Buddhist Books and Texts: Canon and Canonization—Abhidharma

views updated


The Sanskrit term abhidharma (Pali, abhidhamma) typically refers to the texts that constitute the third of the "three baskets" (tripiaka) of the Buddhist canon. Yet most of the early accounts of the first "collective recitation" (sagīti) of Buddhist texts, which took place in Rājagha shortly after the Buddha's death (c. 400 bce), envisage the texts as falling into just two main categories: (1) the "teaching" (dharma), consisting of the various "sayings" (sutta/sūtra) delivered by the Buddha on specific occasions, and (2) the "discipline" (vinaya) governing individual and communal monastic life. Some accounts, however, mention "lists" (mātkā) as a third category. This seems to refer to lists extracted from the discipline and sayings of the Buddha that functioned partly as summaries and partly as maps of the teaching; a number of early Abhidharma texts are built around such lists, and their use and elaboration seems at least in part to be associated with the development of the Abhidharma literature.

The term abhidharma itself seems to derive from the expression abhi dhamme, which is found in several texts of the Pali Sutta and Vinaya piakas in the sense of "concerning the teaching(s)." As the name of the third division of Buddhist canonical texts, however, abhidharma has usually been interpreted by the Buddhist exegetical tradition as meaning "higher," "special," or "further" teaching.

Commentators usually contrast the method and style of this special teaching with the method and style of the discourses of the Buddha (Pali, suttanta; Skt., sūtrānta). Thus the texts of the Sūtra Piaka are regarded as characteristically addressed to particular individuals in particular circumstances; their language is conventional (vohāra/vyavahāra), and terms must be understood relative to context (pariyāyena). The texts of the Abhidharma Piaka, on the other hand, present the Buddha's teaching without any concession to individual circumstances; their language is absolute (paramattha/paramārtha) and terms must be understood as having fixed, final meanings (nippariyāyena). In fact this kind of distinction between relative and absolute statements of the teaching is already clearly present in some contexts in the discourses of the Sūtra Piaka, indicative of the manner in which the Abhidharma method develops preexisting tendencies in early Buddhist literature.

The Canonical Abhidharma of the SarvĀstivĀdins and TheravĀdins

It is generally assumed that just as various ancient Indian schools preserved their own versions of the Sūtra and Vinaya texts, so they also preserved their own canonical Abhidharma collections, yet definite knowledge of the Abhidharma Piaka is restricted to the texts of two schools: the Sarvāstivādins, who flourished particularly in northern India, and the Theravādins, who flourished especially on the island of Lanka and represent a southern branch of the Sthaviras.

Of the canonical Abhidharma collections recognized by other schools nothing is known for certain. It may be that they represented different recensions of the Sarvāstivādin or Theravādin materials. Certainly it seems that in some cases they consisted of texts that are now lost; the Pudgalavādins, for example, are said to have possessed an Abhidharma in nine parts, which has not survived. Nevertheless, there is evidence suggestive of the widespread interest in Abhidharma literature: The vast corpus of translated works that constitutes the Chinese Tripiaka preserves at least one or two Abhidharma treatises that might belong to schools other than the Sarvāstivāda and Theravāda; new Sanskrit and Middle Indic textual fragments that have to do with Abhidharma continue to come to light. Moreover, there can be little doubt that the kinds of ideas found articulated in Abhidharma texts were crucial to the development of Indian Buddhist thought. It therefore seems clear that the schools of ancient Indian Buddhism generally recognized some form of the Abhidharma.

The developed exegetical traditions of both the Sarvāstivādins and Theravādins understand the canonical Abhidharma to consist of a definite set of seven texts. The two schools, however, each specify a quite different set of texts.

The Sarvāstivādin Abhidharma comprises the Sagītiparyāya (Discourse on the collective recitation), the Dharmaskandha (Compendium of dharmas ), the Prajñaptiśstra (Manual of instruction), the Vijñānakāya (Compendium of consciousness), Dhātukāya (Compendium of elements), the Prakaraa (Treatise), and the Jñānaprasthāna (Foundation of knowledge). These seven texts survive in full only in their ancient Chinese translations and have yet to be translated into a modern European language.

