THE LITERATURE OF THERAVADA ABHIDHAMMA
The Centre of Buddhist Studies, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong
THE LITERATURE OF THERAVADA ABHIDHAMMA
Introduction The Abhidhamma Pitaka is a Philosophical Collection that forms the third great section of the Buddhist Pali Canon (Tipitaka). It is a system of classifications, analytical enumerations and definitions, with no elaborate explanations on the subject matter. These are huge collections of systematically arranged tabulations, accompanied by definitions of the terms used in the tables. The Abhidhamma Pitaka, primarily deals with the philosophy and psychology of the Theravada school of Buddhism.1 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 Buddha. They used the bhasa Magadhika or the mula bhasa (the original language) 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 canons and other compositions having the same language.1,2
Meaning of the term “Abhidhamma” The word “Abhidhamma” may be analyzed etymologically, as the compound of abhi (“to”; “toward”; “into”) and dhamma (root: dhr, which means “to hold” or “bear”).
However, in textual context, it is interpreted as “leading to that which contains the advanced or specialized teachings (of the Buddha)”. The renowned Pali
commentator Buddhaghosa had interpreted the term ‘Abhidhamma’ as the most advanced (atireka) or specialised (visesa) doctrine to differentiate it from the doctrine of the Sutta-Pitaka. It should be noted that every term of the Abhidhamma has a specific connotation or well-defined meaning for the advanced monks or trainees.2,3
Vasubandhu, in his Sanskrit version of the Abhidharmakosa, had stated that the Abhidharma is the undefiled wisdom and it is concomitant. Asanga’s interpretation of Abhidharma also extends to the understanding of the above meaning. Prefixing “abhi” in four ways with the dhamma, he interpreted “Abhidhamma” as (a)The dhamma which is Nibbana-encountering, (b)The dhamma which is analytical, (c)The dhamma which is devoid of the converse views and (d)The dhamma which is progressive. 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 specialized training. Scholars interested in Abhidhamma should also refer to the commentaries on canonical Abhidhammic literature or living Burmese (or Myanmari) traditions for its purest comprehension.1,2,3
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 realization 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). 1,2
Origin of Theravada Abhidhamma According to the Theravada tradition the Abhidhamma is the proper domain of the Buddhas (Buddha-visaya). According to the Atthasalini, the initial conception of it in the Master's mind (manasa desana) took place immediately after his Enlightenment. It is believed that the Abhidhamma was conceived during the fourth of the seven weeks spent by the Buddha under the Bodhi tree. These seven days were known as 'The Week of the House of Gems (ratana-ghara-sattaha), but one must remember that the Buddha did not preach this to the lay community apprehending their difficulty in interpretation of its true meaning. It is perceived that the Buddha dwelt in the celestial domain of the thirty-three divine beings (Tavatimsa-loka) to teach the doctrine of the Abhidhamma to his mother and an assembly of gods for three months. Then he descended to the lake Anottata; where he instructed the same to his disciple Sariputta in the form of numerical verses, who in turn taught it to the five hundred distinguished Arahants. Following the oral transmission route through acharya-disciple tradition, the Abhidhamma was thus transmitted from generation to generation. 1,3,4
Pre-Abhidhammika Abhidhamma 2,3,4,5 There is historical continuity between the early Buddhist Suttas and the Abhidhamma. The antecedent trends that led to the development of the Abhidhamma can be traced from a number of Suttas and Sutta-passages which were composed according to the expository methodology of the Abhidhamma. These are as follows:
(1) A group of eight suttas with the appellation, “Vibhanga” are found in the Vibhanga Vagga of the Majjhima Nikaya. The term Vibhanga means distribution, division or classification which is represented as CulakammaVibhanga, Mahakamma-Vibhanga, Salayatana-Vibhanga, Uddesa-Vibhanga, Arana-Vibhanga, Dhatu-Vibhanga, Sacca-Vibhanga and Dakkhina-Vibhanga. These suttas present the doctrinal categories in technical terms devoid of literary embellishments such as use of similes or metaphors to illustrate the doctrinal points. (2) Some suttas in the Samyutta Nikaya specifically deal with one particular doctrinal category. These are Nidhana Samyutta (on Dependent Origination), Dhatu Samyutta (on Eighteen Elements involved in sense-cognition), Khandha Samyutta (on Five Aggregates into which the empiric individuality is analyzed). (3) In the Anguttara Nikaya, the doctrines are arranged in numerically ascending order which forms a transitory stage between the Sutta-Pitaka and the Abhidhamma-Pitaka.
(4) The Patisambhida Magga, which belongs to the Khuddaka Nikayas of the fifth collection of Sutta-Pitaka, was composed by Venerable Sariputta and could be considered as a work belonging to the expository methodology of the Abhidhamma tradition. (5) Sangiti Sutta and Dasuttara Sutta of the Digha Nikaya, composed by Venerable Sariputta, show the beginning of the Abhidhamma systematization. The Sangiti Sutta contains a long list of 903 dhammas in 227 different types arranged in numerical order of ones, pairs, triads and up to tens. In the Dasuttara Sutta the enumeration of the doctrinal categories is made not only on their numerical order, but also in consideration of their specific nature. (6) The term “Abhivinaya”, synonymous with the term “Abhidhamma”, also occur in the Vinaya Pitaka. It is proclaimed that a monk who is incapable of instructing on “Abhidhamma” and “Abhivinaya” must not take part in ordaining any disciple.
