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Source: Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abhidharma


Abhidharma (Sanskrit) or Abhidhamma (Pali) are ancient (3rd century BCE and later) Buddhist texts which contain detailed scholastic reworkings of doctrinal material appearing in the Buddhist sutras, according to schematic classifications. The Abhidhamma works do not contain systematic philosophical treatises, but summaries or abstract and systematic lists.[1]

According to Collett Cox, Abhidhamma started as an elaboration of the teachings of the suttas, but later developed independent doctrines.[2]

The literal translation of the term Abhidharma is unclear. Two possibilities are most commonly given:

  1. abhi - higher or special + dharma- teaching, philosophy, thus making Abhidharma the "higher teachings"
  2. abhi - about + dharma of the teaching, translating it instead as "about the teaching" or even "metateaching".

In the West, the Abhidhamma has generally been considered the core of what is referred to as "Buddhist Psychology".[3]

1. Origin

According to Theravāda tradition

In the commentaries of Theravada Buddhism it was held that the Abhidhamma was not a later addition to the tradition, but rather represented in the fourth week of Gautama Buddha's enlightenment. Optimistic devas created a beautiful jeweled chamber after spent 3rd week dispelling mistrust and sitting inside it meditated on what was later known as the "Higher Doctrine". His mind and body were so purified that six-coloured rays came out of his body -- blue, yellow, red, white, orange and a mixture of these five. The mixed color represented all these noble qualities. Later, he traveled to the Trāyastriṃśa and taught the Abhidhamma to the divine beings that dwelled there, including his deceased mother Maya, who had re-arisen as a celestial being. The tradition holds that the Buddha gave daily summaries of the teachings given in the heavenly realm to the bhikkhu Sariputta, who passed them on.[4]

The Abhidhamma is thus presented as a pure and undiluted form of the teaching that was too difficult for most practitioners of the Buddha's time to grasp. Instead, the Buddha taught by the method related in the various suttas, giving appropriate, immediately applicable teachings as each situation arose, rather than attempting to set forth the Abhidhamma in all its complexity and completeness. Thus, there is a similarity between the traditions of the Adhidhamma and that of the Mahayana, which also claimed to be too difficult for the people living in the Buddha's time.

According to scholars

Scholars generally believe that the Abhidharma emerged after the time of the Buddha, in around the 3rd century BCE. Therefore, the seven Abhidhamma works are generally claimed by scholars not to represent the words of the Buddha himself, but those of disciples and scholars.[1] Factors contributing to its development could have been the growth of monastic centers, the growing support for the Buddhist sangha, and outside influences from other religious groups.

As the last major division of the canon, the Abhidhamma works have had a checkered history. They were not accepted as canonical by the Mahasamghika school[1][5] and several other schools.[6] Another school included most of the Khuddaka Nikaya within the Abhidhamma Pitaka.[1] Also, the Pali version of the Abhidhamma is a strictly Theravada collection, and has little in common with the Abhidhamma works recognized by other Buddhist schools.[7] The Theravadin Abhidhamma is in some respects rather skeletal, with the details not entirely fleshed out. According to Rupert Gethin however, obvious care and ingenuity have gone into its development.[8]

The various Abhidhamma philosophies of the various early schools have no agreement on doctrine[9] and belong to the period of 'Divided Buddhism'[9] (as opposed to Undivided Buddhism). The earliest texts of the Pali Canon (the Sutta Nipata, parts of the Jatakas, and the first four Nikayas of the Suttapitaka) have no mention of (the texts of) the Abhidhamma Pitaka.[10] The Abhidhamma is also not mentioned at the report of the First Buddhist Council, directly after the death of the Buddha. This report of the first council does mention the existence of the Vinaya and the five Nikayas (of the Suttapitaka).[11][12]

According to L. S. Cousins, the suttas deal with sequences and processes, while the Abhidhamma describes occasions and events.[13]

Variety of Abhidhammic teachings and books

Numerous apparently independent and unrelated Abhidharma traditions arose in India, roughly during the period from the 2nd or 3rd Century BCE to the 5th Century CE. The 7th-century Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang reportedly collected Abhidharma texts from seven different traditions. The various Abhidhammic traditions have very fundamental disagreements with each other. These various Abhidhammic theories were (together with differences in Vinaya) the major cause for the majority of splits in the monastic Sangha, which resulted in the fragmented early Buddhist landscape of the 18 Early Buddhist Schools.

