SC Next: Introduction to Abhidhamma

Have you studied Abhidhamma?
I have to disagree with both of your statement.

Guys, can we not get into this here? The point of the article was to give a straightforward factual survey of the field. I know how to set aside my own opinions when I want, it’s not that hard.

SC is not in the business of telling people how they can or can not get enlightened. We simply supply texts, and are trying to give a little context for that.


Thanks. That’s interesting, on a couple of accounts…

Perhaps relating to the notion of “[a specific nikāya of sutta-s]-reciters” that I’ve run across, e.g. Buddhaghosa referring to these or those “[a nikāya]-reciters” as having different interpretations from each other. Hence one origin of a “school” being perhaps having to do with which body of texts a group emphasizes, specializes in – maybe even namely those texts which they themselves have composed?

Also the term itself – as ni+kāya – relates to that oft argued issue as to what kāya
refers to in, say, the Anapanasati Sutta: a body of sensate phenomena or the (whole) “physical” body.

Raising a further question: how to take the sense of the prefix “ni-” in this term?

No, the uses are distinct and any Pali-knower wouldn’t get confused. Anyway, the usual terms for “reciter” don’t mention the word nikāya at all, but simply dīghabhānaka etc.

Words from root kāya are extremely prolific and varied. The prefix ni- doesn’t really have any literal meaning here, it is just an idiom.



Thanks for writing those Ab introductions Bhante, it definitely is very useful and helpful. I had long been desiring a brief summary of the different schools of Ab to get a quick survey of their chief differences and commonality.

Although I agree the Ab intro is probably not the place to dive into the problems and contradictions between EBT and Theravada Orthodoxy, I think somewhere on SC, easily seen and accessible, there should be at least some brief description and links to articles that at least address the contradictions on major doctrinal points.

Just as potent medicine bottles have child proof caps to prevent opening, and bottles containing poison has a graphic of skull and cross bones, potentially dangerous scripture on SC should have some kind of warning label, and a brief explanation of why that dangerous material is there.

As SC is right now, the inclusion of Ab, Jataka Tales and other non EBT portions of KN, gives the impression they’re not incompatible with the EBT. The intro to AB, also gives the impression for the uninitiated that Abhidhamma is a harmless interpretation of EBT from a later period with non-pernicious innovations.

I would like to submit for your consideration another Abhidharma work which is often overlooked.

This is the Tattvasiddhisastra (Chinese: 成實論; Japanese pronunciation: Jōjitsu-ron, previously reconstructed as the Sādhyasiddhiśāstra) authored by the Indian master Harivarman (250-350) and translated into Chinese in 411 by Kumārajīva.

Full translation here:

A study of the text focusing on mind is “Mind in Dispute: The Section on Mind in Harivarman’s Tattvasiddhi” by Qian Lin

A few quotes on this text to show its importance:

The TatSid is an Abhidharma treatise extant only in Kumārajīva’s Chinese translation and no record of this treatise or of its author Harivarman (訶梨跋摩) is found in any extant Indian source. According to the Chinese accounts, Harivarman is a Buddhist teacher ordained and trained in the Sarvāstivāda tradition, and probably in the lineage of teachers who are called “Dārṣṭāntikas.” He is well versed in teachings of different schools
of his time, but he is disappointed with the Abhidharma theories current in his day. He feels that those theories stray away from the original teachings of the Buddha. In order to persuade his contemporaries to return to the “original teaching,” and to promote what he considers the correct teaching of the Buddha, he wrote the TatSid.

Moreover, the various texts cited in the TatSid, especially sūtras quoted in its arguments, are sometimes interestingly different from the extant sūtra collections available to us today. These characteristics of the TatSid provide us the opportunity to study the development of Buddhist texts and Buddhist doctrines within a particular historical setting, and this is precisely the objective of the present study.

