SuttaCentral

SC Next: Introduction to Abhidhamma


#1

For the upcoming revision of SC, I have prepared some short essays introducing various basic concepts underlying our project. Here I upload a draft of these pages, in no particular order, hoping to get some constructive feedback in how I might make these better.

Abhidhamma

Bhikkhu Sujato

The Abhidhamma Piṭaka is the last of the three piṭakas (or “baskets”) in the canons of early schools of Buddhism. It takes the terms and ideas found in the Discourses, and organizes and analyzes them systematically.

There is a complete set of seven canonical Abhidhamma books in Pali, belonging to the Theravāda school. In addition, there is a complete set of seven (different) canonical texts of the Sarvāstivāda school preserved in Chinese translation, a major treatise of the Dharmaguptaka school in Chinese, and some smaller Sanskrit portions. As is the case with the Discourses, the Pali texts have received the most study and attention.

Unlike the Suttas and Vinaya, the Abhidhamma texts of the different schools are not closely related. It seems likely, in fact, that these were some of the formative texts in establishing the different schools. Nevertheless, Erich Frauwallner in his Studies in Abhidharma Literature and the Origins of Buddhist Philosophical Systems (1996) has identified certain core features of Abhidhamma that are common between the traditions. This notably includes the Pali Vibhaṅga, the Sarvāstivāda Dharmaskandha, and the Dharmaguptaka Śāripūtrābhidharmaśastra. These texts all include a common core, which is ultimately derived from the Saṁyutta Nikāya.

Despite their differences, however, it would be a mistake to see the canonical Abhidhamma texts as presenting strongly sectarian positions. Apart from the polemical works such as as Kathāvatthu, for the most part they focus on presenting the central ideas of the Dhamma in different ways.

Origins

The word abhidhamma is found occasionally in the early texts, usually alongside the parallel term abhivinaya. There is, of course, no body of texts called the abhivinaya, and these early uses of abhidhamma don’t refer to settled texts such as exist today. Rather, in this kind of context the prefix abhi- is comparable to the English “meta-” in the sense of “about the Dhamma, about the Vinaya”, and refers to discussions and conversations about the teachings. Such conversations would have, over time, been remembered and shared, and evolved gradually into the formalistic treatises of the Abhidhammapiṭaka.

The traditions vary in how they see the origin of the Abhidhamma. The Chinese and Tibetan traditions typically ascribe each Abhidhamma book to a disciple of the Buddha. However, certain of the Vinaya accounts of the First Council include the Abhidhamma, and thus assume that it was present at the time of the Buddha’s passing. The Theravāda tradition also holds that the texts (with the exception of the Kathāvatthu) were spoken by the Buddha. This is mentioned in some of the latest texts in the canon, the Milindapañha (tepiṭakaṃ buddhavacanaṃ, Mil 2#55) and the Parivāra (sabba­sat­tuttamo sīho, piṭake tīṇi desayi, Pvr 3#5), which date from about three to four hundred years after the Buddha passed away. The Theravādin commentaries were later to claim that the Buddha taught the seven books of the Abhidhamma Piṭaka to the deities in Tāvatiṁsa heaven, headed by his mother. There Venerable Sāriputta learned them and conveyed them to his students.

The long-standing consensus among historical scholars is that the books of the Abhidhamma were compiled in the centuries after the Buddha. It is not possible to determine definite dates. However, it is likely that the common core of the Vibhaṅga/Dharmaskandha/Śāripūtrābhidharmaśastra predates the separation between these schools, which happened around the time of King Ashoka in about 250 BCE, very roughly 200 years after the Buddha’s death. But the bulk of the content must have been developed after this time. A number of details, such as the fact that the works were accepted as canonical in the Milinda, around 100 BCE, suggests that they were completed before this time. So a range of 300 BCE–100 BCE for the composition of the canonical Abhidhamma texts seems reasonable.

