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The Abhidhamma Pitaka (abhidhammapiṭaka) is the last of the three pitakas, that is, baskets, constituting the Pali Canon, the scriptures of Theravāda Buddhism.

The Abhidhamma pitaka is a detailed scholastic reworking of doctrinal material appearing in the Suttas, according to schematic classifications. It does not contain systematic philosophical treatises, but summaries or enumerated lists.[1].



The first five books and part of the seventh of the Abhidhamma Pitaka have been translated by the Pali Text Society[1] and offers an option to order them through their website.

Nature of abhidhamma

Abhidhamma has been variously described as philosophy, psychology, metaphysics etc. L. S. Cousins says that the abhidhamma methodology looks at things in terms of occasions or events instead of sequences or processes.[2]


Tradition[3] holds that the Buddha thought the Abhidhamma out immediately after his enlightenment then taught it to the gods some years later. Later the Buddha repeated it to Sariputta who then handed it on to his disciples. This tradition is also evident in the Parivara, a very late addition to the Vinaya Pitaka[4], which mentions in a concluding verse of praise to the Buddha that this best of creatures, the lion, taught the three pitakas.[5].

Scholars, however, generally date the Abhidhamma works to originating some time around the third century BCE, 100 to 200 years after the death of the Buddha. Therefore the seven Abhidhamma works are generally claimed by scholars not to represent the words of the Buddha himself, but those of disciples and great scholars[6]. Dr Rupert Gethin however said that important elements of abhidhamma methodology probably go back to the Buddha's lifetime[7]. A. K. Warder and Dr Peter Harvey both suggested early dates for the matikas on which most of the Abidhamma books are based. Abhidhamma started out as elaboration of the suttas, but later developed independent doctrines[8] .

As the last major division of the canon, the Abhidhamma Pitaka has had a checkered history. It was not accepted as canonical by the Mahasanghika school[1][9] and several other schools[10]. 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[11]. The various Abhidhamma philosophies of the various early schools have no agreement on doctrine[12 ] and belong to the period of 'Divided Buddhism'[12 ] (as opposed to Undivided Buddhism). The earliest texts of the Pali Canon have no mention of (the texts of) the Abhidhamma Pitaka[13]. The Abhidhamma is also not mentioned in some reports of the First Buddhist Council, which do mention the existence of the texts of the Vinaya and either the five Nikayas[14] or the four Agamas[15]. Other accounts do include the Abhidhamma.[16]

In the Theravadin Abhidhamma Pitaka, unlike the Abhidharma Pitaka of the Sarvastivada school, ontological theorizing is absent, and the question of ontological status of dharmas remains a moot point. The notion of sabhava (Sanskrit: svabhava) is only utilized in late Theravadin texts.[17] The doctrine of momentariness is also a late addition to Theravada thought.[18] It only appears at the time of Buddhaghosa.[19]


Pali Canon

    Vinaya Pitaka    
Khandhaka Pari-
    Sutta Pitaka    
    Abhidhamma Pitaka    
Dhs. Vbh. Dhk.
Kvu. Yamaka Patthana

The Abhidhamma Pitaka consists of seven books.



The Dhammasangani begins with a mātikā (translated as matrix) which lists classifications of dhammas (translated as phenomenas, ideas, states, etc). The mātikā starts with 22 threefold classifications, such as good/bad/unclassified, and then follows with 100 twofold classifications according to the Abhidhamma method. Many of these classifications are not exhaustive, and some are not even exclusive. The mātikā ends with 42 twofold classifications according to the sutta method; these 42 are only used in the Dhammasangani, whereas the other 122 are used in some of the other books as well.

The main body of the Dhammasangani is in four parts. The first part goes through numerous states of mind, listing and defining by lists of synonyms, factors present in the states. The second deals with material form, beginning with its own mātikā, classifying by ones, twos and so on, and explaining afterwards. The third explains the book's mātikā in terms of the first two parts, as does the fourth, by a different method (and omitting the sutta method).


the Vibhanga consists of 18 chapters, each dealing with a different topic. For example the first chapter deals with the five aggregates. A typical chapter consists of three parts. The first of these parts explains the topic according to the sutta method, often word-for-word as in actual suttas. The second is Abhidhamma explanation, mainly by lists of synonyms as in the Dhammasangani. The third employs questions and answers, based on the mātikā, such as "How many aggregates are good?"


This book covers both the matika and various topics, mostly from the Vibhanga, relating them to the 5 aggregates, 12 bases and 18 elements. The first chapter is fairly simple: "In how many aggregates etc. are good dhammas etc. included?" The book progressively works up to more complicated questions: "From how many aggregates etc. are the dhammas dissociated from attention etc. dissociated?"


This book starts with its own matika, which begins with some standard lists but then continues with lists of persons grouped numerically from ones to tens. This latter portion of the matika is then explained in the main body of the work. Most of the lists of persons and many of the explanations are also found in the Anguttara Nikaya.


This book consists of more than two hundred debates on questions of doctrine. It does not identify the participants. The commentary says the debates are between the Theravada and other schools, which it identifies in each case. These identifications are mostly consistent with what is known from other sources about the doctrines of different schools.[20]


This book consists of ten chapters, each dealing with a different topic; for example, the first deals with roots. A typical chapter (there are a number of divergences from this pattern) is in three parts. The first part deals with questions of identity: "Is good root root?" "But is root good root?" The entire Yamaka consists of such pairs of converse questions, with their answers. Hence its name, which means pairs. The second part deals with arising: "For someone for whom the form aggregate arises, does the feeling aggregate arise?" The third part deals with understanding: "Does someone who understands the eye base understand the ear base?"


