THE STUDY OF THE ABHIDHAMMA: AMONGST THE LAITY IN MYANMAR
Daw Yujanañâúî Tutor, Department of Abhidhamma, Faculty of Pariyatti, ITBM University, Myanmar
"Myanmar" is widely acknowledged as a Theravāda Buddhist country where Abhidhamma study is prominent. Abhidhamma is studied not only as a rational, comprehensible and applicable way of life but also as an essential guide to the final emancipation. Besides, in Myanmar, Abhidhamma study is pursued not only by not monks and nuns but also by lay people. It is prescribed as part of the syllabus at various levels, from fundamental to the advanced courses such as Pathamapyan courses covering elementary (pathamange), intermediate (pathamalat) and advanced (pathamagyi) levels, Dhammâcariya level, Tipiíakadhara oral and written examinations, University level and Community level.
The principal objective of this presentation, however, is to highlight Theravâda Abhidhamma studies in the grass root level, that is, how the Laity in Myanmar studies this important subject. Research methods mainly applied here is the Cross-sectional methods including interview and questionnaires.
Here, this new research, still in progress, may appear a bit narrow in scope as the data collection is focused only on a few leading Abhidhamma Associations in Yangon. However, I hope this paper offers you the same thing in the end.
First, historically speaking, the Abhidhamma study by the masses began during the lifetime of Venerable Ñâúadhaja, better known as Ledi Sayadaw (1846-1923). Ledi Sayadaw's aim was to "make the profound Abhidhamma teachings accessible to everyone".
Ledi Sayadaw made the first move to compile the "Paramattha saàkhepa" (Paramattha saàkhip in Myanmar) which is the "abridgement of the Ultimate realities", written in Myanmar traditional verse form. He finished the work in the year 1903. Subsequently, "Saàkhepa Association" was formed and reports highlighted that it had around 400,000 members and that examinations were also held.
Later on, many Abhidhamma scholars, monastic and laity, compiled fundamental Abhidhamma texts in the forms of tabulation, formula and symbols, which are simple yet comprehensive that Abhidhamma subject became easily comprehensible to many.
Among the academic scholars, ‘Mûla Paííhâna Sayadaw Venerable Nârada' (1898-1981), an eminent scholar, translated two Abhidhamma texts: ‘Discourse on Elements' (Dhâtukathâ) and ‘Conditional Relations' (Paííhâna). Moreover, Sayadaw made endeavour to simplify the profound Abhidhamma texts such as ‘Yamaka', ‘Paííhâna and ‘Dhâtukathâ' by means of diagrams and performed as the Patron of ‘Abhidhamma Propagation Association' where he had imparted Abhidhamma knowledge for 30 years.
For learners of Abhidhamma, commentaries and sub-commentaries compiled by Venerable Sayadaw Ashin Janakâbhivaṃsa, celebrated as ‘Taung Myo Sayadaw' also serve as the essential guides. Apart from these Sayadaws are late Venerable Sayadaw U Seííhila, Dr. Revatadhamma, Dr. Sîlânandâbhivaâsa who also brought Abhidhamma into light around the world. Not only the Venerable monks but some senior nuns like Daw Vijjesî and Daw Ñaúesî too compiled Abhidhamma books with diagrams for the convenience of the learners.
Moreover, in the propagation of Abhidhamma teachings especially among laity, the involvement of lay Abhidhamma scholars plays a vital role. To cite some of the native famous scholars - U Shwe Zan Aung, U Pe Maung Tin, Medhâvî Saya Hsaing, U Hla Maung, U Kyaw, Mahâsaddhammajotikadhaja U Kyaw Htut, U Kyaw Lwin, Lecturer U Thein Aung, U Mya Thaung (Dhammabyûhâ), Hsu htoo pan Saya Han, Dr. Mehm Tin Mon, Daw Khin Nwe Han Kyi, Daw Khin Hla Tin etc. who not only conduct Abhidhamma courses for laity but also compile the Abhidhamma books.
Consequently, the appearance of lay Abhidhamma scholars brings advantages for the Community as the Abhidhamma becomes easily accessible to them because the majority feels more relaxed and comfortable in dealing the subject amongst themselves. Lay teachers use less Pâéi terms and give simple explanations based on the experiences of everyday life that these can be put into practice. Having found out that this profound Abhidhamma is within the range of their understanding and that it not only guides the way of life but also leads to the final deliverance, they are enchanted with Abhidhamma study. In this way, Abhidhamma study starts to hold its strong position amongst lay people in Myanmar.
Herein, I would like to explicate why Abhidhamma is paid so much attention and held in high esteem in Myanmar.
