Abhidharma Buddhism


Abhidharma (Sanskrit; Pali: Abhidhamma) is a set of texts containing studies, summaries, lists and schematic classifications of doctrines appearing in earlier Buddhist sutras. Abhidharma works do not contain philosophical treatises, but summaries, excerpts, or systematized lists of concepts.

Abhidharma also refers to this scholastic method itself, as well as to the field of knowledge that this method is said to study. Dharma means the teachings of the Buddha (or the natural law to which it refers) and abhi literally means, towards, or above. Abhidharma thus means "above the Dharma".

According to Bhikkhu Bodhi Abhidharma is "an abstract and highly technical systematization of Buddhist doctrine," which is "simultaneously a philosophy, a psychology, and an ethics, all integrated into a program of liberation. "

According to Peter Harvey, the Abhidharma method seeks to "avoid the inaccuracies of conventional colloquial language" and "to enunciate everything in philosophically accurate language." In this sense, it is an attempt to better express the Buddhist view of "ultimate reality" (paramartha-satya).

There are different types of Abhidharma literature. The earliest Abhidharma canonical works (circa 3rd century BC) such as the Abhidhamma Pitaka are not philosophical treatises, but mainly summaries and expositions of early doctrinal lists. These texts were developed from Buddhist lists or matrices (mātṛkās) of key teachings.

Later Abhidharma works were written as the treatises (śāstra), commentaries (aṭṭhakathā), or as introductory manuals (saṅgaha). They are more developed philosophical works that include many innovations and doctrines not found in the canonical Abhidharma.

Abhidharma remains an important field of scholarship among modern Buddhists in Theravāda and Mahayana.


According to Collett Cox, Abhidhamma began as a systematic elaboration of the teachings of the early suttas (discusos), but later developed independent doctrines. Leading scholar Erich Frauwallner has said that these Buddhist systems are "among the major achievements of the classical period of Indian philosophy. "

Compared to the sutras, the Abhidharma texts are much more technical, analytical, and systematic in content and style. Abhidharma Theravāda and Sarvastivada scholars generally considered Abhidharma to be the pure and literal description (nippariyaya) of the ultimate truth (paramattha sacca) and an expression of perfect spiritual wisdom, whereas the sutras were considered 'conventional' (sammuti) and figurative (pariyaya).

That is, they were teachings given by the Buddha to specific persons, at specific times, depending on specific worldly circumstances.

Two interpretations of the term "Abhi-dharma" are common. According to Analayo, the initial meaning of Abhidharma in older texts (such as the Mahāgosiṅga-sutta and its parallels) was simply a discussion of the Dharma, or talking about the Dharma.

In this sense, abhi has the meaning of "about," and may also be in the parallel term abhivinaya (which simply means discussions about the vinaya). The other interpretation, in which abhi is interpreted as "higher" or "superior" and thus Abhidharma means "higher teaching," seems to have been a later development.

Some in the West have considered Abhidhamma to be the core of what is known as "Buddhist psychology. "

Other writers on the subject, such as Nyanaponika Thera and Dan Lusthaus, describe Abhidhamma as Buddhist phenomenology, while Noa Ronkin and Kenneth Inada equate it with process philosophy. Bhikkhu Bodhi writes that the Abhidhamma Pitaka system is "simultaneously a philosophy, a psychology, and an ethics. "

Origin and History

According to modern scholarship

Modern scholars of Buddhist studies generally believe that the canonical Abhidharma texts arose after the time of the Buddha, around the third century B.C. Therefore, the canonical works of Abhidharma do not represent the words of the Buddha himself, but those of later Buddhists. Peter Skilling describes the Abhidharma literature as "the end product of several centuries of intellectual effort. "

The various Vinaya texts offer diverse, sometimes contradictory, narratives about the history of the Abhidharma texts. The Mahāsāṅghika Vinaya does not speak of a third Pitaka ("basket" of texts, "collection") apart from the Pitaka Sutra and the Vinaya Pitaka, but the Vinayas of the Mahīśāsaka, Theravāda, Dharmaguptaka, and Sarvāstivāda schools all mention that there was a third collection of texts during the first council after the Buddha's death.

According to Analayo, "the Vinaya Mūlasarvāstivāda does not explicitly mention the Abhidharma, although it reports that on this occasion Mahākāśyapa recited the mātṛkā (s). "

Analayo thinks this reflects an early stage, when the texts that later became Abhidharma were called "mātṛkās." The term appears in some sutras, such as the Mahāgopālaka-sutta (and its Chinese parallel) which says that a learned monk is one who knows the Dharma, Vinaya and the mātṛkās.

The ancient core (the mātṛkās).

Several modern scholars such as André Migot, Erich Frauwallner, Rupert Gethin, and Johannes Bronkhorst have argued that the Abhidharma was based on ancient lists of doctrinal terms that are called mātikās (Sanskrit: mātṛkā, "mothers").

André Migot points to the mention of a "Mātṛkā Pitaka" (collection of lists) in the Cullavagga as the precursor of the canonical Abhidharma. Migot argues that this Mātṛkā Pitaka, said to have been recited by Mahakasyapa at the First Council according to the Ashokavadana, probably began as a condensed version of Buddhist doctrine that expanded over time.

Frauwallner and Gethin argue that while the Abhidharma works of the different schools were compiled separately and have great differences, they are based on an "ancient core" of common material.

Extensive use of the mātṛkās can be found in some early Buddhist texts, including the Saṅgīti Sutta and Dasuttara Sutta of the Dīgha Nikāya (as well as the Saṅgīti Sūtra and Daśottara Sūtra of the Chinese Dīrgha Āgama).

Similar lists of numerically ordered doctrinal terms can be found in AN 10.27 and AN 10.28. Tse fu Kuan also argues that certain sutras of the Aṅguttara Nikāya (AN 3.25, AN 4.87-90, AN 9.42-51) describe a mātṛkā method.

Another sutra containing a similar list that acts as a doctrinal summary is the "Discourse on the Explanation of the Spheres" (MĀ 86), which includes a list of 31 topics to be taught to newly ordained monastics. The last sutra of the Madhyama-āgama, MĀ 222, contains a similar doctrinal list. These two have no parallel in Pali.

