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The Abhidhamma-piaka is the third Basket (piaka) of the Therav da

Tipiaka. The P li term Abhidhamma has an ambiguous meaning, of

which two primary meanings given in the P li tradition are noteworthy:


auxiliary (atireka) doctrines and


exceptional/superior/highest (visesa/vasiha/uttama) doctrine. [1]

Ven. Buddhaghosa, the great P li commentator, defines the

term Abhidhamma as that which exceeds and is distinguished from
the Dhamma [2] . Abhidhamma, therefore, holistically conveys the meaning
of special/supplementary teachings of the Buddha.
Traditionally, Abhidhamma-piaka contains seven books viz.: (i) The Book
of Enumeration of Phenomena, (ii) The Book of Analysis, (iii) The Book of
Discussion on Elements, (iv) The Book of Individual Concepts, (v) The
Book of Points of Controversy, (vi) The Book of Pairs, and (vii) The Book of
Synthesis [3] .

Unlike the unanimously accepted Sutta-Vinaya-pitakas, the authenticity and

authority of Abhidhamma as direct Words of the Buddha (Buddha-

vacana) remains as a controversy.

The Therav da orthodoxy, nonetheless, based on

the Atthas lin (Buddhaghosas commentary to the 1st book
of Abhidhamma ), holds the popular traditional view that Buddha himself
was the firstbhidhammika, adding that in the fourth week after His
enlightenment, Buddha contemplated the seven books of
the Abhidhamma-piaka. The commentary further mentions that prior to his
7th annual rainy retreats, Buddha, having ascended to
the T vatisa heaven, preached the Abhidhamma at a full stretch of three
months to the gods assembled from ten thousand world systems headed by
his mother goddess Mah my Dev. The reason for this is that in order to

have a complete picture of Abhidhamma, it should be taught unceasingly

from the beginning to the end; and only the gods, it is said, could remain in
one position for full three months. Being human, however, Buddha came
down onto earth for his midday meals leaving behind a self-created image
of himself to continue the session in his absence. While on earth He
met Ven. S riputta and transmitted the Abhidhamma to him who in return
taught to his own set of disciples. Subsequently, the Abhidhamma was
retained in an oral transmission for generations up until the final writing
down of the Tipiaka in Sri Lanka in the 1st century B.C.

The traditional view, as we shall see below, has a number of

inconsistencies, if not defects, which hardly correspond with the evidential
information we have in Suttas, Commentaries and Chronicles about the
origin of the Abhidhamma-piaka.

Firstly, the P li commentaries state that one of the conditions under

which Ven. nanda [4] became Buddhas chief attendant was that the latter
should repeat to the former what has been preached to others in his
absence. Accordingly, Buddha should have transmitted
the Abhidhamma, preached in T vatisa, to Ven. nanda, not
to Ven.S riputta. Further, why did Buddha
preach Abhidhamma in T vatisa and not in Tusita where his mother was
supposed to have reborn as a dev ?

Secondly while referring to His teachings, Buddha explicitly

said Dhamma and Vinaya (Disciplines) preached and promulgated by me
would be your teacher when I am gone [5] . This suggests that
if Abhidhamma ever existed in the first place, Buddha would have
mentioned alongside the Dhamma and Vinaya. The Cullavaggap li of
the Vinayapiaka, one of the most authentic Therav din texts, records the

proceedings of the first Buddhist council held just three months after the
demise of the Buddha. In that account, quite surprisingly, there is no
mention of the recital of the Abhidhamma-piaka. However the three parts
of the (P li) Canon are referred to for the first time in a late part of
the Sutta-vibhaga in the Vinaya-(piaka) [6] . This is followed by
the Sumagalavil sn (the commentary to the D gha
Nikya by Ven.Buddhaghosa ),which says in its introduction that
the Abhidhamma-piaka was also recited alongside
the Dhamma and Vinaya-piakas . This claim is supported by
the Dh ga- and Majjhima-bh akas[7] of the P li Bhaka tradition.