Abhidhamma Piíaka is the "An Exposition on the essence of Suttanta Piíaka" because one who has knowledge of Abhidhamma can explicitly comprehend what is expounded in Suttanta. For instance, the essence of all the Buddhas' teachings expounded in Suttanta, can be summarized as:
"Not to do evil; to do good; and to purify one's mind"
In accordance with this admonition, in order to avoid evil and to cultivate good, we should be able to differentiate good from evil. In Abhidhamma, the characteristics, feeling and consequences of these concepts are categorized in minute details. When we come to understand their nature and result, we would try to avoid evil, just as we avoid taking something poisonous which brings harm to us. Moreover, the nature of mind, the associated mental phenomena which either purify or defile the minsd are explicated and analyzed in minute details. In this way, Abhidhamma can be analogous to a guide to purify the mind. Thus, through the application of Abhidhamma knowledge to our daily life, we can live in accordance with the instructions of the Buddhas.
Furthermore, in Suttanta, the aggregates (khandha) are only classified into fivefold whereas Abhidhamma analyzes the five aggregates in terms of mentality and materiality, their natures, how they arise and harmoniously perform their functions, are explicated in much more detail. Understanding the nature and function of mind and matter provides assistance not only for the clear comprehension of Suttanta but also for Vipassanâ practice because higher attainment of knowledge is absolutely impossible without such understanding. In fact, Abhidhamma pinpoints to us what we are, the world around us and how to live peacefully and beneficially. These are a few instances that highlight how Abhidhamma knowledge is essential for the better understanding of the Buddha's teachings and why it is held in high regards.
In this regard, I would very much like to report the outcomes of my progressive research on how lay people are enchanted with Abhidhamma study. The data collection presented here is organized by interviews and questionnaires with learners from home and abroad. It is very interesting to learn that the majority of students pinpointed "mind (citta) and mental states (cetasika)" as their favourite topic whereas the minority mentioned different preferences, for instance, the thought process, Paííhâna, Kammaííhâna, etc. Here are some extracts of the survey.
Some of them say:
"Only when one understands the nature of mind and matter, can one eradicate the wrong view of ‘soul or self'. Theoretical knowledge of the aggregates when verified with meditation practice brings about clear comprehension of the essence of Dhamma. Abhidhamma is suitable everywhere, useful at any time, and true for everyone".
The other said:
"Science studies are based on materiality, they cannot analyze Kamma and its results. Abhidhamma can analyze all the natures of the natural world, Kamma and its results, the rounds of existence, and can also bring the welfare for the world".
Another one puts it this way:
"We come to know how to control the mental states (cetasika) which manipulate the mind. Practice based on Abhidhamma knowledge produces peaceful mind as immediate effect".
Those are the remarkable opinions of the Abhidhamma learners. Now, I would like to draw your attention to the Abhidhamma examinations held annually by the Ministry of Religious Affairs.
The survey reported that Ministry of Religious Affairs started to organize the Abhidhamma examinations (ordinary level) for laity in 1952 and extended to the Abhidhammatthavibhâvinî-Íîkâ examinations (honorary level) in 1955. And in the year 1957, the authority could arrange examinations for Visuddhimagga as well. These examinations are held annually in the last week-end of December.
As a rule, candidates are eligible to join the examinations on the honorary level and the Visuddhimagga exams only after they have passed the ordinary level in the Abhidhamma. These exams are mainly intended for laity but nuns are also allowed to sit for them.
Each exam constitutes three levels - from level 1 to 3. Candidates can attempt any level or all the three in a year. If they have not passed all the three levels, they are allowed to make endeavor for any level at their choice. When candidates have passed all three levels, they are conferred certificates from the Ministry of Religious Affairs with the signature of the Minister.
It is customary among the laity in Myanmar that after attending fundamental Abhidhamma courses, they join either honorary level Abhidhamma courses or Visuddhimagga courses. Based on the Abhidhamma knowledge of the ordinary and honorary levels, learners usually proceed to Visuddhimagga study which primarily deals with practical methods for the attainment of ultimate peace. In reality, Abhidhamma and Visuddhimagga studies are interrelated to each other as practice based on theoretical knowledge brings about fruitful results.
Herein, let me provide the statistics on the figure of the candidates, examination centers, etc. of those examinations held in the whole country by the Ministry of Religious Affairs in the year 2005.
(1) In the ordinary level Abhidhamma exams held in 124 centres, out of 13600 candidates, 10143 candidates have passed, so 74.58% were successful.
(2) In the Honorary level exams held in 92 centres, 2696 candidates out of 3203 have passed, thus 84.17% have passed.
(3) In the Visuddhimagga exams held in 63 centres, 947 candidates out of 1547 have passed, that is, 75.12% were successful.
Thus, of all the three exams, 13786 candidates passed and 75.12% is reported to have successful.
After the exams and their results have been reported, a brief sketch of the course outlines will be presented here.
