The Abhidhamma Defined

‘Of all canons in different languages which Buddhists of different schools and of different eras made out of the legends, only one – the Theravada canon, – has come down to us in a complete collection. It was recovered from Ceylon, but its language is an Indian language called Pali of which the origin is obscure. The Ceylonese tradition is that it was the work of Mahinda who went to Ceylon and introduced Buddhism there during the reign of Emperor Asoka; that the canon had originally been in the language of Ceylon, Sinhalese; that nearly seven centuries afterwards it was rendered into Magadhi (identified with Pali) by Buddhaghosa (circa-AD 400); and that, thereafter, “Buddhaghosa had the works written by Thera Mahinda put into a heap in a sacred place near the Great Pagoda and set on fire”; Since then the Theravada canon is supposed to have remained “Magadhi” (Pali)’ 

Sukumar Dutt: The Buddha and Five After Centuries, Luzac, (1957), Pages 9-10 

Author’s Note: There is some academic doubt that Pali was ever the language of Magadha – the place situated in East India where the Buddha spent much of his life teaching, as archaeology suggests that ‘Prakrit’ (as well as Indo-Aryan and Sanskrit) was the main language. Of course, what must be remembered is that whilst being well educated, the Buddha was also illiterate and could not read or write – which was typical of the time. Writing may have been known in the royal court, for instance, but even then, only by a very few ministers who wrote down edicts as they were issued (thus making pronouncement an officially recorded ‘law’). This is why the Buddha’s Teachings were passed on by word of mouth until around 100 BCE – where it was eventually written down in Sri Lanka (Ceylon). Buddhism was already in Sri Lanka at this time, and was probably remember in Prakrit before being written down in Sinhalese. It is these Sinhalese Teachings that Buddhaghosa had translated into Pali and then burned – so that the ‘new’ could not be compared with the ‘old’. This is very unusual behaviour as the Buddha’s Teaching – regardless of its modes of transmission – is almost always treated as ‘holy’ by devout Buddhists who would fear the bad karmic retribution associated with destroying the Dhamma! There is some speculation that the (earlier 3rd century BCE) Buddhism in Sri Lanka contradicted in interpretation, the developed Buddhism of the 5th century CE Theravada School (which Buddhaghosa represented). On the other hand, large portions of the texts of other Buddhist Schools have been found all over the Asian world, and when studied as a whole, present a very diverse mosaic of a deep spiritual tradition. Whilst in Sri Lanka in late 1996, I received Dhamma instruction from the Ven. Mangala Thero of the Ganga Ramaya Temple (Beruwela). He said that lay-people are encouraged to think in terms one ‘one life to another’, whereas Ordained Buddhist monastics are taught to assess existence from ’one mind moment to another’ – the latter being more in accordance with the Buddha’s original teaching – but which became the sole property of a group of monks. Lay people – according to the Theravada School – can only attain a better rebirth as a human man, or in a heavenly realm. This dichotomy is not supported by the content of the Pali Suttas and is the product of Theravada dogma and ideology (as is the idea that men are superior to women, possibly influenced by Hindu attitudes).  Rebirth for a Buddhist monastic is the contemplation of one mind moment to the next. Each mind moment emerges out of previous conditions, solidifies and functions in the present, and then falls away as the next mind moment develops. Rather than a literal ‘life to life’ interpretation as encouraged amongst the laity, the Abhidhamma teaches the Ordained Buddhist Sangha to understand ‘rebirth’ as ‘one moment to the next’. In a number of Suttas, the Buddha explains that at the point of complete enlightenment all rebirth ceases and is understood to be an illusion. ACW (7.3.2020) 

The term ‘Abhidhamma’ is Pali and translates as the ‘Supreme Teaching’, the ‘Highest Teaching’, or perhaps ‘Great Understanding’. The Abhidhamma is the product of monks and nuns sat in deep meditation for many hundreds of hours, coupled with the wisdom that accompanies a long life of monastic discipline. The ‘Three Baskets’ (Tipitaka) of Buddhism are the Vinayapitaka (Monastic Moral Discipline), Suttapitaka (the Dhamma Teachings), and the Abhidhamma (or Monkish Commentaries to the Suttas). Most Buddhist Schools share very similar Vinaya Disciplines (with odd differences), and Suttas (with some Schools possessing more than others), but can differ considerable in Abhidhama interpretation. Indeed, it is through the Abhidhamma that an ideology of a School is developed, as this is the font of all interpretive-knowledge in each School, and the ideology within which the Ordained Monastics (Sangha) are trained. It is through the Abhidhamma that the ‘differences’ in each Buddhist School is defined, preserved and passed on. Following the Buddha’s death around 2,500 years ago, there developed at least 18 Schools all claiming to teach his Dhamma, and all differing (often subtly) in interpretation. Although the Buddha’s Disciples were wandering Beggars (Bhikkhus), for three-months of the year they would congregate and pass the ‘Rainy Season’ in the safety of a temporary and structured building in a specially built and secure compound (Avasa). These monastic-settlements led eventually to populations of monks who lived permanently within them all year round, and which begged daily from the local populace. As this was believed to bring ‘good luck’ to the lay-community, this development of permanent monastic communities (‘Vihara’) was very popular! Obviously, these communities initially shared a common teacher in the Buddha, but each community was separate, independent and not subject to an over-all teacher after the death of the Buddha. Often the various community Head Monks had learned directly from the Buddha, and quite often in different ways and at various times. This process inevitably led to a difference of opinion which permeated an entire Buddhist monastic settlement, and influence the formulation of differing Abhidhamma texts. What follows is a definition of the Abhidhamma as found in the Theravada School of Sri Lanka. 

