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Translations of
English higher teaching,
Pali अभिधम्म
Sanskrit अभिधर्म
Bengali অভিধর্ম্ম
Burmese အဘိဓမ္မာ
(IPA: [əbḭdəmà])
Chinese 阿毗達磨(T) / 阿毗达磨(S)
Japanese 阿毘達磨
(rōmaji: abidatsuma)
Khmer អភិធម្ម (aphitam)
Korean 아비달마
(RR: abidalma)
Sinhala අභිධර්ම
Tibetan Wylie: chos mngon pa, mdzod phug (Bon)
Thai อภิธรรม (apitam)
Vietnamese A-tì-đạt-ma, Vi Diệu Pháp
Glossary of Buddhism

Abhidharma (Sanskrit) or Abhidhamma (Pali) are ancient (3rd century BCE and later) Buddhist texts which contain detailed scholastic reworkings of doctrinal material appearing in the Buddhist sutras, according to schematic classifications. The Abhidhamma works do not contain systematic philosophical treatises, but summaries or abstract and systematic lists.[1]

According to Collett Cox, Abhidhamma started as an elaboration of the teachings of the suttas, but later developed independent doctrines.[2]

The literal translation of the term Abhidharma is unclear. Two possibilities are most commonly given:

  1. abhi - higher, special or exceeding + dharma- teaching, philosophy, thus making Abhidharma the "higher teachings"
  2. abhi - about + dharma of the teaching, translating it instead as "about the teaching" or even "meta-teaching".

Compared to the colloquial sutras, Abhidharma texts are much more technical, analytic and systematic in content and style. The Theravadin and Sarvastivadin Abhidharmikas generally considered the Abhidharma to be the pure and literal (nippariyaya) description of ultimate truth (paramattha sacca) and an expression of unsullied wisdom (prajna), while the sutras were considered 'conventional' (sammuti) and figurative (pariyaya) teachings, given by the the Buddha to specific people, at specific times, depending on specific worldly circumstances.[3] They held that Abhidharma was taught by the Buddha to his most eminent disciples, and that therefore this justified the inclusion of Abhidharma texts into their scriptural canon.

Some in the West have considered the Abhidhamma to be the core of what is referred to as "Buddhist Psychology".[4] Other writers on the topic such as Nyanaponika Thera and Dan Lusthaus describe Abhidhamma as a Buddhist Phenomenology[5][6] while Noa Ronkin and Kenneth Inada equate it with Process philosophy.[7][8] Bhikkhu Bodhi writes that the system of the Abhidhamma Pitaka is "simultaneously a philosophy, a psychology and an ethics, all integrated into the framework of a program for liberation."[9] Abhidharma analysis also extended into the fields of ontology, epistemology and metaphysics.

The prominent Western scholar of Abhidharma, Erich Frauwallner has said that these Buddhist systems are "among the major achievements of the classical period of Indian philosophy."[10]


According to Theravāda tradition

The Buddha preaching the Abhidharma in Trāyastriṃśa heaven.

In the commentaries of Theravada Buddhism it was held that the Abhidhamma was not a later addition to the tradition, but rather represented in the fourth week of Gautama Buddha's enlightenment. Optimistic devas created a beautiful jeweled chamber after spent 3rd week dispelling mistrust and sitting inside it meditated on what was later known as the "Higher Doctrine". His mind and body were so purified that six-coloured rays came out of his body — blue, yellow, red, white, orange and a mixture of these five. The mixed color represented all these noble qualities. Later, he traveled to the Trāyastriṃśa and taught the Abhidhamma to the divine beings that dwelled there, including his deceased mother Māyā, who had re-arisen as a celestial being. The tradition holds that the Buddha gave daily summaries of the teachings given in the heavenly realm to the bhikkhu Sariputta, who passed them on.[11]

The Abhidhamma is thus presented as a pure and undiluted form of the teaching that was too difficult for most practitioners of the Buddha's time to grasp. Instead, the Buddha taught by the method related in the various suttas, giving appropriate, immediately applicable teachings as each situation arose, rather than attempting to set forth the Abhidhamma in all its complexity and completeness. Thus, there is a similarity between the traditions of the Adhidhamma and that of the Mahayana, which also claimed to be too difficult for the people living in the Buddha's time.

According to other traditions

The Sarvastivadin Vaibhasikas 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 compiled systematically by his elder disciples and was recited by Ananda at the first Buddhist council.[12]

The Sautrāntika school ('those who rely on the sutras') rejected the status of the Abhidharma as being Buddhavacana (word of the Buddha), they held it was the work of different monks after his death, and that this was the reason different Abhidharma schools varied widely in their doctrines.

According to scholars

Scholars generally believe that the Abhidharma emerged after the time of the Buddha, in around the 3rd century BCE. Therefore, the seven Abhidhamma works are generally claimed by scholars not to represent the words of the Buddha himself, but those of disciples and scholars.[1] Factors contributing to its development could have been the growth of monastic centers, the growing support for the Buddhist sangha, and outside influences from other religious groups.

