I had a discussion with a few people recently who have doubts about the veracity of the ancient commentaries and even the Abhidhamma. The only way to develop proper confidence is to learn to see paramattha dhammas as they are. Nonetheless it can be damaging to incipient confidence to hear people refuting these sources. I put together this series of letters on the matter as some may find it edifying. The only name I left on was Cybeles – and she was someone who found it useful to read. It is rather long so don’t bother to read if it is not to your interest.
I think we should not place much confidence in the commentaries. Buddhaghosa and his successor Dhammapala laid the foundations of Theravada, and are basically equivalent to the founders or patriarchsin the other schools, whether or not he is so labeled. Buddhaghosa wrote the commentarial literature of Theravada, and key texts like the Visuddhimagga. Theravada is of course based on the words of the Buddha, but so is every other school. What makes Theravada distinctly Theravada, and not Sarvastivada, for example, are these commentaries and subtexts, which give the Theravada position and emphasis.
As is made clear by Buddhaghosa himself he was an editor and translator of the ancient commentaries, not the originator. Some of these ancient commentaries date back to the time of the Buddha himself and were rehearsed at the first council. Others were added at a later time but still before Buddhaghosa. He took care not to add in his own opinions.
I don’t see how one can possibly know that he did not add in his own opinions.
Buddhaghosa sometimes quotes two ancient teachers, and sometimes three, and notes that there was a minor difference of opinion about some matter. Sometimes Buddhaghosa won’t reach a decision and simply
notes the division. If he does come out in favour of one point he takes pains to let us know that this is only his opinion – the least trustworthy guide, as he notes. He writes (The Visuddhimagga III64) that a teacher “who knows the texts, guards the heritage, and protects the tradition, will follow the teachers’ (the elders)
opinion rather than his own.” I find the commentaries very much in-line with the Tipitika. They help me make sense of it all. That doesn’t make them true though. I think it is hard to prove anything, isn’t it?
May I ask, which of the ancient commentaries were recited at the first council? And what evidence do you have for this?
I found this in the attakattha to the Dhammasangani (first book of the Abhidhamma) the Atthasalini, (from the introductory discourse):
“The ancient commentary therof was sang By the First council, Mahakassapa Their leader, and later again by seers, Mahinda bought it to the peerless isle, Ceylon,..” endquote.
I am not sure, but I believe this is referring to the actual > Dhammasangani[not the commentary].
I asked a friend, who is a pali scholar, to look over the passage in the atthasalini. He wrote that it is indeed a reference to the ancient commentary:
The Pali of verse 13 on page 1 is:
13. Yaa Mahaakassapaadiihi vaasiih’a.t.thakathaa puraa
sa”ngiitaa anusa”ngiitaa pacchaa pi ca isiihi yaa
My translation runs like this:
“The commentary which was earlier recited by the residents beginning with Mahaakassapa and later recited again by the sages also . . .”
This is only part of a long sentence. The mulatika interprets “anusa”ngiitaa” as meaning: recited again at the second and third councils. It is not yet clear to me which commentary was being recited and how much of
it is preserved in the Atthasalini or other texts. I understand that the ancient commentaries were handed down and ended up surviving in Sinhalese texts which Buddhaghosa then restored back into their Pali originals with some editing and cleaning up. I notice that on page 109 at the beginning of part III of The Expositor, there’s a reference to the Great Commentary as the source of the Discourse on Doors but I don’t know if this is the same commentary recited at the first council.
In the Vinayanidaana there is the mentioning of Moggalitissa Thera* (third council) as having learnt the commentaries. *”Whilst yet being a novice, Tissa mastered together with the commentary, the entire word of the Buddha with the exception of the Vinaya Pitaka.”
–transl. N.A. Jayawickrama, Vinayanidaana, VA i p. 41
I find it implausible that even an actual Dhammasangani existed at the time of the first council
considering no mention of it in the first councils account, but only mention of nikaya and vinaya represented by the two arahants Upali and Ananda.
The Attahasalini (expositor) p. 32:
“Which is the Khuddaka Nikaya? The whole of the Vinaya-pitaka, Abhidhamma pitaka and the fifteen divisions excluding the four nikayas” p35 “thus as rehearsed at the [first]council the Abhidhamma is a Pitaka by Pitaka classification, khuddaka -nikaya by Nikaya clasification, veyyakarana by part-classification and constitues two or three thousand units of text by classification of textual units”
“the talk of two Bhikkhus on the Abhidhamma, each asking and answering the other without faltering is in accord with the Dhamma”
Gulissaani Sutta (M 69)
aaraññikenaavuso, bhikkhunaa abhidhamme abhivinaye yogo kara.niiyo “Friends, by a bhikkhu living the forest effort ought to be made in abhidhamma and abhivinaya”
“If without any intention of reviling the Vinaya one were to instigate another saying -‘pray study the suttas or gathas or Abhidhamma first and afterwards learn the vinaya’ there is no offense”
Vinaya iv 344
Why should we believe the old commentaries. Here is an explanation by Ven. Bodhi:
“Though the word cannot refer here to the Pitaka of that name obviously the product of a phase of Buddhist thought later than the Nikayas – it may well indicate a systematic and analytical approach to the doctrine that served as the original nucleus of the Abhidhamma Pitaka. In a careful study of the contexts in which the word ‘Abhidhamma’ occurs in the Sutta Pitakas of several early recensions, the Japanese Pali scholor Fumimaro Watanabe concludes that the Buddha’s own disciples formed the conception of Abhidhamma as an elementary philosophical study that attempted to define, analyse, and classify dhammas and to explore their mutual relations.”
–MN trans. pg. 1225
Yes I saw that by venerable Bodhi. I think he is reckless in saying this. He relies on a present day scholar (fumimaro watanabe of japan). I prefer to accept the words of the ancients. I do not think those of today are more wise.