While the belief that the books were composed by immediate students of the Buddha is untenable, it does point to something in how they might have developed. The major disciples would have established teaching lineages, or styles of learning, that reflected the specialties of the different masters. Over time, the explanations of various teachers became systematized and codified. The actual books as they exist today, however, are the products of schools, composed under the guidance of leading monks.

The Books of the Theravāda Abhidhamma

For the most part, the long and complex texts of the Theravāda Abhidhamma are concerned with analyzing and classifying material, not with explaining it. Presumably they would have been taught by experienced teachers in monasteries, who would have drawn out, explained, and illustrated the abstruse texts. Eventually such explanations were codified and recorded in the Pali commentaries.

While they introduced a number of new terms and methods, the canonical Abhidhamma texts are doctrinally conservative. Many of the concepts familiar from later Abhidhamma are not found—ultimate vs. conventional truth, mind moments, kalāpas, the idea that each phenomena is defined by its sabhāva or indvidual essence. While some new terms are found, for the most part they seem to have been introduced in order to clarify and disambiguate the terminology, and weren’t intended to convey specific new concepts. That is not to say that there are no new ideas, just that they play a fairly minor role overall.

Dhammasaṅgaṇī

The Dhammasaṅgaṇī (Compendium of Phenomena) is built on the idea of a mātikā, a lists of contents or matrix. A mātikā acts as a simple instance of a template that is applied and transformed in ever more complex forms throughout the work. The Dhammasaṅgaṇī mātikās list sets of phenomena (dhammas). Most of these are doctrinal terms familiar from the suttas, although some are specialized Abhidhamma terms. The Dhammasaṅgaṇī starts with three mātikās. The first classifies dhammas into 22 sets of three (tika), and the next two use sets of two (duka), 100 pairs for Abhidhamma terms, and 42 for Sutta terms.

The first of the triple sets is the momentous group: wholesome, unwholesome, and undetermined. This serves as a framework for classifying all the various phenomena. While it seems simple enough, even this detail was controversial, as some schools rejected the existence of the undetermined, or morally neutral, category.

Vibhaṅga

The Vibhaṅga (Book of Analysis) consists of 18 chapters arranged by topic. The list of topics is closely related to the Saṁyutta Nikāya—aggregates, senses, dependent origination, etc. Most of the chapters have a threefold structure.

  1. Analysis according to the suttas: this quotes a key passage from the suttas on the relevant topic and offers a modest analysis.
  2. Analysis according to the Abhidhamma: applies the sets of synonyms and terms as developed in the Dhammasaṅgaṇī.
  3. Catechism: tests the students knoweldge with systematic questioning.

A few sections, such as Vb 18 Dhammahadaya, do not fit this system. They may have originated as independent treatises.

Dhātukathā

The Dhātukathā (Discussion of Elements) shows how the mātikās relate to the 5 aggregates, 12 bases and 18 elements. It is organized according to fourteen methods.

Puggalapaññatti

The Puggalapaññatti (Designation of Person) departs from the strictly phenomenological approach of most Abhidhamma texts to present a compendium of passages relating to different kinds of individual. These are set out in a mātikā listing kinds of individuals numerically organized from one to ten. As suggested by the numerical arrangement, these terms are mostly derived from the Aṅguttara Nikāya, with modest changes in wording. The main concern is to classify personal or psychological tendencies as they relate to the development of the Buddhist path.

Kathāvatthu

The Kathāvatthu (Points of Controversy) is a collection of over 200 discussions on points of interpretation of Buddhist doctrine. These consist of a debate between unnamed protagonists. Each relies either on logic or quotations from the suttas to support their arguments. Some of the discussions concern central problems in Buddhist philosophy, such as the nature of not-self, or the problem of continuity and impermanence. Many, however, are very minor.

While the text does not identify the points of view, most of them may be identified with the doctrines held by various Buddhist schools. Note that none of the controverted points deal with Brahmanical, Jaina, or other non-Buddhist views. Nor are there any significant differences in the suttas referred to; each debater assumes that they share a common sutta basis.