The author of the TatSid, Harivarman, is very knowledgeable about, and very critical of, the Abhidharma systems of his period, and records extensively in the TatSid both arguments and rejoinders from teachers with different opinions regarding the issues disputed. The texts quoted and mentioned in the TatSid include early sūtra materials as well as references to positions that can be traced in various Abhidharma treatises of different teachers and schools.
These records make the TatSid a rich source of early Buddhist textual materials, and hence make it a good candidate for textual and philological investigations.


Thanks, that’s an interesting text.

It’s quite extraordinary that a manuscript was taken from India to China, translated from (something like) Sanskrit to Chinese, then taken back in modern times from China to India, retranslated back into Sanskrit, then from Sanskrit to English, and now at the end of this long journey we can read it online!


It really is, I just skimmed it a bit, some interesting tid bits I saved in my notes:

The mind that is unconcentrated and frequently attempting (a search) is vitarka. The mind that is in samadhi has two stages: coarseness and subtlety. The coarse stage is vitarka. A mind is termed coarse for the reason that is lacks concentration. The Buddha says: The ascetic dwells in the first dhyana which is with vitarka and vicara. Therefore the first dhyana is coarse and unconcentrated and hence it is with vitarka. Vicara is a state of mind which is unconcentrated and a bit subtle.

Thus according to the Tattvasiddhi first dhyana is not perfect concentration but is rather coarse, it is only in second dhyana that one is firmly fixed in the quality of “one pointedness”.

Who is capable of bearing the brunt of scolding? A. the person who meditates on impermanence and understands that everything is momentary, the scolder and the victim of scolding are all momentary [thus he] arouses hate towards none. The person who perseveres through correctly practising the shunyata-citta, notion of voidness, considers thus: when things are really void, who is the abuser and who is the victim?

The dweller in perseverence should think thus: things are dependently originated, thus abusing act is heard by auditory consciousness, non sensuous consciousness and the sound, etc. Here two factors are in my person and the only one, the sound in the other. Thus the factors of the sin are many in me, why do I hate it? Because I grasp the conceptual idea of this sound, sorrowfulness and worries are experienced; hence I am alone guilty.

Now, samadhi: It is characterized as the mind resting steadily and solely on one support (alambana). The mind rests on one support by contemplating upon it several times. If one does not contemplate several times then the mind would quickly distract from it. One should contemplate in an easy manner. Uneasiness (dukkha) is the turbulent state of the body and mind. When that turbulent state is dispelled by prasrabdhi, serenity easiness is secured. The serenity is felt when the body and the mind become calmed on account of joy (priti) which airses from the mind’s delightfulness (pramodya) through recollection of three jewels and listening to sutras, etc. The mind’s delightfulness again arises when the mind does not have to repent and as a result of holding fast to good conduct.

Equanimity is this: the ascetic first disregards his love towards his friend and disregards his enmity towards his enemy and qualizes his mind toward both. Then he extends his equanimity towards all living beings. Karuna and mudita are also to be pacticed likewise.

On Anapanasati: (pg 438 -)

Suppose a man ascends a hill; or if he carries a load then being fatigued he breathes a short breath. Likewise the ascetic dwelling in a gross thought breathes a short breath. The gross thought means the mind which is shaky and distracted by the disease. “He breathes a long breath” means if the ascetic dwells in a subtle mind then his breathing out and breathing in become long. For, such breaths which accompany the subtle mind become subtle. For example, the same person who is fatigued and then rests, his breath becomes subtle (and long).

step 3 of anapanasati "The ascetic…perceives the air moving in and out of skin pores"
step 4: “gross breathings become pacified”

“experiencing mental formation” - the ascetic sees the blemish in the piti as it causes craving which is the minds formation. Craving arises for feeling and hence the ascetic sees the feeling as a mind’s formation"

“calming mental formation” - “the ascetic sees that lust arises from feeling and calming that, the mind becomes peaceful. He calms also the gross feeling.”

