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The Centre of Buddhist Studies, The University of Hong Kong,

Hong Kong



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


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 Culakamma-

Vibhanga, 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


(3) In the Anguttara Nikaya, the doctrines are arranged in numerically ascending

order which forms a transitory stage between the Sutta-Pitaka and the


(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


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.

The Theravada Abhidhamma has seven original text books. These are

(1)Dhammasangani (enumeration of Phenomena), (2)Vibhanga (book of Analysis),

(3) Dhatukatha (discourse on Elements), (4)Puggalapannatti (concepts of

individuals or Human Typologies), (5)Kathavatthu (points of Controversy),

(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.

Post-Canonical and Pre-Commentarial Treatises related to the


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

Abhidhamma Pitaka.

(4) Visuddhimagga – Path of Purification, which gives a full expression of

Theravada Abhidhamma.

(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 Sri Lanka are Abhidhammatthasangaha,

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

among them is Abhidhammattha Vibhavinitika, a sub-commentary on the


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


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.


(1) Jayawardhana, S. 1994. Handbook of Pali Literature. Colombo, Sri Lanka:


(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.