‘The Abhidhamma teaching in the Dhammasangani, the focus of Ven. Nyanaponika’s essays, might be discussed in terms of three interwoven strands of thought: (1) an underlying ontology framed in terms of bare ontological factors called dhammas; (2) the use of an “attribute-matika,” a methodological list of contrasting qualities, as a grid for classifying the factors resulting from ontological analysis; and (3) the elaboration of a detailed typology of consciousness as a way of mapping the dhammas in relation to the ultimate goal of the Dhamma, the attainment of Nibbana. The first two strands are shared by the Theravada and Sarvastivada systems (though with differences in the details) and might be seen as stemming from the original archaic core of Abhidhamma analysis. The third strand, the minute analysis of consciousness, seems to be a specific feature of the Pali Abhidhamma and thus may have evolved only after the two traditions had gone their separate ways.  

1) The Dhamma Theory 

The theory as such is not articulated in the Abhidhamma Pitaka, which rarely makes explicit the premises that underlie its systematizing projects, but comes into prominence only in the later commentarial literature, particularly in the commentaries to the Abhidhamma manuals. Succinctly stated, this theory maintains that the manifold of phenomenal existence is made up of a multiplicity of “thing-events” called dhammas, which are the realities that conceptual thought works upon to fabricate the consensual world of everyday reality. But the dhammas, though constitutive of experience, are distinctly different from the gross entities resulting from the operations of conceptual thought. Unlike the persisting persons and objects of everyday reality, the dhammas are evanescent occurrences, momentary mental and physical happenings brought into being through conditions – with the sole exception of the unconditioned element, Nibbana, which is the one dhamma that is not evanescent or subject to conditions.  

2)  The Attribute-matika. 

Having reduced the entire manifold of experience to a procession of impersonal thing-events, the Abhidhamma sets about to classify them according to a scheme dtermined by the guiding ideals of the Dhamma. The attribute-matika is announced at the very beginning of the Dhammasangani and serves as a preface to the entire Abhidhamma Pitaka. It consists of 122 modes of classification proper to the Abhidhamma system, with an additional forty-two taken from the sutras. Of the Abhidhamma modes, twenty-two are triads (tika), sets of three terms used to clarify the fundamental factors of existence; the other hundred are dyad (duka), binary terms used as a base for categorization. The triads include such sets as states that are wholesome, unwholesome, indeterminate; states associated with pleasant feeling, with painful feeling, with neutral feeling; states that are kamma results, states productive of kamma results, states that are neither; and so forth. The dyads include roots, not roots; having roots, not having roots; conditioned states, unconditioned states; mundane states, supramundane states; and so forth. Within these dyads we also find the various defilements: taints, fetters, knots, floods, bonds, hindrances, misapprehensions, clingings, corruptions. The matika also includes forty-two dyads taken from the sutras, but these have a different character from the Abhidhamma sets and do not figure elsewhere in the system. 

3) The Typology of Consciousness 

The Buddhist map makes no mention of neuroses, complexes, or fixations. Its two poles are bondage and liberation, samsara and Nibbana, and the specific features it represents are those states of mind that prolong our bondage and misery in amsara, those that are capable of leading to mundane happiness and higher rebirths, and those that lead out from the whole cycle of rebirths to find deliverance in Nibbana. The Dhammasangani shows that the entire domain of consciousness in all its diversity is bound into an orderly cosmos by two overarching laws: first, the mundane moral law of kamma and its fruit, which links mundane wholesome and unwholesome states of consciousness to their respective results, the fruits of kamma, the latter included in the class of indeterminate consciousness. The second is the liberative or transcendent law by which certain wholesome states of consciousness – the supramundane paths – produce their own results, the four fruits of liberation, culminating in the attainment of Nibbana.’ 

Ven. Nyanaponika Thera: Abhidhamma Studies, Wisdom, (1998), Pages-XVI-XXII 

‘Dependent Origination in the Abhidhamma 

In the Abhidhamma many different models of Dependent Origination are presented, sorted according to the various kinds of skilful, unskilful and neutral mental states involved in producing them. These are further analysed according to the levels of mental state involved, e they of the sensual realm (kamavacara), the realm of form (rupavacara), the formless realm (arupavacara) or the transcendent realm (lokuttara). This is because the Abhidhamma studies the mind on the level of ‘mind moments,’ and thus analyses Dependent Origination according to the kind of specific mental state involved. The factors occurring within these models will vary according to the kind of mind-state.’ 

PA Payutto: Dependent Origination – The Buddhist Law of Conditionality, Buddhadhamma Foundation, (1994), Page 102 

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