The Kathāvatthu is the only book of the Abhidhamma ascribed by the Theravāda to a specific author, Moggaliputtatissa, a senior monk at the time of King Ashoka. The core of the work probably formed then, but it grew substantially over time. One or two of the core discussions appear to share a common basis with the Vijñānakāya.

Yamaka

The Yamaka (Pairs) consists of ten chapters on different topics, starting with the roots of wholesome or unwholesome conduct. It applies a series of pairs of questions, with the object of fully determining the scope of application of terms. For example, are all instances of rūpa (form, physical phenomena) included in the aggregate of form (rūpakkhandha)? No, because there are idiomatic uses of rūpa such as evarūpa (“of such a sort”). But are all instances of the aggregate of form included in rūpa? Yes.

Paṭṭhāna

Paṭṭhāna (Conditional Relations) sets out a simple mātikā listing 24 kinds of condition. The first is the “root condition” (hetupaccayo), dealing with how acts are caused by the unwholesome roots of greed, hate, and delusion, or their opposites. This mātikā is then applied to the mātikās of Dhammasaṅgaṇī, creating a bewildering complexity of possible combinations. The Paṭṭhāna is always heavily abbreviated, but if it were to be fully spelled out, it would probably be the largest book ever created, with many billions of combinations.

The Dhammasaṅgaṇī and the Paṭṭhāna bookend the Abhidhamma collection, the first dealing with phenomena, the latter with their relations. While method and the details have expanded considerably, the approach can be seen as a detailed application of the underlying principles of dependent origination.

The Books of the Sarvāstivāda Abhidhamma

While many, perhaps all, of the “eighteen” early schools would have had Abhidhamma texts of some sort, none were as famous as the Sarvāstivāda. The canonical texts mentioned here were supplemented or supplanted by the massively influential treatise Mahāvibhāṣa, which established the Sarvāstivāda as the Abhidhamma school par excellence. Even when later works such as Vasubandhu’s Abhidharmakoṣa or Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā critiqued the Sarvāstivādin philosophy, they were still working with the framework of ideas and terms established by the school, and based originally on these canonical texts. Accordingly, while the Abhidhamma texts of most schools have disappeared, these texts were taken to China and preserved there in translation. In addition, there are some passages found in Sanskrit fragments and Tibetan texts.

The originals of all these Sarvāstivāda works were in Sanskrit.

Saṅgītiparyāya

Regarded as one of the earliest of the Abhidhamma books, this is essentially a commentary on the Sarvāstivādin version of the Saṅgīti Sutta (DN 33). It was written by Mahākausthila (according to the Sanskrit and Tibetan sources) or Śāriputra (according to the Chinese sources). The Chinese recension was translated by Xuanzang.

Dharmaskandha

As noted above, this text appears to share a common origin with the Vibhaṅga of the Pali tradition. It is maintained today in a complete Chinese and partial Sanskrit version. Compared to the Vibhaṅga, the method appears to be less formalized and more discursive, quoting a range of sutta passages. It was written by Śāriputra (according to the Sanskrit and Tibetan sources) or Maudgalyāyana (according to Chinese sources). The Chinese edition was translated by Xuanzang.

Prajñaptiśāstra

This consists of a series of questions and answers on points of doctrine based on a mātikā, supported by sutta quotes. It was said to be composed by either Maudgalyāyana or Mahākatyāyana. The Chinese translation is by Dharmarakṣita.

Dhātukāya

Composed by Purna (according to Sanskrit and Tibetan sources), or Vasumitra (according to Chinese sources). It was translated into Chinese by Xuanzang. The Dhātukāya bears some similarity to the Pali Dhātukathā, although it uses a different mātikā.

Vijñānakāya

This is a counterpart of the Pali Kathāvatthu, and may share a common historical basis. The text mentions the Theravādin Moggaliputtatissa, author of the Kathāvatthu, as an opponent in the debate on the key Sarvāstivāda doctrine that all phenomena exist in the past, future, and present. The text discusses far fewer points than the Kathāvatthu, however. It was composed by Devasarman and translated into Chinese by Xuanzang.