From the expositor p. 16-17 it notes that the buddha in the 4th week after his enlightenment he contemplated the Dhammasangani (1st section of abhidhamma) “and while he contemplated the
Dhammasangani his body did not emit rays; .. but when it came to the great book (the Patthana of the Abhidhamma) he began to contemplate the 24 conditions..his omniscience found its opportunity therein..”
I have visted the site in Bodhgaya and it is marked by a marble tablet about 20 meters from the site where he sat under the Bodhi tree. I think there will always be those who doubt the Abhidhamma. Nothing can prove it to them. Those who get a glimpse of its truths would feel that only a Buddha could have expounded such a deep teaching. Others feel that it was added in. But they can’t explain when this plot happened; how did it occur?.Saying something is the Buddha’s teaching when it is not is a grave kamma; why wasn’t such a huge lie admonished by other monks. .
Anyway just to show I am not the only person who believes the abhidhamma was rehearsed at the first council here is a part of a text, ABHIDHAMMA AND VIPASSANA, Sitagu Sayadaw:
“The abhidhamma which the venerable Sariputta heard in brief from the Buddha he preached to his five hundred disciples in a way that was neither brief nor extended. The monks who learned the abhidhamma
from the venerable Sariputta were newly ordained, having entered the Order on the day the Buddha ascended to Tavatimsa heaven. These five hundred sons-of good-family took ordination at that time – the
full moon day of Waso – because they were inspired to faith by a display of miracles performed at the foot of a white mango tree. On the following day, they listened to the Abhidhamma; and it was this Abhidhamma which became for those monks their Vipassana.
“And why was this? Those five hundred monks, all of whom became arahants during the rains-retreat of that year (the seventh rains- retreat of the Buddha), also became by the end of the retreat, masters of the seven books of the Abhidhamma (abhidhammika sattapakaranika). The Buddha first assembled the entire Dhamma and taught it all together (as the Dhammasangani). He then analyzed it into separate parts and taught (the Vibhanga). He further analyzed it in detail according to elements (producing thereby, the
Dhatukatha). Again he assembled it together and again analyzed it into minute parts, this time in relation to individuals, (and so taught the Puggalapannati). After that, the Buddha examined and compared the different doctrines existing in the world and taught (the Kathavatthu). Thereupon, he examined and taught the Dhamma in pairs (Yamaka); and finally, taught the doctrine of causal relations in detail (Pathana).
“The seven methods of examining Dhamma presented in the seven books of the Abhidhamma; that is to say, 1) the analysis of mind (citta), mental factors (cetasika) and matter (rupa) when taken together, 2) the analysis of the same when distinguished into parts, 3) the analysis of elements, 4) the analysis of individuals, 5) the comparison of doctrines, 6) the analysis of Dhamma into pairs, and 7) the examination of causal relations, are in truth none other than seven exceedingly deep methods of Vipassana practice. For this reason it can be said that the day the five hundred monks mastered the Abhidhamma – this being the teaching of abhidhamma-vipassana they had listened to since their ordination – was the very day they mastered the practice of Vipassana.” endquote
I have some doubt of the claim above, regarding the fifth book “Kathavatthu”. I thought that book was written by Ven Moggalana Tissa in King Asoka’s period, and the various doctrines
mentioned in it appeared long after the Buddha’s Parinibbana.
Glad to see your interest. This may ease your doubts. The Atthasalini explains that when it came to the Kathavatthu the Buddha forsaw the future misintepretations that would arise. The Buddha then “laid down a table of contents in a text not quite as long as one recital, to be adopted in all the discourse”. Thus
it wasn’t complete until the great arahant Tissa(mogali’s son) expanded it at the third council. It had to wait until that time to be completed as many of the wrong ideas didn’t come about until then.
These explanations in the Atthasalini make me laugh considering the Buddha taught according to present situations. Do the commentaries ever admit that they don’t know the origin of a text?
Laughter can arise with lobha-mula citta one of the interesting distinctions explained in the Abhidhamma. I see where your doubt lies: I gave such a terse note that it must look dubious. Here is more from the atthasalini. The Buddha “laid down a table of contents in a text not quite as long as one recital, to be adopted in all the discourses.: Is the person known in the sense of real and ultimate fact? nay that cannot be. Acknowledge your refutation. Is the person unknown in the same way as any real and ultimate fact
is known? Nay it cannot be. Acknowledge your refutation.”” It carries on and repeats different questions in eight different aspects. In fact I think the section they are attributing directly to the Buddha is fairly brief.
Knowing this it doesn’t seem surprising that the Buddha should have taught it in expectation of future wrong views challenging the Dhamma. Few, of course, could never have expanded it in the beautiful way (or any way) that mogalitissa did – he was an arahant with the four discriminations.
I think we must inquire into the truth about things not just have faith.
I couldn’t agree more with your last sentence. How to inquire though. We can never prove by textual evidence that the Abhidhamma was the Buddhas word. But can we prove that the suttanta was either? Can we even prove that the Buddha wasn’t just a legend- maybe the whole Tipititka was just a hodge-podge of different ideas and stories.
I think the only way to develop confidence in the veracity of the Abhidhamma and commentaries is by studying the details and testing them against the dhammas that are arising now in daily life. In other words ‘inquiring into the truth of things’ as you put it. Vipassana is a bit of a catch-phrase these days but it is nothing other than Abhidhamma – seeing paramattha dhammas as they are. Historical studies may help if they encourage us to want to prove the abhidhamma directly; or they may hinder if we accept the words
of such scholars as von Hinuber (who say it was just a later addition).
Ultimately only profound, direct experience can prove the truth of the Tipitaka, but even so it is clear
Dear zh and Howard,
I am trying to establish all the reasons why you believe Abhidhamma is a later invention after the Buddha passed away. ZH wrote: “I live near a monk who also said that the Abhiddhama are not said by the Buddha although consists teachings of Buddhism. He said there are some contradictions in it with the early four Nikayas. I didn’t ask him what are the contradictions since I am not so familiar with the four Nikayas myself. I think many Theravadins have these opinions too”
So the reasons so far:
1. A monk says Abhidhamma contradicts the teachings in the sutta pitaka, specifically it contradicts the first 4 Nikayas. Howard, however doesn’t say that and in fact feels that the Abhidhamma is in agreement with the sutta pitaka.