As the last major division of the canon, the Abhidhamma works have had a checkered history. They were not accepted as canonical by the Mahasanghika school[1][13] and several other schools.[14] Another school included most of the Khuddaka Nikaya within the Abhidhamma Pitaka.[1] Also, the Pali version of the Abhidhamma is a strictly Theravada collection, and has little in common with the Abhidhamma works recognized by other Buddhist schools.[15] The Theravadin Abhidhamma is in some respects rather skeletal, with the details not entirely fleshed out. According to Rupert Gethin however, obvious care and ingenuity have gone into its development.[16]

The Abhidhamma philosophies of the various early schools often disagree on doctrine[17] and belong to the period of 'Divided Buddhism'[17] (as opposed to Undivided Buddhism). The earliest texts of the Pali Canon (the Sutta Nipata, parts of the Jatakas, and the first four Nikayas of the Suttapitaka) have no mention of (the texts of) the Abhidhamma Pitaka.[18] The Abhidhamma is also not mentioned at the report of the First Buddhist Council, directly after the death of the Buddha. This report of the first council does mention the existence of the Vinaya and the five Nikayas (of the Suttapitaka).[19][20]

According to L. S. Cousins, the suttas deal with sequences and processes, while the Abhidhamma describes occasions and events.[21]

Variety of Abhidhammic teachings and books

Numerous Abhidharma traditions arose in India, roughly during the period from the 2nd or 3rd Century BCE to the 5th Century CE. The 7th-century Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang reportedly collected Abhidharma texts from seven different traditions. The various Abhidhammic traditions have very fundamental philosophical disagreements with each other. These various Abhidhammic theories were (together with differences in Vinaya) the major cause for the majority of splits in the monastic Sangha, which resulted in the fragmented early Buddhist landscape of the 18 Early Buddhist Schools. However these differences did mean the existence of totally independent sects, as noted by Rupert Gethin, "at least some of the schools mentioned by later Buddhist tradition are likely to have been informal schools of thought in the manner of ‘Cartesians,’ ‘British Empiricists,’ or ‘Kantians’ for the history of modern philosophy."[22]

In the modern era, only the Abhidharmas of the Sarvāstivādins and the Theravādins have survived intact, each consisting of seven books, with the addition of the Sariputra Abhidharma. The Theravāda Abhidharma, the Abhidhamma Pitaka (discussed below), is preserved in Pāli, while the Sarvāstivādin Abhidharma is mostly preserved only in Chinese - the (likely Sanskrit) original texts having been lost, though some Tibetan texts are still extant. A small number of other Abhidharma texts of unknown origin are preserved in translation in the Chinese canon. These different traditions have some similarities, suggesting either interaction between groups or some common ground antedating the separation of the schools.[23]


The Abhidharma texts' field of inquiry extends to the entire Buddhadharma, since their goal was to outline, systematize and analyze all of the teachings. Abhidharmic thought also extends beyond the sutras to cover new philosophical and psychological ground which is only explicit in sutras or not present at all. There are certain doctrines which were developed or even invented by the Abhidharmikas and these became grounds for the debates among the different Early Buddhist schools.

Dharma theory

The "base upon which the entire [Abhidharma] system rests" is the 'dharma theory' and this theory 'penetrated all the early schools'.[24] For the Abhidharmikas, the ultimate components of existence, the elementary constituents of experience were called dharmas (Pali: dhammas). This concept has been variously translated as "factors" (Collett Cox), "psychic characteristics" (Bronkhorst),[25] "phenomena" (Nyanaponika) and "psycho-physical events" (Ronkin).

These dharmas were seen as the ultimate entities or momentary events which make up the fabric of people's experience of reality. The conventional reality of substantial objects and persons is merely a conceptual construct imputed by the mind on a flux of dharmas.[26] However, dharmas are never seen as individually separate entities, but are always dependently conditioned by other dharmas in a stream of momentary constellations of dharmas, constantly coming into being and vanishing, always in flux. Perception and thinking is then seen as a combination of various dharmas. Cittas (awareness events) are never experienced on their own, but are always intentional and hence accompanied by various mental factors (cetasikas), in a constantly flowing stream of experience occurrences.[27]

Human experience is thus explained by a series of dynamic processes and their patterns of relationships with each other. Buddhist Abhidharma philosophers then sought to explain all experience by creating lists and matrices (matikas) of these dharmas, which varied by school. The four categories of dharmas in the Theravada Abhidhamma are:[28]

  1. Citta (Mind, Consciousness, awareness)
  2. Cetasika (mental factors, mental events, associated mentality), there are 52 types
  3. Rūpa — (physical occurrences, material form), 28 types
  4. Nibbāna — (Extinction, cessation). This dharma is unconditioned [9] it neither arises nor ceases due to causal interaction.

The Sarvastivada Abhidharma also used these, along with a fifth category: "factors dissociated from thought" (cittaviprayuktasaṃskāra). The Sarvastivadas also included three dharmas in the fourth "unconditioned" category instead of just one, the dharma of space and two states of cessation.

