Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Abhidhamma Pitaka - Basket of Ultimate Doctrine

Abhidhamma Pitaka / Abhidharma Pitaka - Basket of Ultimate Doctrine

The seven books of the Abhidhamma Pitaka, the third division of the Tipitaka,
offer an extraordinarily detailed analysis of the basic natural principles that
govern mental and physical processes. Whereas the Sutta and Vinaya Pitakas lay
out the practical aspects of the Buddhist path to Awakening, the Abhidhamma
Pitaka provides a theoretical framework to explain the causal underpinnings of
that very path. In Abhidhamma philosophy the familiar psycho-physical universe
(our world of "trees" and "rocks," "I" and "you") is distilled to its essence:
an intricate web of impersonal phenomena and processes unfolding at an
inconceivably rapid pace from moment to moment, according to precisely defined
natural laws.
According to tradition, the essence of the Abhidhamma was formulated by the
Buddha during the fourth week after his Enlightenment.1 Seven years later he is
said to have spent three consecutive months preaching it in its entirety in one
of the deva realms, before an audience of thousands of devas (including his late
mother, the former Queen Maya), each day briefly commuting back to the human
realm to convey to Ven. Sariputta the essence of what he had just taught.2
Sariputta mastered the Abhidhamma and codified it into roughly its present form.
Although parts of the Abhidhamma were recited at the earlier Buddhist Councils,
it wasn't until the Third Council (ca. 250 BCE) that it became fixed into its
present form as the third and final Pitaka of the canon.3
Despite its relatively late entrance into the Canon, the Abhidhamma stands as an
essential pillar of classical Theravada Buddhist thought. Its significance does,
however, vary considerably across regional and cultural boundaries. In Thai
Buddhism, for example, the Abhidhamma (and, for that matter, many of the
Commentaries as well) play a relatively minor role in Buddhist doctrine and
practice. In Sri Lanka and Myanmar (Burma), however, they hold the same
venerated status as the Vinaya and Sutta Pitakas themselves. The modern Burmese
approach to the teaching and practice of Satipatthana meditation, in particular,
relies heavily on an Abhidhammic interpretation of meditative experience.
Regardless of the Abhidhamma's position on the shelf of Buddhist canonical
texts, the astonishing detail with which it methodically constructs a
quasi-scientific model of mind (enough, by far, to make a modern systems
theorist or cognitive scientist gasp in awe), insures its place in history as a
monumental feat of intellectual genius.

The Abhidhamma Pitaka is divided into seven books, although it is the first
(Dhammasangani) and last (Patthana) that together lay out the essence of
Abhidhamma philosophy. The seven books are:

1. Dhammasangani ("Enumeration of Phenomena"). 

This book enumerates all the
paramattha dhamma (ultimate realities) to be found in the world. According to
one such enumeration these amount to:
52 cetasikas (mental factors), which, arising together in various
combination, give rise to any one of...
...89 different possible cittas (states of consciousness)
4 primary physical elements, and 23 physical phenomena derived from them
Availability of English translations:
Buddhist Psychological Ethics, translated from the Pali by C.A.F. Rhys
Davids (Oxford: Pali Text Society, 1900).

2. Vibhanga ("The Book of Treatises"). 

This book continues the analysis of the
Dhammasangani, here in the form of a catechism.
Availability of English translations:
The Book of Analysis, translated from the Pali by Ven. U Thittila (Oxford:
Pali Text Society, 1969).

3. Dhatukatha ("Discussion with Reference to the Elements"). 

A reiteration of the
foregoing, in the form of questions and answers.
Availability of English translations:
Discourse on Elements, translated from the Pali by Ven. U Narada (Oxford:
Pali Text Society, 1962).

4. Puggalapaññatti ("Description of Individuals"). 

Somewhat out of place in the
Abhidhamma Pitaka, this book contains descriptions of a number of
Availability of English translations:
A Designation of Human Types, translated from the Pali by B.C. Law (Oxford:
Pali Text Society, 1922).

5. Kathavatthu ("Points of Controversy"). 

Another odd inclusion in the
Abhidhamma, this book contains questions and answers that were compiled by
Moggaliputta Tissa in the 3rd century BCE, in order to help clarify points of
controversy that existed between the various "Hinayana" schools of Buddhism at
the time.
Availability of English translations:
Points of Controversy, translated from the Pali by S.Z. Aung and C.A.F. Rhys
Davids (Oxford: Pali Text Society, 1915).