According to Bhikhu Analayo, another important doctrinal list that appears in the early texts is the "thirty-seven qualities that lead to awakening" (bodhipākṣikā dharmāḥ).

This mātṛkā appears in several sutras, such as the Pāsādika-sutta, the Sāmagāma-sutta (and its parallels), and in the Mahāparinirvāṇa-sūtra, where it is said to have been taught by the Buddha just before his death. Analayo points out that these various lists served as aids to the memorization and teaching of doctrine. The use of lists can be seen similarly in Jain literature.

That early Buddhists regarded these lists as a way of preserving and memorizing doctrine can be seen in the Saṅgīti Sūtra and its various parallels, which mention how the Jain community became divided over questions of doctrine after the death of their leader.

The sutta describes Śāriputra reciting a list of doctrinal terms and declaring that the community will remain "united, unanimous, and without dispute" regarding the teaching.

The close connection between the Saṅgīti Sūtra and Abhidharma can be seen in the fact that it became the basis for one of the canonical Abhidharma texts of the Sarvāstivāda school, the Saṅgītiparyāya, which is actually a commentary on this sutra.

Frauwallner notes that basic fundamental concepts such as the 12 āyatanāni (sensory bases), the 18 dhatāvah (elements), and the 5 skandhāh (aggregates) often appear as a group in early Buddhist texts.

These lists were used as a basic outline to explain Buddhist doctrine. It is likely that they were accompanied by oral explanations, which continued to develop and expand and were then written down.

Development of Abhidharma

The explanations of the various elements in these lists also dealt with how these elements were connected to each other. Eventually, the need for a universal scheme of classification arose.

According to Frauwallner, the first such framework was to subsume (samgraha) all the major Buddhist doctrinal terms into the scheme of the 12 āyatanāni, the 18 dhatāvah, and the 5 skandhāh.

Over time, this scholastic method was expanded in order to provide a complete and comprehensive systematization.

As Frauwallner explains, due to this scholastic impulse, the lists grew in size, different mātṛkās were combined with each other to produce new ones, and new concepts and schemes were introduced, such as the differentiation of cittas (awareness events) and caitasikās (mental elements) and new ways of explaining the relationship between the various basic elements.

According to Bhikkhu Analayo, these various lists also did not stand alone, but also included some form of commentary and explanation that was also part of the oral tradition.

Sometimes this commentary included quotations from other sutras, and traces of this can be found in the canonical Abhidharma texts. As time went on, these commentaries and the accompanying lists became inseparable from each other, and the commentaries acquired canonical status.

Since this process of development occurred in different communities located in different places, the various Abhidharma collections diverged considerably over time. This divergence was perhaps reinforced by the various schisms in the Buddhist community.

According to Frauwallner, the period of development of the Abhidharma canonical works is between 250 and 50 B.C. By the time the various canons began to be written, the Abhidharma texts of the different schools were substantially different.

These differences are much more pronounced than among the other canonical collections (Sutras, Agamas and Vinaya). As such, the Abhidharma collections of the various schools are much more unique to each sect.

The various Abhidhamic traditions also grew to have very fundamental philosophical disagreements with each other.

However, these differences did not mean the existence of totally independent sects, as Rupert Gethin pointed out, "at least some of the schools mentioned by the later Buddhist tradition are likely to have been informal schools of thought, in the manner of the 'Cartesians', 'empiricists' or 'Kantians' of modern philosophy. "

These various Abhidharma works were not accepted by all Indian Buddhist schools as canonical, for example, the Mahasanghika school seems not to have accepted them as part of the canon.

After the closure of the various Buddhist canons, Abhidharma texts continued to be composed, but they were now commentaries on the canonical texts (such as the Aṭṭhakathās pali and the Mahāvibhāṣa) or independent treatises (śāstras).

In these post-canonical texts, further doctrinal developments and innovations can be found. Noa Ronkin writes that the post-canonical Abhidharma texts became "complex philosophical treatises" with doctrines that were "quite far removed from their canonical antecedents. " As Frauwallner writes, these later works were attempts to construct truly complete philosophical systems.

Some of these texts surpassed the canonical Abhidharma in influence and popularity, becoming the orthodox compendia of their particular schools. Two exegetical texts, both from the fifth century, stand out from the rest as the most influential.

The work of Buddhaghosa (5th century AD), in particular his Visuddhimagga (Way of Purification), remains the main reference work of the Theravāda school, while Vasubandhu's Abhidharmakośa (Abhidharma Treasury) (4th - 5th centuries AD) remains the main source of Abhidharma studies in both Indo-Tibetan Buddhism and East Asian Buddhism.

Traditional views

In the Sri Lankan Theravāda tradition it was held that the Abhidhamma was not a later addition, but was taught by Gautama Buddha himself. According to the traditional view of Theravāda Buddhism, the Buddha delivered the teachings of the Abhidharma to numerous deities, including his late mother Māyā, in the heaven of Trāyastriṃśa.

Tradition holds that the Buddha gave daily summaries of the teachings given in the heavenly realm to the bhikkhu Sariputta, who transmitted these teachings.

The Sarvāstivāda-Vaibhāṣika school held that the Buddha and his disciples taught the Abhidharma, but that it was scattered throughout the canon. Only after his death was the Abhidharma systematically compiled by his senior disciples and recited by Ananda at the first Buddhist council.

The Sautrāntika ('followers of the sutras') school did not accept that the Abhidharma was the "word of the Buddha." They argued that it was the work of different monks after his death, and that this was the reason why different Abhidharma schools varied widely in their doctrines.

However, this school still studied and debated the concepts of Abhidharma and, therefore, did not seek to question the method of Abhidharma as a whole.


The field of investigation of the Abhidharma texts extends to the whole of Buddhism, since their aim was to delineate, systematize and analyze all the teachings of the Buddha. Abhidharmic thought also extends beyond the sutras to cover new philosophical and psychological ground that is only implicit in the sutras.

There are certain doctrines that were developed or even invented by the Abhidharma scholastics and these became a matter of debate among the different Buddhist schools.

The theory of dharmas

According to Y. Karunadasa, the basis of all Abhidharma systems is the "theory of dharmas. " For the Abhidharma scholastics, the elementary constituents of reality or the most fundamental phenomena were called dharmas (Pali: dhammas).

