BuddhaSasana Home Page
English Section

The Abhidhamma Literature

Bhikkhu Bodhi

In: "Abhidhamma studies: Buddhist explorations of consciousness and time".
Nyanaponika Thera, edited with an introduction by Bhikkhu Bodhi. BPS (1998).


The Abhidhamma is a comprehensive, systematic treatment of the Buddha’s teachings that came to prominence in the Buddhist community during the first three centuries after the Master’s death. The development of Abhidhamma spanned the broad spectrum of the early Buddhist schools, though the particular tracks that it followed in the course of its evolution differed markedly from one school to another. As each system of Abhidhamma assumed its individual contours, often in opposition to its rivals, the respective school responsible for it added a compilation of Abhidhamma treatises to its collection of authorized texts. In this way the original two canonical collections of the Buddha’s Word—the Sutta and Vinaya Piṭakas—came to be augmented by a third collection, the Abhidhamma Piṭaka, thus giving us the familiar Tipiṭaka or "Three Baskets of the Doctrine."

There is some evidence, from the reports of the Chinese Buddhist pilgrims, that most of the old Indian Buddhist schools, if not all, had their own Abhidhamma Piṭakas. However, with the wholesale destruction of Buddhism in India in the twelfth century, all but three canonical Abhidhammas perished with hardly a trace. The three exceptions are (1) the Theravāda version, in seven books, recorded in Pāli; (2) the Sarvāstivāda version, also in seven books but completely different from those of the Theravāda; and (3) a work called the Śāriputra-abhidharma-śāstra, probably belonging to the Dharmaguptaka school. The Pāli Abhidhamma had survived because, long before Buddhism disappeared in India, it had been safely transplanted to Sri Lanka; the other two, because they had been brought to China and translated from Sanskrit into Chinese. Though the schools that nurtured these last two Abhidhamma systems vanished long ago, a late exposition of the Sarvāstivāda Abhidhamma system, Vasubandhu’s Abhidharmakośa, continues to be studied among Tibetan Buddhists and in the Far East. In the Theravāda countries such as Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Thailand, the Abhidhamma has always been a subject of vital interest, both among monks and educated lay Buddhists, and forms an essential component in any program of higher Buddhist studies. This is especially the case in Myanmar, which since the fifteenth century has been the heartland of Abhidhamma study in the Theravāda Buddhist world.

The seven treatises of the Pāli Abhidhamma Piṭaka are the Dhammasaṅgaṇī, the Vibhaga, the Dhātukathā, the Puggalapańńatti, the Kathāvatthu, the Yamaka, and the Paṭṭhāna. The distinctive features of the Abhidhamma methodology are not equally evident in all these works. In particular, the Puggalapańńatti is a detailed typology of persons that is heavily dependent on the Sutta Piṭaka, especially the Aṅguttara Nikāya; the Kathāvatthu, a polemical work offering a critical examination of doctrinal views that the Theravādin theorists considered deviations from the true version of the Dhamma. These two works do not exemplify the salient features of the Abhidhamma and may have been included in this Piṭaka merely as a matter of convenience. What is probably the most archaic core of Abhidhamma material—detailed definitions of the basic categories taken from the suttas, such as the aggregates, sense bases, and elements—is preserved in the Vibhaṅga. But the two works that best exemplify the mature version of the canonical Abhidhamma system are the Dhammasaṅgaṇī and the Paṭṭhāna. As Ven. Nyanaponika repeatedly points out, these two books are complementary and must be viewed together to obtain an adequate picture of the Abhidhamma methodology as a whole. The Dhammasaṅgaṇī emphasizes the analytical approach, its most notable achievement being the reduction of the complex panorama of experience to distinct mental and material phenomena, which are minutely defined and shown in their various combinations and classifications. The Paṭṭhāna advances a synthetic approach to the factors enumerated in the first book. It delineates the conditional relations that hold between the diverse mental and material phenomena disclosed by analysis, binding them together into a dynamic and tightly interwoven whole.

