Special factors

Acquisition (prāpti) and non-acquisition (aprāpti)

Vasubandhu reports that some Buddhists attempted to answer the question of how the chain of causal events between an action and its psychological consequences is connected to a fictional “person.”

According to some abhidharma theorists, among the many properties that make up one personality, there is a property that has the peculiar function of collecting other properties together into an integrated complex known as a continuum of consciousness. This continuum of consciousness corresponds to what is known in ordinary conversation as an individual person. This continuum is said to be held together by a special conditioning characteristic known as acquisition (prāpti), which works in conjunction with a second conditioning characteristic known as non-acquisition (aprāpti) or prevention. Acquisition serves to help a continuum acquire new properties and hold on to them in such a way that the continuum can be recognized over the course of time as the “same” person.

Non-phenomenal matter (avijñapti rūpa)

In addition to acquisition and non-acquisition, the two special conditioning characteristics of the personality, some Buddhists recognized a special form of matter belonging to the group of material properties. Unlike all other forms of matter, this special form is invisible and intangible and therefore imperceptible. This unmanifested or non-phenomenal matter (avijñapti rūpa) also played a key role in the theory of karma. According to this theory, when a person performs a bodily action or a vocal action, the action itself is sensible as a visible or audible property. Because an action can be sensed by the eye or the ear, it follows that the action belongs to the group of material properties. This primary action, like all complex properties, immediately and spontaneously perishes. Therefore, a moment after it has been performed an action is no longer sensible. Moreover, some time may elapse between the time when the sensible action was performed and the time when its consequences become manifest, and during this interval between sensible action and sensible fruition, neither the action itself nor its eventual sensible consequences are perceived. Therefore, the argument goes, there must exist a continuum of imperceptible causes and effects that link the original sensible action with its eventual sensible consequences. Thus, according to this theory, a sensible material action causes a non-phenomenal material property to arise in the immediately following moment, which in turn causes another non-phenomenal material property to arise in the moment immediately following that, and so on until one of these non-phenomenal material properties causes a phenomenal material property to arise, which can legitimately be regarded as the natural ultimate fruition of the original action.

Obviously, since non-phenomenal matter is by definition beyond the range of the senses, it can never be directly experienced but must be established by reason. Those who believed in non-phenomenal matter designed four separate arguments to prove that non-phenomenal matter must exist, two of which are outlined below.

Two arguments for non-phenomenal matter

One argument for non-phenomenal matter is that the Buddha declared that the merit of a generous person constantly grows. But there is, according to this view, no way to account for this constant increase of merit in a person who is sleeping or who begins thinking of something other than meritorious action, unless one accepts that there is a non-phenomenal causal sequence at work “behind the scenes” while the person sleeps or engages in some activity other than that of deliberately increasing his or her merit.

A second argument that was put forward is that a person may have his or her intentions carried out by a second party. A son may, for example, wish the death of his own mother. But, not wanting to perform a matricide by his own hand, he may command a servant or hire an assassin to perform the deed. In this case, neither the assassin nor the person who hired the assassin would actually be killing his own mother and so apparently neither would incur the especially grave consequences of matricide. But surely, argue the proponents of non-phenomenal matter, the law of karma cannot have such an egregious “loophole” that would allow a person to avoid serious consequences by merely having someone else actually perform a harmful act. Therefore, they say, the assassin’s action of killing the mother must cause some non-phenomenal effect to arise in the continuum of the son who hired the assassin, whereby the son eventually experiences the consequences of matricide as if he had performed the murder by himself.

After reporting the views of other abhidharmists, Vasubandhu criticizes their position.

1 thought on “Special factors

  1. Angela

    I’m hopeless at the intricacies of abhidharma analyses, but this is so clear it is a delight to read and understand. Am waiting in high anticipation for the next installment in the mysterious case of karma and the no-person.


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