In the modern era, only the Abhidharmas of the Sarvastivadins and the Theravadins have survived intact, each consisting of seven books, with the addition of the Sariputra Abhidharma. The Theravada Abhidharma, the Abhidhamma Pitaka (discussed below), is preserved in Pali, while the Sarvastivadin Abhidharma is mostly preserved only in Chinese - the (likely Sanskrit) original texts having been lost, though some Tibetan texts are still extant.

A small number of other Abhidharma texts of unknown origin are preserved in translation in the Chinese canon. These different traditions have some similarities, suggesting either interaction between groups or some common ground antedating the separation of the schools.[14]

2. Theravada Abhidhamma


The Abhidhamma Pitaka is the third pitaka, or basket, of the Tipitaka (Sanskrit: Tripitaka), the canon of the Theravada school of Buddhism. It consists of seven sections or books:

  1. Dhammasangani ('Enumeration of Factors') - Describes the fundamental phenomena (dhamma) which constitute human experience.
  2. Vibhanga ('Analysis') - An analysis of various topics by a variety of methods, including catechism, using material from the Dhammasangani.
  3. Dhatukatha ('Discussion of Elements') - Some interrelations between various items from the first two books, formulated as sets of questions and answers.
  4. Puggalapannatti ('Descriptions of Individuals') - An enumeration of the qualities of certain different 'personality types'. These types were believed to be useful in formulating teachings to which an individual would respond positively.
  5. Kathavatthu ('Points of Controversy') - A collection of debates on points of doctrine, traditionally said to have been compiled by Moggaliputta Tissa at the Buddhist Council sponsored by King Ashoka, which took place in the 3rd century, BCE.
  6. Yamaka ('The Pairs') - Deals with various questions relating to interrelations within various lists of items; here the items belong to the same list, whereas in the Dhatukatha they are in different lists.
  7. Patthana ('Foundational Conditions' or 'Relations') - The laws of interaction by which the dhammas described in the Dhammasangani operate.

Four Pillars

Four pillars (four unconventional objectives) in Theravada Abhidharma are;

  1. Citta -- Viññāna (Mind,spirit)
  2. Cetasika -- Sankhara (action,deed,karma)
  3. Rupa -- (Object, matter, element)
  4. Nibbana -- (Tranquillity)

The Theravada Abhidhamma, like the rest of the Tipitaka, was orally transmitted until the 1st century BCE. Due to famines and constant wars, the monks responsible for recording the oral tradition felt that there was a risk of portions of the canon being lost so the Abhidhamma was written down for the first time along with the rest of the Canon.

These had all been published in Pali Canon in the first century BCE at Alu Vihara Temple in Sri Lanka, and most have been translated into English by the Pali Text Society as well. Some scholars date the seven Pali Abhidhamma books from about 400 BCE to about 250 BCE, the first book being the oldest of the seven and the fifth being the newest. Additional post-canonical texts composed in the following centuries attempted to further clarify the analysis presented in the Abhidhamma texts. The best known of such texts are the Visuddhimagga of Buddhaghosa and the Abhidhammattha-sangaha of Anuruddha.

Early Western translators of the Pali canon found the Abhidhamma Pitaka the least interesting of the three sections of the Tipitaka. Caroline Augusta Foley Rhys Davids, a Pali scholar and the wife of Pali Text Society founder Thomas William Rhys Davids, famously described the ten chapters of the Yamaka as "ten valleys of dry bones".[15] As a result, this Abhidhammic aspect of Buddhism was little studied in the West until the latter half of the 20th Century. Interest in the Abhidhamma has grown in the West as better scholarship on Buddhist philosophy has gradually revealed more information about its origins and significance.

Within the Theravada tradition the prominence of the Abhidhamma has varied considerably from country to country with Buddhism in Burma placing the most emphasis on the study of the Abhidhamma.

Theravada commentaries

In addition to the canonical Abhidharma, a variety of commentaries or manuals were written to serve as introductions to the Abhidharma. The best known commentaries in the Theravada tradition are:[16]

3. Mahasamghika Abhidharma

According to some sources, Abhidharma was not accepted as canonical by the Mahasamghika school.[17] The Theravadin Dīpavaṃsa, for example, records that the Mahasaṃghikas had no Abhidharma.[18] However, other sources indicate that there were such collections of Abhidharma. During the early 5th century, the Chinese pilgrim Faxian is said to have found a Mahasamghika Abhidharma at a monastery in Pataliputra.[18] When Xuanzang visited Dhanyakataka, he wrote that the monks of this region were Mahasamghikas, and mentions the Purvasailas specifically.[19] Near Dhanyakataka, he met two Mahasamghika bhiksus and studied Mahasamghika Abhidharma with them for several months, during which time they also studied various Mahayana Sastras together under Xuanzang's direction.[18][19] On the basis of textual evidence as well as inscriptions at Nagarjunakonda, Joseph Walser concludes that at least some Mahasamghika sects probably had an Abhidharma collection, and that it likely contained five or six books.[20]