The dharmas were seen as the most basic processes that make up the fabric of experience. 

According to Karunadasa, in Theravada Abhidhamma, a dhamma (which can be translated as a 'principle' or main 'element'), are "those elements that result when the process of analysis is brought to its ultimate limits. "

However, this does not mean that they have an independent existence, for it is "only for the purposes of description" that they are postulated. They are also said to be non-self (anatta) and therefore empty (suññā) in Theravada.

In Abhidharma thought, the conventional reality of objects and persons is simply a conceptual construct imputed by the mind to an impermanent stream of dhammas. However, dhammas are never seen as individually separate entities, but are always dependently conditioned by other dhammas in momentary constellations of dhammas.

These collections of dharmas are constantly appearing and disappearing. While dhammas are said to be distinguishable (vibhāgavanta) from one another, groups are said to arise and to be inseparable (avinibhogatā).

This principle can also be seen in the suttas (such as in the Mahāvedalla Sutta) which state that some dhammas are said to be mixed (samsattha) in such a way that they cannot be separated.

The fact that dhammas always arise together is also related to their conditional dependence. In Theravada Abhidhamma, nothing arises without a cause, and nothing arises from a single cause or as a single effect.

Therefore, it is always the case that a plurality of conditions (or dhammas) gives rise to a plurality of effects (other dhammas).

Because of this principle of interconnectedness and interdependence, the Abhidhamma is not seen as a kind of absolute pluralism or as monism, since it is based on both analysis (bheda) and synthesis (sangaha).

Abhidhamma Buddhist philosophers created analytical matrices (matikas) of these processes, which varied by school. The Theravada tradition holds that there were 82 types of dhammas, while the general Sarvāstivāda tradition eventually listed 75 types.

The four categories of dhammas in the Theravada Abhidhamma are:

Citta (consciousness, awareness) - Cittas are events of consciousness, i.e., those events that constitute "knowledge" (viññana) of an object. These never arise by themselves, but are always intentional (i.e., they have an object or cognitive direction).

Cetasika (mental factors or events), there are 52 types and can include good mental events such as compassion as well as negative ones such as greed and hatred.

Rūpa - (physical occurrences, material form), 28 types.
Nibbāna - (extinction, cessation) - this dhamma is unconditioned, neither arising nor ceasing due to causal interaction.

The Abhidharma of the Sarvāstivāda school also used these four categories, along with a fifth category: the "dissociated factors of thought" (cittaviprayuktasaṃskāra).

These "are real entities that are neither mental nor material in nature, which nevertheless can operate in both domains" and can be viewed as laws of nature.

Perhaps the most important of these factors are acquisition (prāpti) and non-acquisition (aprāpti), which are forces that connect or disconnect a dharma with a particular mental current (santāna).

The Sarvāstivāda-Vaibhāṣika school taught three types of unconditioned dharmas: space (ākāśa), cessation through deliberation (pratisaṃkhyā-nirodha), and cessation independent of deliberation (apratisaṃkhyā-nirodha). 

The Mahavibhasa (the main Sarvāstivāda-Vaibhāṣika commentary) lists some disagreements among Sarvāstivāda teachers regarding these dharmas. Some like "the Bhadanta" Dharmatrāta denied the reality of space. Meanwhile, the Dārṣṭāntikas (Sautrantika) denied the ontological reality of the three and instead argued that they were all conceptual designations.

Two truths

For the Abhidharma scholars, there were two "truths," i.e., there are two ways of looking at reality:

Conventional truth (Sanskrit: saṃvṛti-satya, Pali: sammuti sacca), which refers to the everyday reality experienced by ordinary people. This is the category of the nominal and the conceptual (paññatti).

Ultimate truth (Sanskrit: paramārtha-satya, Pali: paramattha sacca), i.e. the path of Abhidharma and, therefore, the path of enlightened persons like the Buddha, who have developed true perception (vipassana) and see reality as the constant flow of collections of dharmas.

As the Indian philosopher Vasubandhu writes:

"Anything that does not remain after cutting it up or dividing it by mental analysis, like a pot, is a 'conceptual fiction.' The real ultimately is the opposite. "

From the Abhidharma perspective, there are really only the dhammas and their relations, everything else is explained through a kind of nominalism.

Abhidharma scholars developed a nominalist theory of paññatti (Pali, Sanskrit: prajñapti; concepts, designations, predications) as a way of explaining basic universal categories such as unity, identity, time, and space.

In Abhidharma, conceptual designations are mind-dependent and are not themselves ultimate realities, i.e., they are not ultimate truth (paramattha). Concepts are considered insubstantial and are a "merely conceptualized product" (parikappa-siddha) of the synthesizing mental function, and "exist only by virtue of conceptual thought. "

According to Y. Karunadasa, the two-truth theory is a doctrinal innovation of the Abhidhamma, but it has its origins in some statements of the early suttas (discourses). This can be seen primarily in the distinction made in the Aṅguttara-nikāya between statements that are nītattha (explicit, definite) and neyyattha (requiring further explanation).

Karunadasa points out that in the Nikayas, "no preferential value judgment is made between nītattha and neyyattha. All that is emphasized is that the two types of statements should not be confused. " In the suttas, unlike the Abhidhamma, sammuti (linguistic conventions) is not discussed in the extant so-called paramattha (fundamental principles).

The Sanskrit-based (North Indian) Buddhist tradition generally refers to conventional truth as samvṛti (which has the meaning of concealing or covering), and as such, views conventional reality as false and illusory.

However, according to Karunadasa, the Theravada Abhidhamma term sammuti only means human convention and does not have this connotation of a lower truth hiding a higher truth, but only refers to "two modes of expressing what is true. "

Thus, as K.N. Jayatilleke notes, the Theravāda version of the two truths "does not imply that what is true in one sense is false in the other or even that one type of truth is superior to the other. "

Moreover, according to Karunadasa, in the Pali tradition, even ultimate truth is understood as something to be explained by concepts. Although the ultimate itself is not a product of the conceptual function of the mind (paññatti), it cannot be explained without the means of paññatti.