Each of the books of the Abhidhamma has its authorized commentary. Since the commentaries on the last five books are combined into one volume, there are three Abhidhamma commentaries: the Atthasālinī (on the Dhammasaṅgaṇī); the Sammoha-vinodanī (on the Vibhaṅga); and the Pańcappakaraṇa-aṭṭhakathā (on the other five books). These commentaries are the work of Ācariya Buddhaghosa, the most eminent of the Pāli commentators. Buddhaghosa was an Indian Buddhist monk who came to Sri Lanka in the fifth century C.E. to study the old Sinhalese commentaries (no longer extant) that had been preserved at the Mahāvihāra, the Great Monastery, the seat of Theravāda orthodoxy in Anuradhapura. On the basis of these old commentaries, written in a style of Sinhala that by then may have already been antiquated, he composed new commentaries in the internationally recognized Theravāda language, now known as Pāli. These commentaries, refined in expression and doctrinally coherent, are not original creative works expressing Buddhaghosa’s own ideas, but edited and synoptic versions of the old commentaries, which had probably accumulated over several centuries and recorded the diverse opinions of the early generations of doctrinal specialists up to about the second century C.E. If we had direct access to these commentaries we would no doubt be able to trace the gradual evolution of the system of exegesis that finally became crystallized in the works of Buddhaghosa. Unfortunately, however, these old commentaries did not survive the ravages of time.

The Abhidhamma commentaries of Buddhaghosa do considerably more than explicate the difficult terms and statements of the canonical Abhidhamma texts. In the course of explication they introduce in full measure the reflections, discussions, judgments, and determinations of the ancient masters of the doctrine, which Buddhaghosa must have found in the old commentaries available to him. Thus, out of the beams and rafters of the canonical Abhidhamma, the commentaries construct a comprehensive and philosophically viable edifice that can be used for several purposes: the investigation of experience in the practice of insight meditation; the interpretation of the canonical Abhidhamma; and the interpretation of the other two Piṭakas, the Suttanta and the Vinaya, whose exegesis, at an advanced level, is guided by the principles of the Abhidhamma. Ācariya Buddhaghosa’s masterpiece, the Visuddhimagga, is in effect a work of "applied Abhidhamma".

Following the age of the commentaries, Pāli Abhidhamma literature expanded by still another layer with the composition of the īkās, the subcommentaries. Of these, the most important is the three-part Mūlaīkā, “The Fundamental (or Original) Subcommentary” to the three primary commentaries. This work is attributed to one Ācariya Ānanda, who may have worked in south India in the late fifth or early sixth century. Its purpose is to clarify obscure terms and ideas in the commentaries and also to shed additional light on the canonical texts. This work in turn has an Anuṭīkā, a secondary subcommentary, ascribed to Ācariya Dhammapāla, another south Indian.

Once the commentarial literature on the Abhidhamma had grown to gargantuan dimensions, the next stage in the development of Abhidhamma theory was governed by the need to reduce this material to more manageable proportions for easy use by teachers and their students. Thus there arrived the age of the Abhidhamma manuals, which reached its high point with the composition of the Abhidhammattha-saṅgaha sometime between the tenth and twelfth centuries. This work, ascribed to one Ācariya Anuruddha, occupies only fifty pages in print, yet provides a masterly overview of the whole Abhidhamma, both canonical and commentarial, in an easily memorizable form. The Saṅgaha has become the standard primer for Abhidhamma studies throughout the Theravāda Buddhist world, and in the traditional system of education teachers require their pupils to learn it by heart as the prerequisite for further lessons in the Abhidhamma. Yet, because the manual is so terse and pithy in expression, when read on its own it borders on the cryptic, and to convey any clear meaning it needs paraphrase and explanation. Thus the Saṅgaha in its turn has generated a massive commentarial literature, written both in Sri Lanka and Myanmar, and this has opened up still new avenues for the elaboration of Abhidhamma theory. In this way the literary history of the Abhidhamma has advanced by a rhythmic alternation of condensed and expansive modes of treatment, the systole and diastole phases in the evolution of Theravāda Buddhist doctrine.