Prakaraṇapāda

Composed by Vasumitra, and translated by Xuanzang (T 1542), with another partial translation by Gunabhadra and Bodhiyasa at T 1541. This was a central Abhidharma treatise, which influenced even non-Sarvāstivādin texts such as the Mahāprajñapāramītopadeśa.

Jñānaprasthāna

Composed by Kātyāyanīputra and translated into Chinese by Xuanzang at T 1544. It also appears translated by Saṅghadeva and Zhu-fo-nian under the name 阿毘曇八犍度論 at T 1543. The largest of the Sarvāstivādin Abhidhamma books, this formed the basis for the later Sarvāstivāda treatises, and hence the modern study of Abhidharma especially in Tibetan Buddhism.

The Dharmaguptaka Śāripūtrābhidharma

The only extent work of the Dharmaguptaka Abhidhamma, this was translated into Chinese by Dharmayaśas and Dharmagupta. It shares some content with the Vibhaṅga and Dharmaskandha, and other details with other texts. Whereas the other schools maintained multiple Abhidhamma texts, this single text covers much of the same ground, and seems to contain the entire Abhidhamma system of the Dharmaguptakas.

Abhidhamma in Buddhist Traditions

Throughout the years, the study of Abhidhamma has been held in high esteem by the Buddhist traditions. The Theravāda tradition developed a series of commentaries and treatises explaining the ideas of the Abhidhamma and extending them further. This is a living tradition, which boasts an unbroken series of publications down to modern times. Today, Abhidhamma study is specially emphasized in Burmese Buddhism, although it remains active in all Theravāda regions. Tibetan Buddhism likewise strongly emphasizes study of the Abhidharma, based mostly on Sarvāstivādin sources. In all regions, however, contemporary Abhidhamma study primarily relies on later treatises, and the canonical texts are usually not directly studied in depth.

As well as study, Abhidhamma has been a formative influence on several modern schools of meditation. In particular, the Burmese meditation schools, including Mahasi, Goenka, and Pa Auk, all rely closely on Abhidhamma concepts.

Perhaps unexpectedly, Abhidhamma is not restricted to monastic or scholarly circles. It is frequently taught to or by lay people, and is popular throughout Southeast Asia. In addition, Abhidhamma mātikās may form the basis for ceremonial recitation. In Thailand, the tikamātikā and the 24 conditions of the Paṭṭhāna are used as funeral chants.

Criticism

The Abhidhamma itself is a critical system, developed to clarify understanding of fundamental concepts and relations. Underlying this project is the assumption that such clarification is needed, which implies that not everyone understands things the same way. This critical aspect comes to the fore in works such as the Kathāvatthu, which showcases the rational methods of clarifying doctrines.

Some, such as the historical Sautrāntikas, criticized the Abhidhamma project itself, claiming it deviated from the suttas. It is not clear whether all early schools actually had an Abhidhamma Piṭaka. However, they all must have had some comparable works of analysis and explanation.

Criticism of Abhidhamma was a foundation of the Mahāyāna. Mahāyāna sutras criticize both specific details of Abhidhamma doctrines—such as the notion that each phenomena is defined by its individual essence—and the overall direction of the Abhidhamma schools, alleging that its followers waste time debating trivia rather than understanding the profundity of the teaching. Nevertheless, Mahāyāna texts developed their own forms of Abhidhamma, and study of Abhidhamma is a core part of many Mahāyāna curricula to this day.

Criticism is also found in the Theravāda commentaries, which record challenges of the authenticity of the Abhidhamma. However, most of the debate in the schools concerns the interpretation of Abhidhamma, not the validity of the project itself.

This critical tradition continues in the present day. Within the Tibetan Buddhist education system, Abhidharma texts and concepts are studied, and considered in light of the critiques by the Sautrāntikas and Mahāyānists. And while some Theravādins maintain that it is essential to study Abhidhamma, others claim that key Abhidhamma ideas depart from the suttas, and that study of the Abhidhamma is unnecessary.