According to Tse Fu Kuan, this is supported by the Dhammasaṅgaṇi, which states that "all dhammas are forms of interpretation (nirutti)" and that "all dhammas are forms of expression (adhivacana). "

The nature of the dharmas

Abhidharma scholars used the term svabhāva (Pali: sabhāva, "intrinsic nature" or "own existence") to explain the causal functioning of the dharmas. This term was used in different ways by different Buddhist schools. This term does not appear in the sutras. The Abhidharmakośabhāṣya says:

"dharma means "to uphold," that is, to uphold the intrinsic nature (svabhāva). "

According to the Theravada text called Atthasalini:

"The dhammas have their own particular natures (sabhāva). Alternatively, the dhammas are supported by conditions or their particular natures. "

The dharmas were also said to be distinct from one another by their intrinsic or unique characteristics (svalaksana). Inspection of these characteristics was considered extremely important in Abhidharma.

In Theravāda

The Theravāda conception of "sabhāva" does not mean an essence or a substantial mode of being, since dhammas are not permanent or wholly discrete entities. They are always in dependently conditioned relations with other dhammas and are always changing.

Therefore, they are said to have their "own nature" (sabhāva) solely for the sake of description. According to Karunadasa, this use of sabhāva is only of provisional validity, "an attribution made for the convenience of definition." It simply refers to the fact that "any dhamma represents a distinct fact of empirical existence that is not shared by other dhammas. "

According to Peter Harvey, the Theravāda view of the sabhāva of a dhamma is that it refers to an individualizing characteristic (salakkhana) that "is not something inherent in a dhamma as a separate ultimate reality, but arises due to various prior conditions and dhammas."

Thus, while in Theravāda, dhammas are the ultimate constituents of experience, they are not seen as substances (attena), essences, or independent particulars, as they are empty (suñña) of a self (attā) and conditioned. This is explained in the Patisambhidhamagga, which states that the dhammas are empty of sabhāva (sabhavena suññam).

Acariya Dhammapala's Paramatthamañjusa Visuddhimaggatika, a commentary on the Visuddhimagga, refers to the fact that we often assume unity and compactness in phenomena that are instead composed of various elements. But when one sees that these are simply empty dhammas, one can understand the characteristic of no-self (anatta):

"after one resolves these dhammas into elements, one sees them as disintegrating like foam subjected to compression by the hand. They are mere states (dhamma) that occur due to conditions and are empty. In this way the characteristic of the not-self becomes more evident. "

In Sarvāstivāda

The Sarvāstivāda school viewed dharmas as ultimately "real entities" (sad-dravya), although they also held that dharmas originated dependently. For Sarvāstivāda, a synonym for svabhāva is avayaya (a 'part'), the smallest possible unit that cannot be parsed into smaller parts.

Thus, an ultimately real dharma rather than just conventionally real (like a chariot or a person and its fundamental particles).

Svabhāva in the early Abhidharma Sarvāstivāda texts was not then a term meaning ontological independence, metaphysical essence, or underlying substance, but simply referred to its unique characteristics, which depend on other conditions and qualities.

In later Sarvāstivāda texts, such as the Mahavibhasa, the term svabhāva began to be defined more ontologically as the actually existing "intrinsic nature" of individual dharmas.

According to K.L. Dhammajoti, in Sarvāstivāda, "a dharma is defined as that which has its intrinsic characteristic (svalakṣaṇadhāraṇād dharmaḥ)." This unique characteristic or quality persists over time and is therefore said to be a unique and real intrinsic nature.

Thus, the canonical text Jñānaprasthāna states, "the dharmas are determined with respect to the nature and characteristic, they abide in their intrinsic natures and do not renounce their intrinsic natures (T26, 923c). "

Furthermore, for the Sarvāstivāda-Vaibhāṣika school, this "own nature" (svabhāva) was said to be the characteristic of a dharma that persists through the three tenses (past, present, and future).

However, the intrinsic characteristics of a dharma have a certain kind of relativity due to the relationship between the various dharmas. For example, all rūpa ("form," matter) dharmas have the common characteristic of endurance, but this is also an intrinsic characteristic with respect to other dharmas such as vedanā (feeling).

Furthermore, several sources state that the intrinsic nature of a dharma is "weak" and that they are interdependent with other dharmas. The Mahāvibhāṣa states that "conditioned dharmas are weak in their intrinsic nature, they can perform their activities only through mutual dependence" and that they "have no sovereignty (aisvarya), they are dependent on others. "

Therefore, an intrinsic nature (svabhāva) arises due to dependently originated processes or relationships between various dharmas and, therefore, a svabhāva is not something that is completely ontologically independent.

In other schools

The Sautrantika school accepted the doctrine of svabhāva as the main characteristics of the dharmas, but rejected the view that they exist in all three times. Dharmakirti uses the concept of svabhāva, although he interprets it as based on causality. For Dharmakirti, essential nature (or "nature-svabhāva") is explained as follows :

"The arising of an effect that is inferred by means of a causal complex is characterized as a svabhāva of that causal complex, because the capacity for the production of the effect does not depend on anything else. "

Other schools of Abhidharma did not accept the concept of svabhāva or considered it empty and conventional. The so-called "Prajñaptivada" ("nominalist") eseculas denied the ultimate reality of all dharmas and held that everything, including dharmas, is characterized by prajñapti (provisional designation or fictitious construction).

The Vainasika school also held that all dharmas lacked svabhāva. This view that dharmas are devoid of svabhāva is found in the Lokanuvartana Sutra ('The Sutra of Conformity to the World') which survives in Chinese and Tibetan translation, and may have been a scripture of the Purvasaila school, which was a Mahasamghika sub-school.

The mind

Abhidharma analyzes a cognitive process (citta) into individual units that have two main components: events of consciousness (cittas, an intentional knowledge or awareness of an object) and mental factors (cetasikas, processes that arise in association with cittas).

In both Sarvāstivāda and Theravada Abhidharma, these two components always arise together. These two united principles (Pali: samsattha) arise united (sampayoga) together, have the same object, and cease together. Therefore, when Abhidharma speaks of a "citta", it is understood that cetasikas are also present.

Cittas occur one at a time. At any given time, there is only one of these cognitive events. Moreover, according to Karunadasa, "the present cognitive act cannot know itself. It is as if the same sword cannot cut itself, or the same fingertip cannot touch itself.

