to determine the probable time frame of the origins of the abhidhamma-pitaka (a-p), its general value, and authenticity is certainly a huge one, for me personally and also generally I believe, and I would be most appreciative for any further guidance, specifications and references regarding these and also for evaluations, comments, critique etc. regarding this my post.
In the following I would like to pose some observations, which have led me to the provisional inclination to see much harmony and reliability in the traditional account, that the essence (the mātikas) (?) of the abhidhamma was taught by the Buddha to ven. Sāriputta, who developed it and handed it down to his students, and the whole of the a-p (of course we cannot speak of the Kathāvatthu as being included) to his mother in heaven. My observations are based on an incomplete knowledge of the a-p itself but also the respective exegetical literature (some I read) – so I expressly invite generally any comments or corrections etc., which I believe will probably gush out on me abundantly, since the general trend here seems to be rather in disfavor of the a-p. I personally am expressly concerned staying open for investigation into truth and hope being able to maintain this attitude throughout.
First I would like to list some arguments, which I found were brought up against an early date of the a-p’s origins around the time of original Buddhism and next to this I will attempt to form some personal deliberations aiming at harmonizing the brought up discrepancies, which were intended to be shown with the arguments in the first list.
- The occurrence of the term abhidhamma which occurs in the vinaya-pitaka (v-p) in the triad of sutta, vinaya, and abhidhamma is assumed to be an interpolation (by Oldenberg and Horner).
- The a-p introduces concepts not found in or incompatible with the teachings of the sutta-pitaka (s-p).
- The traditional account of the initial teaching of the a-p contains mythical elements, which stain the credibility markedly.
- The Patthāna contains too many questions as to be likely having been recited to his mother in heaven during a period of three month.
- Several early Buddhist schools are said to have possessed an a-p at variance with the Theravāda a-p, this fact reduces the credibility as to the authenticity and reliability of this very Theravāda material.
- Several early Buddhist schools seem to have rejected the a-p as being not the words of the Buddha.
Now an attempt to harmonize the above mentioned:
First. We have to note, that reliable scholars usually use words like “probably” or “seemingly” and avoid expressing certainty, in the absence of a definite proof, which I could not perceive so far. I cannot see on what grounds Miss Horner speaks about interpolations. If we speak of linguistics I would like to draw attention to some words of Oskar v. Hinueber:
“It is of course common knowledge that languages do not develop at any predictable let alone regular pace. Consequently, it is impossible to use linguistic evidence alone in solving chronological problems that means in finding an absolute or only a relative date of any particular historical event even under the most favourable circumstances. It may be helpful, though, to use linguistic data as additional evidence in those discussions.” (In: Symposium zur Buddhismusforschung, IV, 1 – Dating the Historical Buddha, ed. Heinz Bechert, p. 183)
Lance Cousins expresses on a different line generally:
“How much canonical abhidha(r )mma literature there originally was, we do not know […] I remain unconvinced by most efforts to determine the nature of the earliest form of Buddhism by seperating earlier and later strata. But of the attempts to do so, Frauwallner’s analyses of the formation of the Vinayapitaka and of the development of the Sarvāstivādin abhidharma works still seem to be some of the best available. I am much less happy with what he has to say about the Pāli abhidhamma.” (Cousins, Lance: Abhidhamma Studies III, pp. 5—6)
In conclusion I do not see why this mentioned occurrence of the term abhidhamma should not denote an a-p, which resembles our modern version. Also considering the magnitude of the mind of ven. Sāriputta I find it not improbable, that such a bulk of material could develop within his lifetime.
Second. That the a-p introduces new concepts not found in the s-p could also be used to argue, that the s-p introduces new material not found in the a-p, which I of course would be far of believing. To my mind it is just a different style, authorized and initiated by the Buddha and developed by his foremost disciple, ven. Sāriputta, which may easily contain authentic Buddhist material not so found in a text of a different style, i.e. in a text of a sutta style. The fashion of the a-p also echoes actual suttas in the EBTS ascribed to the ven. Sāriputta and I think also to other disciples. I for one see and/or believe that most, if not all, abhidhamma concepts I found brought up as being inconsistent with the s-p can be harmonized, and also numerous scholars and meditators who found and still find harmony between these two distinct styles can be named – Bhikkhu Bodhi, Rupert Gethin, Nyanatiloka and Nyanaponika, The Pa Auk Sayadaw and others.
Third. I think most of us Buddhists here believe and see the ample evidence for it in the s-p, that the Buddha spoke about other realms than our human one as a truth and then and there established fact and also that he was able to contact and converse with the inhabitants of these other realms. So that he taught in a heavenly realm a certain body of teachings might therefore be not far off the mark. That there are certain confusions as to in which heaven his mother was actually abiding does not convince me as to an overall improbability of the general account, since even unanimously accepted EBTS are not free of contradictions.
Fourth. If he taught in heaven the whole of the a-p (excluding the Kathāvatthu), so also the Patthāna with its exorbitantly (the literal sense would fit the meaning also) high amount of questions (404,948,533,248 according to the commentary), within three month, it seems to me in accordance of what is possible in the physical universe. We do not know about the exact nature or possible speed of communication in these realms. If we consider that the Buddha ascertained the reality of heavenly troops entering a tiny flower stalk (?) within the EBTS, we may more easily account for the teaching of the a-p within three month in heaven. Note also that he did not teach the whole a-p when imparting the abhidhamma to the ven. Sāriputta under human conditions, to whom he maybe just gave the mātikas for him to develop further.
Fifth. Modern scholars usually have ascertained and spoke in favor of the faithfulness and conservativeness of the Theravāda tradition and I think that it was again v. Hinueber who said, that we can in no other tradition go further back than in the Theravāda, referring here I believe, to linguistics and the pristine nature of Pāli. We find content in other traditions canonized, which in the Theravāda only found way into the commentaries. (K. R. Norman: A Philological Approach to Buddhism). So a rather quite clear cut distinction between early and late was upheld and not mingled, in order to keep the canon largely unadultered. That speaks in favor of the Theravāda tradition in comparison to other early Buddhist schools, and hence implicitly including also it’s a-p as a genuine text of parallel value to the v-p and s-p.
Sixth. The other early Buddhist schools may have rejected the Theravāda a-p because of the intrinsic affinity to the ven. Sāriputta. Perhaps not too dissimilar to a modern Thai movement within the Theravāda (Buddhawajana movement of Wat Nah Pah Pong – not to be confused with the one of Luang Por Chah “Wat Nong Pah Pong”), which seems to be merely focusing on what just and only the Buddha said, and not laying significant emphasis on the words of his disciples, even printing new edition of the root texts omitting, to my knowledge and remembrance, the disciple’s sayings (probably it would then be just an eka-pitaka or half a pitaka or so). Some infos conveniently put together by ven. Gavesako here: https://dhammawheel.com/viewtopic.php?t=21616
A personal bent might be also very strongly influencing the trajectory of investigations and conclusions – many people may not find the abhidhamma teachings appealing and so are rather inclined to dismiss them also on other grounds, such as history or general authenticity. Such proclivity of course, it should go without saying, should be avoided and just the search for truth be upheld. I hope that for this search the discussion will be conducive for.