When I lived at Nandaka monastery in Malaysia, it was an associated monastery to the Pa Auk tradition in Burma (so the Abhidhamma was their favorite), and even though I was not really a fan of the Abhidhamma, my fellow monks there were, by and large, a bunch of introverted Malaysian Chinese nerds (once I got to know them), so I totally got along with them, and it was awesome.
In fact, Nyanponika (in his “Abhidhamma Studies – Buddhist Exploration of Consciousness and Time”) writes:
“We have seen how important a study of the Abhidhamma can be for clarity of thought, for correct understanding, and for personal spiritual growth. Yet, while a detailed knowledge of Abhidhamma philosophy might well be optional for those who devoted exclusively to meditation, it is different for those who wish to teach and explain the Dhamma to others. Here the Theravada tradition considers familiarity with the Abhidhamma, even in its details, an indispensable qualification.” (page 12, 4th edition, 1998)
Such a broad statement about “Theravada tradition” may be colored by Nyanaponika’s association with the Burmese (as in Mahasi Sayadaw) form of tradition, where Abhidamma study is prerequisite (along with 20 years in robes) to gaining the title “Sayadaw” (“royal teacher”).
Interesting that the relationship between knowing abhidhamma and teaching does not necessarily refer to teaching abhidhamma, per se, but rather that understanding abhidhamma enhances the ability to teach any aspect or level of dhamma.
I’m not sure it’s so different elsewhere in Theravada, amongst those with a high-level formal education in Pali. After all, it’s Abhidhamma and the Commentaries that defines the Theravada doctrine… Otherwise it would be EBTvada…
The paper that Ven Dhammanando mentions here: Bhikkhunis is not Aj Brahm's project. - Page 4 - Dhamma Wheel gives some insight into the depth of study of some Bhikkhus and Mae Chi (the focus of the article) in Thailand.
Thanks for reference to that paper – a s/w different story than I’d been exposed to, namely from Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s discouraging abhidhamma, and a talk by Ven. Brahms putting it down too. Maybe it’s rather that (at least some) Western monks of Thai lineage haven’t been exposed to that part of Thai tradition.
Could you give an example of a canonical abhidhamma (or later abhidhammic litterature) reference that has affected your practice or changed your understanding of some suttas? I’m asking the question because I’ve (almost) never read the Abhidhamma books and would love to know some good passages from them.
As to me, I don’t want to study the Abhidhamma and commentaries, presently, because I want to have a good grounding in the suttas first, and try to get as much as I can from them (and that will take years). I’d like to read the canonical abhidhamma and commentaries at some point in the future, but only once I have a deep knowledge of the suttas. Also in order to be able to cleary identify what teaching or quote comes from which part of the scriptures, which is hard to tell sometimes.
Anyway, I’d be interested to read posts about the content of the canonical abhidhamma if such posts were created.
Current Abhidhamma is of doubtful origin, such is the case of the famous Visuddhimagga, some teachers love it, others tend to question its legitimacy.
Bhante Vimalaramsi explains why he stopped using Abhidhamma to teach jana after 20 years of study and practice with it, which is a good example of the reasons as to why some bhikkhus prefer to not use Abhidhamma as their source to understand Dhamma.
Another source about this controversy: https://www.buddhistdoor.net/features/controversies-on-the-origin-of-the-theravda-abhidhamma-piaka
The same happens with the backstories for the Dhammapada, they where compiled a long time after the Buddha’s death. I have spoken with some Bhikkhus that do not agree that they are real, they are not necessarily against the teachings, but I personally don’t want to study something that claims to be true when it is not.
I don’t think many Western monks have gone through a traditional Thai Pali education, so most of them are proably not a good source of information about what is actually taught. However, you just need to read a little of Ajahn Chah, for example, to see that he uses Abhidamma/Commentary concepts, such as conventional and ultimate reality…
I personally, prefer Sutta Jahana as it is very simple to understand. I can’t recall whether Abhidhamma Jhana substantiallly varied from Sutta Jhana except Abhidhamma Jhana has five Jhana states instead of four as per Sutta. But I have no problem with it. They are just numbers.
Yet there are long discussions, on this forum and elsewhere, about whether or not the suttas indicate that one can hear, and so on, while in jhana…
You can read the outline of extant canonical Abhidhamma texts (including from Sarvastivadin and Dharmaguptaka) here:
I would compare it more to Smalltalk-type byte-code programming, i.e. a virtual machine formulated on a pure object-oriented-message-passing (humanistic, so to speak) model, rather than simply the levels of abstraction of the machine-oriented model represented by assembly language, C, C++ and other “systems programming languages”, including most current scripting languages (HTML, Pearl, PHP, etc.).
