Tipitaka ╗ Context 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
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
- 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
- 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)