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Abhidharma (Abhidhamma)

Abhidharma is a term used in Buddhism to refer to a collection of analytical and philosophical texts that delve into the nature of reality, consciousness, and the workings of the mind. The word “Abhidharma” is derived from the Sanskrit term “abhi” meaning “further” or “higher” and “dharma” meaning “teachings” or “phenomena.” The Abhidharma texts aim to provide a systematic and detailed analysis of the teachings found in the foundational Buddhist scriptures, known as the Sutras.

Origin and Development:
The Abhidharma tradition emerged as a distinct branch of Buddhist philosophy and scholarship during the early centuries after the passing of the Buddha. It is traditionally attributed to the Buddha’s disciples, who systematized and organized his teachings into various categories and classifications. The earliest Abhidharma texts were composed in the Pali language and are associated with the Theravada tradition. The Abhidharma literature of the Sarvastivada school, which flourished in ancient India, is another significant branch of Abhidharma.

Content and Structure:
Abhidharma texts typically explore a wide range of topics, including the nature of consciousness, mental states, causality, the classification of phenomena, and the path to liberation. The texts often employ intricate lists, classifications, and terminologies to analyze and categorize various aspects of human experience and the workings of the mind.

The Abhidharma literature is typically divided into several main sections or treatises, each focusing on a specific aspect of Buddhist philosophy. Some notable Abhidharma texts include the “Abhidhammattha-sangaha” in Theravada Buddhism, the “Mahavibhasa” in Sarvastivada Buddhism, and the “Abhidharma-kosha” by Vasubandhu, which is highly regarded in both Theravada and Mahayana traditions.

Significance and Interpretations:
The Abhidharma texts serve as a foundation for the study and analysis of Buddhist philosophy, psychology, and meditation. They provide a comprehensive framework for understanding the nature of reality and the workings of the mind, which are essential for the cultivation of wisdom and the path to liberation.

Different Buddhist traditions have developed their own interpretations and commentaries on the Abhidharma texts. Scholars and practitioners have engaged in extensive debates and discussions over the centuries, leading to variations in the interpretations and emphasis placed on certain aspects of Abhidharma teachings within different schools and lineages.

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abhidharma (P. abhidhamma; T. chos mngon pa ཆོས་མངོན་པ་; C. apidamo/duifa 阿毘達磨/對法) — refers to a set of texts developed by the early Buddhist schools and the system of thought that is presented in those texts.[1] The Abhidharma texts define many of the topics mentioned in the Buddha’s teachings (sutras), and arrange them into classifications, such as the five skandhas, the twelve ayatanas, the eighteen dhatus, and so on, thereby providing tools for generating a precise understanding of all experience.

Contemporary scholar Steven D. Goodman describes the abhidharma as: “…an in-depth study, both analytically and experientially, of what makes up the entire universe, the person, and their world. [The abhidharma] speaks about different patternings of what make up this entire universe, for the sole purpose…of helping beings along the path to the cessation of suffering.[2]

The abhidharma texts are categorized as the third of the three pitakas, or collections, into which the Buddhist teachings are traditionally divided. The Abhidharma Pitaka is associated with the training in wisdom (Skt. prajñā).


Historical background

Development of Abhidharma doctrine

The Abhidharma (Pali: Abhidhamma) philosophy developed after the Buddha passed away, in an attempt to organize and systematize the teachings of the Buddha. As one contemporary scholar explains: During the first two centuries following the Buddha’s parinibbāna there took place, within the early Buddhist community, a move towards a comprehensive and precise systematisation of the teachings disclosed by the Master in his discourses. The philosophical systems that emerged from this refined analytical approach to the doctrine are collectively called the Abhidhamma. Both the Theravāda and the Sarvāstivāda, the two major conservative schools in the early Sangha, had their own Abhidhammas, each based on a distinct Abhidhamma Piṭaka. It is likely too that other schools had also developed philosophical systems along similar lines, though records of them did not survive the passage of time.[3]

Two main traditions

Noa Ronkin states: It is customarily assumed that the multiple ancient Buddhist schools transmitted their own versions of Abhidharma collections, but only two complete canonical collections are preserved, representing two schools: the Sarvāstivāda, who emerged as an independent school from within the Sthaviras around the second or first century BCE, became dominant in north, especially northwest India, and spread to central Asia; and the Sinhalese Theravāda, a branch of the Sthaviras that spread out in south India and parts of southeast Asia. These two extant collections comprise the third of the “three baskets” (Skt., tripiṭaka, Pali, tipiṭaka) of the Buddhist canon.The exegetical traditions of the Sarvāstivāda and Theravāda understand their respective canonical Abhidharma to consist of a set of seven texts, though each school specifies a different set of texts.[4]

The seven texts of the Sarvāstivādin Abhidharma-piṭaka survive in full only in their ancient Chinese translations. The seven texts of the Theravādin Abhidhamma-piṭaka are preserved in Pali and all but one (the Yamaka) have been translated into English.[4]

Abidharma concepts

Factors of existence

Main article: Dharmas as factors of existence

The Abhidharma traditions developed a theory of dharmas to describe everything that can be known or cognized, everything that truly exists. These dharmas are referred to in English as “factors of existence,” “constituents of reality,” etc. They have been described as “psychophysical factors, which flow according to the natural process of dependent origination.”[5] They are, in a sense, the building blocks of the universe, “in all of its particularity and variety.”[6]

Early Abhidharma scholars developed lists of dharmas.[6] Contemporary scholar Steven Goodman compared these lists of dharmas to the periodic table of elements.[7] Just as the elements in the periodic table combine chemically to form all types of physical substances, likewise the dhammas in Buddhist theory are said to combine to produce all types of physical and mental events. These lists are not intended as definitive “ontological” descriptions of ultimate reality, but rather as “maps” that indicate how our minds and bodies exist and function in the world in an interdependent manner. The purpose of studying these maps is to learn to distinguish the difference between how things appear and how they actually are,[7] and ultimately to break down our grasping to a fixed sense of self.