Btw: In talks I’ve recently been listening to (from Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s two-day exposition on “Mindfulness and Concentration”, April 2010, mp3 files available at audiodharma.org), he
cites sutta passages which do mention 5-stage jhana – with vitakka-vicara, with only vicara, without both, etc.
(One might quibble that those passages are “later”, “corrupted”, etc., but such skepticism can be applied to most of all the sutta material.)
Rather complex issue. Having read the Adhidhammattha-Sangaha and then the Dhammasangani – not detailed analytical study but just plowing thru them to get the flavor, rough sense of both the content and frame of mind [see footnote at the end below] – what really helped pull it all together, tho, was reading the relatively short book (150-200 pages, depending on the edition) by Nyanaponika Thera, “Abdhidhamma Studies – Buddhist Exploration of Consciousness and Time.” This book offers a fascinating overview of the canonical texts, their rationale, and, perhaps most crucially, what I can best call a sense of “inspiration”, motivation for looking further into the, by most any measure, huge task of getting a handle on abhidhamma.
(This book has gone thru many editions, starting in 1949. Freely available on the internet is a PDF of the third edition (1976) from BPS, titled “Abhidhamma Studies – Researches in Buddhist Psychology”, at:
But later editions, from Wisdom Pubs and not free, using the subtitle I first mentioned above, are perhaps more interesting, with an introduction by B. Bodhi (one of whose mentors was Nyanaponika), a couple appendices, and an index. Copies of this can be easily found, e.g. used copies from Amazon starting at $5 or so. My hard copy is from 1998, and there’s a 2015 edition, probably just a reprint.)
Btw: Here’s a treasure house of downloadable abdhidhamma material, a couple of bookshelves full, including the complete PTS English translations of all the 7 canonical texts (but the 7th, Patthana, is not yet completely translated):
Here’s the gist of what I gleaned from Nyanaponika’s exposition:
The whole canonical edifice can be seen as built on the pillars of the first and last texts.
The first text – Dhammasangani – which he goes into in some detail, outlines the categories and range of possible “states of mind” (citta-s), each defined as made up of various combinations of mental sub-qualities (cestasika-s). When this is used to inform meditation, one learns to experientially identify the various citta-s, and see how they are composed of different combinations and intensities of cestasika-s. In particular, which of these states are wholesome, unwholesome, and which pertain to different aspects of path development (bhavana). It then becomes possible to phenomenologically (i.e. in one’s own experience) observe how one citta changes into another, and to fiddle with the cetaska-s to, in effect, intentionally (khamma) transform one citta into another; i.e. train the mind on the path. Nyanaponika considers this a sort of analytical spatial dimension of practice – what is there at any specific moment as a vertical structure of components. In his (later) subtitle for the book, this is represented by the word “Consciousness”.
The last canonical text – Patthana – focuses on analyzing the types of conditioned relationships (paccaya) of citta-s to each other, i.e. causal relationships across the time dimension. It uses a schema of 24 different types of conditional relations, and rather exhaustively goes thru the range of possible combinations across time. (See the Wikipedia entry on “Patthana” for the complete list of these.) Clearly represented by Nyanaponika’s use of the word “Time” in the subtitle.
Again, it’s rather complex, and perhaps a bit of the chicken-or-egg-came-first problem. I would just mention that the writings of both the Mahasi Sayadaw and the Pa Auk Sayadaw – perhaps the two foremost 20th century dhamma teachers who heavily use abhidhamma – contain extensive quotations / references back and forth, between sutta-s, abhidhamma texts, commentaries, subcommentaries, and later commentarial texts. One can see this, in the new translation of Mahasi’s “Manual of Insight”, and the Pa Auk’s two (freely available) books, “The Workings of Khamma”, and “Knowing and Seeing”. No matter how you look at it, it’s a huge, yes a lifetime task as exemplified by these two masters, to fully grasp Theravada dhamma, i.e. the sutta-s, the abhidhamma, etc…
And the two of them were Burmese. U. Jagara (himself French Canadian by birth), expanding upon his short answer to my question (how to proceed in studying abhidhamma? “Go to Burma”), added a couple of anecdotal comments from his experience living in Burma, mostly around the Pa Auk school, for 20 years now. First that abhidhamma study is a major focus for (many or most) monastics there, in a highly organized system rather like Western graduate education, with levels, exams, and degrees, etc. Secondly and rather curiously, he noted that school children in Burma are routinely taught to memorize the 24 types of conditional relationships (the basic paccaya-s of the Patthana), but, he added, not that much what they mean or are used for.