The Theravādin Abhidhamma comprises the Dhammasagai (Enumeration of dhammas), the Vibhaga (Analysis), the Dhātukathā (Discourse on elements), the Puggalapaññatti (Designation of types of person), the Kathāvatthu (Points of discussion), the Yamaka (Pairs), and the Pahāna (Conditions). The seven texts of the Theravādins are preserved in the hybrid Middle Indian dialect known today as Pali, and all but the Yamaka have been translated into English, though in the case of the Pahāna not completely.

The Abhidharma as "The Word of the Buddha."

The Buddhist tradition's own general lack of consensus about the content of the Abhidharma Piaka contrasts with the relative consensus concerning the core contents of the Vinaya and Sūtra piakas, and suggests again that the third piaka came into existence somewhat later than the other two.

Later Buddhist exegetical literature contains indications of discussion and disagreements over the texts to be included in the Abhidharma Piaka. Nevertheless, like the Sūtra and Vinaya, the Abhidharma was generally regarded as "the word of the Buddha" (buddhavacana), and just as the Sūtra in fact contained some texts explicitly attributed to the Buddha's chief disciples rather than the Buddha himself (though sometimes endorsed by him at the close), so some early Abhidharma worksespecially according to Sarvāstivādin traditionare associated with the names of the Buddha's disciples. Thus the Sagītiparyāya of the Sarvāstivādin Abhidharma takes the form of a commentary on a sūtra (sutta) attributed to Śāriputra that is preserved in the collection of long sayings (Dīrghāgama/Dīgha Nikāya) of the Sūtra Piaka. Other Abhidharma texts are associated with the names of other immediate disciples, such as Maudgalyāyana and Kātyāyana, while some texts, for example the Sarvāstivādin Vijñānakāya and the Theravādin Kathāvatthu, are attributed to disciplesDevaśarman and Moggaliputtatissa, respectivelywho according to tradition lived some time after the death of the Buddha. Significantly the attribution of texts to specific disciples is inconsistent: Chinese tradition, for example, attributes the Dharmaskandha to Śāriputra, while Tibetan and Sanskrit tradition attributes it to Maudgalyāyana. There is also a more general tendency to associate the Abhi-dharma with the name of Śāriputra, the disciple of the Buddha who in the sūtras is said to be chief in wisdom. A text whose affiliation is uncertain is styled "the treatise on the Abhidharma of Śāriputra" (Śāriputrābhidharma Śāstra). Moreover, according to Theravādin tradition, while the Buddha worked out the content of the Abhidhamma in the fourth week after his awakening, he did not make it known until much later, when he spent the three months of the rainy season in the Heaven of the Thirty-Three teaching his mother and the assembled gods. The story goes that each day he would retire to a grove of sandal trees on the shores of the mythical Lake Anotatta, where he would impart to Sāriputta what he had taught earlier; Sāriputta in turn passed it on to his five hundred disciples. The fact that the Abhidharma was associated with disciples of the Buddha who in some cases were acknowledged to have lived some time after him, meant that it was open to the challenge that it was not, either as a whole or in part, the "word of the Buddha." The introduction to the fifth century ce Atthasālinī, a commentary on the Dhammasagaī, refers to some who accepted only an Abhidhamma consisting of six books, since they rejected the Kathāvatthu on the grounds that it was not the word of the Buddha, but the work of Moggaliputtatissa (third century bce). Such challenges were generally countered, however, by the insistence that the Abhidharma's real author was indeed the Buddha: While his disciples may have elaborated certain details, they had done so on the basis of a structure and framework that the Buddha himself had established for each text.

The Development of the Early Abhidharma Literature

All this suggests that the early Abhidharma texts should perhaps be seen as the work of the first generations of the Buddha's disciples, rather than of the Buddha himself; the Buddhist tradition itself seems to acknowledge this, while at the same time wishing to emphasize that the profundity of these texts is proof that they are ultimately the products of the perfect wisdom of a buddha.

It seems likely that what came to be regarded as canonical Abhidharma treatises were not works composed at a particular time by single authors, but evolved over decades, if not centuries, out of materials and in accordance with certain literary and philosophical tendencies already present in the Sūtra and Vinaya portions of the canon.

That the lines between Sūtra and Abhidharma are on occasion somewhat blurred is apparent from the fact that certain texts of the fifth collection (Khuddaka Nikāya) of the Theravādin Sutta Piakatexts such as the Niddesa and Paisambhidāmagga would seem to belong in form and spirit to the Abhidhamma Piaka.