“‘Experiencing the mind’ : calming the taste of feeling the ascetic sees his mind as appeased not depressed and not distracted. This mind sometimes becomes depressed, then at that time he makes it joyous. If it becomes distacted then at that time he makes it concentrated. If it becomes free from the said two faults, then at that time he lets it be free. Therefore, this is termed as releasing the mind.”


Just to note that the Sanskrit text (translated from Chinese) is available on GRETIL:

It’s pretty easy to see how the text handles sutra quotes. If you search sutre on that file you’ll get 579 hits, almost all of which seem to be references to the sutras, of the form, “As it says in the sutra …”

Now, since this is a retranslated text we must be very cautious about how to interpret results. Still, the overall form should be clear enough. These references are usually very short, a passing allusion to a sutra passage, and they often appear to be paraphrases rather than quotes. Whether this is an artifact of the retranslation process, I could not say. But the sayings, while usually dealing with sutra topics, are usually not in familiar sutra idioms.

There are exceptions to this, as for example:

api coktaṃ sūtre- cakṣuḥ pratītya rūpañca cakṣurvijñānamutpadyate iti
Also, it was said in the sutra: “dependent on the eye and sight, eye consciousness arises.”

This is obviously a version of the common sutra idiom, which in Pali is:

Cakkhuñca paṭicca rūpe ca uppajjati cakkhuviññāṇaṃ

Another obvious example:

yathoktaṃ sūtre vijānātīti vijñānam | iti
As was said in the sutra: “it cognizes, so it is consciousness”.

Usually the discourses are not named, but sometimes they are. In a discussion of the “in-between state”, the text quotes the famous passage on the gandhabba, although interestingly enough, it locates it in the Assalāyana Sutta (MN 93), where it is indeed found, rather than the better known occurrence in the Mahātaṇhā­saṅkhaya Sutta (MN 38).

āśvalāyanasūtre hi bhagavānāha- yadā pitarau sannipatitau bhavataḥ | gandharvaśca pratyupasthito bhavati iti
For the Buddha said in the Āśvalāyana Sutra: When the father comes together, and the gandhabba is standing by.

This, umm, misses out a rather crucial element in the conception process! Again, all these are fragments, so it’s hard to know if this is a mistake, or a mere abbreviation in the original text.

This passage also highlights the complex nature of what is “spoken by the Buddha”. In the sutta, this passage is indeed spoken by the Buddha. But it is as part of a story where he is quoting the words of brahmin sages of the past. While he generally seems to approve of it, it is not really a Buddhist statement as such. In the Mahātaṇhā­saṅkhaya Sutta he does speak it directly as a teaching, but this raises the question as to whether it was simply interpolated from the Assalāyana.

On the whole, I am left intrigued by the value of this text for early Buddhist studies, but not yet persuaded. Serious study would need to be based on the Chinese original, and carefully distinguish the manner in which the text was quoting, abbreviating, or paraphrasing other texts. Not an easy task as, if this is indeed a Mahasanghika text (I don’t doubt the ascription, but note that this is nowhere stated in it) there are few direct Sutta collections of that school to compare it to.

It would be a pleasant task to go through and identify each of the 500+ sutra references. If someone were to do so, we’d happily add them to our parallels!


It’s also according to the standard four jhana EBT formula in pali texts and agamas.

The words “samadhi” and “ekodi-bhava” don’t appear in first jhana, they first appear in 2nd jhana formula. First jhana is characterized as “vivekajam piti-sukham”, whereas 2nd jhana is characterized as “samadhijam, piti-sukham”.

In the Theravada world there’s a survivorship bias going on. The survivors write the history books, and people believe their interpretation of jhana. It’s heartening to learn about the different lineages that retained a straightforward common sense reading of the Buddha’s words. I’ve always believed the Buddha was a straight shooter and a plain speaker, not someone who deviously used common words and actually meant something very esoteric and obscure, requiring the Theravda orthodoxy to explain the secret code.