The Abhidharma project was thus to provide a completely exhaustive account of every possible type of conscious experience in terms of its constituent factors and their relations. The Theravada tradition holds that there were 82 types of possible dhammas – 82 types of occurrences in the experiential world, while the general Sarvastivada tradition eventually enumerated 75 dharma types.[29]

For the Abhidharmikas, truth was twofold and there are two ways of looking at reality. One way is the way of everyday experience and of normal worldly persons. This is the category of the nominal and the conceptual (paññatti), and is termed the conventional truth (saṃvṛti-satya). However, the way of the Abhidharma, and hence the way of enlightened persons like the Buddha, who have developed the true insight (vipassana), sees reality as the constant stream of collections of dharmas, and this way of seeing the world is ultimate truth (paramārtha-satya).

As the Indian Buddhist Vasubandhu writes: "Anything the idea of which does not occur upon division or upon mental analysis, such as an object like a pot, that is a 'conceptual fiction'. The ultimately real is otherwise."[30] For Vasubandhu then, something is not the ultimately real if it 'disappears under analysis', but is merely conventional.

The ultimate goal of the Abhidharma is Nirvana and hence the Abhidharmikas systematized dharmas into those which are skillful (kusala), purify the mind and lead to liberation, and those which are unskillful and do not. The Abhidharma then has a soteriological purpose, first and foremost and its goal is to support Buddhist practice and meditation. By carefully watching the coming and going of dhammas, and being able to identify which ones are wholesome and to be cultivated, and which ones are unwholesome and to be abandoned, the Buddhist meditator makes use of the Abhidharma as a schema to liberate his mind and realize that all experiences are impermanent, not-self, unsatisfactory and therefore not to be clung to.


The Abhidharmikas often used the term svabhāva (Pali: sabhāva) to explain the causal workings of dharmas. This term was used in different ways by the different Buddhist schools. This term does not appear in the sutras. The Abhidharmakośabhāṣya states: “dharma means ‘upholding,’ [namely], upholding intrinsic nature (svabhāva)” while the Theravādin commentaries holds that: “dhammas are so called because they bear their intrinsic natures, or because they are borne by causal conditions.”[27] Dharmas were also said to be distinct from each other by their intrinsic/unique characteristics (svalaksana). The examination of these characteristics was held to be extremely important, the Sarvastivada Mahavibhasa states "Abhidharma is [precisely] the analysis of the svalaksana and samanya-laksana of dharmas".[31]

According to Peter Harvey, the Theravadin view of dharmas was that "'They are dhammas because they uphold their own nature [sabhaava]. They are dhammas because they are upheld by conditions or they are upheld according to their own nature' (Asl.39). Here 'own-nature' would mean characteristic nature, which is not something inherent in a dhamma as a separate ultimate reality, but arise due to the supporting conditions both of other dhammas and previous occurrences of that dhamma."[32]

In the Visuddhimagga, the Theravada scholar Buddhaghosa characterizes the nature of conventional reality thus: "when they are seen after resolving them by means of knowledge into these elements, they disintegrate like froth subjected to compression by the hand. They are mere states (dhamma) occurring due to conditions and void. In this way the characteristic of not-self becomes more evident"(Vism-mhþ 824).

The Sarvastivadins saw dharmas as the ultimately 'real entities' (sad-dravya)., though they also held that dharmas were dependently originated. For the Sarvastivadins, a synonym for svabhava is avayaya (a 'part'), the smallest possible unit which cannot be analyzed into smaller parts and hence it is ultimately real as opposed to only conventionally real (such as a chariot or a person).[33] However, the Sarvastivadins did not hold that dharmas were completely independent of each other, as the Mahavibhasa states: "conditioned dharmas are weak in their intrinsic nature, they can accomplish their activities only through mutual dependence" and "they have no sovereignty (aisvarya). They are dependent on others."[34] Svabhava in the early Abhidhamma texts was then not a term which meant ontological independence, metaphysical essence or underlying substance, but simply referred to their characteristics, which are dependent on other conditions and qualities. According to Ronkin: "In the early Sarvāstivāda exegetical texts, then, svabhāva is used as an atemporal, invariable criterion determining what a dharma is, not necessarily that a dharma exists. The concern here is primarily with what makes categorial types of dharma unique, rather than with the ontological status of dharmas."[27] However in the later Sarvastivada texts, like the Mahavibhasa, the term svabhava began to be defined more ontologically as the really existing “intrinsic nature” specifying individual dharmas.[27]

Other Abhidharma schools did not accept the svabhava concept. The 'Prajñaptivadins' denied the ultimate reality of all dharmas and held that everything, even dharmas, is characterized by Prajñapti (provisional designation or fictitious construction). The Vainasikas held that all dharmas were without svabhava.[35] This view that dharmas are empty or void is also found in the Lokanuvartana Sutra (‘The Sutra of Conformity with the World’) which survives in Chinese and Tibetan translation, and may have been a scripture of the Purvasailas, which was a sub-school of the Mahasamghika.

Causality and dependent origination

Another important project for the Abhidharmikas was to outline a theory of causality, especially of how momentary dharmas relate to each other through causes and conditions.