This amounts to a rejection of what is called" taññānatā ", ie. Moreover, each citta is also in various relations with other cittas. Since a citta is never an isolated event, it is conditioned by past instances and becomes a condition for future events.

Master Saṃghabhadra of the Sarvāstivāda-Vaibhāṣika school defines consciousness as that which "grasps the characteristic of an object in a general way. " Abhidharma provides numerous classifications and categories of consciousness.

The best known is that of the six "doors" corresponding to the five physical faculties: the consciousnesses associated with the eye, ear, nose, nose, tongue, and body, as well as mental consciousness (mano-vignana). Each of the five cognitive faculties serves as the physical basis (vatthu, i.e., the organ of the eye, etc.) for the consciousness they support.

The Theravāda abhidhamma also holds that mental consciousness has a physical basis, a view that is at odds with other Buddhist schools, but which finds support in the suttas, which state that consciousness and "name and form" (nama-rupa) are dependent on each other.

The Paṭṭhāna (a Theravada text) does not give a specific organ for this basis, but defines the basis of mental consciousness as "any materiality on which mental activity depends."

Karunadasa believes that this is because the early abhidhamma considered the physical basis of consciousness not to be limited to any one place in the body. However, later Theravāda commentaries present a single location, which is called the heart base (hadaya-vatthu).

Whatever the case, it is important to note that the Abhidhamma does not consider the mind to be controlled or determined by the physical base, which is only seen as a supporting element for the mind.

One of the main controversies in Abhidharma Buddhism concerned the question of the original nature of the mind (citta). Some, such as the Mahāsāṃghika school, held the view that the mind retains an originally pure nature. The Vaibhāṣikas such as Saṃghabhadra rejected this view, holding that the nature of the mind can also be defiled.

In abhidharma, there are various ways of classifying cittas or mental events, as "wholesome" or "unwholesome" or as belonging to certain realms of existence, such as the sense realm (kāma-bhava), material existence (rūpa-bhava), the immaterial realm (arūpa-bhava), and the supra-mundane world (lokuttara). Mental factors (cetasikas) are also classified in different ways.

In Theravada, they are classified into four main classes: universal (such as feeling, perception, and will), occasional (such as thinking or desiring), unwholesome (such as greed and hatred), and beautiful (tranquility or faith).

This feature of abhidharma has a soteriological purpose. It is intended to support Buddhist practice. By carefully studying and observing the coming and going of dharmas, and being able to identify which ones should be cultivated and which ones are unwholesome and should be abandoned, the Buddhist meditator uses the abhidharma as an outline or map to free his or her mind.

Physical Reality

In Sarvāstivāda, physical elements (rūpa) are those that are "subject to decay or disintegration." As Vasubandhu puts it, rūpa is that which is "repeatedly disturbed or broken" by physical contact.

The main way of defining matter for the Sarvāstivāda Vaibhāṣika school is that it has two main distinctive natures: resistance (sa-pratighātatva), which is "the obstacle to the arising of something else in its proper location," and visibility (sa-nidarśanatva ), which allows matter to be located since it "can be indicated differently as being here or there" (according to Saṃghabhadra).

Similarly, in the Theravada commentaries, rūpa is defined as that which is mutable or alterable (vikara), in the sense of being able to be "deformed, disturbed, beaten, oppressed, and broken. "

In the Abhidharma of Theravāda and Sarvāstivāda, all physical phenomena are resolved into material dharmas. The rūpa dharmas are all based on the combination and interaction of the four "mahabhuta", the four 'primary' or 'elemental' physical phenomena:

"earth" (solidity, hardness), "water" (liquidity, fluidity), "fire" (heat) and "air" (dynamic movement). These basic phenomena come together to form secondary physical phenomena, such as the sense organs.

The Vaibhāṣika school had an atomic theory (paramāṇu). However, these atoms were not seen as eternally immutable or permanent, but are seen as momentary.

For Vaibhāṣika, an atom is the smallest unit of matter, which cannot be cut, broken, and has no parts. They come together (without touching each other) to form aggregations or "molecules." They argued that this is "known through mental analysis. "


In Sarvāstivāda, nirvāṇa is a "distinct positive entity" (dravyāntara). It is "an ontologically real force acquired by the practitioner when a given defilement is completely abandoned. " This force ensures that the acquisition of defilement never arises again.

The Sarvāstivāda master Skandhila's definition indicates how this real entity has a positive presence, said to be "like a dam holding back water or a screen blocking the wind. "

The Sautrāntikas disagree with this interpretation, holding that the "unborn" or nirvāṇa simply refers to the discontinuity of birth (janmāpravṛtti). Therefore, according to the Sautrāntika school, nirvāṇa is a mere concept (prajñapti) that refers to the absence of suffering due to the abandonment of impurities and is therefore only relatively real.

However, the Sarvāstivāda philosopher Saṃghabhadra argues that "only when the unborn is recognized as a distinct real entity is it meaningful to say "there is the unborn ". Moreover, if there were no such entity, the Buddha should simply have said 'there is the discontinuity of birth.'"

The Theravada position on the ontology of the nirvāṇa is first found in the Dhammasaṅgaṇī, which describes the nirvāṇa as the unconditioned element (asankhata-dhatu), completely outside the five aggregates.

It is a dhamma that "is neither skillful nor useless, is associated neither with feeling nor with cognition, is neither a result nor does it result, requires no object, is not classified into past, present or future. " Although it is not accessible through discursive or conceptual thought, it is a dhamma that the mind can know or attain.

According to the Theravada scholar Buddhaghosa, "It is because nibbāna has not been created (appabhava), that it is free from aging and death. It is because of the absence of his creation and of his aging and death that he is permanent." Buddhaghosa argues against the view that nibbāna is unreal.

The Visuddhimagga commentary also states that nibbāna is the opposite of all conditioned states. In the Abhidhamma of the Theravāda school, nibbāna is seen as something totally different from conditioned existents and as the only unconditioned dhamma.