#2

With the very limited understanding of Abhidhamma, I think this is a great introduction. However this shows your bias towards Sutta the way you end the introduction.
I like that to be end in the order of:

Unorthodox claim that key Abhidhamma ideas depart from the suttas, and that study of the Abhidhamma is a distraction. Orthodox Theravādins assert that the texts were spoken by the Buddha, and that their understanding is essential.
:stuck_out_tongue:


#3

Bhante,

Thank you for this. It is very helpful. I suggest a minor clarification here:

Perhaps you could reorder and combine the two bolded parts a little more coherently. The one in the first paragraph is not easy to understand unless one already has some idea of what “the Theravādin system” is. In the second, “later Abhidhammas” seems confusing. I would suggest at least adding “commentaries”, i.e. “later Abdhidhamma Commentaries”.


#4

Here’s a possible way of structuring it, though there may well be better ways:

For the most part, the long and complex texts of the Theravāda Abhidhamma are concerned with analyzing and classifying material, not with explaining it. Presumably they would have been taught by experienced teachers in monasteries, who would have drawn out, explained, and illustrated the abstruse texts.

While they introduced a number of new terms and methods, the canonical Abhidhamma texts are doctrinally conservative. While some new terms are found, for the most part they seem to have been introduced in order to clarify and disambiguate the terminology, and weren’t intended to convey specific new concepts. That is not to say that there are no new ideas, just that they play a fairly minor role overall.

The much later Pali commentaries record the Theravādin system of interpretation. Many of the concepts familiar from later Commentaries to the Abhidhamma are not found in the Canonical Abdhidhamma—ultimate vs. conventional truth, mind moments, kalāpas, the idea that each phenomena is defined by its sabhāva or indvidual essence.


#5

According to the texts the Buddha’s mother in heaven was a male deva.

The belief that Mahāmāyā was reborn as a goddess (called Santussitā) is from Burmese folk tradition. The same view was also advanced by some pioneering Western Pali scholars who mistakenly took passages containing the word devī as describing the state of the Buddha’s mother in heaven, when in fact they are referring back to the deva’s human life as a queen, in the same way as monickers like buddhamātu and bodhisattamātu.


#6

Thanks everyone for the clarifications, I will amend accordingly.

Re the ending, I’m not sure, though I agree it is somewhat abrupt. It wasn’t really designed as an ending, it was just where I stopped having things to say! Anyway, I’ll think about it.


#7

Venerable, I’m trying to find a source for this, can you help me out? In the
Ganthārambhakathā of the Aṭṭhasālinī so far as I can see it only refers a couple of times to the Buddha’s mother, and it doesn’t specify her gender.

  • Mātaraṃ pamukhaṃ katvā
  • dasasahassacakkavāḷadevatānaṃ majjhe nisinno mātaraṃ kāyasakkhiṃ katvā

Incidentally, the translation of this (The Expositor) is on Internet Archive.


#8

When I wrote essays in the uni, the most important thing for me was the last sentence. In this case, you can make a decision whether you want to end it on a positive note or a negative note. What people remember is the last word.


#9

I think it could be a great ending if it was positive.


#10

I think the earliest one is the commentary to one of the Theragāthā verses of Kāḷudāyin.

First the verse:

Sā gotamī kālakatā ito cutā, dibbehi kāmehi samaṅgibhūtā,
Sā modati kāmaguṇehi pañcahi, parivāritā devagaṇehi tehi.