The Abhidharma use of lists has already been referred to. The prevalence of lists in early Buddhist literature is partly a consequence of its being composed and for some centuries preserved orally: Lists were clearly useful mnemonic devices. Already in the Sūtra Piaka certain texts take the form of collections of lists, providing bare definitions of items that are treated more discursively elsewhere. Once such text is the Sagīti Sūtra, which survives in several versions and which, as mentioned above, formed the basis of one of the canonical works of the Sarvāstivādin Abhidharma. One of the four primary divisions (Āgama/Nikāya) of the Sūtra Piaka is the collection of "grouped" (sayukta/sayutta) sayings, which groups the sayings of the Buddha connected with specific topics. The topics highlighted in the grouped collection include the twelve links of dependent origination, the five aγegates, the six senses, the four ways of establishing mindfulness, the four right efforts, the four bases of success, the five faculties, the five powers, the seven constituents of awakening, the eightfold path, the four noble truths, the four stages of meditation, and the four divine abidings. Essentially the same list of items provides the table of contents for two Abhidharma works, the Theravādin Vibhaga and Sarvāstivādin Dharmaskandha. The characteristic literary style of the Abhidharma in this context is to take a list derived from the sūtras and provide a succinct statement and definition of terms.

Another literary style developed from the Sūtra Piaka (again, particularly the Sayuktāgama/Sayutta Nikāya ), is the application of formulaic treatments to a number of different items without setting out the text in full: The variables are indicated in summary fashion and the text is set out in a radically abbreviated form, leaving it somewhat open ended. In fact it is said in the exegetical tradition that if the seven texts of the Theravādin Abhidhamma were elaborated in full, each would be infinite in extent.

Another feature of the Abhidharma use of lists reflects certain intellectual developments in Buddhist thought. Lists of terms that in the discourses of the Buddha are apparently presented as sequential descriptions of a process are reinterpreted in the Abhidharma as applying to momentary events. The well known list of twelve links of "dependent origination" (pratītya-samutpāda/paicca-samuppāda) ignorance, formations, consciousness, name and form, six senses, contact, feeling, craving, attachment, becoming, birth, old age and deathappears in the discourses to describe a process that involves a succession of events arising over some period of time, possibly more than a single life. In an Abhidhamma text like the Vibhaga of the Theravādins, the time scale of this process of dependent origination is reduced, and the process is now seen as operating from moment to moment. This reflects the fundamental Abhidharma vision of the processes of causality that lie at the heart of reality and involve the interaction of nothing more than dharmas (Pali, dhamma ), momentary mental and physical "qualities."

Later Exegetical Abhidharma Literature

The development of systematic Buddhist thought is to be associated with the Abhidharma literature in general, yet the canonical textsat least as presented in the Theravādin and Sarvāstivādin collectionsstill represent somewhat loose and unsystematic expositions of certain aspects of Buddhist thought; there is no attempt at a systematic exposition of the whole. This lack seems to have been felt by the tradition, which from perhaps the first century ce began to produce commentaries and summary manuals offering definitive interpretations of the canonical material and filling in certain gaps. With the production of these exegetical texts the term Abhidharma comes to denote not so much a set of texts, but the more general systematic exposition of Buddhist thought in accordance with the traditions of the earlier Abhidharma texts and their commentaries.

For the Sarvāstivādins the crucial text is a vibhāā or "commentary" on the Jñānaprasthāna of the Abhidharma Piaka, which was composed in northwest India in perhaps the first or second century and circulated in at least three different recensions. The commentary gives its name to a school of Abhidharma interpretation, the Vaibhāikas or "followers of the views and opinions found in the vibhāā." The Vaibhāika tradition of Abhidharma also finds expression in a series of shorter summary manuals, such as the "Heart of Abhidharma" (abhidharmahdaya) works of Upaśānta and Dharmatrāta (third and fourth centuries). The Vaibhāika-Sarvāstivādin interpretation of Abhidharma was not the only one current in northern India. For the Buddhist traditions of China and Tibet down to the present day, the term Abhidharma has come to be equated with one text in particular, the Abhidharmakośa or "Treasury of Abhidharma" of Vasubandhu (fourth or fifth century), a set of verses with an auto prose commentary (bhāya), which sets out a critique of certain key Vaibhāika doctrines, such as their theory of existence in relation to past, present, and future time. Works such as Saghabhadra's Abhidharma-samaya-pradīpika (Illumination of Abhidharma) and the anonymous Abhidharmadīpa (The lamp of Abhidharma) are attempts on the part of Vaibhāika masters to address Vasubandhu's criticisms.

