Abhidhamma is an exceptional and profound component of the Pali Canon, the foundational scriptures of Theravada Buddhism. It unveils a meticulous and sophisticated exploration of the mind and matter, presenting an analytical and comprehensive exposition of reality as depicted in the Buddha’s teachings.
Beyond a mere intellectual endeavor, the Abhidhamma embodies a transformative journey. As you navigate through its richly detailed analysis, you encounter the most fundamental aspects of existence – consciousness, mental factors, matter and the unconditioned – the elements that constitute our reality. You traverse the intricate labyrinths of the mind, gaining insights into cognitive processes and the ethical dimensions of our actions.
What is Abhidhamma?
Abhidhamma, a constituent part of the Theravada Buddhist canon, epitomizes a detailed and systematic rendition of Buddhist philosophy and psychology. It is a remarkable and distinctive segment of the Pali Canon, sometimes referred to as the “Higher Doctrine” or the “Ultimate Doctrine”. The term ‘Abhidhamma’ translates to ‘beyond the dharma’, where ‘dharma’ signifies teaching or doctrine.
The Abhidhamma Pitaka, one of the “three baskets” (Tipitaka) of the Pali Canon, constitutes the core of the Abhidhamma tradition. It is an intricate seven-book collection where the underlying principles of reality are broken down and systematically analysed. The Abhidhamma Pitaka delves into metaphysics, epistemology, and phenomenology while expounding the basic elements of existence and the laws governing them.
The canonical Abhidhamma literature encompasses seven texts: the Dhammasangani, Vibhanga, Dhatukatha, Puggalapannatti, Kathavatthu, Yamaka and the Patthana. Each of these works underscores various aspects of the Abhidhamma and contributes to a comprehensive understanding of its teachings.
- The Dhammasangani is a manual of ethics, itemizing and defining phenomena into categories.
- The Vibhanga is an analytical guide that mirrors much of the material in the Dhammasangani but uses a different structural approach.
- The Dhatukatha discusses the relationships of the elements listed in the first two books.
- The Puggalapannatti enumerates different types of persons, categorizing them according to their levels of attainment.
- The Kathavatthu debates and refutes the erroneous views of non-Theravada schools.
- The Yamaka applies the method of paired questions to probe the Dhammas (elements of existence) from different perspectives.
- The Patthana is an exhaustive investigation into the principles of conditional relations.
The Abhidhamma seeks to illuminate the most profound truths of human existence by expounding the Buddha’s teachings in their entirety. It presents an intricate and detailed analysis of the mind and matter, delving deep into the mechanics of consciousness and mental phenomena. Its teachings are applicable both to the development of wisdom in the meditation process and to the daily practice of mindful living.
The tradition of the Abhidhamma is not only confined to the Theravada tradition of Buddhism, but it also significantly influences the philosophical underpinnings of Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions. Despite its complex nature, the Abhidhamma remains an invaluable tool for serious students of Buddhist thought, facilitating a deeper comprehension of reality, mind and matter as seen through the Buddha’s teachings.
The summary of the Abhidhamma Pitaka
The Abhidhamma Pitaka, the third division of the Tipitaka, comprises seven books, each addressing specific aspects of the Dhamma. The following is a summary of Abhidhamma Pitaka that LotusBuddhas has edited for you to easily visualize its content and message.
- Dhammasangani: Often translated as “Enumeration of Phenomena,” this book serves as a detailed manual of ethics. It classifies and enumerates all possible phenomena (Dhammas) that exist in the world, including consciousness (citta), mental factors (cetasika), and matter (rupa).
- Vibhanga: The “Book of Analysis” offers an analytical look at several key concepts in Buddhism. It consists of eighteen separate analyses of different subjects, including the aggregates (khandhas), sense bases (ayatanas), elements (dhatu), Dependent Origination (paticcasamuppada) and the Four Noble Truths.
- Dhatukatha: The “Discussion with Reference to the Elements” is an inquiry into the relationships between different elements of existence. It sets up a matrix of questions regarding classifications of Dhammas from the Dhammasangani and Vibhanga, exploring their interrelations and their role in the process of liberation.
- Puggalapannatti: “Description of Individuals” diverges slightly from the usual impersonal analysis of phenomena, discussing various types of individuals based on their ethical and spiritual qualities. It categorizes individuals according to their level of spiritual attainment, from the ordinary worldling to the Arahant.