The Sarvastivadin analysis focused on six causes (hetu), four conditions (pratyaya) and five effects (phala). According to K.L. Dhammajoti, for the Sarvastivada school, 'causal efficacy is the central criterion for the reality/existence (astitva) of a dharma' and hence they were also sometimes called the 'Hetuvada' school.[36] A dharma is real because it is a cause and it has effects, if it had no causal efficacy, it would not exist. The six causes outlined by the Sarvastivada are:[37]

  1. Efficient cause (karana-hetu) - dharma A, causes dharma B
  2. Homogeneous cause (sabhäga-hetu) - dharma A(1) causes another dharma A(2)
  3. Universal cause (sarvatraga-hetu) - a Homogeneus cause, pertaining only to defiled dharmas
  4. Retribution cause (vipäka-hetu) - leads to karmic retribution
  5. Co-existent cause (sahabhu-hetu) - a cause which arises from the mutuality of all dharmas, a 'simultaneous causality.'
  6. Conjoined cause (samprayuktaka-hetu)

In the Mahavibhasa treatment of dependent origination, four different types are outlined:[38]

  • Momentary (ksanika) causation, as when all twelve moments of the chain are realized in a single moment of action
  • Serial (sambandhika) causation, in which dependent origination is viewed in reference to the relationship between cause and effect
  • Static (avasthika) causation, in which dependent origination involves twelve distinct periods of the five aggregates
  • Prolonged (prakarsika) causation, in which that sequence of causation occurs over three lifetimes

The Sarvastivada Vibhasa-sastrins accepted only static dependent origination[38]

The last book of the Pali Abhidhamma, the Patthana, sets out the main Theravada theory on conditioned relations and causality. The Patthana is an exhaustive examination of the conditioned nature (Paticcasamupada) of all dhammas. The introduction begins with a detailed list of 24 specific types of conditioned relationships (paccaya) that may pertain between different factors. The majority of these conditions have counterparts in the Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma. The Pali Abhidhammatthasangaha reduces them all to four main types.[39]

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


A prominent argument between the Abhidharmikas was on the Philosophy of time. The Sarvāstivādin tradition held the view (expressed in the Vijñanakaya) that dharmas exist in all three times - past, present, future; hence the name of their school means "theory of all exists". The Sautrāntika, Vibhajyavāda and Theravada schools argued against this eternalist view in favor of presentism (only the present moment exists). This argument was so central, that north Indian Buddhist schools were often named according to their philosophical position. According to Vasubandhu:

"Those who hold 'all exists' — the past, the present and the future — belong to the Särvastiväda. Those, on the other hand, who hold that some exist, viz., the present and the past karma that has not given fruit but not those that have given fruit or the future, are followers of the Vibhajyaväda."[35]

Vasubandhu initially wrote in favor of Sarvāstivāda, and later critiqued this position. The Sarvāstivāda-Vaibhāṣika also held an atomistic conception of time which divided time into discrete indivisible moments (kṣaṇa) and saw all events as lasting only for a minute instant (and yet also existing in all three times).[27]

Theravadins also held a theory of momentariness (Khāṇavāda), but it was less ontological than Sarvāstivāda and more focused on the psychological aspects of time. The Theravada divided every dhamma into three different instants of origination (uppādakkhaṇa), endurance (ṭhitikkhaṇa) and cessation (bhaṅgakkhaṇa). They also held that only mental events were momentary, material events could endure for longer.[27]

Rebirth and personal identity

A key problem which the Abhidharmikas wished to tackle was the question of how rebirth and karma works if there is no self to be reborn apart from the five aggregates. The Patthana includes the earliest Pali canonical reference to an important answer to this question: bhavanga, or 'life-continuum'. Bhavanga, literally, "the limb on which existence occurs" is 'that substratum which maintains the continuity of the individual throughout that life.' The Sarvastivadins had a similar term, nikayasabhagata.[40] This concept is similar to the Yogacara doctrine of the storehouse consciousness (alayavijnana), which was later associated with the Buddha nature doctrine.

This problem was also taken up by a group of Buddhist schools termed the Pudgalavadins or "Personalists" which included the Vātsīputrīya, the Dharmottarīya, the Bhadrayānīya, the Sammitiya and the Shannagarika.[41] These schools posited the existence of a 'person' (pudgala) or self, which had a real existence that was not reducible to streams and collections of dharmas. They also often used other terms to refer to this real 'self', such as 'Atman' and 'Jiva' which are words for the immortal soul in Hinduism and Jainism respectively.[41] They seemed to have held that the 'self' was part of a fifth category of existence, the “inexpressible”. This was a radically different view than the not-self view held by the mainstream Buddhist schools and this theory was a major point of controversy and was thoroughly attacked by other Buddhist schools such as the Theravadins, Sarvastivadins and later Mahayanists.