And the commentary:

ti māyādevī. Gotamī ti gottena taṃ kitteti. Dibbehi kāmehī ti, tusitabhavanapariyāpannehi dibbehi vatthukāmehi. Samaṅgibhūtā ti samannāgatā. Kāmaguṇehī ti kāmakoṭṭhāsehi, “kāmehī” ti vatvā puna “kāmaguṇehī” ti vacanena anekabhāgehi vatthukāmehi paricāriyatīti dīpeti. Tehī ti yasmiṃ devanikāye nibbatti, tehi tusitadevagaṇehi, tehi vā kāmaguṇehi. “Samaṅgibhūtā parivāritā” ti ca itthiliṅganiddeso purimattabhāvasiddhaṃ itthibhāvaṃ, devatābhāvaṃ vā sandhāya kato, devūpapatti pana purisabhāveneva jātā.
Thag-a. ii. 225-6

Another is the ṭīkā to the Jinalaṅkāra:

Yasmā ca bodhisattena vasitakucchi nāma cetiyagabbhasadisā hoti, na sakkā aññena sattena āvasituṃ vā paribhuñjituṃ vā, tasmā bodhisattamātā gabbhavuṭṭhānato sattame divase kālaṃ katvā tusitapure devaputto hutvā nibbatti.

“Since the womb in which a Bodhisatta has lived becomes equal to the interior of cetiya, it is not possible for another being to live there or make use of it; therefore on the seventh day after giving birth, the mother of the Bodhisatta passed away and becoming a son of a deva was reborn in the city of Tusita.”

A third source is quoted by Mingun Sayādaw in his Great Chronicle of Buddhas (vol. II, part I). It’s the Vīsatigāthā of the Maṇidīpa-ṭīkā, but I don’t have a copy of the Pali text:

“Having lived only for seven days after giving birth to the Bodhisatta, Sirī Mahāmāyā passed away from this world and was reborn only as a man (male deity), not as a woman (female deity). It is a regular incident that all the mothers of Bodhisattas should live only seven days after childbirth and that they should all die to be reborn in Tusita Deva abode only as a god and never as a goddess.”

I guess “regular incident” is probably a translation of dhammatā. In the Pali tradition the dhammatās relating to a Bodhisatta’s final life seemed to multiply nearly as fast as the “suchnesses” of Northern Buddhism.


#11

@sujato could you please check the address again?

I will comment after reading it properly!

with metta


#12

Thank you Bhante :pray: This is brilliant work.


#13

@sujato, another great piece of writing- I liked how it summarised not just the Abhidhamma but what followed afterwards historically.

I just wanted to mention a few things relevant to the ‘critical tradition’ as it were:

  1. The Abhidhamma distances the everyone except the extreme adept from the wisdom teachings of the Buddha. The gap is almost too much to cross. In the Buddha’s teachings of the suttas such adversity, is not felt. Eg: Anattalakkhana sutta SN22.59 where practitioners do not seem to need to know the Abhidhamma in the manner of the Abhidhamma pitaka, to attain stream entry or even progress higher.
  2. Excessive emphasis of morality of phenomena to a degree which is not seen in the suttas. Issues of sila upadana -excessive attachment to morality, the Asian cultural phenomenon of accruing merit at the neglect of practice leading to Nibbana, and even attachment to rites and rituals silabbatapramasa which people regardless of culture seem to pursue.
  3. Excessive emphasis on theory and erudition, again putting the Dhamma out of reach. This is emphasising importance of memory over understanding/realizing. It is emphasising the word over the meaning that word denotes. In short, it is a throw back to the magic rituals of the Vedic times where the word had power, knowing the Word was power to person who knew it, and all night chantings of the Word to ward of evil was the end result.
  4. Diminuition of the importance of aspects that did not gain much emphasis in matrixes- seclusion, contentment, renunciation.
  5. This resulted in the pendulum swinging in the other direction centuries later with the Visuddhimagga and Vimuttimagga- more practice oriented treatise.

with metta


#14

Both addresses are correct.

The deva who had been the Buddha’s mother is reported to have lived in Tusita but when the Buddha sat down on Sakka’s throne he descended to Tāvatiṃsa to hear the Abhidhamma, seating himself in front of the Buddha. After that, the devas Aṅkura and Indaka come and sit down on the Buddha’s left and right respectively. Then there’s a mildly comical scene as more powerful devas arrive and Aṅkura keeps getting shoved further and further away from the Buddha until in the end he’s twelve yojanas away. But Indaka is able to retain his initial position throughout because of his greater merit.

