Buddhist Fables

Buddhist Classics

Life and Legends of Buddha

The Illustrated Jataka & Other Stories of the Buddha by C. B. Varma Introduction | Glossary | Bibliography

082 – The Buddha’s Teaching of Abhidhamma

The Buddha preaching Abhidhamma in the Tavatimsa

Buddha alighting from Tavatimsa to teach Abhidhamma to Sariputta, the Thai version

Origin of Abhidhamma

According to the Theravada tradition the Buddha dwelt in the celestial domain of the thirty-three divine beings (Tavatimsa-loka) to teach the doctrine of Abhidhamma to his mother for three months. Then he descended to the lake Anottata; where he instructed the same to his most illustrious disciple Sariputta in the form of mnemonic verses, who in turn taught it to the five hundred distinguished monks acknowledged as the arahatas. Thus Abhidhamma by way of the oral tradition of transmission (through acharya-disciple tradition) beginning with the Buddha was passed on to Sariputta and in the like manner through Bhaddaji, Sobhita, Piyajali, Piyapala, Piyadassi, Kosiyaputta, Siggava, Sandeha, Moggalliputta, Sudatta, Dhammiya, Dasaka, Sonaka and Revata; and then through Mahinda, Ittiya, Sambala, Pandita, and Bhaddanama it reached Sri Lanka. Interestingly, this tradition is still alive in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Thailand; though withered away in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Cambodia.

Meaning of Abhidhamma

Etymologically, Abhidhamma may be analysed as the compound of abhi (“to”; “toward”; “into”) and dhamma (root: dhr, which means “to hold” or “bear”). However, in the context it is interpreted as “ leading-to-that-which-contains-the-advanced or specialised-teachings” [of-the-Buddha]” when we examine the observations of the best known Pali commentator Buddhaghosa. The expert critic interprets the term ‘Abhidhamma’ as the most advanced (atireka) or specialised (visesa) doctrine[1] to differentiate it from the doctrine of the Sutta-Pitaka, which is not so analytical[2]; and which employs the common and conventional terms and approach. It is noteworthy that every term of Abhidhamma has a specific connotation or well-defined meaning for the advanced monks or trainees.

The above interpretation of Abhidhamma is further corroborated by the definition of ‘Abhidharma’ made by Vasubandhu in his Sanskrit treatise – the Abhidharmakosa. There he states that “Abhidharma is the undefiled wisdom and its concomitants. Further, whatever is instrumental to achieve that; or the corpus [which is an aid to that]” is Abhidharma.[3] Asanga’s interpretation of Abhidharma also extends to the understanding of the above meaning. Prefixing abhi in four ways with the dhamma, he interprets that

The dhamma which is Nibbana-encountering;
The dhamma which is analytical;
The dhamma which is refutative of the converse views ;
The dhamma which is progressive.[4]

The term Abhidharma (a-p’i-ta-mo) in the Chinese records interpret it as ta fa (great dhamma because of the greatness of the knowledge to the realisation of Four Noble Truths etc.); wu-pi-fa (peerless dhamma because of the eight forms of intelligence etc); sheng-fa (excellent dhamma as it is wisdom-realising); tuei-fa (facing dhamma) and hsiang-fa (proceeding dhamma as the cause-effect theory that proceeds from cause to effect).

The modern scholars, namely, W.Geiger, T.W. and C.A.F.Rhys Davids, Oldenberg, I.B.Horner, E.J.Thomas, Kogen Mizuno, Ken Sakurabe, Taiken Kimura and Bhikkhu Jagdish Kashyap have made some serious studies to understand the meaning of this term. Yet, no modern linguistic interpretation of the term throws any fresh light to the comprehension of the original meaning of the term because the study of Abhidhamma is not a barren linguistic exercise. It may be reiterated that every term of Abhidhamma is assigned a definite connotation; and is often interpreted by way of its characteristic (lakkhana), function (rasa), manifestation (paccupatthana) and proximate cause (padatthan). So, the linguistic interpretation of the term has often been misleading; and its variant renditions create more complications to a reader rather than to extend his understanding. It is believed that Abhidhamma is a way of life; and is meant for the chosen few, particularly for the erudite monks or scholars with specialised training. It may be emphatically pointed out that the study demands no less seriousness than the study of the Rg Veda or Quran. The scholars interested in Abhidhamma may also turn to the living Burmese (or Myanmari) traditions for its purest comprehension; or the volumes of the commentaries on the canonical Abhidhammic literature.