1. Abhidhamma (Ordinary level)
Prescribed text- Abhidhammatthasaàgaha (Myanmar translation)
Level 1- Chapter on Citta, Cetasika; Pakiúúaka;
Level 2- Chapter on Vîthi, Vîthimutta; Rûpa;
Level 3- Chapter on Samuccaya, Paccaya; Kammaííhâna.
2. Abhidhamma (Honorary level)
Prescribed text- Abhidhammatthavibhâvinî Íîkâ (Myanmar translation)
Note: The classification of all the three levels is the same.
Prescribed text- Visuddhimagga (Myanmar translation)
Level 1- Sîlaniddesa to Anussati kammaííhânaniddesa;
Level 2- Brahmavihâraniddesa to Indriyaniddesa;
Level 3- Paññâbhûminiddesa to Paññâbhâvanânisaâsaniddesa.
It is learnt that in those exams, the examinees are not to be asked Pâéi verses and word for word translation (attha yojana) but only illustrations (sarûpa) and understanding of the subject.
In order that laity has easy access to the Abhidhamma examinations, they mainly have to rely on the Abhidhamma courses run by religious organizations. The role of non-governmental Buddhist organizations dedicating solely to the promotion of the understanding of Abhidhamma is the most significant factor.
To cite a few of them in Yangon area: Under the Ministry of Religious Affairs is the Abhidhamma courses at Kaba Aye Campus, conducted by Venerable Sayadaws led by U Vâyamasâra; few well-known non-governmental Buddhist organizations such as The Abhidhamma Propagation Association ; Y.M.B.A. Abhidhamma Association; Maàgalâbyûhâ; Dhammabyûhâ Sâsana mâmaka Orgainzation, etc.
Of these Associations ‘The Abhidhamma Propagation Association' is significant because apart from the Abhidhammatthasaàgaha and the Visuddhamagga classes, it also conducts Abhidhamma classes on some Abhidhamma treaties such as the Mâtikâ (part of Dhammasaàgaúî); the Dhâtukathâ; the Yamaka and the Paííhâna classes and organizes the examinations including both oral, that is, recitation from memory and written examinations for laity, nuns and monks. But the curriculums are partly different depending on the status and so are the titles conferred to successful candidates. Classes are usually opened on weekend for the convenience of the laity and examinations are annually held in September. Recently in January 2007, this association organized an applied Abhidhamma course every Sunday, using English media, conducted by the Rector Sayadaw of ITBMU. Reports mentions that it has been breaking the record as from 200 to 300 students are attending regularly.
Amongst other associations mentioned above, some, for instance the Maàgalâbyûhâ and the Dhammabyûhâ, also conduct regular Abhidhamma classes including ordinary level; honorary level and Visuddhimagga classes from May to December. Their teaching techniques are also updated, by using medias like projectors and visual aids; some teachers use ‘Mid-term assessment forms' and thus can survey the understanding and interest of the students. They also arrange tutorials; assignments and other preparations for the government exams. These organizations are renowned and successful because of their teaching methods and qualified teachers, mostly lay people.
For instance, Abhidhamma Propagation Association and Maàgalâbyûhâ have around 20 teachers Dhammabyûhâ has 30 teachers, majority are women. In Myanmar, the majority of women devote most of their time to religious activities more than man do. In Dhammabyûhâ organization, they assign two types of teachers:- the first teachers are mainly responsible for explanations and illustrations whereas the assistant teacher is for recitation of the formula. First, they are assigned as assistant teachers, and as they get more experience and become skillful, they are promoted as the first teachers. In this way, they encourage and promote the role of women teachers.
These religious organizations also perform other religious activities such as Buddhist cultural courses for children, the Paritta course, the Paííhâna course; celebrating special full-moon days; and social activities such as blood donation, donation to the poor and needy, etc. The children with basic knowledge of the Buddha's teachings become cultured and well-mannered ones as they are also introduced meditation practice. In brief, from such courses also, interest in the Abhidhamma is enhanced. So these basic cultural courses serve as stepping stones to higher learning like Abhidhamma.
The key concept that Abhidhamma is accepted and interested by laity is the application of the subject. Abhidhamma guides them their way of life and the path to walk upon so that it would be beneficial here and hereafter. They can improve themselves in various ways which can be reflected from their impacts.
Some students remark:
"Abhidhamma can guide us to the correct path; my sensitive and aggressive nature becomes calmer than before; followers of any faith should know Abhidhamma".
Some have become considered:
"Abhidhamma has always developed my understanding of Dhamma and has always inspired to goal for positive results. And I am always grateful to its clear realistic explanations that have changed the whole perspective of my life".
Others describe their experience like this:
"Abhidhamma is like a mirror as it can see everything objectively; and also like a formula which can analyze mental and physical processes".