In making his critique, Vasubandhu often refers to the views of the Sautrāntikas or "those who follow the sūtras," a loosely affiliated group that questioned certain aspects of the Vaibhāika Abhidharma vision that they argued were not supported by the sūtras. Although the Sautrāntikas did not acknowledge the Abhidharma as the "word of the Buddha," their position did not amount to a wholehearted rejection of the value of the Abhidharma tradition. In works such as Asaga's (fourth century) Abhidharmasamuccaya (Compendium of Abhidharma), the traditions of the Sautrāntika-Sarvāstivādin Abhidharma were reworked by the Mahāyāna philosophical school known as Yogācāra, exponents of a form of philosophical idealism (vijñaptimātra). Indeed, the author of the Abhidharmakośa is possibly identical with the Yogācārin Vasubandhu (fourth century).

In the south the Theravādins also produced summary manuals of their Abhidhamma system. The earliest surviving texts appear to be two works of Buddhadatta (fourth or fifth century): the Rūpārūpavibhāga (Analysis of the material and immaterial) and Abhidhammāvatāra (Introduction to Abhidhamma). In more recent centuries Theravādin Abhi-dhamma studies has flourished particularly in Burma (present-day Myanmar), where tradition has focused on a set of seven relatively concise "little finger" (let than) manuals of diverse date (tenth to fifteenth centuries) and origin (Lanka, southern India, Burma): Abhidhammatthasagaha, Paramatthavinicchaya, Nāmarūpapariccheda, Saccasakhepa, Nāmarūpasamāsa, Nāmacāradīpika, and Mohavicchedanī; sometimes the little finger manuals are counted as nine, by including Buddhadatta's manuals. Of these seven or nine manuals, it is the first, Anuruddha's "Summary of the Topics of Abhidhamma," composed in Lanka in perhaps the tenth century, that has long been the standard textbook of Abhidhamma in the lands of Theravāda Buddhism. This summary of some fifty pages is often supplemented by its various commentaries, especially Sumagala's Abhidhammatthavib-hāvinīīkā (Exposition of the topics of Abhidhamma) composed in Lanka in the twelfth century.


Bodhi, Bhikkhu, ed. A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma: The Abhidhammattha Sangaha of Ācariya Anuruddha. Kandy, Sri Lanka, 1993. A substantial revision of Nārada Thera's Manual of Abhdhamma (4th ed., Kandy, 1980). Contains the Pali text and English translation of the most widely used Theravādin Abhidhamma primer (dating perhaps from the tenth century), with a full modern explanatory commentary by Bodhi and U Rewata Dhamma that draws on material from traditional commentaries. See also the item by Wijeratne and Gethin below.

Bronkhorst, Johannes. "Dharma and Abhidharma." Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 48 (1985): 305320. A consideration of the possible evolution of the lists (mātkā) that underlie the early Abhidharma texts.

Cousins, L. S. "The Pahāna and the Development of the Theravādin Abhidhamma." Journal of the Pali Text Society 9 (1981): 2246. Shows that the basic principles of the later consciousness process (citta-vīthi), which is well known from the Pali commentaries, are already embedded in the system of causal relations set out in the Pahāna, an important finding for the dating of the development of Abhidhamma thought.

Cox, Collett. Disputed Dharmas: Early Buddhist Theories on Existence: An Annotated Translation of the Section on Factors Dissociated from Thought from Saghabhadra's Nyānusāra. Tokyo, 1995. As well as providing an annotated translation of sections of Saghabahdra's response to criticisms leveled by Vasubandhu in his Abhidharmakośabhāya, the book contains an excellent introduction, which outlines the state of scholarship with regard to the history of the Sarvāstivādin Abhidharma, drawing not only on European and American scholarship, but also on Japanese scholarship.