- Kathavatthu: The “Points of Controversy” consists of a series of debates on doctrinal issues, ostensibly set during the Third Buddhist Council. It scrutinizes and refutes erroneous views held by various early Buddhist sects, affirming the Theravada position.
- Yamaka: The “Book of Pairs” employs a method of inquiry based on pairs of questions to clarify the nature of Dhammas. It ensures a precise understanding of concepts by probing into their various aspects and eliminating possible misunderstandings.
- Patthana: The “Book of Relations” is the longest book of the Abhidhamma Pitaka. It presents a complex analysis of the conditional relations between phenomena, describing twenty-four types of conditions that account for the interdependence and interaction of all mental and physical phenomena.
The Abhidhamma Pitaka presents a thorough and sophisticated understanding of the teachings of the Buddha, providing a framework for the meticulous examination of reality. It is an indispensable resource for those seeking a deeper understanding of the Dhamma. While complex and demanding, it offers a rich, philosophical, and psychological analysis that can support practitioners in their journey towards liberation.
The Origin of Abhidhamma
According to Buddhist tradition, the Abhidhamma was not taught by the Buddha during his ordinary discourses to the human assemblies, but was delivered in the heavenly realm of Tavatimsa to a congregation of divine beings. This discourse, in a highly systematized and advanced doctrinal form, spanned a period equivalent to three months on earth.
The Buddha is believed to have subsequently summarized this divine teaching to his chief disciple, Sariputta, who then organized it systematically and elaborated on its content, with the Buddha’s approval. This compilation eventually formed the seven books of the Abhidhamma Pitaka.
However, from a historical perspective, the compilation of the Abhidhamma is believed to have taken place gradually over several centuries after the Buddha’s Parinibbana (passing away). The tradition ascribes the first five books of the Abhidhamma Pitaka to venerable Sariputta, and the remaining two to venerable Ananda and Moggallana.
Modern scholars suggest that the Abhidhamma developed as a response to the needs of the early Buddhist community, especially those seeking to delve deeper into philosophical and psychological analyses. While the Suttas contained discourses for a broad range of practitioners, the Abhidhamma provided a systematic and detailed exposition of the Dhamma for those pursuing higher knowledge and wisdom.
The Abhidhamma was likely solidified during the Third Buddhist Council, approximately 250 years after the Buddha’s Parinibbana. The council, held in the reign of Emperor Ashoka, brought about the recitation and endorsement of the existing Abhidhamma material. These teachings were then preserved orally by the community of monks and later written down in Sri Lanka in the first century BCE, in a scriptural collection known as the Pali Canon.
Thus, while the precise origins of the Abhidhamma remain a combination of historical fact and traditional belief, its philosophical and psychological insights have made an enduring impact on the development of Buddhist thought and continue to guide practitioners on the path to liberation.
The key concepts in Abhidhamma
The Abhidhamma embodies a vast number of concepts, forming an intricate framework that serves to clarify and systematize the teachings of the Buddha. Below are some of the key concepts in the Abhidhamma:
- Dhammas: The Abhidhamma distinguishes phenomena into distinct entities known as Dhammas, viewed as the ultimate realities. They are broadly categorized into four types: mind (citta), mental factors (cetasika), matter (rupa) and the unconditioned element (Nibbana).
- Citta (Consciousness): In the Abhidhamma, citta refers to the cognitive aspect of consciousness. It is not a permanent, ongoing process but a series of discrete moments of consciousness, each arising and passing away in rapid succession.
- Cetasika (Mental Factors): These are associated with the mind and significantly influence our actions. They are concomitants of consciousness, arising and ceasing together with it. Examples include feeling (vedana), perception (sanna), intention (cetana), concentration (samadhi), and wisdom (panna).
- Rupa (Matter): The Abhidhamma breaks down physical phenomena into their smallest components, called Rupa. These include the four primary elements (earth, water, fire, air) and secondary elements like color, odor, taste, and nutritive essence.
- Nibbana (Nirvana): The unconditioned element, the ultimate goal of the Buddhist path. Unlike the other Dhammas, Nibbana is not subject to arising and passing away. It signifies the cessation of all forms of suffering.
- Paticcasamuppada (Dependent Origination): This is a central concept in Abhidhamma, explaining the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. It describes a chain of twelve interdependent causes and their effects, leading to the arising and continuation of suffering.
- Kamma (Karma): The law of kamma, as presented in the Abhidhamma, describes the moral causality governing sentient existence. Actions (of body, speech, and mind) performed with volition or intention create kamma, which leads to corresponding results in the future.