All these descriptions reflect that the Abhidhamma is an essential tool that unveils the true nature of ourselves and the world around us. This is the Ultimate truth the Buddha had expounded to us. The more wide-spread the Abhidhamma teachings become, the more peaceful the world will become. Thus, to create the peaceful psychological atmosphere, each and every one is obligatory to establish inner peace which is possible through the application of the Abhidhamma knowledge.
1. Announcement and Data issued by Ministry of Religious Affairs, Yangon, 2006.
2. Commemorative magazine in honour of Daw Khin Hla Tin, Yangon, 2006 (Myanmar version).
3. Pe Maung Tin, U, The Expositor (The translation of the Aííhasâlinî), The Pâéi Text Society, London, 1976.
4. Sayadaw, Ledi , The Treatise on "Paramatthasaàkhepa", 1980. (Myanmar version)
5. Silver Jubilee commemorative magazine, Maàgalâbyûhâ, Khit Publishing House, Yangon, 1982. (Myanmar version)
6. Seííhila, Pathamakyaw Ashin, The Book of Analysis (The translation of Vibhaàga), The Pâéi Text Society, London, 1969.
7. Shwe Zan Aung, U, Compendium of Philosophy (The translation of Abhidhammatthasaàgaha), The Pâéi Text Society, London, 1976.
8. 60th Anniversary Commemorative Magazine, The Abhidhamma Propagation Association, Religious Affairs Department Publication, Yangon, 2006. (Myanmar version)
 Presented at The International Conference of All Theravâda Buddhist Universities held at The International Theravâda Buddhist Missionary University, Yangon, & at Woodlands Hotel, Popa Mountain Resort, Bagan, Myanmar, 9-12th March 2007
 The Treatise on "Paramatthasaàkhepa"
 Published by Pâéi Text Society, London in 1962.
 Published by Pâéi Text Society, London in 1969.
 Translated ‘Vibhaàga' (The Book of Analysis), published by the London Text Society (PTS) in 1969. Sayadaw also conducted Abhidhamma lectures in Abhidhamma Department at Yangon University.
 The author of ‘Illustrated Abhidhamma' and ‘Illustrated Dhammapada'.
 The author of ‘New Method to Abhidhamma'.
 The author of the ‘Compendium of Philosophy', published by the PTS, London in 1910.
 Translator of ‘The Expositor', (Aííhasâlinî) first published by PTS, London in 1920.
 Translated ‘Abhidhammatthavibhâvinîíîkâ', published in 1955 by Religious Affairs Department as prescribed text' for Abhidhamma exams; performed as the Second patron of ‘Abhidhamma Propagation Association'.
 Former Director-General of Religious Affairs; "Member of the State Council" and famous Lecturer on Abhidhammatthasaàgaha at ‘Abhidhamma Propagation Association'.
 Former President of ‘Abhidhamma Propagation Association' conducted Abhidhamma lectures and also compiled ‘Handbooks' for learners with tabulations.
 Compiled ‘Primary Abhidhamma' for the University students.
Former lecturer and the secretary of Maàgalabyûhâ Association; and also the founder of "Dhammabyûhâ Dhamma journal".
 Started to teach in 1980 at Maàgalabyûhâ as the assistant teacher of her father U Mya Thaung and founded Dhammabyûhâ sâsana mâmaka organization in 1989 ; now the in charge of conducting classes in Yangon and occasionally in other towns around Myanmar; and awarded ‘Mahâsaddhammajotikadhaja' title in 2006.
 Announcement on Abhidhamma and Visuddhimagga Examinations, Ministry of Religious Affairs, 2006.
 Data collection by Examination Department, Ministry of Religious Affairs
 Started in 1992 and Sayadaw is also conducting the Abihdhamma courses at Maàgalâbyûhâ.
 Established on 5th May, 1946 with the aims to propagate Abhidhamma knowledge to lay people who are not easily accessible to deep Abhidhamma Doctrines as Monks and Nuns.
 Established in 1906, Abhidhamma classes started on 3rd June, 1967.
 Established on 21st August, 75; started Abhidhamma courses on 22nd September, 1979.
 Established in 1989.
 (i) Abhidhamma Agga Visâradhañâúa for monks (the Excellent and competent Abhidhamma scholar);
(ii) Abhidhammika Vipulañâúinî for nuns (the Scholar and Promoter of Abhidhamma) and
(iii) Abhidhammika Kalyânañâúadhaja for lay people (the Abhidhamma scholar of pure knowledge holder).
For the candidates who gets distinction in recitation, the "Visiííha" (the special order) and distinction for written exam, "Ukkaííha" (the highest order) is added,
 Formula here represents the enumeration of the phenomena, for instance, the twelve categories of unwholesome consciousness (akusala citta) in Pâéi and translation.