6. Yamaka ("The Book of Pairs"). 

This book is a logical analysis of many concepts
presented in the earlier books. In the words of Mrs. Rhys Davids, an eminent
20th century Pali scholar, the ten chapters of the Yamaka amount to little
more than "ten valleys of dry bones."
Availability of English translations: None.

7. Patthana ("The Book of Relations"). 

This book, by far the longest single
volume in the Tipitaka (over 6,000 pages long in the Siamese edition),
describes the 24 paccayas, or laws of conditionality, through which the
dhammas interact. These laws, when applied in every possible permutation with
the dhammas described in the Dhammasangani, give rise to all knowable
Availability of English translations:
Conditional Relations (vol I), translated from the Pali by Ven. U Narada
(Oxford: Pali Text Society, 1969). Part I of the Tika-patthana section of
the Patthana.
Conditional Relations (vol II), translated from the Pali by Ven. U Narada
(Oxford: Pali Text Society, 1981). Part II of the Tika-patthana section of
the Patthana.
A Guide to Conditional Relations, translated from the Pali by Ven. U Narada
(Oxford: Pali Text Society, 1978). An introduction and guide to the first 12
pages (!) of the Patthana.

The Abhidhamma Pitaka has a well-deserved reputation for being dense and
difficult reading. The best way to begin studying Abhidhamma is not to dive
right into its two key books (Dhammasangani and Patthana), but to explore some
of the more modern — and readable — commentarial texts. These will help you get
oriented to the Abhidhamma's challenging terrain:
The Abhidhamma in Practice, by N.K.G. Mendis (Kandy: Buddhist Publication
Society Wheel Publication 322, 1985).
Buddhist Philosophy of Relations, by Ven. Ledi Sayadaw (Wheel publication No.
331; Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1986). An excellent introduction to
the Patthana, the most difficult of the Abhidhamma books, which explains each
of the 24 conditional relations by which the dhammas interact.
Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma, A: The Abhidhamma Sangaha of Acariya
Anuruddha, Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi, ed. (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society,
1993). This book, an expanded treatment of Ven. Narada's classic A Manual of
Abhidhamma (see below), should be required reading for every Abhidhamma
student. It gives a remarkably lucid and insightful overview of Abhidhamma
philosophy. Even if you read no further than the Introduction, your efforts
will be well rewarded.
Dhamma Theory, The: Philosophical Cornerstone of the Abhidhamma, by Y.
Karunadasa (Wheel publication No. 412/413; Kandy: Buddhist Publication
Society, 1996). The Dhamma Theory is the fundamental principle on which the
entire Abhidhamma is based: that all empirical phenomena are made up of a
number of elementary constituents — dhammas — the ultimate realities that lie
behind manifest phenomena. This short book offers a good overview of the
philosophical and analytical methods used in Abhidhamma.
Guide Through the Abhidhamma Pitaka, by Ven. Nyanatiloka Mahathera (Kandy:
Buddhist Publication Society, 1983).
Manual of Abhidhamma, A: The Abhidhammattha Sangaha of Anuruddhacariya (fourth
edition), translated from the Pali by Ven. Narada Maha Thera (Kuala Lumpur:
Buddhist Missionary Society, 1979). Available online at » BuddhaSasana. A
classic work that provides an excellent introduction to the essentials of
Abhidhamma study. Largely superseded by Bhikkhu Bodhi's expanded and more
thoroughly annotated A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma: The Abhidhamma
Sangaha of Acariya Anuruddha (see above) but useful in its compactness.
Psychology and Philosophy of Buddhism, The: An Introduction to the Abhidhamma,
by Dr. W.F. Jayasuriya (Kuala Lumpur: Buddhist Missionary Society, 1988).

1. Handbook of Pali Literature, by Somapala Jayawardhana (Colombo: Karunaratne,
1994), p. 1.
2. From the Atthasalini, as described in Great Disciples of the Buddha, by
Nyanaponika Thera and Hellmuth Hecker (Somerville: Wisdom Publications, 1997),
pp. 45-46.
3. The Katthavatthu, composed during the Third Council, was the final addition
to the Abhidhamma Pitaka. See Guide Through the Abdhidhamma Pitaka, by
Nyanatiloka Mahathera (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1983), p xi.

See also: Dhammasangani, Vibhanga, Dhatukatha, Puggalapannatti, Kathavatthu, Yamaka, Patthana

1 comment:

  1. Abhidhamma Pitaka is one of the most important Buddhist scriptures and one of the early Lord Buddha collection of teachings. It consists of seven different books and contains most of the theoretical knowledge of Buddhism