The Sarvastivadin Abhidharmikas also developed the novel idea of an intermediate state between death and the next rebirth. The Purvasaila, Sammitiya, Vatsiputriya, and later Mahisasaka schools accepted this view, while the Theravadins, Vibhajyavada, Mahasanghika, and the Sariputrabhidharmasastra of the Dharmaguptakas rejected it.[42]


Some Abhidharmikas such as the Sarvastivadins also defended an atomic theory. However unlike the Hindu Vaisheshika school, Abhidharmic atoms (paramannu) are not permanent, but momentary. The Vaibhasika held that an atom is the smallest analyzable unit of matter (rupa), hence it is a 'conceptual atom' (prajnapti-paramanu), though this also corresponds to a real existing thing.[43] The Mahabhivasa states:

"An atom (paramänu) is the smallest rüpa. It cannot be cut, broken, penetrated; it cannot be taken up, abandoned, ridden on, stepped on, struck or dragged. It is neither long nor short, square nor round, regular nor irregular, convex nor concave. It has no smaller parts; it cannot be decomposed, cannot be seen, heard, smelled, touched. It is thus that the paramänu is said to be the finest (sarva-süksma) of all rüpas."[44]

Theravāda Abhidhamma


The Abhidhamma Pitaka is the third pitaka, or basket, of the Tipitaka (Sanskrit: Tripiṭaka), the canon of the Theravada school of Buddhism. It consists of seven sections or books:

  1. Dhammasangani ('Enumeration of Factors') - Describes the fundamental phenomena (dhamma) which constitute human experience.
  2. Vibhanga ('Analysis') - An analysis of various topics by a variety of methods, including catechism, using material from the Dhammasangani.
  3. Dhatukatha ('Discussion of Elements') - Some interrelations between various items from the first two books, formulated as sets of questions and answers.
  4. Puggalapannatti ('Descriptions of Individuals') - An enumeration of the qualities of certain different 'personality types'. These types were believed to be useful in formulating teachings to which an individual would respond positively.
  5. Kathavatthu ('Points of Controversy') - A collection of debates on points of doctrine, traditionally said to have been compiled by Moggaliputta Tissa at the Buddhist Council sponsored by King Ashoka, which took place in the 3rd century, BCE.
  6. Yamaka ('The Pairs') - Deals with various questions relating to interrelations within various lists of items; here the items belong to the same list, whereas in the Dhātukathā they are in different lists.
  7. Patthana ('Foundational Conditions' or 'Relations') - The laws of interaction by which the dhammas described in the Dhammasangani operate.


The main entrance of the Aluvihare Rock Temple, where the Tipitaka was first written down

The Theravāda Abhidhamma, like the rest of the Tipiṭaka, was orally transmitted until the 1st century BCE. Due to famines and constant wars, the monks responsible for recording the oral tradition felt that there was a risk of portions of the canon being lost so the Abhidhamma was written down for the first time along with the rest of the Canon.

These had all been published in Pāli Canon in the first century BCE at Alu Vihara Temple in Sri Lanka, and most have been translated into English by the Pali Text Society as well. Some scholars date the seven Pali Abhidhamma books from about 400 BCE to about 250 BCE, the first book being the oldest of the seven and the fifth being the newest.

Additional post-canonical texts composed in the following centuries attempted to further clarify the analysis presented in the Abhidhamma texts. The best known of such texts are the Visuddhimagga of Buddhaghosa and the Abhidhammattha-sangaha of Anuruddha. Other Sri Lankan compendiums of Abhidhamma include the 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 (summary of Truth), Mohavicchedani (that which dispels delusion), Khemappakarana (the treat is by Khema) and Namacaradipak (movement of mind; compiled in Burma).[45]

Early Western translators of the Pāli canon found the Abhidhamma Pitaka the least interesting of the three sections of the Tipiṭaka. Caroline Augusta Foley Rhys Davids, a Pāli scholar and the wife of Pali Text Society founder Thomas William Rhys Davids, famously described the ten chapters of the Yamaka as "ten valleys of dry bones".[46] As a result, this Abhidhammic aspect of Buddhism was little studied in the West until the latter half of the 20th Century. Interest in the Abhidhamma has grown in the West as better scholarship on Buddhist philosophy has gradually revealed more information about its origins and significance.

Within the Theravāda tradition the prominence of the Abhidhamma has varied considerably from country to country with Buddhism in Burma placing the most emphasis on the study of the Abhidhamma.

Theravada commentaries

In addition to the canonical Abhidharma, a variety of commentaries and manuals were written to serve as introductions to the Abhidharma. The best known commentaries in the Theravada tradition are:[47]

Other commentaries include:

  • Sammohavinodini – The Dispeller of Delusion
  • Vibhanga Atthakatha – commentary to the Vibhanga.
  • Pancappakaranatthakatha – commentary on the remaining five books of the Abhidhamma Pitaka.
  • Abhidhamma Mulatika – sub-commentary to the commentaries of the Abhidhamma.
  • Anutika – sub-commentaries to the sub-commentaries

Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma

Vasubandhu's Abhidharmakosa is a major source in Tibetan and Chinese Buddhism.


Like the Theravada Abhidharma, the Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma also consists of seven texts. However, comparison of the content of the Sarvāstivāda texts with that of the Theravāda Abhidhamma reveals that it is unlikely that this indicates that one textual tradition originated from the other. In particular, the Theravāda Abhidharma contains two texts (the Katha Vatthu and Puggala Pannatti) that some consider entirely out of place in an Abhidharma collection.