Frauwallner, Erich. Studies in Abhidharma Literature and the Origins of Buddhist Philosophical Systems. Albany, N.Y., 1995. An English translation of an influential series of papers originally published in German in Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde Süd- und Ostasiens between 1963 and 1973. Frauwallner's work represents the only sustained attempt to sketch the evolution of early Abhidharma literature, taking into account the Theravādin and Sarvāstivādin materials. His conclusions remain tentative, however.

Gethin, Rupert. "The Mātikās: Memorization, Mindfulness, and the List." In the Mirror of Memory: Reflections on Mindfulness and Remembrance in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism, edited by Janet Gyatso, pp. 149172. Albany, N.Y., 1992. A consideration of how lists found in the suttas operate as a map for the structure of Buddhist thought, and provide a framework for the development of Abhidhamma texts.

Hinüber, Oskar von. A Handbook of Pāli Literature. Berlin, 1996. An essential reference work for Pali literature, setting out the basic factual information (as far as it is known) concerning date, authorship, and the provenance of individual texts; for the Abhidhamma see especially pages 6475 and 160165.

Norman, K. R. Pāli Literature: Including the Canonical Literature in Prakrit and Sanskrit of All the Hīnayāna Schools of Buddhism. Wiesbaden, Germany, 1983. A more discursive history of Pali literature focusing on the issues of authorship and the relative chronology of the texts; for the Abhidhamma see especially pages 96107 and 151153.

Nyanaponika, Thera. Abhidhamma Studies: Buddhist Explorations of Consciousness and Time. Boston, 1998. A fourth, revised (by Bhikkhu Bodhi) edition of a book originally published in 1949. The book is particularly important as one of the only studies that considers the significance of portions of the Dhammasagai, the first book of the canonical Theravādin Abhidhamma.

Nyanatiloka, Mahāthera. Guide through the Abhidhamma-Piaka, 4th ed. Kandy, Sri Lanka, 1983. Originally published in 1938 and enlarged and revised in 1957 by Nyanaponika, this is an extremely useful outline of the basic content, structure, and method of each of the seven works of the Theravādin Abhidhamma Piaka.

Potter, Karl H., ed. Abhidharma Buddhism to 150 a.d. Vol. 7: Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies. Delhi, 1996. Contains summaries of twenty-three Abhidharma texts, many of which are otherwise untranslated, including six works of the Sarvāstivādin Abhidharma Piaka, the Sarvāstivādin Abhi-dharma commentary, the Mahāvibhāā, and one of the few early Abhidharma works to survive from outside Theravādin and Sarvāstivādin circles, the Śāriputrābhidharma Śāstra. The volume also contains a useful essay on the development of Abhidharma literature by Robert Buswell and Padmanabh Jaini.

Pruden, Leo M., trans. Abhidharmakośabhāyam by Louis de La Vallée Poussin. 4 vols. Berkeley, 19881990. An English translation of La Vallée Poussin's L'Abhidharmakośa de Vasubandhu (6 vols., Paris, 19231931; reprint, Brussels, 1971). La Vallée Poussin translated Xuan Zang's Chinese translation (seventh century) of Vasubandhu's Abhidharmakośa-ya before the original Sanskrit text was rediscovered, but this still remains a great work of scholarship with, in addition to the annotated translation, important introductory essays on the history and philosophy of the Sarvāstivādin Abhidharma.

Wijeratne, R. P., and Rupert Gethin, trans. Summary of the Topics of Abhidhamma and Exposition of the Topics of Abhidhamma. Oxford, 2002. A translation of the most widely used Theravādin Abhidhamma handbook, the tenth-century Abhidhammatthasgaha, along with its most influential commentary, the twelfth-century Abhidhammattha-vibhāvinīīkā. See also the item by Bodhi above.

Willemen, Charles, Bart Dessein, and Collett Cox. Sarvāstivāda Buddhist Scholasticism. Leiden, 1998. An up-to-date survey concentrating on the evolution of Sarvāstivādin Abhidharma literature, with a particularly useful extended essay by Collett Cox (pp. 138254) on the canonical Sarvāstivādin literature and its commentarial compendia (vibhāā), as well as Dessein's discussion of the "Heart of Abhidharma" (abhidharmahdaya) manuals.

Rupert Gethin (2005)

About this article

Buddhist Books and Texts: Canon and Canonization—Abhidharma

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article


Buddhist Books and Texts: Canon and Canonization—Abhidharma