2. Many Theravadans believe that the Abhidhamma is not the Buddha’s word.
3. Some modern scholars, including hermeneutics experts, have said they think the Abhidhamma is a later addition.
4. The style of the Abhidhamma is much more formalistic than the sutta pitaka so is likely not to be by the same person who taught the suttas.
5. The commentaries say it was first preached in a deva realm and that sounds like a fairy story.
Is that a fair summary and are there any other reasons? I would ask zh what specifically in the 4 nikayas the Abhidhamma contradicts but he has modestly stated that he is not sure. Does anyone else have any specific points where they think this is so?If this is all the reasons please let me know and I will give my reasons for not being convinced by them. I note that so far Howard has agreed with me that within the sutta pitaka there are very different presentations of the Dhamma- which seems to weaken point #4 objection.
Hi, Robert –
1. A monk says Abhidhamma contradicts the teachings in the sutta pitaka, specicificaly it contradicts the first 4 Nikayas. Howard, however doesn’t say that and in fact feels that the Abhidhamma is in agreement with the sutta pitaka.
Yes, but Howard is a self-confessed non-expert on the Abhidhamma and especially on the subtleties of possible incompatibilities it might have with the Sutta Pitaka.
Many Theravadans believe that the Abhidhamma is not the Buddha’s word.
Well, of course that establishes nothing. Many people believe many things.
5. The commentaries say it was first preached in a deva realm and that sounds like a fairy story.
Is that a fair summary and are there any other reasons? I would ask zhihuihe what specifically in the 4 nikayas the Abhidhamma contradicts but he has modestly stated that he is not sure. Does anyone else have any specific points where they think this is so? If this is all the reasons please let me know and I will give my reasons for not being convinced by them.
I look forward to being convinced by you! I would be quite pleased should you succeed.
has agreed with me that within the sutta pitaka there are different presentations of the Dhamma- which seems to weaken
point #4 objection.
Well, actually I suppose I have some questions about the authorship of the Jataka Tales as well! They were probably a copyright violation of Aesop’s Fables! ;-))
More on Abhidhamma authenticity. As Will rightly noted the whole of the Dhamma fits together and different portions complement each other. In the beginning of learning about Dhamma you probably remember that it was hard to grasp where different pieces fit in. We soon learn about the 4 noble truths but what do they really mean?
There are different levels of understanding in theory and practice. To properly comprehend the first noble truth of suffering (which is so much more than merely painful feeling or existential angst) there has to be insight into many actual dhammas – and that is not easy; in the beginning we don’t even understand what dhammas are, which is nama (mental phenomena), which is rupa (physical phenomena). The Abhidhamma precisely and clearly explains each of these in different ways. One can test it and see that the world – i.e. what is appearing at the 6 doors– is exactly what is taught there. Will noted in the end it doesn’t matter who taught it and this is so– it is the truth, the actuality of things as they are. It could not be surpassed and that is why it is called Abhi – higher or ultimate – Dhamma, truth.
I find the whole of the Tipitaka and commentaries fit and complement each other so well. I have no problem believing in deva realms – why should there not be other realms where beings dwell inside or outside the universe we see? Nevertheless, It wouldn’t worry me if they weren’t real as the Abhidhamma in particular is focussed on understanding the world as we experience it in this fathom length body. Even the Jatakas I find useful and don’t doubt their validity – I often read them as a counterpart to the Abhidhamma as they pertain to our daily life. For instance, I was just thinking over the story of the Bodhisatta when he was born as a powerful snake. He had taken a vow not to kill and when some boys speared him and carried him to their homes he endured the pain patiently – he could have killed them all easily. I often get impatient while waiting in lines, at the bank for instance, but if I remember such stories at those times it always conditions patience (if a snake can endure so much why should I get annoyed over a trifle). Is the story true? I don’t know – how could we know? But I don’t doubt it.
You wrote that you felt the Abhidhamma is like the later Mahayana because the commentaries say it was first preached in the Tavitimsa deva world. This sounds like a fairy story and so you doubt the whole of the Abhidhamma – one of the three baskets of the Tipitaka. You say you don’t doubt the Sutta Pitaka(or not much); but you know right throughout the sutta pitaka (and not just in the commentaries to them) there are examples of devas and Brahma gods visiting the Buddha or the Buddha visiting them. If you doubt the Abhidhamma for this reason shouldn’t the sutta pitaka come under the same cloud?
It is true that in the recent times many scholars have called into question the authenticity of the Abhidhamma. I see this as a stain and a cancer on the life of the Dhamma. In past times the Abhidhamma was held in the highest regard even the crowning point of the Dhamma, among the faithful of Theravada. King Kassapa V in Sri Lanka had the entire Abhidhamma Pitaka inscribed ongold plates while the first book was also covered in gems, and king Vijayabahu used to study it each morning and translated the Dhammasangani from Pali into Singhalese. In fact there is much Abhidhamma already in the Sutta pitaka – just look at the 4th book of the Samyutta nikaya, for instance, or some of the Anguttara nikaya – thus the idea that the Abhidhamma is radically different from the sutta pitaka is not really true. In the sutta pitaka there are many teachings about the five aggregates (the khandas), the twelve senseBases (ayatanas), the eighteen elements (dhatus); but they are explained more thoroughly in the Abhidhamma Pitaka and this is
very helpful, as it shows us what is real and thus what can be an object for satipatthana vipassana. Does everyone need to study Abhidhamma? I don’t know but I do know that we live in a world of concept and story and self. The Abhidhamma, if applied correctly, brings us to see another world –and in that world there is only evanescent, conditioned phenomena: the noble truth of dukkha. Thus the function of Abhidhamma is to break down the idea of self. Who but a Buddha could teach such a doctrine. No one can prove the Abhidhamma is the Buddha’s word, nor can they prove the Suttas or Vinaya are BuddhaVaca. What they can do is find out whether the Abhidhamma applies to the dhammas that are arising and falling away at this moment. If they can do so any doubts or questions as to whether it came before or after the Buddha become nongermane. Howard, I’m very happy to write more and answer in more detail and queries, doubts or disagreements you have here (and anyone else who is reading).