4. Dharmaguptaka Abhidharma

The Sariputra Abhidharma Sastra (舍利弗阿毘曇論 Shèlìfú Āpítán Lùn) (T. 1548) is a complete Abhidharma text that is thought to come from the Dharmaguptaka sect. The only complete edition of this text is that in Chinese. Sanskrit fragments from this text have been found in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, and are now part of the Schoyen Collection (MS 2375/08). The manuscripts at this find are thought to have been part of a monastery library of the Mahasamghika Lokottaravada sect.

5. Sarvastivada Abhidharma


Like the Theravada Abhidharma, the Sarvastivada Abhidharma also consists of seven texts. However, comparison of the content of the Sarvastivada texts with that of the Theravada Abhidhamma reveals that it is unlikely that this indicates that one textual tradition originated from the other. In particular, the Theravada Abhidharma contains two texts (the Katha Vatthu and Puggala Pannatti) that some consider entirely out of place in an Abhidharma collection.

Core texts

The texts of the Sarvastivadin Abhidharma are:

Vaibhasika texts

Following these, are the texts that became the authority of the Vaibhasika, the Kasmiri Sarvastivada Orthodoxy:

Little research in English has been made in these texts, although all of them are summarized, many in fine detail, in the Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies, Vol. VII: Abhidharma Buddhism.[21]

Other Sarvastivadin texts

In addition to the canonical Sarvastivadan Abhidharma, a variety of commentaries were written to serve as introductions to the Abhidharma. The best known commentaries belonging to the Sarvastivadan tradition are:[16]

6. Mahayana Yogacara Abhidharma

In addition to the Theravada and Sarvastivadan Abhidharma traditions, a third complete system of Abhidharma thought is elaborated in certain works of the Mahayana Yogacara tradition, principally in the following commentaries:[22]

While this Yogacarin Abhidharma is based on the Sarvastivadin system, it also incorporates aspects of other Abhidharma systems and present a complete Abhidharma in accordance with a Mahayana Yogacara view that the mind (Vijñapti) alone is ultimately "real."[22]

Yogacarins developed an Abhidharma literature set within a Mahayana framework.[23] John Keenan, who has translated the Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra into English, writes:[24]

The Yogacara masters inherited the mystical approach of the Prajnaparamita texts. However, they did not reject the validity of theoretical Abhidharma. Rather they attempted to construct a critical understanding of the consciousness that underlies all meaning, both mystical and theoretical. Their focus was on doctrine, but as it flowed from the practice of meditative centering (yoga), rather than as it was understood in acts of conceptual apprehension.

7. East Asian and Tibetan Abhidharma

Abhidharmas by Asanga and Vasubandhu

In the traditions derived from Sanskrit Buddhism, such as the Tibetan, Chinese and Japanese, the two main Abhidharma commentaries are:

These are both works from approximately 4-5th century India, and are extant in Chinese, Japanese and Tibetan translations, as well as the Sanskrit.

Satyasiddhi Sastra

The Satyasiddhi Sastra, also called the Tattvasiddhi Sastra, is an extant Abhidharma text from the Mahasamghika Bahusrutiya school, which was popular in Chinese Buddhism. This Abhidharma is now contained in the Chinese Buddhist canon, in sixteen fascicles (Taisho Tripitaka 1646).[26] Its authorship is attributed to Harivarman, a third-century monk from central India. Paramartha cites this Bahusrutiya Abhidharma as containing a combination of Ha«nayana and Mahayana doctrines, and Joseph Walser agrees that this assessment is correct.[27] Ian Charles Harris also characterizes the text as a synthesis of Hinayana and Mahayana, and notes that its doctrines are very close to those in Madhyamaka and Yogacara works.[28] The Satyasiddhi Śastra maintained great popularity in Chinese Buddhism,[29] and even lead to the formation of its own school of Buddhism in China, the Satyasiddhi School, or Chéngshí Zōng (成實宗), which was founded in 412 CE.[30] As summarized by Nan Huai-Chin:[31]

Various Buddhist schools sprang to life, such as the school based on the three Madhyamaka śastras, the school based on the Abhidharmakosa, and the school based on the Satyasiddhi Sastra. These all vied with each other, producing many wondrous offshoots, each giving rise to its own theoretical system.