From this quick and superficial overview of the Abhidhamma literature we can see that the fountainhead of the Pāli Abhidhamma system is the Abhidhamma Piaka with its seven treatises. But how did this collection of texts come into being? To this question, the Theravāda commentarial tradition and present-day critical scholarship give different answers. Unlike the suttas and the accounts of the monastic rules in the Vinaya, the books of the canonical Abhidhamma do not provide any information about their own origins. The commentaries, however, ascribe these treatises to the Buddha himself. The Atthasālinī, which gives the most explicit account, states that the Buddha realized the Abhidhamma at the foot of the Bodhi Tree on the night of his enlightenment and investigated it in detail during the fourth week after the enlightenment, while sitting in deep meditation in a house of gems (ratanaghara) to the northeast of the Bodhi Tree. Subsequently, during his career as a teacher, he spent one rains retreat in the Tāvatiṁsa heaven, where he taught the Abhidhamma to the devas or gods from ten thousand world systems. Each morning during this period he would descend to the human realm for his one meal of the day, and then he taught the methods or principles (naya) of the doctrine that he had covered to his chief disciple Sāriputta, who elaborated them for the benefit of his own pupils.

Although this account still prevails in conservative monastic circles in the Theravāda world, critical scholarship has been able to determine in broad outline, by comparative study of the various Abhidhamma texts available, the route along which the canonical Abhidhamma evolved. These studies indicate that before it came to constitute a clearly articulated system the Abhidhamma had gradually taken shape over several centuries. The word abhidhamma itself appears already in the suttas, but in contexts that indicate that it was a subject discussed by the monks themselves rather than a type of teaching given to them by the Buddha.4 Sometimes the word abhidhamma is paired with abhivinaya, and we might suppose that the two terms respectively refer to a specialized, analytical treatment of the doctrine and the monastic discipline. Several suttas suggest that these Abhidhamma discussions proceeded by posing questions and offering replies. If we are correct in assuming that these ancient discussions were one of the seeds of the codified Abhidhamma, then their catechistic framework would explain the prominence of the "interrogation sections" (pańhāvāra) in the canonical Abhidhamma treatises.

Another factor that contemporary scholarship regards as a seed for the development of the Abhidhamma was the use of certain master lists to represent the conceptual structure of the Buddha’s teachings. For the sake of easy memorization and as an aid to exposition, the doctrinal specialists in the early Sangha often cast the teachings into outline form. These outlines, which drew upon the numerical sets that the Buddha himself regularly used as the scaffolding for his doctrine, were not mutually exclusive but overlapped and meshed in ways that allowed them to be integrated into master lists that resembled a tree diagram. Such master lists were called mātikās, “matrixes,” and skill in their use was sometimes included among the qualifications of an erudite monk.5 To be skilled in the mātikās it was necessary to know not only the terms and their definitions but also their underlying structures and architectonic arrangement, which revealed the inner logic of the Dhamma. An early phase of Abhidhamma activity must have consisted in the elaboration of these master lists, a task that would have required extensive knowledge of the teachings and a capacity for rigorous, technically precise thought. The existing Abhidhamma Piṭakas include substantial sections devoted to such elaborations, and beneath them we can hear the echoes of the early discussions in the Sangha that culminated in the first Abhidhamma texts.

While the roots from which the Abhidhamma sprang can be traced back to the early Sangha, perhaps even during the Buddha’s lifetime, the different systems clearly assumed their mature expression only after the Buddhist community had split up into distinct schools with their own doctrinal peculiarities. Codified and authorized Abhidhamma texts must have been in circulation by the third century B.C., the time of the Third (exclusively Theravādin) Council, which was held in Pāaliputta, the capital of King Aśoka’s Mauryan empire. These texts, which would have constituted the original nuclei of the Theravāda and Sarvāstivāda Abhidhamma Piakas, might have continued to evolve for several more centuries. In the first century B.C. the Theravāda Abhidhamma Piaka, along with the rest of the Pāli Canon, was formally written down for the first time, at the Ālokavihāra in Sri Lanka. This officially approved recension of the Abhidhamma Piṭaka must mark the terminal point of its development in the Pāli school, though it is conceivable that minor additions were incorporated even afterward.

* * *

[Back to English Index]
Revised: 12-12-2015