- Vipaka (Resultant): Vipaka refers to the fruition or results of past kamma, which can be wholesome (kusala) or unwholesome (akusala).
- Hetu-Paccaya (Root Conditionality): The Abhidhamma describes a system of conditionality, of which Hetu-Paccaya is a significant part. It identifies six roots (three wholesome: non-greed, non-hatred, non-delusion; and three unwholesome: greed, hatred, delusion) which condition mental states and actions.
- Jhana (Absorption): A meditative state of profound stillness and concentration in which the mind becomes fully immersed in its object.
These are just a few of the fundamental concepts contained in the Abhidhamma. The Abhidhamma serves to provide a complex and detailed system of analysis, geared towards a thorough understanding of human experience as delineated in the teachings of the Buddha. LotusBuddhas would like to advise you that, if you go deeper into the Buddhist teachings, you must study the Abhidhamma, but first, you must understand the above concepts.
What does Abhidhamma talk about?
The Abhidhamma focuses on the deconstruction and analysis of the mind and matter, the causal relationships that underpin them, and the ultimate aim of liberation from suffering.
- Analysis of reality: One of the primary subjects of the Abhidhamma is the thorough analysis of reality. It dissects complex phenomena into their most fundamental elements, known as Dhammas. Dhammas are categorised into four types: consciousness (citta), mental factors (cetasika), matter (rupa), and the unconditioned element (Nibbana).
- Psychological investigation: The Abhidhamma delves deep into the workings of the mind. It classifies and describes types of consciousness and their associated mental factors, offering a comprehensive map of the human psyche. It explores cognitive processes, differentiates wholesome from unwholesome mental states, and elucidates the process of perception and response.
- Moral philosophy: It examines moral and ethical aspects of existence, explicating the law of karma and its results (Vipaka). It highlights the ethical consequences of volitional actions, thereby emphasizing the importance of morality in the path to liberation.
- Conditional relations: The Abhidhamma extensively discusses the principle of conditionality or Dependent Origination (Paticcasamuppada). It presents a comprehensive system of twenty-four types of conditionality that define the relationships among phenomena.
- Path to liberation: The ultimate aim of the Abhidhamma is to guide practitioners on the path to liberation from suffering. By understanding the nature of reality and the intricate workings of the mind, a practitioner can develop insight, eliminate ignorance, and eventually attain Nibbana, the cessation of suffering.
- Conceptual and ultimate realities: The Abhidhamma differentiates between conceptual reality (Pannatti) and ultimate reality (Paramattha). The former pertains to concepts, ideas, or names that humans use to perceive reality, while the latter pertains to the fundamental elements of existence (Dhammas) as they truly are.
As you can see, Abhidhamma presents a detailed philosophical and psychological analysis of existence from the Buddhist perspective. It decodes the complex nature of mind and matter, the ethical dimensions of actions, and the conditional interrelationships of phenomena. The primary objective is to guide practitioners towards a deep, transformative understanding of reality that leads to the cessation of suffering and the attainment of Nibbana.
The Abhidharma (or Abhidhamma in Pali) exists within various schools of Buddhism. The major divisions of the Abhidharma tradition are primarily found within Theravada Buddhism and Sarvastivada Buddhism.
- Theravada Abhidhamma: The Theravada tradition’s Abhidhamma is preserved in the Pali Canon, composed of seven books. The Theravada Abhidhamma provides a detailed analysis of reality, deconstructing it into its ultimate constituents, the Dhammas. This tradition is prominent in countries like Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. The Abhidhamma Pitaka, the third basket of the Tipitaka, forms the foundation of the Theravada Abhidhamma.
- Sarvastivada Abhidharma: The Sarvastivada school, one of the early Buddhist schools, had a rich Abhidharma tradition, comprising seven books. This tradition developed in parallel but separate from the Theravada tradition. The most well-known Sarvastivada Abhidharma text is the Abhidharmakosha, composed by Vasubandhu in the 4th or 5th century CE. Sarvastivada Abhidharma, distinguished by its assertion of the existence of ‘dharmas’ in all three times (past, present and future), had a profound influence on Mahayana scholasticism.
- Mahayana Abhidharma: Although the term Abhidharma is not typically used in Mahayana traditions, many of the concepts and frameworks developed in the earlier Abhidharma traditions are crucial to Mahayana thought. Texts like the Yogacarabhumi of the Yogacara school and the Abhidharmasamuccaya of the Madhyamaka school carry forward the Abhidharma tradition in a Mahayana context. While the Mahayana traditions also reference the Sarvastivada Abhidharma, they frequently critique and reinterpret it.