This book deals with 24 conditions in relation to the matika: "Good dhamma is related to good dhamma by root condition", with details and numbers of answers.

Place in the tradition

The importance of the Abhidhamma Pitaka in classical Sinhalese Buddhism is suggested by the fact that it came to be furnished, not only, like much of the canon, with a commentary and a subcommentary on that commentary, but even with a subsubcommentary on that subcommentary.On the other hand, this relentless sub-commenting might be illustrative of what has been called "Shastra-vasna" or The Lust for Scriptures rather than a true effort at Nirvana , as envisioned by the Buddha. In more recent centuries, Burma has become the main centre of abhidhamma studies.

See also


  1. ^ a b c "Abhidhamma Pitaka." Encyclopædia Britannica. Ultimate Reference Suite. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2008.
  2. ^ "Pali oral literature", in Buddhist Studies, ed Denwood and Piatigorski, Curzon, London, 1982/3
  3. ^ Malalasekera, Dictionary of Pali Proper Names, India Office, 1938, reprinted Pali Text Society, Bristol, volume I, page 138
  4. ^ This work (the Parivara) is in fact a very much later composition, and probably the work of a Ceylonese Thera. from: Book of the Discipline, volume VI, page ix (translators' introduction)
  5. ^ Book of the Discipline, volume VI, page 123
  6. ^ "Abhidhamma Pitaka." Encyclopædia Britannica. Ultimate Reference Suite. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2008.
  7. ^ Foundations of Buddhism, Oxford University Press, 1998, page 48
  8. ^ Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism (2004), pages 1, 4
  9. ^ Buddhist Sects in india, Nalinaksha Dutt, 1978, page 58
  10. ^ several schools rejected the authority of abhidharma and claimed that abhidharma treatises were composed by fallible, human teachers. in: Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism (2004), page 2. (A similar statement can be found on pages 112 and 756.)
  11. ^ "Buddhism." Encyclopædia Britannica. Ultimate Reference Suite. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2008.
  12. ^ a b Kanai Lal Hazra, Pali Language and Literature - A Systematic Survey and Historical Survey, 1994, Vol. 1, page 415
  13. ^ Kanai Lal Hazra, Pali Language and Literature - A Systematic Survey and Historical Survey, 1994, Vol. 1, page 412
  14. ^ I.B. Horner, Book of the Discipline, Volume 5, page 398. An older translation of this texts can be found at: Eleventh Khandhaka: On the council of Rajagaha.
  15. ^ The Mahisasaka Account of the First Council. see
  16. ^ Warder, Indian Buddhism, 3rd ed, page 196
  17. ^ Richard King, Early Advaita Vedānta and Buddhism: The Mahāyāna Context of the Gauḍapādīya-kārikā. SUNY Press, 1995, page 94.
  18. ^ Noa Ronkin, Early Buddhist Metaphysics: the Making of a Philosophical Tradition." Routledge, 2005, page 59.
  19. ^ David Kalupahana, Causality: The Central Philosophy of Buddhism. The University Press of Hawaii, 1975, pages 72, 82. Kalupahana cites texts in the agamas and nikayas that contradict the doctrine of momentariness.
  20. ^ Bareau, Les Sectes bouddhiques du Petit Véhicule, Ecole Française d'Extrême Orient, Saigon, 1955

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

ABHIDHAMMA, the name of one of the three Pitakas, or baskets of tradition, into which the Buddhist scriptures (see Buddhism) are divided. It consists of seven works: 1. Dhamma Sangani (enumeration of qualities). 2. Vibhanga (exposition). 3. Katha Vatthu (bases of opinion). 4. Puggala Pannatti (on individuals). 5. Dhatu Katha (on relations of moral dispositions). 6. Yamaka (the pairs, that is, of ethical states). 7. Patthana (evolution of ethical states). These have now been published by the Pali Text Society. The first has been translated into English, and an abstract of the third has been published. The approximate date of these works is probably from about 400 B.C. to about 250 B.C., the first being the oldest and the third the latest of the seven. Before the publication of the texts, when they were known only by hearsay, the term Abhidhamma was usually rendered "Metaphysics." This is now seen to be quite erroneous. Dhamma means the doctrine, and Abhidhamma has a relation to Dhamma similar to that of by-law to law. It expands, classifies, tabulates, draws corollaries from the ethical doctrines laid down in the more popular treatises. There is no metaphysics in it at all, only psychological ethics of a peculiarly dry and scholastic kind. And there is no originality in it; only endless permutations and combinations of doctrines already known and accepted. As in the course of centuries the doctrine itself, in certain schools, varied, it was felt necessary to rewrite these secondary works. This was first done, so far as is at present known, by the Sarvastivadins (Realists), who in the century before and after Christ produced a fresh set of seven Abhidhamma books. These are lost in India, but still exist in Chinese translations. The translations have been analysed in a masterly way by Professor Takakusu in the article mentioned below. They deal only with psychological ethics. In the course of further centuries these books in turn were superseded by new treatises; and in one school at least, that of the Maha-yana (great vehicle) there was eventually developed a system of metaphysics. But the word Abhidhamma then fell out of use in that school, though it is still used in the schools that continue to follow the original seven books.

See Buddhist Psychology by Caroline Rhys Davids (London, 1900), a translation of the Dhamma Sangani, with valuable introduction; "Schools of Buddhist Belief," by T. W. Rhys Davids, in Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1892, contains an abstract of the Katha Vatthu; "On the Abhidhamma books of the Sarvastivadins," by Prof. Takakusu, in Journal of the Pali Text Society, 1905.

(T. W. R. D.)

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