A few years ago I tried reading the Abhidhamma but I kept falling asleep from boredom (another reason why it was taught in the deva-realm – their ability to stay awake 🙂 But hearing you constantly espouse the virtues of this body of work has aroused my curiousity again. I can understand how the detailed elucidation of all the permutations of sensory/mental/physical phenomena can help break down the notion of a “self”, but besides this what other aspects of the abhidhamma do you find particularly valuable? Is there a cliff notes version of it I can read? I don’t have the stamina or leisure time of a deva at the moment. While I do keep a very open mind on the possible benefits of studying the abhidhamma, I fail to get any benefit from the Jataka Tales. I think it’s very easy for people to get wrong messages from them, and as far as I can recall it doesn’t demonstrate any of the unique and outstanding characteristics of the Buddha’s teachings that clearly separate him from all other spiritual traditions.
Careful- any more messages like that and I might write even more praise of the Abhidhamma! Seriously though I appreciate your interest; the reason I took the time to reply to Howard was:
1). I know Howard really considers the Dhamma deeply and is willing to be swayed in his ideas if he sees benefits in anything.
2.) on this list there are several, even numerous, members who wonder about Abhidhamma
and are ready to take the time to delve into it. Firstly, it has to be admitted that initially it seems as
exciting as counting dust motes. All those classifications and so many repetitions – it has put me to sleep on many a restless night.
There are seven books in the Abhidhamma. The first one- the Dhammasangani, (translated by Mrs. Rhys Davids) is the easiest to read and can be studied without too many problems. They get increasingly harder (the khatuvattu no problem to read, though) until the final book – The Patthana, (translated by Narada thera) is so difficult and repetitious that even the brave give up. It is, however, also the most important and profound as it details the numerous interwoven conditions that arise at any moment. We can’t just jump in and fathom it though. That is why in days past (and perhaps still to this day in Burma) novice monks began with the Abhidhammattha-sangaha , a concise and very accurate summary of the Abhidhamma. There is a copy on the web at
Once getting through that there is a superb book – Abhidhamma in Daily Life by Nina van Gorkom recently put on the web at
This book helps one to see that the Abhidhamma should not be studied like an academic subject. The different classifications are there to direct us to the varieties of phenomena arising at the 6 doors and to
see them with regard to characteristic, manisfestation, function, and cause(s). The ancient commentaries are very helpful too – the Expositor and Dispeller of delusion (both from PTS) The Abhidhamma brings in all aspects of nama (mind) and rupa (matter). It includes the 4 noble truths, because the khandas (
the aggregates ) are the truth of suffering; while the kilesa, defilements are samudaya sacca (the truth of the cause of suffering). The path to the end of dukkha (suffering) – satipatthana vipassana-
is nothing other than uncovering, studying directly, and dissecting in the present moment all the different phenomena detailed in the Abhidhamma. It includes all the teachings on kamma because kamma-pacccaya is one of the conditions elucidated in the Patthana, and it goes into more detail on this condition than in the suttas. The paticcasamupada (dependent origination) is fantastically hard to comprehend even at the theoretical level but the Patthana(last book of Abhidhamma) sheds much light on this teaching too. Sila (morality) samatha (concentration) and panna(wisdom) at different levels are explained in the Abhidhamma. Thus it complements and adds to the truths contained in the Sutttanta pitaka. It is not easy to study Abhidhamma and we should keep uppermost the purpose – to assist us to penetrate this moment and separate concept from reality. There are dangers: one can get carried away in metaphysical abstractions; or become conceited over ones mere theoretical knowledge; or stressed because one tries to realize what
one is not yet ready to know. It is not a short cut to wisdom – but I believe it was taught by the Buddha as our guide, just as much as the rest of the Tipitaka was and is.
On the Jatakas. I think you are probably right that the deeper aspects of Buddhism are missing from them. Nevertheless, kamma is a theme that runs through every story – and if we can see the depth of kamma: that each moment is conditioned, then the Jatakas teach us well.
Now you are lost!!! Condemned. I am already visualizing you eagerly reading and studying the Abhidhamma along the beaches of San Diego. Robert has enticed me as well; he is a true brainwasher believe me! Give it a try and also you will discover something very meaningful; promise I am not his special agent, just sharing. 🙂
Love and respectCybele
Hi, Robert –
I agree with Will as well. Whatever presents the Dhamma well and faithfully is good and useful. I value the Abhidhamma highly, and I certainly do not disparage the Jataka Tales. I simply am not convinced with
regard to the (relatively unimportant) issue of the authorship of them. I far more strongly doubt that the Buddha authored the Mahayana Sutras, though I value many of them quite highly as well. BTW, I have no problem with heaven realms or any of the other realms of experience or in devas visiting this realm. I
tend to be much more of a “believer” on these issues than not.
It is simply my suspicion (prejudice? 😉 that the story was concocted to add authenticity. I could, of course, be totally wrong! My main reasons for suspecting that the Abhidhamma Pitaka was the creation of scholar-
monks is that it really is quite different in tone and style, and that modern “experts” are rather sure that it was created during a 650-year period following the death of the Buddha. It certainly is an amazing piece of work, in any case.
So finally on this issue we are fairly close. Just to add some more: I think the difference in presentation and tone of the Abhidhamma is understandable–why shouldn’t Dhamma be presented in various ways- and that is indeed why it was given its own basket in the Tipitaka. It’s length partly explains why it was first preached to the the Buddha’s mother and the other devas.
Excuse my disrespect to modern scholars but I don’t see that it was figured out by monks over several centuries because
1) It hasthe stamp of single mind.
2) Who but the Buddha could have fathomed the Abhidhamma.
