāshtaka, but dhammā are just energy, below what we call “matter”. Actually, even most physicists do not consider light as matter or “particles”; I will write a post on why light photons are indeed particles according to quantum mechanics.

  • As we discussed in the post, “The Origin of Matter – suddhāshtaka“, even a single light particle (photon) is made of a very large number of suddhāshtaka.
  • As we discussed there, a suddhāshtaka is made by the mind. Dhammā can be considered the early stages of a suddhāshtaka; they are in fact kammic energy packets made by the mind in javana citta,and arise due to our gathi. This is really the link between mind and matter!

14. Therefore, all six senses allow our minds to interact with the material world. We actually interact with two worlds: the material world and the mind world or the manō thalaya.

  • Different types of rūpa (varna, gandha, rasa, ōja, pottabba) in our physical world (rūpa lōka) are built with suddhāshtaka. Dhammā or kamma beeja (in the manō lōka) are basically “energy packets” not yet solidified to the state of a suddhāshtaka.
  • The pancakkhandha of a living being has “components” from both worlds. The rūpakkhandha are our mental impressions of the material world (as mental records); see, “Pancakkhandha or Five Aggregates – A Misinterpreted Concept“. The other four khandha (vedana, sanna, sankhara, viññāna) are our mental impressions of the mind world.
  • Each and every living being is associated with its own pancakkhandha, because one makes one’s own mental impressions. The Buddha said that one cannot define a living being with less that five khandhās.
  • To repeat: One’s pancakkhadha is not one’s body as is commonly described. It is not even physical. It is all mental: “Pancupādānakkhandha – It is All Mental“.

15. The creation of suddhāshtaka by the mind in javana citta, starts first by enhancing one’s gathi. As we will discuss in a future post on the “Asēvana Paccaya“, the more one does activities related to a given gathi, that gathi grows.

  • The growing of a gathi is really the accumulation of a kamma beeja (seed), and that is deposited in the kamma bhava in the mind plane. These are really dhamma that is in “manañca paṭicca dhammē ca uppajjati manōviññāṇaṃ“.
  • And they (dhamma or kamma beeja) can come back to one’s mind when the mind is in a receptive state for such a gathi. Thus it is a self-feeding feedback loop.
  • This is an important point to contemplate on. This is why a drunkard gets the urge to drink, or a gambler gets the urge to visit a casino. People who don’t have such gathi, do not get such urges because they do not have corresponding dhammā repeatedly coming back to impinge on the mana indriya.
  • By the way, as discussed in the “Living Dhamma” section, any such “bad gathi” can be reduced and eventually eliminated by a two-step method: (i) forcefully stop activities — and conscious thoughts about them — that contribute that gathi when one becomes aware DURING such an act OR a conscious thought, (ii) keep learning Buddha Dhamma to comprehend how that process can actually work (as discussed starting with basic fundamentals of Buddha Dhamma in the “Living Dhamma” section); one key aspect here to contemplate on the bad consequences of such actions/thoughts.

16. To emphasize, dhammā arise due to kamma that we commit. The more kamma we do, the corresponding dhammā will grow, and become gathi.

  • Dhammā means “to bear”; one bears what one likes and what one engages in.
  • When one cultivates “dog gathi” that is what one bears. And that is what comes back to one’s mind at the cuti-patisandhi moment and can lead to the next bhava, and thus birth (jati) as a dog.

17. However, creation of a suddhāshtaka requires trillions of citta vithi running consecutively. Thus it does not happen significantly by a normal human being. It requires not only jhānas, but being able to get into samāpatthi. Those with abhiññā powers have the ability to get into samāpatti very quickly.

  • When in jhānas, cittas can still switch back to five physical senses in between. When one is in a jhāna, one can hear external sounds, for example.
  • However, when one is in a samāpatti, the jhānic cittas can flow unceasingly for long times. Thus, pancadvāra citta vithi cannot run in between, and thus one is totally unaware of the external environment when in samāpatti.

18. Furthermore, when in samāpatti, jhānic citta flow unceasingly and make each new javana citta stronger than the predecessor with the “Asēvana Paccaya“. We will discuss this in detail in the future.

  • This is how those with abhiññā powers (i.e., who can easily get into samāpatti and have practiced it well) can even make physical objects: One can start off with a picture of a flower in one’s mind and then by creating more and more suddhāshtaka with each new javana citta, create an actual flower in a very short time!

19. Finally, dhamma in the nāma lōka are the same as those viññana established in the kamma bhava. This is a subtle point; see, “Viññāna Aggregate“.

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