Another important project for Abhidharma scholars was to outline a theory of causality, especially of how momentary dharmas relate to each other through causes and conditions. According to Karunadasa, the Abhidharma of the Theravāda school upholds three key axioms of conditionality:

Everything arises through causes and conditions; nothing arises without causes.
Nothing arises from a single cause (this rules out monism or monotheism).
No phenomenon arises by itself as a single or isolated thing.

According to Karunadasa, this leads to the central Abhidhamma understanding of causality, which is that a plurality of causes leads to a plurality of effects, i.e., multiple dhammas are the causes and conditions for a multiplicity of other future dhammas.

Another important principle in Theravāda Abhidharma is that dhammas do not exist or arise through their own causal powers. This is a rejection of the principle of self-causation.

Likewise, no dhamma can be created by a single causal power external to the dhamma. This means that dhammas arise only with the help of the combined power of multiple dhammas (including themselves).

The Sarvāstivāda school's analysis focused on six causes (hetu), four conditions (pratyaya), and five effects (phala). According to K.L. Dhammajoti, for the Sarvāstivāda school, "causal efficacy is the central criterion for the reality or existence (astitva) of a dharma" and, therefore, they were also sometimes called the "hetuvada" school (the school of causes).

In Sarvāstivāda, a dharma is real because it is a cause and has effects. If it had no causal efficacy, it would not exist. The six causes described by the Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma are:

Efficient cause (karana-hetu) - dharma A, cause dharma B.
Homogeneous cause (sabhāga-hetu) - dharma A (1) causes another dharma A (2).

Universal cause (sarvatraga-hetu) - a homogeneous cause, pertaining only to defiled dharmas.

Retributive cause (vipāka-hetu) - leads to karmic retribution.
Coexistent cause (sahabhu-hetu): a cause arising from the reciprocity of all dharmas, a "simultaneous causation".
Joint cause (samprayuktaka-hetu).

The last book of the Theravada Abhidhamma, the Patthana, sets forth a theory of conditioned relations and causation. The Patthana is a comprehensive analysis of the conditioned nature of all dhammas.

The introduction begins with a detailed list of 24 specific types of conditioned relations (paccaya). Most of these conditions have counterparts in the Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma. The Abhidhammatthasangaha reduces them all to four major types of relationships.

The Sautrāntika school used a theory of 'seeds' (bīja) in the mental continuum to explain the causal interaction between past and present dharmas; this theory was later developed by the Yogacara school in its theory of "storehouse consciousness" (ālayavijñāna).

Dependent origination

The Mahavibhasa of the Sarvāstivāda school describes four different ways of analyzing and understanding the 12 elements of dependent origination (pratītyasamutpāda):

Momentary causation (ksanika), when all twelve elements of the chain of dependent origination are realized in a single moment.

Serial causation (sambandhika), in which dependent origination is considered with reference to the relationship between cause and effect.

Static causality (avasthika), in which dependent origination involves twelve distinct periods of the five aggregates

Prolonged causation (prakarsika), in which that sequence of causation occurs during three lifetimes.

The Abhidhamma of the Theravada school also discusses the 12 elements of dependent origination in two ways:

The sequence of the twelve elements occurs over three lives: the past life is linked with ignorance and mental constructs, the present life includes most of the 12 elements, and the future life applies to the elements of birth and death.

In Buddhaghosa's Sammohavinodani (a commentary on the Vibhanga), it is explained that the principle of dependent origination occurs entirely within the space of a mental moment.

Temporality and change

A prominent discussion among Abhidharma scholars was on the philosophy of time. The Sarvāstivāda-Vaibhāṣika tradition held the view (expressed in the Vijñanakaya) that the dharmas exist in the three tenses: past, present, and future. That is why the name of his school means those who uphold the "theory that everything exists" (sarvām asti).

The Sautrāntika, Vibhajyavāda, and Theravada schools argued against this eternal view in favor of presentism (the idea that only the present moment exists). This argument was so central, that North Indian Buddhist schools were often named according to their philosophical position on this issue.

According to Jan Westerhoff, one of the reasons the Sarvāstivāda-Vaibhāṣika school had for defending this theory was that moments of consciousness are intentional (they are directed or are "about something"). Therefore, if there are no past entities that exist, thoughts about them would have no object and could not exist.

Another Sarvāstivāda argument in favor of eternalism was that this theory was necessary to explain the causal efficacy of past actions (karma) in the present. For the Vaibhāṣikas, if an act of karma no longer exists, it is difficult to see how they can bear fruit in the present or in the future.

Finally, according to the Vaibhāṣikas, the past, present, and future are mutually interdependent. If the past and future do not exist, the Vaibhāṣikas argued, how can one make sense of the existence of the present?

There were different interpretations of the theory of tritemporal existence in Sarvastivada and how it relates to change. Some argued that the existence (bhāva) of a dharma changes as it progressed in time, others argued that its characteristics (lakṣaṇa) altered.

Another theory said that what changes is the condition (avasthā) of a dharma while a fourth theory argued that the change was based on temporal relativity (anyathā).

Subsequently, Sarvāstivāda scholars, such as Saṃghabhadra, argued that while the essential nature of a dharma (svabhāva) does not change, its function or activity (kāritra) and existence (bhāva) change.

All Vaibhāṣika thinkers agreed that the essential nature is that which remains constant and unchanging as a dharma moves through time.

However, as K.L. Dhammajoti pointed out, this does not necessarily mean that the svabhāva of a dharma "is immutable or even permanent, because the mode of existence of a dharma and its essential nature are not different, so that when the former is undergoing a transformation, so is its svabhāva. "

From the Vaibhāṣika perspective, this is not a contradiction, for it is the same process that remains as it progresses through time and transforms into different modes of being. Each of these is actually a new occasion or event in a causal stream (though no different in terms of its nature to the previous dharmas in that stream).

Thus, according to K.L. Dhammajoti, there is a way in which essential natures are transformed and yet can be said to remain the same ontologically. Dharmatrāta used the example of a piece of gold transforming into different things (cups, bowls, etc.).

According to K.L. Dhammajoti, what the Vaibhāṣikas had in mind with this view was that although the different dharmas in a causal series are different entities, there is an overall "individuality or wholeness," and the series, therefore, remains "dynamically identical."