The Satyasiddhi School taught a progression of twenty-seven stations for cultivating realization, based upon the teachings of the Satyasiddhi Sastra. The Satyasiddhi School took Harivarman as its founder in India, and Kumarajiva as the school's founder in China.[30] The Satyasiddhi School is counted among the Ten Schools of Tang Dynasty Buddhism.[31] From China, the Satyasiddhi School was transmitted to Japan in 625 CE, where it was known as Jōjitsu-shu (成實宗). The Japanese Satyasiddhi school is known as one of the six great schools of Japanese Buddhism in the Nara period (710-794 CE).[32]


  1. ^ a b c d "Abhidhamma Pitaka." Encyclopedia Britannica. Ultimate Reference Suite. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 2008.
  2. ^ Cox 2003, pp. 1-7
  3. ^ See, for instance, Rhys Davids (1900), Trungpa (1975) and Goleman (2004).
  4. ^ Pine 2004, pg. 12
  5. ^ Dutt 1978, p. 58
  6. ^ "several schools rejected the authority of Abhidharma and claimed that Abhidharma treatises were composed by fallible, human teachers." Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism (2004), page 2. (A similar statement can be found on pages 112 and 756.)
  7. ^ "Buddhism." Encyclopedia Britannica. Ultimate Reference Suite. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 2008.
  8. ^ Rupert Gethin in Paul Williams ed., "Buddhism: Critical Concepts in Religious Studies." Taylor and Francis 2005, page 171.
  9. ^ a b Kanai Lal Hazra, Pali Language and Literature - A Systematic Survey and Historical Survey, 1994, Vol. 1, page 415
  10. ^ Kanai Lal Hazra, Pali Language and Literature - A Systematic Survey and Historical Survey, 1994, Vol. 1, page 412
  11. ^ Horner 1963, p. 398
  12. ^ The Mahisasaka Account of the First Council mentions the four agamas here. see http://santifm1.0.googlepages.com/thefirstcouncil (mahisasaka version)[dead link]
  13. ^ "Pali oral literature", in Buddhist Studies, ed Denwood and Piatigorski, Curzon, London, 1982/3
  14. ^ Cox 2003, p. 2
  15. ^ Rhys Davids (1914).[page needed]
  16. ^ a b Gethin 1998, p. 205.
  17. ^ "Abhidhamma Pitaka." Encyclopedia Britannica. Ultimate Reference Suite. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 2008.
  18. ^ a b c Walser, Joseph. Nagarjuna in Context: Mahayana Buddhism and Early Indian Culture. 2005. p. 213
  19. ^ a b Baruah, Bibhuti. Buddhist Sects and Sectarianism. 2008. p. 437
  20. ^ Walser, Joseph. Nagarjuna in Context: Mahayana Buddhism and Early Indian Culture. 2005. pp. 212-213
  21. ^ Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies, Vol. VII: Abhidharma Buddhism. Karl H. Potter, editor. Motilal Banarsidarass, 1996. ISBN 81-208-0895-9
  22. ^ a b Gethin 1998, p. 207.
  23. ^ Peter Harvey, "An Introduction to Buddhism." Cambridge University Press, 1993, page 106.
  24. ^ Keenan, John P. (tr). The Scripture on the Explication of the Underlying Meaning. 2000. p. 1
  25. ^ Goleman (2004), pp. 382-383, n. 12.
  26. ^ The Korean Buddhist Canon: A Descriptive Catalog (K 966) 
  27. ^ Walser, Joseph. Nagarjuna in Context: Mahayana Buddhism and Early Indian Culture. 2005. p. 52
  28. ^ Harris, Ian Charles. The Continuity of Madhyamaka and Yogacara in Indian Mahayana Buddhism. 1991. p. 99
  29. ^ Warder, A.K. Indian Buddhism. 2000. p. 398
  30. ^ a b Nan, Huai-Chin. Basic Buddhism: Exploring Buddhism and Zen. 1997. p. 91
  31. ^ a b Nan, Huai-Chin. Basic Buddhism: Exploring Buddhism and Zen. 1997. p. 90
  32. ^ Nan, Huai-Chin. Basic Buddhism: Exploring Buddhism and Zen. 1997. p. 112


Further reading

External links