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What did the Buddha mean by the word 'abhidhamma'?

Bhikkhu Varado

I.B. Horner says that the term abhidhamma occurs not more than ten times in the first two pitakas (the Suttapitaka and the Vinayapitaka), three of these being in the Vinaya.’ (Book of Discipline III, p xi). She says that the word abhidhamma (apart from its use in interpolated material) should be ‘taken as referring to some material or method in existence prior to the compilation of this [Abhidhamma] Pitaka, and out of which it [the Abhidhamma Pitaka] was gradually elaborated and eventually formed.’ (Book of Discipline, Vol. III, p xi)

The 'interpolated material' occurs in the Book of the Discipline Vol. III p415: [Regarding the bhikkhunis, who were supposed to ask for leave before asking the Sangha a question] "Not given leave" means: without asking for permission. "Should ask a question" means: if having asked for leave in regard to suttanta, she asks about discipline or about abhidhamma, there is an offense of expiation.

This is the only place in the canon where the triad suttanta, vinaya and abhidhamma occur together, and is 'unhesitatingly asssumed to be an interpolation by Oldenburg. (ref: Book of Discipline, Vol. III, pxiv and Encyclopaedia of Buddhism, Vol. 1, p 39)

This view is substantiated by Horner. She says that ‘abhidhamma’ in the passage ‘probably means the literary digest of this name. This passage would therefore seem late, dating from some time after the compilation of the three pitakas.’ (Book of Discipline III, p 415)

The PTS Pali-English Dictionary says the word 'abhidhamma' was probably not used by the Buddha in the very earliest days of his teaching: 'As the word ‘abhidhamma’ standing alone is not found in the Sutta Nipata or the Anguttara Nikaya, and only once or twice in the Digha Nikaya, it probably came into use only towards the end of the period in which the four Nikayas [of the suttas] grew up.'

In the vinaya, at one place the term abhidhamma occurs with vinaya, suttanta, and also gatha (which means poems):

[Regarding monks, for whom it is an offense to disparage the learning of vinaya] "There is no offense if, not desiring to disparage, he speaks saying: ‘Look here, do you master suttantas, or verses (gatha), or what is extra to dhamma [abhidhamma] and afterwards you will master discipline"Book of the Discipline Vol. III p42

Horner says, ‘The very presence of the word gatha is enough to preclude the term abhidhamma from standing for the literary exegesis of that name, for no reference to the third pitaka would have combined a reference to part of the material (poems) which one of the pitakas finally came to include.’ (Book of Discipline, Vol. III, p xii) Her logic here is that, since gatha does not mean Gatha Pitaka, abhidhamma does not mean Abhidhamma Pitaka. So, what does ‘abhidhamma’ actually mean here?

Horner says:

‘Although we can say fairly confidently what abhidhamma does not mean here, it is by no means so easy to assess what it does mean. A monk may say to another, "Master suttanta, or verses (gatha) or abhidhamma, and afterwards you will master discipline."’ (Book of Discipline, Vol. III p xii)

Regarding this passage, she proposes that abhidhamma means ‘an intellectual exercise perhaps, devoid of all extraneous matter, in which the meaning of dhamma terms and concepts is to be grasped through their grouping, through their classified relations of identity and dependence and so on, instead of through the more picturesque, personal and hortatory methods, often made intelligible by homely parable and simile, which is the suttanta way of presenting dhamma.’(Book of Discipline, Vol. III p xiii)

She says that the word ‘abhidhamma’, occuring in the suttas and vinaya, although not indicating a complete and closed system of philosophy, ‘had been intended to stand for something more than dhamma and vinaya, perhaps in the sense of some more than usually complete grasp and mastery of them, due to further study and reflection’. (The Indian Historical Quarterly, XVII p299)

She proposes that the value of the gathas lay in ‘their appeal to the more emotional type of disciple…whereas the mastery of abhidhamma would provide a field to attract the more intellectual type, while mastery of suttantas would stir the normally virtuous man of average mental equipment.’ (p xiv)

T.W. Rhys Davids suggests the suttas that typify the early abhidhamma:

‘The last two suttas of the Digha Nikaya [the Sangiti Sutta and the Dasuttara Sutta] with their catechism as a monologue by the catechumen, and of the absence of narrative - they become practically abhidhamma rather than Sutta Pitaka…In the Majjhima Nikaya we have abhidhamma talk in the two Vedalla Suttas’. (Dialogues of the Buddha, Vol. III p199-200)

The reason Rhys Davids says that the Digha Nikaya suttas are ‘practically abhidhamma’ is because ‘tradition itself has recognised a distinction in style between the Dhamma [i.e. the suttas] and the Abhidhamma. Thus the suttas embodying the Dhamma are said to be taught in the discursive style, which makes free use of the simile, the metaphor and the anecdote. This is contrasted with the non-discursive style of the Abhidhamma which uses very select and precise, and therefore thoroughly impersonal terminology which is decidedly technical in meaning and function’. (WS Karunaratne, Encyclopaedia of Buddhism, Vol. 1, p38)

The Mahagosinga Sutta provides a valuable clue as to what abhidhamma meant in the earliest period of Buddhism. In the sutta, Ven Sariputta asks Ven MahaMoggallana what type of monk he thought would most illumine the Gosinga sal-wood. Ven MahaMoggallana replies:

‘In this connection, reverend Sariputta, two monks are talking on Further Dhamma[abhidhamma]; they ask one another questions; in answering one another’s questions they respond and do not fail, and their talk on dhamma goes forward’. (M 1 211. Tr IBH)

When the Buddha heard of Ven MahaMoggallana’s answer, he said, as I’ve said: ‘It is good, it is good. For, Sariputta, Moggallana is a talker on dhamma’.

This suggests that the earliest abhidhamma arose from the dialogues of monks of ‘the more intellectual type’. Intellectual interest in dhamma would naturally lead to conversations involving questioning and enquiry.

To discover what ‘abhidhamma’ meant in the earliest days, one should study the conversations between monks of the intellectual type. The Mahavedalla Sutta is a good example of this. It records a conversation between Ven Kotthita the Great and Ven Sariputta. Ven Sariputta was said by the Buddha to be ‘chief of those of great intuitive wisdom’. Ven Kotthita the Great was called ‘chief of those who have mastery in logical analysis’. These two monks were obviously very fond of discussing dhamma together. Many of their conversations are recorded in the Sutta Pitaka.

We have now said that the earliest abhidhamma was the field of the intellectual types. It was characterized by catechism, and by intellectual conversations. As one of the recurrent features of these conversations is analyses of terms, we could reasonably assume that a third feature of the earliest abhidhamma was analysis. Ven Sariputta, ‘chief of those with intuitive wisdom’, was a master of analysis, as is made clear in this passage:

‘Your reverences, when I had been two weeks ordained a monk, I grasped the analysis of meanings specifically and according to the letter (atthapatisambhida sacchikata odiso byanjanaso) That I explain it in various ways, I teach it, expound it, proclaim it, lay it down, open it up, analyse it and make it clear….[and likewise for the analysis of conditions (dhammapatisambhida), the analysis of definitions (niruttipatisambhida), and the analysis of intellect (patibhanapatisambhida)]. (Gradual Sayings, II, 159, Tr FL Woodward).


Source: E-Sangha - The Buddhist Community, http://www.lioncity.net/buddhism/

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last updated: 06-08-2007