In this sense, a svabhāva is not a static entity; it is impermanent and undergoes change, and yet "ontologically it never becomes an entirely different substance. "

The Sarvāstivāda-Vaibhāṣika school also had an atomistic conception of time that divided time into discrete, indivisible moments (kṣaṇa) and considered all events to last only a moment.

In the Abhidhamma Theravāda, time is primarily a conceptual construct, specifically it is a "nominal concept" (nāma-paññatti) and does not exist in a real sense since it is a notion based on the continuous flow of phenomena. Time is only a mental interpretation, based on the production, change and dissolution of dhammas.

Time has no nature of its own (sabhāvato avijjamamāna), unlike the dhammas. The same is true of space (ākasa) which is described as a nominal existent (anipphanna), which strictly speaking is neither material, nor a real dhamma, but simply the absence of matter.

Theravada also adopted a theory of moments (khāṇavāda), but it is less ontological than Sarvāstivāda and more focused on psychology and phenomenology. In the Khanikakatha of the Kathavatthu, the Theravāda scholars hold that "only mental phenomena are momentary, while material phenomena endure for a period of time. "

Later Theravāda commentators developed a more technical formal theory of moments, which held that each consciousness has three moments, the moment of origin (uppādakkhaņa), the moment of duration (thitikkhaņa), and the moment of dissolution (bhahgakkhaņa).

Rebirth and karma

A key problem covered by Abhidharma was the question of how rebirth and karma function if there is no self to be reborn apart from the five aggregates. The Patthana includes the first canonical reference to the Theravada answer to this question: the bhavanga, or "ground of existence."

In Theravada, the bhavanga is "that substratum which maintains the continuity of the individual throughout that life." Sarvastivada had a similar term, nikayasabhagata.

The Vaibhāṣika theory of karma is also closely related to his theory of tritemporal existence. For karmas also exist in the past. In fact, the efficacy of past karma is part of their argument for "everything exists," since, for the Vaibhāṣikas, if a past karmic retributive cause ceases to exist altogether, it cannot lead to karmic effect or fruit.

This was rejected by the Sautrāntikas, who postulated a theory known as the seed theory, which held that a volition creates a chain of momentary dharmas called seeds, which are continuously transmitted in the mental stream until they sprout, producing the karmic effect. This concept is similar to the Yogacara doctrine of storehouse consciousness (alayavijñana).

The problem of rebirth was also addressed by a group of Buddhist schools called Pudgalavāda ("Personalists"). These schools posited the existence of a "person" (pudgala) or self, which had a real existence that could not be reduced to streams and collections of dharmas.

This personal entity was considered to be unconditioned and unconditioned. The Pudgalavāda schools held that this person was "inexpressible" and indeterminate in its relationship to the five aggregates and could not be said to be neither equal to nor different from the five aggregates.

This theory was a major point of controversy and was thoroughly attacked by other Buddhist schools.

However, as Thiện Châu points out in his review of their literature, the Pudgalavādins carefully developed this theory especially to be compatible with anatman and the middle path and, therefore, pudgala "is not an absolute reality totally separate from composite things. "

Abhidharma Traditions


The Abhidhamma Piṭaka is the third pitaka, or "basket", of the Tipitaka, the canon of the Theravāda school. It consists of seven books. There are also three Abhidhamma-like texts found in the Khuddaka Nikāya ('Lesser Collection'): the Paṭisambhidāmagga, Nettipakaraṇa and the Peṭakopadesa. The Abhidhamma Piṭaka, like the rest of the Theravāda Tipiṭaka, was transmitted orally until the 1st century b. C.

In addition to the canonical Abhidhamma, Pali literature includes a variety of introductory commentaries and manuals written after the compilation of the Abhidhamma Piṭaka.

These postcanonical texts attempted to further expand and clarify the analysis presented in the Abhidhamma. The most influential of these commentaries are those of Buddhaghosa (c. 5th century), a South Indian exegete and philosopher who moved to Sri Lanka and wrote several commentaries and treatises in Pali.

His Visuddhimagga ("Path of Purification") is a manual of Buddhist practice that also contains a general description of the Abhidhamma. This text remains one of the most popular texts influenced by Abhidhamma in Theravada.

The most popular of the Sri Lankan Abhidhamma manuals remains Anuruddha's Abhidhammatthasangaha (Compendium of the Subjects of Abhidharma) (circa 8th to 12th century). Another period of medieval Sri Lankan scholarship also produced a series of texts called subcommentaries (which are commentaries to commentaries).

The Abhidhamma is still a living tradition in the Theravāda nations today and modern Abhidhamma works are still written in modern languages such as Burmese and Sinhala. Abhidhamma studies are particularly emphasized in Burma, where it has been the main subject of study since around the seventeenth century.

One of the most important figures in modern Burmese Buddhism, Ledi Sayadaw (1846-1923), was well known for his writings on Abhidhamma (especially his commentary on the Abhidhammatthasangaha, called Paramatthadipanitika).


The most influential Abhidharma tradition in northern India was that of the Sarvāstivāda-Vaibhāṣika school, especially in Kashmir and also in Bactria and Gandhara. This is the Abhidharma tradition studied in East Asian Buddhism and also in Tibetan Buddhism.

Despite numerous doctrinal variations and disagreements within the tradition, most of the Sarvāstivāda-Vaibhāṣikas were united in their acceptance of the doctrine of "sarvāstitva" (everything exists).

The Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma Pitaka also consists of seven texts, but they are quite different works from the Theravada Abhidharma. The central canonical work of this school, the Jñānaprasthāna ('Foundation of Knowledge'), also known as the Aṣṭaskandha or Aṣṭagrantha, is said to have been composed by the master Kātyāyanīputra.

This became the basis of the Mahāvibhāṣa Abhidharma Śāstra ("Great Commentary"), an encyclopedic work that became the central text of the Vaibhāṣika tradition. This tradition was orthodoxy in Kashmir under the patronage of the Kushan empire.

In addition to the Abhidharma Pitaka, a variety of expository texts or treatises were written to serve as general descriptions and introductions to Abhidharma. The earliest of these was the Abhidharma-hṛdaya-sastra (The Heart of Abhidharma), by Dharmasresthin, (c. 1st century BCE). This text became the model for most later treatises.

