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A book review by Andrew May

First published in The Middle Way, November 1999

CETASIKAS, by Nina van Gorkom, Zolag, 1999, ISBN 1 897633 18 1, pp. 402, £24.

[This book can now be viewed online].

This is the latest in a series of books from Zolag (formerly Triple Gem Press) dealing with Abhidhamma, the most rigorously defined and comprehensive formulation of Theravada Buddhism. The Buddha delivered his teaching in many different forms, in recognition of the fact that people of different personality types and backgrounds will respond to some forms more readily than others (and of course, countless further forms have developed since the Buddha’s time). Certain forms of Buddhism stand out as being particularly relevant and helpful for modern readers, and Abhidhamma is one of these. It will not suit everyone, but it should appeal to those steeped in the Western academic tradition, with its emphasis on analysis, precision and objectivity (these terms are commonly associated with science, but they apply just as much to modern academic studies in the humanities). So the method has a comforting familiarity, although the goals are pure Buddhism: the extreme reductionism of Abhidhamma is not aimed solely at dissecting and labelling, but at revealing the non-existence of any enduring or controlling entity that could be considered "self". Ultimately Abhidhamma is an accessory to insight meditation (and its daily life equivalent) - virtually a user’s guide to the workings of the human mind.

The subject of this book is "cetasikas", or mental factors. Abhidhamma divides the mental process into a succession of very short-lived thoughts, or cittas, which may be wholesome, unwholesome or ethically neutral. Associated with each citta are a number of cetasikas, such as contact, feeling, perception, volition, concentration, etc. Unwholesome cittas may also have cetasikas like ignorance, attachment, wrong view, conceit or aversion, while wholesome ones may be associated with confidence, mindfulness, non-attachment, non-aversion and so on. In all there are 52 different types of cetasika, though only a subset of these occur with each citta. The author discusses each of the 52 in turn, concentrating on their ethical aspects and in particular the development of wholesome states at the expense of unwholesome ones. She emphasises the need to understand the Abhidhamma classification in order to avoid confusing one cetasika with another, or with cittas, physical objects or mental concepts. More importantly, she argues that Abhidhamma is an essential tool in learning to distinguish wholesome from unwholesome, since the latter is not confined to the obvious (e.g. burning desire or hatred), but can be very subtle (e.g. a mild feeling of attachment on viewing a pleasant scene). Without training, most people have many more unwholesome cittas than wholesome ones. The author presents Abhidhamma ideas in a very traditional way, with a strong reverence for the tradition - she never questions the standard interpretations, or attempts to relate them to modern Western psychology or philosophy. The most challenging aspects of Abhidhamma, the diverse mechanisms by which past states condition future ones, are barely touched on (according to the publisher’s Web page, this will be the subject of the next book in the series).

There are two major problems with this book. The first is simply a matter of style - it generally reads like a promising first draft (or to put it more kindly, like a series of verbatim lecture notes). Words and concepts are introduced without being defined, ideas from one page pop up again a few pages later, and subjects suddenly change in mid-paragraph. The book is begging to be tightened up - with a little more structuring it could have been a pleasure to read.

The more serious problem is trying to decide who the book is aimed at, and indeed who (if anyone) might benefit from reading it. It is certainly not a book for the beginner, since the author tacitly assumes a thorough familiarity with the terminology and approach of Abhidhamma. Even a first reading of one of the many introductory books on the subject (such as the same author’s Abhidhamma in Daily Life) is unlikely to cause someone to ask the kind of questions this book deals with. The subject matter is really only going to be of interest to a serious student of Abhidhamma - but with translations of the primary sources (e.g. Dhammasangani) and Pali commentaries (Atthasalini, Visuddhimagga) readily available, it is difficult to see why someone should turn to this particular book. It would be a different story altogether if the author had adopted a less traditional approach: with fewer quotations from the Pali literature and more examples relating to modern life, it might have appealed to a much wider audience. As it is, the book is a missed opportunity, and unlikely to appear on anyone’s essential reading list.

Copyright © 1999, 2001 Andrew May

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