Core texts

The texts of the Sarvāstivādin Abhidharma are:

Vaibhāṣika texts

Following these, are the texts that became the authority of the Vaibhāṣika, the Kasmiri Sarvāstivāda Orthodoxy:

  • Mahavibhasa ("Great Commentary", on the Jnanaprasthana)

Little research in English has been made in these texts, although all of them are summarized, many in fine detail, in the Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies, Vol. VII: Abhidharma Buddhism.[48]

Other Sarvāstivādin texts

In addition to the canonical Sarvāstivādan Abhidharma, a variety of commentaries were written to serve as introductions to the Abhidharma. The best known commentaries belonging to the Sarvāstivādan tradition are:[47]

  • Abhidharmakosha (Treasury of Higher Knowledge) by Vasubandhu - a highly influential commentary in Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism, which includes an auto-commentary by Vasubandhu, the Abhidharmakosabhasya, that critiques Sarvastivadin views from a Sautrantika perspective. This is the main text used to study Abhidharma in Tibet and East Asia.
  • Nyayanusara-sastra (Conformance to Correct Principle) by Samghabhadra, an attempt to criticize Vasubandhu and defend Sarvastivada views.
  • Abhidharmasamayapradipika, a compendium of the above.
  • Abhidharma-hṛdaya (The Heart of Abhidharma) by Dharmaśrī
  • Abhidharmaāmrtaṛasa (The Taste of the Deathless) by Ghoṣaka.

Mahāsāṃghika and Dharmaguptaka

According to some sources, abhidharma was not accepted as canonical by the Mahāsāṃghika school.[49] The Theravādin Dīpavaṃsa, for example, records that the Mahāsāṃghikas had no abhidharma.[50] However, other sources indicate that there were such collections of abhidharma. During the early 5th century, the Chinese pilgrim Faxian is said to have found a Mahāsāṃghika abhidharma at a monastery in Pāṭaliputra.[50] When Xuanzang visited Dhānyakaṭaka, he wrote that the monks of this region were Mahāsāṃghikas, and mentions the Pūrvaśailas specifically.[51] Near Dhānyakaṭaka, he met two Mahāsāṃghika bhikṣus and studied Mahāsāṃghika abhidharma with them for several months, during which time they also studied various Mahāyāna śāstras together under Xuanzang's direction.[50][51] On the basis of textual evidence as well as inscriptions at Nāgārjunakoṇḍā, Joseph Walser concludes that at least some Mahāsāṃghika sects probably had an abhidharma collection, and that it likely contained five or six books.[52]

The Śāriputra Abhidharma Śāstra (舍利弗阿毘曇論 Shèlìfú Āpítán Lùn) (T. 1548) is a complete abhidharma text that is thought to come from the Dharmaguptaka sect. The only complete edition of this text is that in Chinese. Sanskrit fragments from this text have been found in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, and are now part of the Schøyen Collection (MS 2375/08). The manuscripts at this find are thought to have been part of a monastery library of the Mahāsāṃghika Lokottaravāda sect.

Mahāyāna Abhidharma

In addition to the Theravada and Sarvāstivādan abhidharma traditions, a third complete system of Abhidharma thought is elaborated in certain works of the Mahāyāna Yogācāra tradition, principally in the following commentaries:[53]

While this Yogācārin Abhidharma is based on the Sarvāstivādin system, it also incorporates aspects of other Abhidharma systems and present a complete Abhidharma in accordance with a Mahāyāna Yogācāra view that the mind (Vijñapti) alone is ultimately "real."[53]

Yogācārins developed an Abhidharma literature set within a Mahāyāna framework.[54] John Keenan, who has translated the Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra into English, writes:[55]

The Yogācāra masters inherited the mystical approach of the Prajñāpāramitā texts. However, they did not reject the validity of theoretical Abhidharma. Rather they attempted to construct a critical understanding of the consciousness that underlies all meaning, both mystical and theoretical. Their focus was on doctrine, but as it flowed from the practice of meditative centering (yoga), rather than as it was understood in acts of conceptual apprehension.

There is also plenty of Abhidharmic material in the Mahaprajnaparamita Upadesa, traditionally attributed to Nagarjuna.

Satyasiddhi Śāstra

The Satyasiddhi Śāstra, also called the Tattvasiddhi Śāstra, is an extant Abhidharma text from the Mahāsāṃghika Bahuśrutīya school, which was popular in Chinese Buddhism. This Abhidharma is now contained in the Chinese Buddhist canon, in sixteen fascicles (Taishō Tripiṭaka 1646).[56] Its authorship is attributed to Harivarman, a third-century monk from central India. Paramārtha cites this Bahuśrutīya abhidharma as containing a combination of Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna doctrines, and Joseph Walser agrees that this assessment is correct.[57] Ian Charles Harris also characterizes the text as a synthesis of Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna, and notes that its doctrines are very close to those in Mādhyamaka and Yogācāra works.[58] The Satyasiddhi Śāstra maintained great popularity in Chinese Buddhism,[59] and even lead to the formation of its own school of Buddhism in China, the Satyasiddhi School, or Chéngshí Zōng (成實宗), which was founded in 412 CE.[60] As summarized by Nan Huai-Chin:[61]

Various Buddhist schools sprang to life, such as the school based on the three Mādhyamaka śāstras, the school based on the Abhidharmakośa, and the school based on the Satyasiddhi Śāstra. These all vied with each other, producing many wondrous offshoots, each giving rise to its own theoretical system.