Indaka.– A deva. He had been a youth who gave a spoonful of food to Anuruddha. In consequence he was born in Tāvatiṃsa as a deva of great power and majesty. When the Buddha went to Tāvatiṃsa to teach the Abhidhamma, in the assembly of the gods who gathered there, those of lesser powers had to yield place to their superiors. Thus Aṅkura (q.v.), who, at the start, was very near the Buddha, found himself twelve leagues away. However, not so Indaka; the power of his merit was very great and no deva was mighty enough to displace him; he had been lucky in the recipient of his gift. Aṅkura’s generosity, much more lavish than Indaka’s, had been bestowed on men who were not holy. Such was the explanation the Buddha gave in the assembly of the gods, on seeing the discrepancy between the positions of the two devas, Indaka surpassing the other in ten qualities. (Pv.pp.27 f; PvA.136‑8; DhA.iii.219‑20; 80‑1).
(Malalasekera, Dictionary of Pali Proper Names)


#15

does that mean a spoonful of food can buy better seats in the dhamma?

with metta


#16

But doesn’t this have more to do with Apadāna than with Abhidhamma? That seems to be how it is in Thailand. Although not many people here read the Apadāna itself, they nevertheless absorb the apadānic conception of the path to arahatta (i.e. the belief that multi-kalpa development of the perfections is required for arahantship no less than for buddhahood) via popular preaching based on the Apadāna-influenced Dhammapada Commentary.


#17

In the world-view of the Petavatthu and Vimānavatthu it seems that a spoonful of rice can buy you nearly anything if you give it to the right person. :slight_smile:


#18

What a pleasant surprise – an exposition of the various abhidhamma texts/traditions seemingly without, at least overtly, a polemic slant. One reads that the (Theravada) tipitaka has three major corpuses (this text editor doesn’t recognize that plural, but most people probably wouldn’t catch the Latin plural “corpora”) of text: Suttanta, Vinaya and Abhidhamma. Judging from the bulk of material in this forum, the sutta texts define the Buddha’s teaching (granted that’s the mission statement), and the Vinaya comes up with reference to monastic matters. Abhidhamma, often grouped with “the commentaries”, comes up often with negative connotation, as “redefining” the dhamma, fabricating new ideas, even “contradicting” the sutta-s.

In this essay (thread), and in “Sects and Sectarianism” (as least the 1st 60 pages I’ve gotten through), is the notion that various “schools” of interpretation arose due to the inclination of different influential individual teachers and/or groups. This take is also shaded by passages in Alexander Wynne’s “Buddhism: An Introduction”, where he characterizes differing schools of interpretation, of emphasis in dhamma emerging in the generations after the Buddha and during the layered formation of the sutta texts. This sheds light on the phenomenon that in many discussions (here and on other forums) people argue differing interpretations (often antithetically), with all sides citing various sutta passages to support their positions. (A classical “tangle of views”.)

This all reinforces my working hypothesis that interpretation (and practice) is shaped for different individuals by various differences in conditioning (e.g. teachers exposed to) as well as individual propensities, temperament. For instance, for some abhidhamma-like analysis comes naturally, and informs practice, while for others it’s irrelevant, even “distraction”.

I recognize much of the characterization here of the Theravada Abhidhamma texts, having studied some, but not enough to offer critique. One question, though, would be: what kind of terminology (Pali) is used in the texts to characterize what we’re calling “schools”?

This question parallels my informal attempt (in reading “Sects and Sectarianism”) to extract a glossary of Pali terms comparable to the terms “schism”, “heresy”, “sect”, “school”, etc. – all of which are Greco-Latin terms heavily overloaded with connotations from the history of the Abrahamic religions.


#19

Absolutely. SuttaCentral is one of the only places on the internet where I would trust that such a project to be handled reasonably and objectively.


#20

That’s interesting- I didn’t know that. I think the traditional or cultural Buddhism in Sri Lanka is influenced by the Abhidhamma in this manner, but is of course difficult prove.

With metta