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TipitakaContext of the Abhidhamma Pitaka

The Abhidhamma Pitaka

The seven books of the Abhidhamma Pitaka, the third division of the Tipitaka, offer an extraordinarily detailed analysis of the basic principles governing the behavior of mental and physical processes. Whereas the Sutta and Vinaya Pitakas are characterized by their practical teachings regarding the Buddhist path to Awakening, the Abhidhamma Pitaka presents a philosophical -- and almost scientific -- analysis of the underpinnings of that very path. In Abhidhamma philosophy the familiar psycho-physical universe (our world of "trees" and "rocks," "I" and "you") is reduced to a complex -- but comprehensible -- web of impersonal phenomena arising and passing at an inconceivably rapid pace from moment to moment, according to clearly-defined natural laws.

The Abhidhamma Pitaka has a well-deserved reputation for being dense and difficult reading, yet some find its descriptions of the inner workings of the mind to be useful as an aid to meditation practice. The modern Burmese approach to the teaching and practice of Satipatthana meditation, in particular, draws heavily on an Abhidhammic interpretation of meditative experience.

According to one tradition, the essence of Abhidhamma philosophy was formulated by the Buddha during the fourth week after his Enlightenment, although scholars debate its authenticity as a work by the Buddha himself. Regardless of its authorship, however, the Abhidhamma stands 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 form the essence of the Abhidhamma teachings. The seven books of the Abhidhamma are:

  • 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
    • Nibbana
  • Vibhanga ("The Book of Treatises"). This book continues the analysis of the Dhammasangani, here in the form of a catechism.
  • Dhatukatha ("Discussion with Reference to the Elements"). A reiteration of the foregoing, in the form of questions and answers.
  • Puggalapa˝˝atti ("Description of Individuals"). Somewhat out of place in the Abhidhamma Pitaka, this book contains descriptions of a number of personality-types.
  • 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 BC, in order to help clarify points of controversy that existed between the various "Hinayana" schools of Buddhism at the time.
  • 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."
  • 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 experience. Phew!

Note: There are no texts from the Abhidhamma Pitaka available here at Access to Insight, nor are there presently any plans to include them in the future.


For further reading:

  • Guide Through the Abhidhamma Pitaka, by Nyanatiloka Mahathera (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1983).
  • A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma: The Abhidhamma Sangaha of Acariya Anuruddha, Bhikkhu Bodhi, ed. (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1993). This book should be required reading for every Abhidhamma student, as 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.
  • The Psychology and Philosophy of Buddhism: An Introduction to the Abhidhamma, by Dr. W.F. Jayasuriya (Kuala Lumpur: Buddhist Missionary Society, 1988).
  • Translations from the Pali Text Society:
    • Buddhist Psychological Ethics (Dhammasangani, tr. 1900 by C.A.F. Rhys Davids)
    • The Book Of Analysis (Vibhanga, tr. 1969 by Ven. U Thittila)
    • Discourse on Elements (Dhatukatha, tr. 1962 Ven. U Narada)
    • A Designation of Human Types (Puggalapa˝˝ati, tr. 1922 by B.C. Law)
    • Points of Controversy (Kathavatthu, tr. 1915 by S.Z. Aung and C.A.F. Rhys Davids)
    • Conditional Relations (Tika-patthana, tr. 1960? Ven. U Narada)

 


Updated: 1-7-2000

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