However, the most influential of these treatises is undoubtedly the Abhidharmakośabhāsya (5th century), a series of verses and accompanying commentaries by Vasubandhu. He often criticizes Vaibhāṣika views from a Sautrantika perspective.

The Sautrantikas were a dissident group within the Sarvāstivāda tradition that rejected many of the fundamental Vaibhāṣika views. This text remains the primary source of Abhidharma in Indo-Tibetan and East Asian Buddhism.

The most mature and refined form of Vaibhāṣika philosophy can be seen in the work of the master Saṃghabhadra (ca. 5th century), "undoubtedly one of the most brilliant Abhidharma teachers in India."

His two major works, the *Nyāyānusāra (Shun zhengli lun 順 正 理論) and the *Abhidharmasamayapradīpikā (Apidamo xian zong lun 阿 毘 達磨 顯宗 論), are very important sources for Vaibhāṣika thought. His work was referenced and cited by several important figures, such as Xuanzang and Sthiramati.


Another complete system of Abhidharma thought is elaborated in certain works of the Yogācāra tradition (which evolved mainly from the Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma). This Abhidharma can be found in the works of such figures as Asanga, Vasubandhu, Sthiramati, Dharmapāla, Śīlabhadra, Xuanzang (Hsüan-tsang), and Vinītadeva.

The yogācāra scholia discussed many concepts not widely found in non-Mahāyāna Abhidharma, such as the theory of the eight consciousnesses (aṣṭa vijñānakāyāḥ) that includes the ālayavijñāna, the three natures (trisvabhāva), mere knowledge (vijñapti-mātra), the fundamental revolution of the base (āśraya-parāvṛtti), the Mahāyāna Buddhology of the three Buddha-bodies, the ten pāramitā and the ten bhūmi. 

Yogācāra Abhidharma's major works include:

Yogācārabhūmi-Śāstra (Foundation Treatise for Yoga Practitioners). A compendium of Buddhist doctrine and meditation, with a strong influence of the Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma.

Abhidharma-samuccaya (Abhidharma Compendium) by Asanga. It deals mainly with traditional Abhidharma concepts, with some Mahāyāna elements added. According to Frauwallner, this text is based on the Abhidharma of the Mahīśāsaka tradition.

Abhidharma-samuccaya-bhasyam, a commentary on the earlier work, possibly by Sthiramati.

Mahāyānasaṃgraha. This is a veritable compendium of the Abhidharma Mahāyāna of Asanga. Its main sources are the Abhidharmamahāyānasūtra and the Yogācārabhūmi.

Mahāyānasaṃgraha-bhāṣya, by Vasubandhu, a commentary on the above work.

Vijñapti-mātratā-siddhi, Ch. Cheng Weishi Lun ("Discourse on the Perfection of Mere Awareness") by Xuanzang - a commentary on Triṃśikā-vijñaptimātratā ("Thirty Verses") by Vasubandhu. The Cheng weishi lun shuji, is a commentary on the above, by Xuanzang's student, Kuiji.

While this Yogācāra Abhidharma is based on the Sarvāstivāda system, it also incorporates aspects of other Abhidharma systems and presents a complete Abhidharma in accordance with a Mahāyāna view that thought (vijñapti) alone is ultimately "real. "


The Prajñāpāramitā sutras and their associated literature are strongly influenced by Abhidharma. These texts make use of Abhidharma categories (such as the theory of dharmas and the various Abhidharma lists) and adopt or criticize them in different ways.

Therefore, according to Johannes Bronkhorst, the 'Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā', "only makes sense in the historical context of Abhidharma. " According to Edward Conze, the Prajñāpāramitā sutras were meant to be a critique of the view held by some Abhidharma scholars who saw the dharmas as substantial or real.

Conze also notes that the later Prajñāpāramitā sutras have been expanded by the insertion of various doctrinal lists of Abhidharma.

There is also extensive Abhidharma material (mainly Sarvāstivāda) in the Dà zhìdù lùn (The Treatise on the Great Prajñāpāramitā; Chinese: 大智 度 論, Mahāprajñāpāramitāupadeśa* Taishō Tripiṭaka no. 1509). The Dà zhìdù lùn was translated into Chinese by Kumārajīva (344-413 CE) and his pupil Sengrui.

The text claims to have been written by Nāgārjuna (c. 2nd century), but several scholars, such as Étienne Lamotte and Paul Demiéville, have questioned this, maintaining that the author was instead a Sarvāstivāda monk learned in Abhidharma who became a Mahāyānist. It is a very influential text in East Asian Buddhism.

The Abhisamayālaṅkāra ("Ornament of Clear Realization") also includes numerous Abhidharma lists, and according to Karl Brunnholzl, "can be regarded as a kind of presentation of Abhidharma mahāyāna. "

Other traditions

The Śāriputra Abhidharma Śāstra (舍利弗阿 毘 曇 論 , Shèlìfú Āpítán Lùn, Taisho Tripitaka 1548) is a complete abhidharma text believed to be from the Dharmaguptaka sect. The only complete edition of this text is in Chinese. Sanskrit fragments of this text have been found in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, and are now part of the Schøyen Collection (MS 2375/08).

Several Pudgalavada Abhidharma texts also survive in Chinese, such as the Traidharmakasastra (Taisho no. 1506 pp. 15c-30a) and the Sammatiyanikayasastra. These texts contain traditional Abhidharma-type lists and doctrines, but also attempt to expound and defend the single doctrine of "personhood" (pudgala).

The Tattvasiddhi Śāstra ("the treatise that achieves reality"; Chinese: 成 實 論, Chéngshílun), is an Abhidharma text that was popular in Chinese Buddhism. This Abhidharma is now contained in the Chinese Buddhist canon, in sixteen fascicles (Taishō Tripiṭaka 1646).

Its authorship is attributed to Harivarman, a monk from central India in the 3rd century. This work may belong to the Mahāsāṃghika Bahuśrutīya school or the Sautrāntika school.

Many Abhidharma texts have been lost. This includes texts brought from India by Xuanzang belonging to a variety of Indian schools that were never translated into Chinese. Many Abhidharma sastras discovered among the Gandhara Buddhist texts have no parallel in extant Indic languages or in Chinese or Tibetan translation, suggesting the earlier breadth of the Abhidharma literature.

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