However, the Mah vasa, a prominent Sri Lankan P li chronicle,

concludes its introduction to the account of the first Buddhist council
saying Dhamma-vinaya was recited (no mention of Abhidhamma ).
Nonetheless the fourth chapter of the same chronicle says that the
participants in the second Buddhist council, held a century after Buddhas
demise, were Piakattayadh rins a term suggesting that the participants
were Bearers of the Tepiaka (i.e. Sutta, Vinaya and Abhidhamma).

Further the fifth chapter of the same chronicle claims that the participants
of the third council, held roughly three hundreds after Buddhas demise,
were Tipiakas a term also suggesting the participants were Masters of
the Tipiaka . According to the Mah vamsas and some other authentic
texts like Cullavaggap lis accounts, its much justifiable to assume that
the recitation or perhaps the formation of the Abhidhamma-piaka probably
took place after the first Buddhist council.

Bhikkhu KL Dhammajoti, referring to the Abhidhamma-pitaka as the last of

the Tipiaka, says, without coming to a specific conclusion regarding the
origin of Abhidhamma , this very probably reflects the historical fact that

the Abhidharma texts were evolved and compiled as a piaka later than the
other two [8] . Here if it was so, then it was also logical to conclude that
the Vinaya-piaka was composed later than the Sutta-piaka for, the
former position comes after the latter. But from the ongoing discussion we
are aware that the Sutta- and the Vinaya-piakas were recited almost
simultaneously at the first Buddhist council. It was only a matter of naming
the piakas rather than determining their respective origins by their
traditional sequence.

Frauwallner is one of the few scholars who say that the Abhidhamma-

piaka originated between 2nd century BC and 2nd century AD [9] . This
date, to a large extent, is contradictory because the Atthakath s and
the Vasakath s have it that the Abhidhamma-piaka came to an end
after Ven.Moggall putta Tissa, the president of the third council, composed
and compiled the last book of the Abhidhamma-piaka immediately after
the council and that the whole of the P li Tipiaka together with its
commentaries was committed to writing in the first century B.C.
Accordingly, the full Abhidhammapiaka was already extant one century
before the date given by Frauwallner as the origin of the Abhidhamma-


Thus the modern scholarship is yet to arrive at a unanimous conclusion on

the origin of the Abhidhamma-piaka. What the modern scholars
like Hinuber could suggest is that the Abhidhamma-piaka is considerably
younger than both Sutta- and Vinaya-pitakas[10] . Hence, the modern
scholarship concludes that Abhidhamma was a gradual development,
interpretation, further elaboration, organization and systematization of the
teachings found in the Suttapiaka. Terms like abhidhamme often
alongside abhivinaye occur in the Sutta- and Vinaya-pitakas, but this
particular term does not necessarily mean the form of

standardized Abdhidhamma we have today. However since

some suttas have the characteristics of Abhidhamma we shall see some of
them below so to determine how far its logical to say
that Abhidhamma has its origin in the Suttapiaka.

The Mah gosigasutta of the Majjhima Nik ya refers to monks like

Venerables S riputta, Mahkassapa, Moggall na and so on engaged
in abhidhammakath in the form of questioning and answering.

Similarly we find vedalla-kath also a question and answering session

on doctrinal issues either between the Buddha and disciples or among the
disciples themselves. Accordingly
the M hvedallsutta and C lavedallasuttaof Majjhima Nik ya are a
testament to this category.

Further in the Suttanta we also find Vibhaga (exposition)-methodological

teachings in brief and summarized manner which are to be further
elaborated on either by Buddha himself or by a proficient disciple.

Apart from these, the most important of the Abhidhammic style teachings
found in the suttanta are the m tikas meaning (as defined by Bhikkhu

KL Dhammajoti ) a matrix in the form of a list summarily enumerating

topics to be elaborated upon. Long lists of such m tikas can be found
in suttas like Sang tisutta and Dasuttarasutta of the D gha Nikya.
Accordingly these m tikas are the basis of all the seven texts of the
present day Abhidhamma-piaka.