The Satyasiddhi School taught a progression of twenty-seven stations for cultivating realization, based upon the teachings of the Satyasiddhi Śāstra. The Satyasiddhi School took Harivarman as its founder in India, and Kumārajīva as the school's founder in China.[60] The Satyasiddhi School is counted among the Ten Schools of Tang Dynasty Buddhism.[61] From China, the Satyasiddhi School was transmitted to Japan in 625 CE, where it was known as Jōjitsu-shu (成實宗). The Japanese Satyasiddhi school is known as one of the six great schools of Japanese Buddhism in the Nara period (710-794 CE).[62]

See also

Buddhist concepts


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 "Abhidhamma Pitaka." Encyclopædia Britannica. Ultimate Reference Suite. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2008.
  2. Cox 2003, pp. 1-7
  3. Potter, Buswell, Jaini; Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies Volume VII Abhidharma Buddhism to 150 AD, page 74
  4. See, for instance, Rhys Davids (1900), Trungpa (1975) and Goleman (2004).
  5. Nyanaponika, Abhidhamma studies, page 35
  6. Lusthaus, Dan; Buddhist Phenomenology - A philosophical investigation of Yogacara Buddhism and the cheng wei-shih lun, page 4.
  7. Ronkin, Noa; Early Buddhist metaphysics
  8. Inada, Kenneth K; The metaphysics of Buddhist experience and the Whiteheadian encounter, Philosophy East and West Vol. 25/1975.10 P.465-487 (C) by the University of Hawaii Press
  9. 9.0 9.1 Bodhi, A comprehensive manual of Abhidhamma, page 3.
  10. Sophie Francis Kidd, translator; Ernst Steinkellner, editor; Erich Frauwallner; Studies in Abhidharma Literature and the Origins of Buddhist Philosophical Systems
  11. Pine 2004, pg. 12
  12. Potter, Buswell, Jaini; Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies Volume VII Abhidharma Buddhism to 150 AD, page 82
  13. Dutt 1978, p. 58
  14. "several schools rejected the authority of Abhidharma and claimed that Abhidharma treatises were composed by fallible, human teachers." Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism (2004), page 2. (A similar statement can be found on pages 112 and 756.)
  15. "Buddhism." Encyclopædia Britannica. Ultimate Reference Suite. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2008.
  16. Rupert Gethin in Paul Williams ed., "Buddhism: Critical Concepts in Religious Studies." Taylor and Francis 2005, page 171.
  17. 17.0 17.1 Kanai Lal Hazra, Pali Language and Literature - A Systematic Survey and Historical Survey, 1994, Vol. 1, page 415
  18. Kanai Lal Hazra, Pali Language and Literature - A Systematic Survey and Historical Survey, 1994, Vol. 1, page 412
  19. Horner 1963, p. 398
  20. The Mahisasaka Account of the First Council mentions the four agamas here. see http://santifm1.0.googlepages.com/thefirstcouncil (mahisasakaversion)[dead link]
  21. "Pali oral literature", in Buddhist Studies, ed Denwood and Piatigorski, Curzon, London, 1982/3
  22. Gethin, Rupert, 1998: The Foundations of Buddhism, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
  23. Cox 2003, p. 2
  24. Y. Karunadasa, The Dhamma Theory Philosophical Cornerstone of the Abhidhamma, Buddhist Publication Society Kandy, Sri Lanka, http://www.bps.lk/olib/wh/wh412-p.html
  25. Potter, Buswell, Jaini; Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies Volume VII Abhidharma Buddhism to 150 AD, page 121.
  26. Bodhi, A comprehensive manual of Abhidhamma, page 3.
  27. 27.0 27.1 27.2 27.3 27.4 27.5 Ronkin, Noa, "Abhidharma", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2014/entries/abhidharma/>.
  28. Ven. Rewata Dhamma, Process of Consciousness and Matter: The Philosophical Psychology of Buddhism, chapter 1
  29. K. L. Dhammajoti, Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma, page 24
  30. Siderits, Buddhism as philosophy, 112.
  31. K. L. Dhammajoti, Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma, page 25
  32. Harvey, in his excellent INTRODUCTION TO BUDDHISM, page 87 wrote:
  33. K. L. Dhammajoti, Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma, page32
  34. K. L. Dhammajoti, Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma, page 187-188.
  35. 35.0 35.1 K. L. Dhammajoti, Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma, page 66
  36. Dhammajoti, K.L. Sarvastivada Abhidharma, page 183.
  37. Dhammajoti, K.L. Sarvastivada Abhidharma, page 189-.
  38. 38.0 38.1 Potter, Buswell, Jaini; Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies Volume VII Abhidharma Buddhism to 150 AD, page 114
  39. Potter, Buswell, Jaini; Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies Volume VII Abhidharma Buddhism to 150 AD, page 96
  40. Potter, Buswell, Jaini; Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies Volume VII Abhidharma Buddhism to 150 AD, page 97
  41. 41.0 41.1 Priestley, Leonard; Pudgalavada Buddhist Philosophy; Internet Encyclopedia of philosophy, http://www.iep.utm.edu/pudgalav/
  42. Potter, Buswell, Jaini; Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies Volume VII Abhidharma Buddhism to 150 AD, page 115
  43. K. L. Dhammajoti, Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma, page 259
  44. K. L. Dhammajoti, Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma, page 260
  45. ANKUR BARUA, THE LITERATURE OF THERAVADA ABHIDHAMMA, The Centre of Buddhist Studies, The University of Hong Kong,Hong Kong
  46. Rhys Davids (1914).[page needed]
  47. 47.0 47.1 Gethin 1998, p. 205.
  48. Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies, Vol. VII: Abhidharma Buddhism. Karl H. Potter, editor. Motilal Banarsidarass, 1996. ISBN 81-208-0895-9
  49. "Abhidhamma Pitaka." Encyclopædia Britannica. Ultimate Reference Suite. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2008.
  50. 50.0 50.1 50.2 Walser, Joseph. Nāgārjuna in Context: Mahāyāna Buddhism and Early Indian Culture. 2005. p. 213
  51. 51.0 51.1 Baruah, Bibhuti. Buddhist Sects and Sectarianism. 2008. p. 437
  52. Walser, Joseph. Nāgārjuna in Context: Mahāyāna Buddhism and Early Indian Culture. 2005. pp. 212-213
  53. 53.0 53.1 Gethin 1998, p. 207.
  54. Peter Harvey, "An Introduction to Buddhism." Cambridge University Press, 1993, page 106.
  55. Keenan, John P. (tr). The Scripture on the Explication of the Underlying Meaning. 2000. p. 1
  56. The Korean Buddhist Canon: A Descriptive Catalog (K 966)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  57. Walser, Joseph. Nāgārjuna in Context: Mahāyāna Buddhism and Early Indian Culture. 2005. p. 52
  58. Harris, Ian Charles. The Continuity of Madhyamaka and Yogacara in Indian Mahayana Buddhism. 1991. p. 99
  59. Warder, A.K. Indian Buddhism. 2000. p. 398
  60. 60.0 60.1 Nan, Huai-Chin. Basic Buddhism: Exploring Buddhism and Zen. 1997. p. 91
  61. 61.0 61.1 Nan, Huai-Chin. Basic Buddhism: Exploring Buddhism and Zen. 1997. p. 90
  62. Nan, Huai-Chin. Basic Buddhism: Exploring Buddhism and Zen. 1997. p. 112