Obviously, most of us interested in appreciating abhidhamma aren’t going to go live in Burma. The point is that the modern Burmese commentators are arguably the major storehouse of abhidhamma expertise in our time.
[Footnote] Along the lines of one Mortimer Adler’s ideas in his book “How to Read a Book” – read it once thru to get a rough taste of what’s there; then read it again with detailed analysis, i.e. carefully; then read it a third time with then a good grasp of what’s there, and why and how it’s written the way it’s written, i.e. the author(s) intention and method. (Have you ever noticed how, when reading something for a second or third time, how much you find you missed in the first reading?)
Thanks for your detailed and considerate reply
Awesome post (the Youtube vid with Bhante Vimalaramsi).
Yes, I’m around.
Funnily enough I had an email today from Mozilla describing a new kind of assembly for the web.
Once we turn SuttaCentral into an MMORPG we’ll be able to make use of this.
Ven. @Jhanarato, nice to hear from you.
Webassembly: Groan. I was secretly hoping C++ would die a quiet death, and not get resurrected. Along with Assembly Language. They were tied as being my least favorite programming languages, ever.
I noted this discussion only today, as I have lived without internet connection for several months, but I find it quite interesting.
In the 1960’s I received some training in Abhidhamma in Burma. I wrote an M.A. thesis at the University of Mandalay on Patthana in English, and became very fascinated with the topic.
But being female, and with a lay teacher in my meditation, it was not so easy to find a good Abhidhamma teacher, so I also did a lot of private study: Abhidhammatthasangaha, the canonical Abhidhamma books (with the help of A-ya-kauk handbooks written in Burmese, and Abhidhamma tables drawn by Mulapatthana Sayadaw U Narada, who translated Patthana into English for the Pali Text Society). For the M.A. I even wrote a second volume, which was never published on “Simultaneous relations” (Sankhya-Vaara).
I found Abhidhamma useful to organise the 101 details of Dhamma teachings found in the Sutta texts.
After returning to Europe (1971) I became quite discouraged, because it was impossible to continue with Pali Abhidhamma studies. …
I also came across Abhidharmakosha and the Abhidharma texts of the Sarvaastivaada, without much motivation to delve deeply into them.
But my intererest in Paali Abhidhamma was strong enough to include the Visuddhimagga and the three Pali commentaries on the Abhidhamma Pitaka in the research for the Ph.D. … I ended up with too much material, and it became very difficult to finish the research.
Later I was confronted with Buddhists who rejected Visuddhimagga and Pali commentaries as “late”, so I trained myself, to make a sharper distinction between the sources I was using, when talking (or thinking) about the Dhamma.
I still think, that Abhidhamma is a fascinating subject, and can get quite enthusiastic just reading some texts, particularly canonical Abhidhamma. … The intent (content) of these texts is slowly opening up, as I continue - I stilll remember, how they used to baffle me, when I started - …
But for practical purposes, the Suttas are more useful.
For example: What do You make out of two Sutta texst like Sangiiti Sutta and Dasuttara Sutta of Diigha Nikaaya and some portions of teh canonical Dhammasanga.nii?
Why is the Pa.tisambhidamagga not in the Abhidhamma Pi.taka?
Indeed. And although this site, it’s sutta-hosting, discussion base, and other related endeavours, certainly has a purpose: to demarcate and explore a specific body of particularly old literature in a sea of “prospective Buddha-sources”, some more “prospective” than others, certainly the study of what is not that literature is of equal importance to studying that literature.
One of the reasons I love SuttaCentral is a that although it has a focus on early texts there is not an air excessive fundamentalism with regards to what can and cannot be explored.
Certainly completely irrelevant threads might get a bit of questioning and raise some Internet eyebrows, but there is rarely a overly simplistic and reductivist answer of “go ask for false dhamma somewhere else”, or anything of the like that some occasionally encounter in other spaces, when questions are asked about placing these texts in a wider context of other texts.
And if there were a denigration of Abhidharma as “late”, it would be an oversimplification anyways.
As has been shown by scholars like Frauwallner, there are sections of the Abhidhamma/Abhidharma which could very well be quite early. So to say that all Abhidharma/mma texts are “late” is based on a misunderstanding of the way these ancient texts work - that is, they come in layers, and one cannot say an entire textual collection has a single age.