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Hello venerable,

It seems like the view that this is a Mahasangika text is not necessarily solid. Lin, the author of the study I linked notes that several Chinese sources place this as a Darstantika/Sautrantika influenced text and say that Harivarman was a student of the famous Kumaralata, founder of the sect/sub-sect.

Moreover, according to Xuanchang’s biography, Harivarman was a student of a Sarvāstivāda master named *Kumāralāta (究摩羅陀).18 This *Kumāralāta may be the teacher identified as a Dārṣṭāntika who was also later considered the first “Sautrāntika. (Mind in dispute, pg 14)

The biography of this person is interested, even if it is hard to verify:

Xuanchang’s biography24 provides the following information about Harivarman’s life. He was born in central India (中天竺) in a Brahmin family (婆羅門子). In his youth, he learned the Vedas and other sciences, and later he was ordained in the Sarvāstivāda order (薩婆多部) and became a student of the “monk of doctrine” (*dharmaśramaṇa 達摩沙門) *Kumāralāta (究摩羅陀). *Kumāralāta taught him the “great Abhidharma of Kātyāyana (迦旃延) with thousands of gāthās,” probably the Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma text Jñānaprasthāna. Having fully learned this work, Harivarman was unsatisfied and disillusioned with Abhidharma. He then spent several years studying the entire Tripiṭaka and traced all the different teachings of the “five sects” (五部) and “nine branches” (九流 *srotas) 25 back to their common origin. Thereafter, he engaged in debates with other Buddhist teachers and tried to persuade them to return to the original Buddhist teachings. Those teachers were reluctant to abandon their sectarian doctrines. As a result, Harivarman became unpopular among them. However, the Mahāsāṅghikas (僧祇部) in
the city Pāṭaliputra (巴連弗邑), who also claimed that their doctrines were the origin of the “five sects,” heard about Harivarman and invited him to live with them. There Harivarman studied Mahāyāna (方等 vaipulya) and the teachings of all traditions. He wrote the *Tattvasiddhi, in which he investigated and criticized the different doctrines from various traditions, especially Kātyāyana’s Abhidharma system. Harivarman’s stated purpose in writing this work was to “eliminate confusion and abandon the later developments, with the hope of returning to the origin” (除繁棄末慕存歸本). The biography concludes with a record of Harivarman’s victorious debate with a Vaiśeṣika teacher, from which he earned a great reputation.

But he also notes:

However, in my reading of the section on mind in the TatSid, I do not find any explicit statement by Harivarman that rejects the authority of Abhidharma, and he even agrees with the Ābhidharmikas, or teachers who are explicitly affiliated with a certain Abhidharma tradition, on some doctrinal points. This indicates that we may not simply label Harivarman as a “Dārṣṭāntika” or a “Sautrāntika.”

He also quotes the Chinese master Jizang :

Some say that [he] chooses and follows those who are right and
records whoever is superior. [He] discards those inferior [teachings] of different teachers and adopts the superior [teachings] from different sects.
Others say that though he rejects all different [teachings], he mainly adopts
[the teachings of] the Dharmaguptaka sect (曇無德部).
Others say that [he] criticizes extensively the Abhidharma,32 and agrees
specifically with the Dārṣṭāntikas. The Tripiṭaka master Paramārtha (真諦三㯿) says that [Harivarman] adopts the meanings of the Sautrāntikas (經部). When the Abhidharmakośa is examined, those meanings attributed to the Sautrāntika sect mostly agree with the *Tattvasiddhi.

Seems like the Chinese were just as confused! Modern scholars too!

Fukuhara (Fukuhara 1969: 25-52) examines all the accounts and finds that the TatSid has doctrinal positions shared with all of the schools mentioned. His conclusion that Harivarman was a Bahuśrutīya is mainly based on the account from the translator Paramārtha (真諦 499-569 CE), and he believes
that Paramārtha’s account came directly from India and hence must be more reliable (51). Katsura (1974: 29-49) examines the ten points of controversy discussed in the introduction section of the TatSid,35 finds that on these ten issues only the Bahuśrutīyas, the Prajñāptivādins, and the Theravādins have no disagreement with Harivarman. But the Prajñāptivādins and the Theravādins have issues other than these ten that disagree with Harivarman. Thus, the Bahuśrutīya is the only option left.