  • Cox, Collett (2003). "Abidharma", in: Buswell, Robert E. ed. Encyclopedia of Buddhism, New York: Macmillan Reference Lib. ISBN 0028657187; pp. 1–7.
  • Dutt, Nalinaksha (1978). Buddhist Sects in India, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass
  • Gethin, Rupert (1998), Foundations of Buddhism, Oxford University Press<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Goleman, Daniel (2004). Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama. NY: Bantam Dell. ISBN 0-553-38105-9.
  • Horner, I.B. (1963). The book of discipline Vol. V (Cullavagga), London Luzac.
  • Red Pine (2004). The Heart Sutra: The Womb of the Buddhas, Shoemaker 7 Hoard. ISBN 1-59376-009-4
  • Rhys Davids, Caroline A. F. ([1900], 2003). Buddhist Manual of Psychological Ethics, of the Fourth Century B.C., Being a Translation, now made for the First Time, from the Original Pāli, of the First Book of the Abhidhamma-Piṭaka, entitled Dhamma-Sangaṇi (Compendium of States or Phenomena). Kessinger Publishing. ISBN 0-7661-4702-9. Internet Archive
  • Rhys Davids, Caroline A. F. (1914). Buddhist Psychology: An Inquiry into the Analysis and Theory of Mind in Pali Literature, London: G. Bell and Sons.
  • Takakusu, J. (1905). "On the Abhidhamma books of the Sarvastivadins", Journal of the Pali Text Society, pp. 67–146
  • Trungpa, Chogyam (1975, 2001). Glimpses of Abhidharma: From a Seminar on Buddhist Psychology. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications. ISBN 1-57062-764-9.

Further reading

  • Anālayo, Bhikkhu, The Dawn of Abhidharma, Hamburg Buddhist Studies 2, Hamburg: Hamburg University Press, 2014
  • Kongtrul, Jamgon; Dorje, Gyurme (2013). Indo-Tibetan Classical Learning and Buddhist Phenomenology. The Treasury of Knowledge (book six, parts 1 and 2). Ithaca: Snow Lion. pp. 441–613, 849–874. ISBN 1559393890.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links