- An Introduction to the Abhidharma
- Dr. Peter Della Santina
In Chapters 30 through 41, I will discuss the philosophical and
psychological aspects of Buddhism presented in the seven books of the Abhidharma Pitaka of
the Pali canon. I will not look in great detail at the lists of factors, or dharmas, found
in many competent books on the Abhidharma. Instead, my objectives here are three: (1) to
outline and describe the principal methods and characteristics of the Abhidharma, (2) to
relate the Abhidharma to what we generally know about the teachings of the Buddha, and (3)
to relate Abhidharma philosophy to our situation as lay Buddhists.
Throughout the history of Buddhism, the Abhidharma has been held in
high esteem. In the books of the Pali canon, for example, the Abhidharma is spoken of in
terms of praise and special regard. There the Abhidharma is the special domain of the
elder monks; novices are even asked not to interrupt the Elders when they are engaged in a
discussion of the Abhidharma. We also find the Abhidharma recommended only for those who
sincerely strive to realize the goal of Buddhist practice, and that a knowledge of it is
recommended for teachers of the Dharma.
This traditional regard for the Abhidharma is found not only in the
Theravada tradition but in other major Buddhist traditions as well. For instance,
Kumarajiva, the great Central Asian translator renowned for his translation of Madhyamaka
works into Chinese, is said to have firmly believed that he must introduce the Abhidharma
to the Chinese if he wished to teach them Buddhist philosophy. In the Tibetan tradition,
also, the Abhidharma is an important part of monastic training.
Why is the Abhidharma held in such high esteem? The basic reason is
that a knowledge of the Abhidharma, in the general sense of understanding the ultimate
teaching, is absolutely necessary to achieve wisdom, which is in turn necessary to achieve
freedom. No matter how long one meditates or how virtuous a life one leads, without
insight into the real nature of things, one cannot achieve freedom.
A knowledge of the Abhidharma is necessary in order to apply the
insight into impermanence, impersonality, and insubstantiality that we gain from a reading
of the Sutra Pitaka to every experience of daily life. All of us may glimpse impermanence,
impersonality, and insubstantiality through reading the Sutra Pitaka, but how often can we
apply that momentary intellectual truth to our daily existence? The system in the
Abhidharma teaching provides a mechanism for doing so. A study of the Abhidharma is
therefore extremely useful for our practice.
Let us consider the origin and authenticity of the Abhidharma. The
Theravada school holds that the Buddha is the source of the Abhidharma philosophy and was
himself the first master of the Abhidharma because, on the night of his enlightenment, he
penetrated the essence of the Abhidharma. According to a traditional account, the Buddha
also spent the fourth week after his enlightenment in meditation on the Abhidharma. This
is the week known as 'the House of Gems.' Later in his career, it is said that the Buddha
visited the Heaven of the Thirty-Three, where his mother was, and taught the Abhidharma to
her and the gods. It is said that when he returned to earth, he passed on the essentials
of what he had taught to Sariputta--hardly a coincidence, since Sariputta was his foremost
disciple, renowned for his wisdom.
Thus it is claimed in general that it is the Buddha to whom we owe the
inspiration of the Abhidharma teaching. This inspiration was passed on to his disciples
who were philosophically gifted, like Sariputta, and by the effort of these gifted
disciples the general outline and contents of Abhidharma philosophy were established.
Let us go on to consider the meaning of the term abhidharma. If we look
carefully at the Sutra Pitaka, we find this term occurring frequently, usually in the
general sense of 'meditation about Dharma,' 'instruction about Dharma,' or 'discussion
about Dharma.' In a more specific sense, abhidharma means 'special Dharma,' 'higher
Dharma,' or 'further Dharma.' Here, of course, we are using Dharma in the sense of
doctrine or teaching, not in the sense of phenomenon or factor of experience (in which
case it would not be capitalized).
There is an even more technical sense in which the term abhidharma is
used in the Sutra Pitaka, and in this context dharma no longer means doctrine in general
but, rather, phenomenon. This technical use is associated with another function, that is
to make distinctions. This most technical use of the term abhidharma has five aspects, or
meanings: (a) to define dharmas; (b) to ascertain the relationship between dharmas; (c) to
analyze dharmas; (d) to classify dharmas, and (e) to arrange dharmas in numerical order.
The Buddhist canon is divided into three collections (literally, 'baskets'): the Sutra
Pitaka, the Vinaya Pitaka, and the Abhidharma Pitaka. The Sutra Pitaka is ordinarily
termed the basket of the discourses, the Vinaya Pitaka contains the rules covering the
monastic community, and the Abhidharma Pitaka is normally referred to as the books of
Buddhist philosophy and psychology. Here I would like to look at the relationship between
the Abhidharma Pitaka and the Sutra Pitaka. There is a great deal of Abhidharmic material
in the Sutra Pitaka. Remember the technical definition of abhidharma that we considered a
moment ago. Keeping that in mind, we find in the Sutra Pitaka a number of discourses that
are Abhidharmic in character: the Anguttara Nikaya, which presents an exposition of
teachings arranged in numerical order; the Sangiti Sutta and Dasuttara Sutta, in which
Sariputta expounds on items of the teachings arranged in numerical order; and the Anupada
Sutta, a discourse in which Sariputta analyzes his meditative experience in Abhidharmic
How, then, can we arrive at a distinction between the Abhidharma and
the sutras? To do this we need to look at the second meaning of the term abhidharma,
namely, its use in the sense of 'higher doctrine.' In the sutras the Buddha speaks from
two points of view. First he speaks of beings, objects, the qualities and possessions of
beings, the world, and the like, and he is often found making statements such as 'I myself
will go to Uruvela.' Second, the Buddha proclaims in no uncertain terms that there is no
'I' and that all things are devoid of personality, substance, and so forth. Obviously, the
two standpoints in operation here are the conventional (vohara) and the ultimate
(paramattha). We have everyday language like 'you' and 'I,' and we also have technical
philosophical language that does not assume personality, objects, and so forth.
This is the difference between the Sutric contents and the Abhidharmic
contents of the teachings of the Buddha. By and large, the sutras use the conventional
standpoint while the Abhidharma uses the ultimate standpoint. Yet there are passages in
the sutras that describe impermanence, impersonality or insubstantiality, elements, and
aggregates, and hence reflect the ultimate standpoint. In this context there is also a
division of texts into those whose meaning is explicit and direct, and those whose meaning
is implicit and indirect.
Why did the Buddha resort to these two standpoints, the conventional
and the ultimate? For the answer we need to look at his excellence as a teacher and skill
in choosing methods of teaching. If the Buddha had spoken to all his audiences only in
terms of impermanence, insubstantiality, elements, and aggregates, I do not think the
Buddhist community would have grown as quickly as it did during the sixth century B.C.E.
At the same time, the Buddha knew that the ultimate standpoint is indispensable for a
profound understanding of the Dharma, so his teachings do contain specific language for
expressing the ultimate standpoint.
[Taken from Peter Della Santina., The Tree of Enlightenment. (Taiwan:
The Corporate Body of the Buddha Educational Foundation, 1997), pp. 271-275].
Sincere thanks to Ti.nh Tue^. for typing