3) There would have had to be a lengthy plot involving hundreds of monks actively lying and claiming that it was the Buddha Dhamma when it wasn’t – and that is heavy kamma. I don’t get that feeling about the ancient monks and nuns of Theravada. It is of course immaterial who taught it if we can apply it and see
That is why in days past (and perhaps still to this day in Burma) novice monks began with the Abhidhammattha-sangaha , a concise and very accurate summary of the Abhidhamma. There is a copy on theweb. . .Once getting through that there is a superb book “Abhidhamma in Daily Life” by Nina van Gorkom
This book helps one to see that the Abhidhamma should not be studied
like an academic subject.
Agreed. Those 2 books are essential for beginners. In fact, in my experience, most of the ordinary lay Buddhists and monastics do not read the original 7 volumes of the Abhidhamma, but only read and study Ven Anuruddha’s Abhidhammattha Sangaha book (in various formats).
(BTW, I’m working on Nina’s Abhidhamma book to upload to my BuddhaSasana website. It was also the first book I used to study the subject several years ago …)
Also from Robert:
It is not easy to study Abhidhamma and we should keep uppermost the purpose to assist us to penetrate this moment and separate concept from reality. There are dangers: one can get carried away in metaphysical abstractions; or become conceited over ones mere theoretical knowledge; or stressed because one tries to realize what one is not yet ready to know. It is not a short cut to wisdom but I believe it was taught by the Buddha as our guide, just as much as the rest of the Tipitaka was and is.
This is a reply by Dr. Maung Lwin to some comments made on another list about Suan’s post on Abhidhamma. Thought you might be interested.
All three parts of the Tipitaka (Vinaya, Suttanta and Abhidhamma) can be a valuable source of knowledge, inspiration and encouragement to the practice. As one learns deeper, he or she will become clearer on the Teachings of the Buddha presented in these 3 different parts.
Let us go back to the period around the Enlightenment of the Buddha who preached the first two Sermons to his former 5 Companions. In the First Discourse called DHAMMACAKKAPPAVATTANA SUTTA, the Buddha
explained that the 5 constituent groups of existence, which are the objects of clinging, are Suffering: this is clearly Abhidhamma.
The Second Sermon, ANATTA LAKKHANA SUTTA is also Abhidhamma, dealing with corporeality, sensation, perception, kamma activities and consciousness, and the 11 different distinctions of each Aggregate.
The Buddha then continued delivering discourse after discourse.
It was recorded that in his 7th year of ministry, the Buddha went up to the world of the Devas to teach them the entire Abhidhamma. He also taught his Chief Disciple Venerable Sariputta who passed on to five hundred newly ordained monks. They became masters of the seven books of the Abhidhamma; i.e., Dhammasangani (the entire Dhamma is assembled and taught all together), Vibhanga (analysis into separate parts), Dhatukatha ( further analysis into detail according to elements), Puggalapannati ( Analysis into minute parts in relation to individuals), Kathavatthu (about the different doctrines existing in the world), Yamaka (Analysis of the Dhamma in pairs) and finally, Pathana (the doctrine of causal relations). All became arahants during the rains-retreat of that year.
So it is very likely that Abhidhamma may cover all discourses in Suttanta Pitaka. In the latter, Dhamma is explained to different people at different places. As regards the Abhidhamma, it is the exposition of everything which is real without reference to individuals. The understanding of ultimate reality form the back ground of Insight Meditation, Vipassana.
It was often said (as Robert has mentioned) that a Bhikkhu who knew Abhidhamma was a true preacher of the Dhamma as he could understand correctly and avoid confusion for himself and his devotees.
As lay followers, we still need to supplement our knowledge of Buddhism by reading the discourses written in conventional terms in Suttanta Pitaka. It is much more enjoyable to read the suttas. But with a knowledge of he Abhidhamma, the sutta discourses of the Buddha can be understood in their full and proper meaning. So it is the ‘recommended’ route. This better understanding of theory (pariyatti) will encourage us to practice (patipatti) towards the realization of the truth (pativedha).
So to go back to the original question and conclude, I think, “Abhidhamma is the Buddha’s Basic Teaching which is given in the form of various discourses to different people at different time and locations (Suttas), often repeatedly on the same dhamma issue on different occasions.”
Some quotes from the Sutta Pitaka and Vinaya:
The Abhidhamma in the Vinaya. (Vin, 1V,344):
“If without any intention of reviling the Vinaya one were to instigate another, saying, Pray study the Suttas or Gathas or Abhidhamma first and afterwards you will learn the Vinaya – there is no offence in him,”
In the Bhikkhuni Vibhanga Vin,1V,344
( “A bhikkhuni is guilty of a minor offence) if she questions on the Abhidhamma or Vinaya after getting permission (to question) on the Suttanta, or on the Suttanta or Vinaya after getting permission (to question) on the Abhidhamma, or on the suttanta or Abhidhamma after getting permission (to question) on the Vinaya.”
Sanghadisesa VII, in the Book of Discipline, PTS, translated by I.B. Horner:
“Then the venerable Dabba, the Mallian, being so chosen, assigned one lodging in the same place for those monks who belonged to the same company. For those monks who knew the Suttantas he assigned a lodging in the same place, saying: “These will be able to chant over the Suttantas to one another.” For those monks versed in the Vinaya rules, he assigned a lodging in the same place, saying: “They will decide upon the Vinaya with one another.” For those monks teaching dhamma he assigned a lodging in the same place, saying: “They will discuss dhamma [in the actual Pali this is specified as ABHIDHAMMA] with one another.”
Sutta: The Mahagosinga sutta (MN 1, 218) Mahamoggalana said,
Brother Sariputta, in the religion the talk of two bhikkhus on the ABHIDHAMMA, each asking and answering the other without faltering, is in accord with the Dhamma. Now such a bhikkhu, brother Sariputta, might enhance the beauty of the Gosinga Sala Forest. ”
There are other references to the Abhidhamma in the sutta pitaka too. Petavatthu:
“at that time the Buddha the exalted one was residing on the Pandukambala stone at the foot of the great coral tree in tavimtimsa (deva world) [expounding the abhidhamma] At that time devas and brahmas of the 10,00 fold universe held a meeting and approached the buddha.