(7) The term matika-dhara, meaning specialist in matikas that also occurs in the
Sutta-Pitaka, is considered to be early Buddhist specialists who were skilful in tabulations of doctrinal topics and paved the way for the emergence of the Abhidhamma.
The Matikas and Seven Original Text Books of Theravada Abhidhamma
The nucleus of the Abhidhamma can be traced back from matikas, which are doctrinal tabulations found in the Suttas that form a foundation for the whole superstructure of the Abhidhamma systematization. The matika is a matrix or schedule of categories consisting of 122 modes of classification comprised of 100
dyads and 22 triads, which are special to the expository methodology of the Abhidhamma. There are 100 modes of classification called dyads (duka) which are individual sets of two terms used as a basis of classifying the fundamental dhammas. There are 22 triads (tika) which are individual sets of three terms into which the fundamental dhammas are distributed.
(1)Dhammasangani (enumeration of Phenomena), (2)Vibhanga (book of Analysis), (3) Dhatukatha or (discourse Human on Elements), (4)Puggalapannatti (points of (concepts of
(6)Yamaka (book of pairs) and (7)Patthana (book on Conditional Relations). These books do not contain records of discourses and discussions, but are treaties which present the fundamental doctrines of the Buddha in a purely impersonal and technical terminology, free from any kind of historical background or literary embellishment. The Sarvastivadin tradition of Buddhism however, does not accept this list of texts as original composition.
Nettippakarana and Petakopadesa are the two treatises which serve as a guide to the interpretation and understanding of the teachings contained in the Pali Canon similar to the Abhidhamma texts.
Post-Canonical Commentaries and Sub-commentaries on the Abhidhamma
(1) Atthasalini – Expositor and Dhammasangini Atthakatha – commentary on
(2) Sammohavinodini – dispeller of Delusion and Vibhanga Atthakatha –
commentary to the Vibhanga.
(3) Pancappakaranatthakatha – commentary on the remaining five books of the
(4) Visuddhimagga – Path of Purification, which gives a full expression of
(5) Abhidhamma Mulatika – sub-commentary to the commentaries of the
(6) Anutika – sub-commentaries to the sub-commentaries.
Compendiums on the Abhidhamma The compendiums compiled in
Namarupapariccheda (analysis of mind and matter), Parmatthavinicchaya (an enquiry into what is ultimate), Abhidhammavatara (a descent into the introduction of Abhidhamma), Ruparupavi bhaga (analysis into mind and matter),
Saccasamkhepa (an outline/ synopsis/ summary of Truth), Mohavicchedani (that which dispels delusion) and Khemappakarana (the treat is by Khema). The last one is Namacaradipak (movement of mind) which was compiled in Burma. Some of these compendiums also have their own sub-commentaries. The most popular
Official Inclusion of the Abhidhamma Pitaka during Third Buddhist Council The Mahavamsa is considered as one of the most reliable sources of the Buddhist history and a principal source for the construction of the history of ancient India. Though many scholars believe that the Tipitaka was compiled in the third Buddhist council, but it is explicitly stated in the Mahavamsa that even before the convention of the third Buddhist council, one thousand erudite monks, who were well versed in the Tipitaka, were selected for the re-compilation of the original and purest teachings of the Buddha in order to eliminate the interpolations crept in the original corpuses. This corroborates to the fact that the Tipitaka definitely existed before the third Buddhist council. However, its form might have been different from what was compiled in the third council.1,3
During the 3rd Century B.C., with the initiative of Emperor Asoka, the Third Buddhist Council was held to discuss the differences of opinion among the bhikkhus of various sects regarding some portions of the Vinaya and also the Dhamma. The Abhidhamma Pitaka was officially included as the third Pali Cannon in this Council. At the end of this Council, the President of the Council, Moggaliputta Tissa, compiled a book called the Kathavatthu refuting the heretical, false views and theories held by some sects. The teaching approved and accepted by this Council was known as Theravada. After the Third Council, Asoka's son, Ven. Mahinda, brought the Tripitaka to Sri Lanka, along with the commentaries that were recited at the Third Council.