You have to note that the Abhidharma traditions, while distinct, share a common objective of providing a systematic analysis of the Buddha’s teachings, with the ultimate goal of guiding practitioners on the path to liberation.
How to study Abhidhamma
Studying the Abhidhamma, a sophisticated component of the Theravada Buddhist canon, requires a dedicated approach, given its complex and detailed exploration of reality. LotusBuddhas would like to share some suggested steps for you to study the Abhidhamma effectively:
- Foundational understanding: Start by gaining a solid grounding in the basic teachings of Buddhism as presented in the Suttas. Understanding concepts such as the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the three characteristics of existence (impermanence, suffering, and non-self), and Dependent Origination will provide an essential foundation for studying the Abhidhamma.
- Select suitable texts: Choose an introductory text that provides a clear overview of the Abhidhamma. Books such as “A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma” by Bhikkhu Bodhi and “Abhidhamma Studies: Buddhist Explorations of Consciousness and Time” by Nyanaponika Thera offer accessible introductions to the subject.
- Structured learning: Engage in a systematic study of the Abhidhamma, approaching it one concept at a time. Be patient and consistent, recognizing that understanding may come gradually.
- Guidance and discussion: If possible, study under the guidance of a knowledgeable teacher or join a study group. Discussing and clarifying doubts can facilitate deeper understanding. Online resources and forums can also provide opportunities for discussion and clarification.
- Contemplative reflection: Reflect on what you have learned, contemplating how the Abhidhamma’s analysis of reality corresponds with your own experiences. This process of reflection can lead to insightful understandings.
- Meditative practice: Incorporate your Abhidhamma studies into your meditative practice. This integration can illuminate the experiential truths underlying the theoretical analysis of the Abhidhamma.
- Advanced study: As you progress, you may wish to explore the original seven books of the Abhidhamma Pitaka, either in translation or in the original Pali if you are proficient in it.
- Continuous learning: The study of Abhidhamma is an ongoing journey. Maintain an open mind and a willingness to continually learn and deepen your understanding.
Remember, the ultimate purpose of studying the Abhidhamma is not just intellectual comprehension but transformation and liberation through profound understanding of reality. Therefore, studying the Abhidhamma should ideally go hand in hand with the practice of Buddhist ethical conduct (Sila), concentration (Samadhi), and wisdom (Panna).
Three baskets of the Pali Canon
The Abhidhamma, Vinaya, and Sutta Pitakas, the three “baskets” (Pitakas) of the Pali Canon, represent different yet interrelated dimensions of the Theravada Buddhist teachings. While each serves a distinct purpose, they together form a comprehensive guide to understanding and practicing the Dhamma.
- Vinaya Pitaka: This primarily contains the monastic code, the rules (Patimokkha) laid down by the Buddha for monks and nuns. It includes regulations, procedures, and stories related to the monastic community. Its purpose is to provide the framework for the harmonious functioning of the Sangha (monastic community), facilitating the ethical conduct (Sila) that forms the foundation of the Buddhist path. It also includes guidance on the relationship between the monastic and lay communities.
- Sutta Pitaka: This consists of the Buddha’s discourses (Suttas), dialogues, and sermons, providing direct teachings on various aspects of the Dhamma. It contains extensive teachings on ethical conduct, concentration, and wisdom, including the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and Dependent Origination. The Sutta Pitaka presents these teachings in an accessible and practical manner, making them relevant to a broad range of practitioners.
- Abhidhamma Pitaka: As the third component, the Abhidhamma Pitaka offers a meticulous philosophical and psychological analysis of the teachings found in the Sutta Pitaka. It dissects complex phenomena into their most fundamental elements, elaborates on the workings of the mind, and explains the conditional relations among phenomena. It is intended for those who wish to delve deeper into understanding the nature of reality and the intricate dynamics of consciousness.
In relation to the Vinaya and Sutta Pitakas, the Abhidhamma serves as a profound and detailed exploration of the teachings outlined in the Suttas. While the Vinaya lays down the ground rules for ethical conduct and community living, and the Suttas provide a comprehensive guide to the practical application of the Dhamma, the Abhidhamma offers an advanced analytical study of the Buddha’s teachings. This detailed analysis helps deepen the understanding and practice of the Dhamma, ultimately guiding the practitioner towards the path of liberation.