Buddhavamsa(about past buddha’s):
1. Dipankara Buddha:
“at the time when dipankara Buddha expounded the Dhamma in the tavitimsa world 90,000 crores of devas and brahmas realised the four noble truths…”
It repeats for several other buddhas.
Also the Abhidhamma pitaka can be called different names: In the Atthasalini it says
“Thus as rehearsed at the (first)council, the Abhidhamma is Pitaka by Pitaka classification, Khuddaka-Nikaya by Nikaya classification, Veyyakarana by part classification and constitutes two or three thousand untis of text by the classification of textual units”.
Sometimes you will read suttas where the Buddha refers to those bhikkhus who are skilled in the veyyakarana – and this may refer to the Abhidhamma.
In the end I think historical studies can’t satisfy us. We have to look at the Abhidhamma in depth to understand why it has been held up as the word of the Buddha, to see why it must have been the province of omnniscient wisdom.
The Abhidhamma was taught by the Buddha to his mother and a myriad of other devas in the Tavitimsa deva world, it was not something to be revealed later. While he was teaching in the Deva world he also – by means of a created double – taught Sariputta (a human). Sariputta then taught his 500 students who all became arahant upon completion. It was not kept only for later times and was very much a part of the
Dhamma while the Buddha was alive.
From the atthasalini:
“The textual order of the Abhidhamma originated with Sariputta; the numerical series in the Great Book was also determined by him. In this way the elder, without spoiling the unique doctrine, laid down the numerical series in order to make it easy to learn, remember, study and teach the Law. Such being the case, was the elder the very first to understand the Abhidhamma? Nay, it was the supreme Buddha who first understood the Abhidhamma….”
It is very natural that many doubt the Abhidhamma. Even less than 300 hundred years after the Buddha died there was a sect called the Sautrantikas who believed only the Sutta and vinya were the original word of the Buddha. They said that there was no Tipitaka but only a Dvipitaka. (ti means three and dvi two). By the nature of the sasana the respect with which the Abhidhamma is held (and the understanding of it) will continue to diminish the further away from the parinibbana of the Buddha. Until finally the last section of the Abhidhamma, the Patthana will disapear and be heard no more until the next Buddha sasana. For now it is still available and I believe it well rewards those who contemplate it.
We read in the Atthasalini how when the Buddha first contemplated the Patthana in the seventh week after his attainment of supreme enlightenment:
“Rays of six colours -indigo, golden, red, white, tawny, and dazzling – issued from the Teacher’s body, as he was contemplating the subtle and abstruse Law by his omniscience which had found such opportunity” when he “began to contemplate the twenty- four universal causal relations of condition, of presentation, and so on….”.
Sarah Abbott (S) writes:
Hi RobM (and Geoff)
You place alot of credence on the historians’ approach to Dhamma until you reach the Suttanta and thereafter it becomes “a slippery slope”. I wonder where the slippery slope truly begins?
S: A good question and I have a few more slippery slope questions for RobM & Geoff:-).
1. It seems that many of your arguments to indicate that none of the Abhidhamma was recited at the First Council is based on a rejection of the accounts of the First Council given in the ancient commentaries, such as in the commentary to the Vinaya, the commentary to the Dhammasangani and so on. Also, of course, you’re rejecting the accounts given in the oldest historical accounts (eg the Mahavamsa) and instead relying on modern historical accounts. Yet, you (and many modern scholars) use the same ancient commentaries to understand the Abhidhamma (eg commentary to the Vibhanga as RobM mentioned) or to get detail when it suits. This truly seems rather a slippery one.
2. You seem to rely on the fact that Mahayana texts exclude the Abhidhamma from their accounts of the First Council. What would happen if you found that some of the Mahayana sources do say the Abhidhamma was recited at the First Council?
This is from Geiger’s introduction to his translation of the ‘Mahavamsa’ (PTS). The Mahavamsa is the very ancient chronicle of Sri Lanka which gives details of the First Council in conformity with the commentaries
“Among the Northern Buddhist sources dealing with the first Council I mention the Mahavastu. Here, in agreement with the southern tradition Kasyapa is given as the originator of the coucil, the number of the bhiksus taking part is stated to be 500 and the place the aptaparna grotto near Rajagrha.
“There is, besides, an account in the second volume of the Dulva, the Tibetan Vinaya of the Sarvastivadin sect. The fixing of the canon took place, according to this source, in the following order: 1) Dharma, by Ananda; 2)Vinaya, by Upali; 3)Matrka (i.e.Abhidarma) by Mahakasyapa himself…..
“Fa-hian and Hiuen-thsang also mention the First Council. The former gives the number of the bhiksus a 500, the latter as 1,000; the former speaks in a general way of ‘a collection of sacred books’, the latter expressly mentions also the redaction of the Abhidharma by Mahakasyapa.”
to be contd
Sarah Abbott (S) writes:
3. You’ve made various comments about different styles of different texts In the Abhidhamma Pitaka and between these and the suttas and so on. Isn’t this just as true of different parts of the Suttanta?
If instead, we appreciate that the key is in the uniformity of meaning or Dhamma taught, then these problems don’t arise.
The different styles of texts and details (and many other points raised) are clearly addressed in the commentaries. For example at the end of the chapter in the Bahiranidana (introductory chapter to the
Sammantapaasaadikaa.,Vinaya commentary, translated by N.A, Jayawickrama, PTS),it says:
“Thus, this word of the Buddha which is uniform in sentiment taken as a whole (without division), and consists of such divisions as the Dhamma and the Vinaya in the divisions such as those into two and so forth, has been laid down as, “This is the Dhamma and this is the Vinaya, these are the first, intermediate, and final sayings of the Buddha, these are the Vinaya, Sutta, and Abhidhamma Pitakas, these are the Nikayas from Digha to Khuddaka, these are the nine angas commencing with sutta and these are the
84,000 Units of the Dhamma,” was rehearsed together by the assembly of self-controlled monks with Mahakassapa as their leader verily observing this distinction.