The texts were written in Pali which was based on the Magadhi language spoken by the Buddha.1,2
The High Esteem of Abhidhamma in Buddhist Tradition Since the time of its inception, the Abhidhamma was highly esteemed and even venerated in the countries of Theravada Buddhism. In the 10th century A.C. on the order of king Kassapa V of Ceylon, the whole Abhidhamma Pitaka was inscribed on gold plates, and the first of these books, the Dhammasangani, was set with jewels. When the work was completed, the precious manuscripts were taken in a huge procession to a beautiful monastery and deposited there. Another king of Ceylon, Vijaya Bahu (11th century) used to study the Dhammasangani in the early morning before he took up his royal duties, and he prepared a translation of it into Sinhalese, which however has not been preserved.1
Evaluation of the Authenticity of Abhidhamma Even in olden days there were doubts about the authenticity of the Abhidhamma Pitaka as genuine Buddha word. The early sect of the Sautrantikas regarded, as their name indicates, only Sutta and Vinaya as canonical, but not the Abhidhamma. However, the Theravadins urged the authenticity of the Abhidhamma by citing the fact that according to Atthasalini, the Buddha had already penetrated the Abhidhamma when sitting under the Bodhi tree after attaining Enlightenment. They also considered the profound teachings of the Abhidhamma as the ultimate doctrine which is in the exclusive domain of the omniscient Buddhas and not others.1,2,3 A comparative evaluation of the Abhidhamma and Sutta texts revealed that the Sutta
Pitaka too contains a considerable amount of pure Abhidhamma. This comprises all those numerous Suttas and passages where ultimate (paramattha) terms are used, expressing the impersonal (anatta) or functional way of thinking, that is, dealing with the khandhas, dhatus, ayatanas, etc.7,8
Even the non-Buddhists, who do not regard the Buddha as an omniscient Enlightened One but recognize him as a great and profound thinker, consider that the Buddha was always aware of the philosophical and psychological implications of his teachings. Though he had the knowledge, but he did not speak of them at the very start and to all his followers apprehending that many would not be able to perceive the inner meanings. The basic teachings of Abhidhamma derive from that highest intuition that the Buddha calls Samma-sambodhi or the Perfect
Enlightenment. So, it appears quite credible as well as a reasonable when the old Theravada tradition ascribes the fundamental intuitions and framework of
Abhidhamma to the Buddha himself. If one wishes to give a psychological interpretation to that traditional account, one might say that the sojourn in the world of gods may refer to periods of intense contemplation transcending the reaches of an earth-bound mentality; and that from the heights of that contemplation its fundamental teachings were brought back to the world of normal human consciousness and handed over to philosophically gifted disciples like the Venerable Sariputta. However, the exact period of origin of the codified
Abhidhamma literature, as we have it at present, is still a matter of speculation due to the unavailability of documentation, sources and facts which fail to provide any definite proof of authentication.1,7,8
Conclusion The Abhidhamma teachings, which are extremely condensed in parts, are not merely accepted and transmitted verbally, but that they are carefully examined and contemplated in their philosophical and practical implications. But the most important question is that whether the Abhidhamma is necessary for complete understanding of the Dhamma or for final liberation. Similar to the Sutta Pitaka, where many different methods of practice to the understanding of the same four Truths and to achieve the final goal Nibbana are mentioned, but not all of them are necessary or suitable for every person. It depends on an individual to make a personal choice among these various methods of approach judging the
circumstances, inclination and growing maturity. The same holds true for the Abhidhamma both as a whole and in its single aspects and teachings.
One must keep in mind that the Abhidhammic parts of the Sutta Pitaka, namely the teachings given there in ultimate (paramattha) terms, are certainly indispensable for the understanding and practice of the Dhamma. The additional explanations of these teachings given in the Abhidhamma proper may also prove very helpful and necessary in some cases. Though the familiarity with all details of the codified Abhidhamma Pitaka is certainly not a general necessity, but if it is studied then it would surely richly enhance a true understanding of actuality and aid the work of liberation. If suitably presented, the Abhidhamma can also provide a stimulating approach to the Dhamma for philosophical minds. It would prove helpful if it is compensated adequately with the practical aspects of the Dhamma.1,2,3 The study of
the Abhidhamma should therefore not be restricted to the mere collecting, counting and arranging of conceptual labels, but should be assimilated deep inside mind to understand essence of truth and see things as truly as they are.
References: (1) Jayawardhana, S. 1994. Handbook of Pali Literature. Colombo, Sri Lanka: Karunaratne. (2) Bodhi, B., ed. 1993. A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma (the annotated translation of Abhidhammatthasangaha of Acariya Anuruddha). Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society. (3) Thera, N. 1998. Abhidhamma Studies. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society and Boston: Wisdom Publications (Revised Edition). (4) Thera, N., Hecker, H. 1997. From the Atthasalini, as described in Great Disciples of the Buddha. Somerville: Wisdom Publications. (5) Karunadasa, Y . 2009. The Literature of the Theravada Abhidhamma as a guide to the history of the Abhidhamma Systematization. Hong Kong: The Centre of Buddhist Studies, The University of Hong Kong. (6) Dhammajoti, K.L. 2003. Sarvastivada Abhidhamma. Colombo, Sri Lanka: The Centre for Buddhist Studies. (7) Karunadasa, Y . 1989. Buddhist Analysis of Matter (Second Edition). Singapore: Buddhist Research Society. (8) Karunadasa, Y . 1996. The Dhamma Theory: Philosophical Cornerstone of the Abhidhamma. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society.