Thus m tikas found in the Suttanta are considered to have served as a

major basis for the development and origin of the Abhidhamma-

pitaka. This is further pushed forward by the fact that in the ancient

triple designations given to the specialists of the Buddhist Canon vinaya-

dh ras, sutta-dhras, (and) m tika-dhras [11] were mentioned in stead

of abhidhamma-dh ras for the last one. So its highly logical
that Abhidhamma could have resulted from the further elaboration and
systematization of such m tika-type teachings already found in
the Suttanta and to a lesser extent the Vinaya-piaka.

Given the highly technical, profound and penetrative teachings contained in

the Abhidhamma-piaka, often said to be the philosophical, psychological
& ethical teachings of the Buddha, it, (the Abhidhamma-piaka ) is
unmistakably the genius work produced by enlightened persons or person,
a Buddha or a person equal to Buddha. This is supported by N rada when
he says, whoever the great author or authors of the Abhidhamma may
have been, it has to be admitted that he or they had intellectual genius
comparable only to that of the Buddha [12] . Even though Abhidhamma is
said to surpass the Suttanta, the voh ra-vacana, it is certainly not
suggested that one is inferior or superior to the other. Both differs only in
the scope of exposition and method but both have the enlightenment
potentiality the door to nibb na, for Buddhas teachings have only one
taste the taste of nibb na, the apex of Buddhist spiritual practice.



Dhammajoti, Bhikkhu, KL, Sarvastivada Abhidhamma , Center for

Buddhist Studies, Sri Lanka, 2002


Hinuber, Von, Oskar, A Handbook of Pali Literature, Munshiram

Manoharlal, New Delhi, 1996


Narada Maha Thera, A Manual of Abhidhamma , Buddhist Missionary

Society, Fifth Edition, Kuala Lumpur, (?)


Weragoda Sarada, Ven., Mahathero, Buddhas constant companion

Venerable Ananda , Singapore Buddhist Meditation Centre, Singapore,


Other Reading Materials:


Bodhi, Bhikkhu (General Editor), A Comprehensive Manual of

Abhidhamma, The Abhidhammattha Sagaha , Buddhist Publication

Society, Kandy, 1993

Kashyap, J, Abhidhamma Philosophy , Bharatiya Vidya

Prakashan, Delhi, 1996


Nyanaponika, Venerable Thera, Abhidhamma Studies, Buddhist

Exploration of Consciousness and Time , Buddhist Publication Society,

Fourth Edition, Kandy, 1998

Dharmasena, C.B. Dr., Aids to the Abhidhamma Philosophy, Buddhist

Publication Society, Kandy, 1963


1. For more details see Dhammajoti, 2002

2. Dhammatireka-dhammavisesa ti vuccati abhidhammo; here the
prefix abhi gives the sense of predominance and distinction
and Dhamma signifies the teachings of the Suttapitaka
3. Their corresponding P li names in order are: Dhammasagan ,
Vibhaga, Dh tukath,
Puggalapaatti, Kath vatthu, Yamaka and Pah na
4. See Weragoda
5. Dhammacakkapavattanasutta of the D gha Nikya
6. See Hinuber, 1996

7. Bhnakas were those who recited, memorized and preserved a particular

part of Buddhas teachings. Hence D gha- and Majjhima-bh nakas were
those who recited and preserved the Long and Middle Length Discourses of
the Buddha respectively. The P li Bhnaka tradition was established soon
after Buddhas death and continued up to the first century BC when the
Canon was committed to writing in Sri Lanka under
King Vatthag minAbhaya.
8. See Dhammajoti, 2002
9. Quoted in the A Handbook of P li Literature; see Hinuber, 1996
10. See Hinuber, 1996
11. See Dhammajoti, 2002
12. See Narada, 2002

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