Lin goes on to further complicate the use of certain school names and associations and assigning them to particular doctrinal positions, noting that things were much more fluid at the time. He notes that ultimately it is impossible to determine the “school affiliation” if such a thing existed back then in a hard sense. He notes that all we know about him is that he is knowledgeable about Sarvastivada and criticizes it from a sutra perspective. Thus it is fair to say he was a Sautrantika, at least in that sense.


Also I just read something in Sarvastivada Buddhist Scholasticism (Handbuch Der Orientalistik)
edited by Charles Willemen, Bart Dessein, Collett Cox which states that the following texts also contain many Agama quotations, possibly a future source of EBT material:

Kumaralata’s Drstantapankti or Drstantamalya which has been identified with the Sutralamkara often attributed to Asvaghosa

Abhidharmamrtara-sasastra attributed to Ghosaka

Abhidharmavatara-sastra attributed to Skandhila
(This has been translated by B. Dhammajoti)

Seems like these works are all Sautrantika and followed the usual Sautrantika style of quoting sutra passages extensively.

Excellent, thanks so much for that. This is the same kind of argument developed in Kalupahana’s later works, where he shows that considering philosophers, especially the greats, in terms of their school affiliation is often problematic, if not downright misleading.

It is true, in some cases people perceive themselves as belonging to a school, and articulating and defending the positions of their school. But many are not really interested in that, but only concerned about the Dhamma. So of course they will show the influence of their education and background, but need not be pigeon-holed into a school.

Needless to say, I feel a lot of affinity with this approach!


How do you feel about Harivarman’s supposed project to “eliminate confusion and abandon the later developments, with the hope of returning to the origin”?

I feel like I resonate a lot with this, since it seems like a lot of later developments in Buddhism veered away from the original teachings. However, like Lin says, he didn’t abandon all later developments in abhidharma so what this probably means is abandoning later developments which do not match up with what it says in sutra.


Right, these things have to be taken in context. There’s a difference between saying, “Some things in later teachings have drifted from the suttas” and saying “The entire later tradition is nothing but a mass of error”.


For I think related reasons, Thanissaro Bhikkhu advised me against reading the Vissudhimaga. In his dhamma talks he occasionally mentions abhidhamma, particularly in response to questions, indicating he is familiar with the material. I think I can understand the intent of his emphasis on the sutta-s, but, despite that his teaching has been perhaps the most influential on my understanding and practice, I’ve been attracted to study of the abhidhamma texts, and it’s been fruitful. (That is to say, the Dhammasangani, which has a certain vibrancy; reading the Abdhidhammattha-Sanagaha , on the other hand, is rather tedious, especially in the overly challenging “exercises” having to do with deriving umptine cross-lists (matikas/matrices) of relations.

It’s s/w surprising how many of those who devalue the abhidhamma feel justified in asserting their view of the matter as somehow necessarily applicable to everyone else, as some sort of absolute truth.


I’ve heard TB’s advice to stay away from the VM as well and just read the Suttas. Like you, TB is a major influence on my practice-- though I have not yet read the abhidhamma in detail or heard much about his take on it. I don’t think he has written any books on the subject-- I may ask him when I have the opportunity. Its good to know that you have found the study of abhidhamma fruitful in this context though. Thanks!

This is a very irresponsible statement if he did so.

If the teacher doesn’t believe it will help the student on the path to liberation, there’s nothing wrong with giving this advice. Ajahn Chah and others have also advised students to put down all books and reading because the students are too caught up in intellectualizing and speculating. The intentions here are the same.

You may be able to learn things by reading all sorts of stuff, even unwholesome stuff, it doesn’t mean its the best use of your time. Nobody is burning books here.