“And not only this, but other divers distinctions in compilation to be met in the three Pitakas, such as the stanzas containing lists of contents, the arrangement into chapters, noting down the repetitions, and the
classification into kindred sections of ones, twos, and so forth, that into groups of kindred topics, and into group of fifties and so forth, have been determined when it was rehearsed together in seven months..”
4. Geoff recently quoted from the ‘Alagadduupama Sutta’. The simile of the snake starts with these lines (Nanamoli/Bodhi translation).
“Here, bhikkhus, some misguided men learn the Dhamma – discourses, stanzas, expositions, verses, exclamations, sayings, birth stories, marvels, and answers to questions – but having learned the Dhamma, they do not examine the meaning of those teachings with wisdom.”
So what is included here within the Dhamma are (from the Pali):
“sutta, geyya, veyyakarana, gatha, udana, itivuttaka, jataka, abbhutadhamma, and vedalla.”
In other words, these are the same 9 angas as mentioned above in the commentary to the Vinaya.
The same list is given in many other suttas. Before we reject the Abhidhamma as being included in the Dhamma Vinaya’, shouldn’t we consider what these terms refer to, especially if this is a sutta being used to help make the point? In fact, in this classification, the Abhidhamma is included in the veyyakarana. All the Pitakas are included in the 9 angas as clarified in the point above.
To elaborate further on the meaning of Dhamma Vinaya and two-fold and three-fold classifications as Geoff has been referring to this topic.
From the same section of the commentary to the Vinaya:
“How is it twofold as the dhamma and the vinaya? All this, in its entirety, is reckoned as the dhamma and the Vinaya. Herein the Basket of the Discipline is the Vinaya, the rest of the word of the Buddha is the Dhamma. Hence was it stated: “Let us, friends, rehearse the Dhamma and the Vinaya,” and: I shall question Upali on the Vinaya and Ananda on the dhamma.” Thus it is twofold as the Dhamma and the Vinaya.’
A little later we read:
“How is it threefold according to the Pitakas? Indeed, all this, in its entirety, has the three divisions as the Vinaya-pitaka, the suttantapitaka, and the Abhidhammapitaka. Therein, having brought together all that has been both rehearsed and not at the First convocation, both Patimokkha, the two Vibhanga, the 22 Khandhaka, and the 16 Parivara, it is called the Vinayapitaka.
“The collection of the 34 suttas beginning with Brahmajala called the Dighanikaya, that of 152 sutta beginning with Mulapariyaya called the Majjhimanikaya, that of 7,762 suttas beginning with Oghataranasutta called the Samyuttanikaya, that of 9.557 suttas beginning with the Cittapariyadanasutta, called the Anguttaranikaya, and the Khuddakanikaya consisting of the 15 works: Khuddakapatha, Dhammapada, Udana, Itivuttaka, Suttanipata, Vimanavatthu, Petavatthu, Thera and Therigatha, Jataka, Niddesa, Patisambhida, Apadana, Buddhavamsa, and Cariyapitaka, are called Suttantapitaka.
Dhammasangani, Vibhanga, dhatukatha, Puggalapannatti, Kathavattu, Yamaka, and Patthana constitute the Abhidhammapitaka.”
S: Of course, there is a lot more detail yet. Flimsy evidence? It depends how one reads it and what one places reliance on – such fine detail as given by the ancient commentators or modern historical scholarship.
to be contd.
Sarah Abbott writes:
As we know, often the Buddha gave a sutta in concise language and left one of his chief disciples to elaborate. So should these commentaries by Ananda, Sariputta, Mahakaccayana and others be excluded from the Sutta Pitaka? What about such commentaries that were in the Sutta Pitaka and were then taken out and put in other sections, such as the Sacca Vibhanga which was put in the Abhidhamma Pitaka? Or what about entire commentaries that have always been incorportate with the suttas themselves? Again Malalasekera in ‘The Pali Literature of Ceylon’ elaborates on this theme:
“When later the text of the canon came to be compiled, arranged, and edited, some of the expositions found their way into the Pitakas and were given a permanent place therein. Thus we have the Sangiti-suttanta of the Digha Nikaya, ascribed to Sariputta and forming a complete catechism of terms and passages of exegetical nature. Such was also the Sacca-vibhanga (an exposition of the four Noble Truths) of the Majjhima, which later found its proper place in the second book of the Abhidhamma-Pitaka, and
also the Madhu-pindika-sutta of Maha-Kaccayana, included in the Majjhima Nikaya.
“It sometimes happened that for a proper understanding of the text, explanations of a commentarial nature were quite essential; and in such cases the commentary was naturally incorporated into the text and formed part of the text itself…….Then there is the Niddesa, a whole book of commentary on texts now included in the Sutta-nipata; and there are passages clearly of a commentarial nature scattered throughout the Nikayas.”
Of course, the slippery slope line of thinking goes on forever. Geoff, you said you don’t see much of the Buddha’s insight in the Abhidhamma and therefore it’s not surprising that you don’t consider the Abhidhamma to be ‘Dhamma Vinaya’.
Only when there’s an appreciation of the ‘conformity of sentiment’ in the Pali Canon as carefully preserved by the Theravada tradition will there be any real confidence that perhaps the ancient commentators may have known and expounded accurately according to the sentiment of ‘Buddha vacana’.
Rob, finally, on the question of whether Anuruddha was the first to start an Abhidhamma treatise with the fourfold divisions of paramattha dhammas and so on, Malalasekera refers to various sources in ‘The Pali Literature of Ceylon’ to give more detail about the commentaries compiled by Buddhadatta, as mentioned in the introduction to CMA.
