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What the Abhidhammā Is

Lectured By Rev. Uttamananda
03 August 2014

The term Abhidhammā is a compound of two Pāli words: Abhi, special, and Dhamma,
doctrine. It is for the sake of general understanding. Sometimes, the term Abhidhammā is
translated in English as ‘Buddhist Psychology’, even as ‘Buddhist Philosophy’. Those
renderings do not convey the entire meaning of it. Mr. Rhys Davids called it ‘Buddhist
Psychological Ethics’ which is a sound correctness.
Philosophy and Ethics are interconnected in the Buddha's teachings. It mentions in the
Nine Attributes of Buddha that ‘knowledge and conduct’ go together. They cannot be
separated one from the other though they can be divided for comprehending purpose.
Therefore, if Abhidhammā is translated as ‘Buddhist Psychology’, it is lack of ethics. Unlike
the ‘Western Psychology’ which analyzes only the mentality without examining the
behavioral aspects, the ‘Buddhist Psychological Analysis’ is fully based on a moral
foundation. Without morality one may not talk of the Buddhist Psychology or Buddhist
Philosophy which is closely related to the human behavior.
There some memory is necessary for understanding of the Abhidhammic analysis, yet
it is not compulsory things to memorize all the components analyzed in Abhidhamma. It
needs to understand the practical aspect of Abhidhammā as it is closely related to daily life of
a man. It has no an intellectual enterprise. Abhidhammā is said a later development though
Theravāda tradition accepts it. It is clear Kathāvatthu, Points of Controversy, one of the
seven texts of Abhidhammā Piṭaka was added by Venerable Moggaliputta Tissa at the third
Buddhist Council held in 3rd century B.C. It is however not a problematic matter, for the
Buddha had given permission to His disciples to expand and analyze His teachings while He
was living. Venerable Mahā Kaccāyana was appointed as the foremost among those who
explained the Buddha’s brief teaching in detail. There are many discourses in the Canon
preached by the disciples. It is not the matter of fact whether Abhidhammā is later or earlier.
The most important thing is how it is useful and practical and how it is related to the
Buddha’s teachings.
Abhidhammā is therefore not a new invention. It is a philosophical and psychological
analysis of the Early Buddhist teachings. Some people say that they can't accept Abhidhammā

and they can only depend on the first four Nikāyas. Nevertheless, no one can deny there are
many discourses that cannot be understood without referring to Abhidhammā or the
commentaries. The commentary means nothing but the Abhidhammā, because the
commentators had to comment on the Buddha’s teachings by contributing the Abhidhammic
philosophy in their discussion. They tried to systematize the Abhidhammic philosophy
depending on the Buddha’s teachings. Abhidhammā is thus a systematic teaching which
comprises beginning, middle, and end. The early teachings of Buddha however are not
organized as He preached to different people according to their situations and requirements.
They can be found out as individual teachings in the Nikāyas expounded by the Buddha.
When a comparison is made them each other, there arise many problems. The Abhidhammā
or the commentaries is an attempt of later disciples to solve such problems arisen out of the
discourses. Abhidhammā can be introduced as the philosophical interpretation of Early
Buddhist teachings. In that case, Abhidhammā isn't something new, but it is an effort by the
disciples to interpret the Buddha’s teachings properly and comprehensively.
In the introduction of Aṭṭhasālinī, the commentary on Dhammasaṅganī, Venerable
Buddhaghosa says that if someone knows Abhidhammā, he is a ‘preacher of Dhamma’
(Dhamma Kathika), but others who do not understand Abhidhammā are not preachers. Those
who know Abhidhammā are the real preachers even though they don't preach Dhamma,
because if a question is asked, only they can solve it adequately. Therefore, learning
Abhidhammā is of crucial and helpful to understand the Early Buddhist teachings. The more
important thing however is to learn how Abhidhamma is related to a man's life.
There are different Abhidhammic traditions such as Theravāda, Sarvastivāda, and
Sautrantika. They have their different interpretations. How the Early Buddhist teachings of
personality were interpreted in the later Abhidhammic traditions should be known. In Early
Buddhism, the human personality is explained as five aggregates of matter, feelings,
perception, disposition and consciousness. These five aggregates are ‘person’ and ‘the whole
world’ as well. It is better to say ‘the world of experience’ because Buddhism does not talk
on the separate world. Everything is discussed in relation to the person. The whole world
including the person is explained in these five aggregates. This is the basis of all
Abhidhammic interpretations, except Nirvāna and Paṭiccasamuppāda.
Any complete philosophy should have two aspects as its essential part: an analysis of
the world and synthesis, i.e., explaining how such analyzed factors are combined. In Early
Buddhism, Dependent Co-origination (paṭiccasamuppada) is the synthesis whilst it is the

'Theory of Relations in Abhidhammā'. If something is analyzed, we have to explain how they
are inter-related in synthesis.
If someone asks why we need a good knowledge, Buddhism would say that all human
purposes are fulfilled with right knowledge including the realization of Nirvana. If the
realization of nirvana is our purpose, we should have wisdom, the special knowledge. While
studying Abhidhamma, we should get wisdom for the realization of Nirvāna. We however
should have general knowledge in our day to day life. Human beings thus get the knowledge
whether or not special knowledge by understanding two factors of analysis and synthesis.
Both factors can be available in any kind of comprehension. The Western philosophers talk
about the knowledge of the facts as well as the knowledge of the relationship among the
facts. The former means the knowledge of analysis whilst the latter is synthesis, e.g. to know
about the sun, heat, sky, wind, steam, cloud and moving are the knowledge of facts, but this
knowledge is not complete till we understand their relationships. To know how rain arises
from these facts can be worked out by synthesis of their relationship. This sample is
applicable to the Abhidhammā which has two kinds of knowledge of which we get the
knowledge of facts by analysis and the knowledge of relationship by studying the theory of
causality, i.e. synthesis.

***** The whole body of this lecture is referred to 2007 Lecture Notes, PGI PBS,
University of Kelaniya.