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Intrinsic nature (svabhava)  in Theravāda Abhidhamma
November 20th, 2013

illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

Intrinsic nature (svabhava)  in Theravāda Abhidhamma

The concept of "intrinsic nature" (svabhava)  mostly arose as a post-canonical development. The term itself does not feature in the suttas, and was rare in the canonical Abhidhamma.

In spite of its name, "intrinsic nature" does not indicate a fixed nature of any ultimate phenomenon (dhamma)  which would breach the "marks of existence" notably impermanence and selflessness. "Intrinsic nature" still rejects the idea of a 'substance'.

Once the doctrine matured, the dhammas were made indistinguishable from their intrinsic nature.

This was somehow necessary by the very definition of dhammas,  meant to be 'irreducible' phenomena: a dhamma  may be conditioned (and most are), but by definition it cannot be 'composed'.

The intrinsic nature is thus not  a building block of a dhamma,  and this was expressed by "dhammas bear their intrinsic natures".  Rather, intrinsic nature refers to how a dhamma  is distinguished as such. Dhamma  and svabhāva  could then be used interchangeably (in e.g. the Visuddhimagga).

As previously mentioned, "intrinsic nature" still rejects the idea of a 'substance'. By positing that dhammas  bear their own nature, what is rejected is the existence of anything else "behind the scene".

Since the dhammas  may be conditioned, the doctrine even indicates that the "dhammas  bear their intrinsic nature and are borne by their conditions". Again, the focus on other dhammas  as 'conditions' fights off the temptation of assigning a substance or a 'core' to the dhamma at hand.

Finally, "intrinsic nature" is itself an attack against the idea of 'independent' existence of the dhammas.

Since a dhamma  is undistinguishable from its intrinsic nature, i.e. its characteristic / function / manifestation, it cannot exist independently from other dhammas (which will allow to 'distinguish' the said nature): this was explored with the notion of 'determination' (parinispanna).

Dhammas  are clearly and immutably discriminated. However the discrimination requires 'comparison' or 'contrast', hence prevents independent existence. This also maintains the dhammas  as useful to analyse one's 'experience', rather than metaphysical entities.

Unfortunately, and maybe due to the label itself, "intrinsic nature" later was reified by some schools, switching from a phenomenological enquiry (exploring characteristics without presuming ultimate existence) toward ontological statements (affirmation of existence).

This ultimately led the Sarvāstivādins to assert that dhammas  exist through the three times, a position rejected by the Theravādins (which kept existence to the 'present'). The Theravādins maintained clarity vis-à-vis the fact that "intrinsic nature" does not  precede the arising of a dhamma,  nor does a dhamma  obtain an intrinsic nature before it manifests. Similarly with cessation. This "intrinsic nature" does not contradict momentariness.

#Buddhism   #Theravada   #Dharma  
image: "intrinsic nature 11" © Chris Valentine and Billy Bogiatzoglou