He was a contemporary of Buddhaghosa’s according to accounts of a meeting between them. One of Buddhadatta’s main works was the ‘Abhidhammaavataara’ in which the Abhidhamma commentary is summarised. Both compilers drew their material from the same sources. Buddhadatta ‘opens his scheme with the fourfold division of the Compendium: mind, mental properties, material quality, and Nibbana.’ So, neither the content nor the structural style of the Abhidhamma as given by Anuruddha in the Abhidhammattha Sangaha were new as I understand.
According to Malalasekera ‘the work (‘Abhidhammaavataara’) has been held in high esteem from ancient times and is extensively used both in Ceylon and in Burma’. (‘This and the Ruupaaruupavibhaaga form two of the nine classical summaries of the Abhidhamma in Burma.)
Many thanks for all your detailed posts. I’ll look forward to further comments as usual:).
I would like to discuss the point you bring up:
“It is because the Sutra Pitaka was completed so early that all the Abhidharma schools possessed the same Sutra Pitaka, but different Abhidharma Pitakas.”
quote from Kalupahana, Buddhist Philosophy.
I find this rather simplistic. I am no scholar of buddhist history but what little I have examined of the various schools suggests there are differences not only in the Abhidhamma but also in many sections of the sutta pitaka (some suttas are almost the same but there are thousands of suttas and they certainly aren’t all identical). Moreover, if we compare the Abhidhamma of some of the very early sects we can find a few ideas which are very similar. I do agree that there are critical differences bewteen the schools but I think this is understandable because of the precision of the Abhidhamma. The suttas can sometimes be interpreted in several ways because it is vohara -vaca (conventional speech) whereas the Abhidhamma leaves less room (because it is detailed and deals in paramattha sacca)for this. Any school that wanted support for non-orthodox views would have had to change the Abhidhamma substantially.
RobertK wrote in part: (Apr 26 2006, 07:57 AM post#2)……
…………….That is why in days past (and perhaps still to this day in Burma) novice monks began with the Abhidhammattha-sangaha , a concise and very accurate summary of the Abhidhamma. There is a copy on the web at
just a quick update on the URL above which returns a “404 not found” error.
The new web address appears to be:
Thank you for presenting this discussion on the origins and authenticity of Abhidhamma texts. It is most helpful.
Dear pt & all,
Here is the full quote from the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, from which the extracts
From the beginning of part 6 of the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, the last words of the
Buddha, transl. by Sister Vajiraa and Francis Story (BPS):
“Now, the Blessed One spoke to the venerable Aananda saying: ‘It may be,
Aananda, that to some among you the thought will come: ‘Ended is the word of the
Master; we have a Master no longer.’ But it should not, Aananda, be so
considered. For that which I have proclaimed and made known as the Dhamma and
the Discipline, that shall be your Master when I am gone.”
From the commentary to the last sentence above, taken from the beginning of Ch
VI, Commentary on the Mahaaparinibbaana Sutta, transl. by Yang-Gyu An (PTS) in
“The Buddha’s Last Days”:
” ‘That which was taught and made known (pa~n~natta)’: The Dhamma is both taught
and made known. The Vinaya is also both taught and made known. ‘Made known’
means set up, established.
‘That is your teacher, after I am gone’: The Dhamma and the Vinaya are your
teacher after I am gone. While I remained alive, I taught you: ‘This is slight
(lahuka); this is serious (garuka); this is curable (satekiccha); this is
incurable (atekiccha); this is what is to be avoided by the world (loka-vajja);
this is what is to be avoided by specific precept (pa~n~natti-vajja); this
offence (aapatti) is removable in the presence of an individual (puggala) this
offence is removable in the presence of a group (ga.na); this offence is
removable in the presence of the Order (sa”ngha).’ Thus concerning the subject
matter handed down as seven groups of offences (aapatti-kkhandha), I have taught
what is called the Vinaya: the Khandhaka, the Parivaara and the two Vibha”ngas.
All of that, the basket of the Vinaya, will perform the role of Teacher for you
when I attain parinibbaana.
“And during my life, I have taught these: the four foundations of mindfulness
(satipa.t.thaana), the four right efforts (sammapphadhaana), the four roads to
supernormal power (iddhipaada), the five spiritual faculties (indriya), the five
mental powers (bala), the seven factors of enlightenment (bojjha”nga), the noble
eightfold path (magga). In various ways I have analysed these doctrinal matters
and have taught the basket of Suttanta. All of that basket of Suttanta will
peform the role of Teacher for you when I attain parinibbaana.
“And during my life, I have taught these: the five aggregates, twelve sphere
(aayatana), eighteeen elements (dhaatu), four truths (sacca), twenty-two
faculites (indriya), nine causes (hetu), four foods (aahaara), seven contacts
(phassa), seven feelings (vedanaa), seven perceptions (sa~n~naa), seven
intentions (cetanaa), seven thoughts (citta). And here too, a certain number of
things are of the sensual realm (kaamaavacara), a certain number are of the form
realm (ruupaavacara), and a ceertain number are of the formless realm
(aruupaavacara); a certain number are included (pariyaapanna), a certain number
are not included (apariyaapanna); a certain number are mundane (lokika), a
certain number are supramundane (lokuttara).
“I have analysed these things in detail and taught the Abhidhamma-pi.taka,
which is adorned by the Mahaapa.t.thaana with its countless methods and
its twenty-fourfold complete origin (samantapa.t.thaana). All of that,
the basket of the Abhidhamma, will perform the role of the Teacher for you
when I attain parinibbaana.
” Thus all of this has been told and discussed for forty-five years from my
enlightenment to my parinibbaana; three baskets, five Nikaayas, nine
branches (a”nga), eight-four thousand groups of dhamma: these are the
major divisions. Thus these eighty-four thousand groups of dhamma remain.
I alone attain parinibbaana, and now I alone advise and instruct. After I
have attained parinibbaana, these eighty-four thousand groups of dhamma,
will advise and instruct you.
“Thus giving many reasons, the Blessed One advised: ‘It is your Teacher after I
am gone….’ ”
I’ll be glad to hear any further comments.