The Abhidharma traditions from different early Buddhist schools developed different lists of dharmas. However, these lists are similar and share many of the same factors.

Three wisdom categories

Three wisdom categories of the abhidharma teachings.

The abhidharma tradition presents multiple methods with which to analyze the components of an individual and their relationship to the world. Three commonly used modes are:[8][9][10][note 1]

These different methods have been described as “wisdom categories”,[8] “sets of phenomena”,[9] “modes of analysis”,[10] etc.

Each of these methods is taught to counteract specific wrong views. For example, contemporary scholar Karunadasa states:

Now the purposes for which Buddhism resorts to these analyses are varied. For instance, the main purpose of the khandha-analysis is to show that there is no ego either inside or outside the five khandhas which go to make up the socalled empiric individuality. None of the khandhas belongs to me (n’etaṃ mama), they do not correspond to “I” (n’eso’ham asmi), nor are they my self (n’eso me attā). [7] Thus the main purpose of this analysis is to prevent the intrusion of the notions of “mine,” “I,” and “my self” into what is otherwise an impersonal and egoless congeries of mental and physical phenomena. On the other hand, the analysis into eighteen dhātus is often resorted to in order to show that consciousness is neither a soul nor an extension of a soul-substance but a mental phenomenon which comes into being as a result of certain conditions: there is no independent consciousness which exists in its own right.[10]

Five skandhas

Main article: Five skandhas

The five skandhas (Sanskrit: pañca skandha; Pali: pañca khandha) are five psycho-physical aggregates that are said to be the basis for self-clinging. The five skandhas (aggregates, heaps, etc.) were mentioned in the very first teaching of the Buddha, in which the Buddha stated that clinging to these skandhas causes suffering. The five skandas are:

  1. rupa-skandha – aggregate of forms
  2. vedana-skandha – aggregate of sensations
  3. saṃjñā-skandha – aggregate of perceptions
  4. saṃskāra-skandha – aggregate of formations
  5. vijñāna-skandha – aggregate of consciousness

The five skandha are taught to counteract grasping to a concept of the self as a solid, unique, and permanent entity.

Twelve ayatanas

Main article: Twelve ayatanas

The twelve ayatanas are another scheme for analyzing the workings of the mind. They “include all validly knowable phenomena, both nonstatic and static.”[9]

The twelve ayatanas are:

Eighteen dhatus

Main article: Eighteen dhatus

The eighteen dhatus are another scheme for categorizing all validly knowable phenomena. The eighteen dhatus are related to the twelve ayatanas as follows: in the scheme of the 18 dhatus, the “mind base” of the 12 ayatanas is divided into seven parts: the mind faculty + the six types of consciousness. (See diagram above.)[11]

Main mind and mental factors

Within the Abhidharma, the mind is often explained in terms of two aspects:

Main mind

Main mind (Skt. pradhānacitta) refers to any instance of the six consciousnesses. Each instance of the “main mind” is accompanied by various mental factors.[12] The mental factors are said to perceive the features of objects, while main mind perceives only their basic identity.[13]

Mental factors

Main article: Mental factors

Mental factors (Skt. caitasika) are defined as aspects of the mind that apprehend the quality of an object, and that have the ability to color the mind. The mental factors are categorized as formations (Skt. saṅkhāra) concurrent with mind (Skt citta).[14][15]

Alternate translations for mental factors (Sanskrit: caitasika) include:


The Abhidharma doctrines presented detailed analysis of the workings of karma.

See, for example, Causes, conditions and results according to the Abhidharmakośa.


Main article: Buddhist cosmology

The main textual sources for Buddhist cosmology are the Abhidharma traditions of the Theravada and the Sarvāstivādin school.[16]

Rupert Gethin states: The earliest strata of Buddhist writings, the Nikāyas/Āgamas, do not provide a systematic account of the Buddhist understanding of the nature of the cosmos, but they do contain many details and principles that are systematized into a coherent whole by the Abhidharma traditions of Buddhist thought. Two great Abhidharma traditions have come down to us, that of the Theravādins, which has shaped the outlook of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and South-East Asia, and that of the Sarvāstivādins, whose perspective on many points has passed into Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism. The elaborate cosmological systems detailed in these two Abhidharmas are, however, substantially the same, differing only occasionally on minor points of detail. This elaborate and detailed cosmology is thus to be regarded as forming an important and significant part of the common Buddhist heritage. Moreover, it is not to be regarded as only of quaint and historical interest; the world-view contained in this traditional cosmology still exerts considerable influence over the outlook of ordinary Buddhists in traditional Buddhist societies.[16]

Abhidharma texts

Pali tradition

Sanskrit Sarvastivada tradition

The complete Sarvāstivādin Abhidharma Piṭaka as well as many commentaries were translated in Chinese and are included in the Chinese canon.[17][4] Part of the Sarvāstivādin Abhidharma Piṭaka has also been translated into the Tibetan language and is included in the Tibetan canon.[18]

East Asian tradition

Tibetan tradition

Abhidhamma Pitaka are:

  1. Dhammasangani (“Classification of phenomena”)
  2. Vibhanga (“Analysis of phenomena”)
  3. Dhatukatha (“Discourse on elements”)
  4. Puggalapannatti (“Description of individuals”)
  5. Kathavatthu (“Points of controversy”)
  6. Yamaka (“The Book of Pairs”)
  7. Patthana (“Conditional Relations”)

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