The Seven Books of Abhidhamma are

1. Dhammasangani;

2. Vibhanga;

3. Dhatukatha;

4. Puggalapannatti;

5. Kathavatthu;

6. Yamaka; and

7. Patthana.

The Sarvastivadin tradition of Buddhism,[5] however, does not accept the above text as the original composition, because they have somewhat similar texts on the Vinaya Pitaka and Sutta Pitaka in juxtaposition with the Pali versions; but are missing in the case of the Abhidhamma. Yet, the Sarvastivadins have equal number of the Abhidharmic texts:

1. Sangitipariyayapada;

2. Dharmaskandha;

3. Dhatukaya-patha;

4. Prajnaptipada;

5. Vijnanapada;

6. Prakaranapada;

7. Jnanaprasthana.

The Buddhist canons are classified into three; and the common and popular designation for each of these classifications is pitaka (literally, “basket”). These pitakas were first compiled in the first Buddhist council, which was held in Rajgir after the parininbbana (or the demise) of the Buddha (483 B.C). during the reign of Ajatasattu (Sanskritised Ajatasatru), the king of the Magadha janapada (or kingdom) . The first of these corpuses is called the Vinaya Pitaka; and the other two are called the Sutta-Pitaka and the Abhidhamma-Pitaka. The Vinaya Pitaka, deals with the Buddhist codes and conduct and may be regarded as the Corpus of the Discipline. It supposedly records the recitations made by the thera Upali in the council. The latter two pitakas, collectively called the ‘Dhamma’ (or the doctrine), are the collection of the recitations given by Ananda (the closest disciple of the Buddha) in the same council. The recitations of the aforementioned two monks, as a matter of fact, are the answers by way of the explanations and elucidations to the questions posed by the President of the council – Mahathera Mahakassapa.[6]

Many scholars believe that the Tipitaka was compiled in the third Buddhist council. But such claims are unfounded when we look at the Mahavamsa (one of the most reliable sources of the Buddhist history; and a principal source for the construction of the history of ancient India) it is explicitly stated that even before the convention of the third Buddhist council (which took place in Pataliputta [Sanskritised: Pataliputra or modern Patna during the reign of the Emperor Asoka] one thousand erudite monks “well versed in the Tipitaka …” (or the three canons) [7] were chosen for the re-compilation of the original and purest teachings of the Buddha to eliminate the interpolations crept therein in the original corpuses. The above statement corroborates to the fact that the Tipitaka definitely existed before the third Buddhist council, however, its form could have been somewhat different from what was compiled in the third council; or what is handed down to us by the tradition in its current form.

The Abhidhamma Pitaka, primarily deals with the philosophy and psychology of the Theravada school of Buddhism. The “theravada”, however, refers to that school of Buddhism which, supposedly “adhere to the most original and purest form of the Buddhist teachings”, advocated by those theras (monks) who obtained the erudition directly through the Master. Further, they used the bhasa Magadhika or the mula bhasa (the original language) [8] to record the original text or the pariyaya, (the text of the canons). The term pariyaya, however, when abbreviated became ‘pari’ or ‘pali’; and in course of time was applied to denote the language of the entire gamut of the canons; and the exegeses and other compositions on those texts having the same language.

[1] Tattha ‘Abhidhammo’ ti kena atthena Abhidhammo ? – Dhammatireka-dhamma-visesa-atthena. Atireka-vises’ attha-dipako hi ettha ‘abhi’ saddo. Atthasalini 1.2

[2] Suttantam patva ca pana mummantara-paricchedo ekadesen eva vibhatto; Abhidhammam patva pana mummantara-paricchedo nippadesato va vibhatto. Evam dhammatireka-dhamma-visesa ‘atthena Abhidhammo’ ti veditabbo. Ibid., 1.3.

[3] Prajna-amala-sanucara Abhidharmastatpraptaye ya ‘pi ca yacca Sastram… . Abhidharmakosa 1.2.

[4] Abhimukhato ‘athabhiksanyadabhibhava-gatito-‘bhidharmasca. Mahayana Sutra 11.3

[5] The Chinese translations of all the Sarvastivadin texts from the original Sanskrit are still well-preserved; but the original Sanskrit texts are often lost.

[6] Upali thermam Vinaye, sesa-dhamme Asesake

Ananda-thream akarum sabbe thera dhurandhara
Mahathero sakattanam, vinayam pucchitum sayam

Samman’ Upali-thero ca, visajjetum tam eva tu . (Mahavamsa 30-31). It may be noted that the Mahavamsa, the Singhalese chronicle, authentically lays the foundation of the construction of the ancient history of modern India which corroborated to the identification of Ashoka, whose inscriptions are still extant in several pockets of Asia.

Aggam bahusuttadinam, kosarakkham mahesino
Sammannitvana attanam thero dhammam apucchi so
Tatha sammanniyattanam dhammasanagato sayam
Visajjesi tam Ananda-thero dhamm’ asesato. (Mahavamsa 34-35)

[7] Thero anekasankhamha bhikkhusangha visarade

chal’ abhinne Tepitake pabhinna-patisambhide. (Ibid. 275)

[8] It is noteworthy that Magadhi Prakrit and bhasa Magadhika (or Pali) are not identical.