The Buddha and the Abhidhamma

Among some Theravada monastics it is believed that the Buddha developed the Abhidhamma system in the period of further contemplation immediately following his Enlightenment, later instructing the gods and, finally, Sariputta. My apologies for this rather truncated depiction and I mean no disrespect. It is now thought by other Theravada monastics, notably Bhikkhu Bodhi, that modern scholarship considers the Abhidhamma to have been developed by monks in discussion among themselves after the Buddha’s Parinirvana. There is apparently no mention anywhere in the Suttas of discussion between the Buddha and his disciples about the Abhidhamma. Despite this, I wonder if there is not a middle path between these two origins of the third basket of the Tipitaka. It does seem to me that the Buddha might have conceived such a systematised method in some initial form, discussed it with Sariputta and other senior monastics, and that it was further developed over generations to appear as we now know it to be.

Those among us who come to Buddhism through reflection and thought, rather than through culture (at least at this point in our history) are often confronted by these traditional beliefs about the Buddha’s supernatural powers, such as that outlined above, and we need to be able to place them in some kind of context without reducing this profound body of psychology and philosophy to mere therapy or academic pursuit.


I trust checking this topic may be a good idea:

From it I quote Bhante @Sujato’s answer to the topic’s opening question:

This is a really good point. It’s incredibly important that we don’t see the subsequent generations of Buddhists as mere losers who got everything wrong. That raises just too many problems; but more important, it’s not a compassionate or wise way of looking at things.
As one of the few people in the world who works pretty much full time with Pali and related texts, I am acutely conscious that much of what I do is “abhidhamma” in the original meaning of the word. That is, it’s doing stuff that’s “about the teachings”.
As just one example, yesterday we posted a major upgrade to our PTS dictionary, fixing hundreds of thousands of issues. Most of these are petty details, mere conventions and markup. Now, acting as a dictionary is one of the function of the old Abhidhamma (and in a different way, the commentaries). In fact, in their lists of terms and synonyms we could argue that they are the word’s first Thesaurus. The benefit of doing this is obvious; collect various terms, collate similar terms, and clarify the meaning of different terms in various contexts.
Now, these days that’s not very useful. Modern dictionaries are much more useful, and I can easily use search across the whole corpus to find what I want. But I can only do these things because of the “abhidhamma” work done by myself, other SC developers, and the countless scholars and volunteers on whose work we rely.
This is far from denying that there are major issues with the abhidhamma project in general, and the Theravadin Abhidhamma texts in particular. But to understand these we have to start by empathizing with and understanding their goals and methods.
Long ago I wrote The Mystique of the Abhidhamma, which I believe is the most humorous essay on Abhidhamma ever written. Of course, there’s not much competition; none, to be precise. The point of the article, as explained in the final paragraph, is that we can never understand Abhidhamma properly if we insist on worshiping it and making it into something that it quite obviously is not.
I find it frustrating that even today there are so many people following Burmese methods based on the assumption that everything in the Abhidhamma is true. It’s not, even in the canonical Abhidhamma; and almost everything taught as “abhidhamma” in fact stems from much later commentaries. We have thousands of meditators believing with complete conviction that they are seeing kalāpas and mind moments and the rest. But these things just don’t exist. And they were certainly never taught by the Buddha. How is this a path to non-delusion? If we’re unable to rise above denial regarding even the simple facts of history, how can we see subtle truths of the mind?
The problem is not so much the abhidhamma texts as such, it’s the role they’ve been pressed into by the community. If we see them as attempts to write a curriculum, to make dictionaries and concordances, to classify and clarify concepts, then they can be seen as valuable or not in so far as they achieve these goals. To force them to serve as a model of “absolute truth” is to disrespect the texts and their authors. This is not listening to the actual Abhidhamma, it’s worshiping a false idol.


To be clear, there is no question about whether the abhidhamma is late. This was settled in the 19th century and is accepted by all reasonable scholars.


I think it would be useful to identify which concepts are found in EBTs (in the abhidhamma pitaka) and which concepts are found only in the abhidhamma. For example 17 mind moments are not found in EBTs. It will also be useful to identify concepts that are found in both.

With metta


Nor are they found in the Abhidhamma.


Attached is the DW’s link with related discussion about mind moments and their origins:

Please read the following topic as well.

Thank you, Bhante. The systemisation we know today must surely be of a later period. I understand that and I also appreciate that there is much in the sutta pitaka that Ven Nyanaponika Thera is quoted (Abhidhamma Studies BPS, Kandy, 1998) as having described as ‘pure Abhidhamma’… eg., the aggregates, the elements and sense bases. From this, I am comfortable with the notion that the Buddha established what the Venerable also described as the ‘framework and fundamental intuitions of the Abhidhamma - and no more than that’.


Hi bhante ,

If I may ask ,
What do you mean by don’t exist ?
Were those things invented by our mind ?

…and they cannot be identified by meditators. However some meditators see Atman (Self) in their samadhi. This is based on the (wrong) view there is a Self (that merges with Brahman). However if the wrong view is perpetuated the meditator will eventually identify some experience in their meditative state as the mind moments. The man in the gorilla suit video is a good example of selectively seeing what we want to see. However when the ‘truth’ is learnt initially then its identification in the meditative experience is natural - an aha moment- rather than a forced ‘realisation’. The mind attempts to fit a square peg into a round hole. Inconvenient discrepancies have to forcibly suppressed (the Self is permanent, not ending when the focus of meditation changes) or requires additional explanations (it arises from Brahma and ends in merging with Brahma).

This is why hearing the true dhamma, its contemplation leads only then, to practice of the Dhamma, in factors of stream entry. Identifying the core EBT concepts then becomes critical.

With metta


These were concepts developed by scholars to explain the theories of the Abhidhamma. While they have a certain role in that context, in many cases the concepts are incoherent, contradictory, or contradict basic facts about the universe as we know it.

As just one of many examples, one of the so-called fundamentals (sabhāvadhamma) in the Abhidhamma is ojā, which means “nutrition”. The idea is that food contains a substance which is fundamental in the sense that light or gravity is, and which supplies the nutrition in food. Of course we now know that nutrition is not that sort of thing, but is a much higher order phenomenon, emerging from the combination of many complex molecules. Ojā in the sense required by the Abhidhamma does not exist and cannot exist.

Another obvious example is, say “sound”. This too is regarded as a fundamental property of matter in the same way as “light”. Yet we know that “sound” is nothing more than a pattern of shifting densities in matter, or to put it another way, it’s a property that emerges from shifts in the relative closeness of atoms to each other. It is not a fundamental existent, but a higher-order property.

Late abhidhamma theory is full of this kind of problem.


Oja is one of the very important teaching in Abhidhamma. Generally it translated as nutrition and it is incorrect. What Oja means the ability of one property to create another. For example cell division is Oja.

The objective of Abhidhamma is not to come up with a scientific explanation of the matter.
The main objective of Abhidhamma is to realise Anatta.

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Bhante ,

So , if I personally happened having this type of experiences :
"We have thousands of meditators believing with complete conviction that they are seeing kalāpas and mind moments " ,
were this something valid ?
Perhaps not according to EBTs ?

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People believe they see all kinds of things in meditation. I can’t say what every meditator is experiencing. I can, however, say that these things were neither taught by the Buddha, nor do they exist.


Alright , thanks bhante .

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Actually, the story about the Buddha going to a heavenly realm and talking to his mother is not the part that should be doubted first regarding Abhidhamma, this is well inline with other EBTs stories (Buddha talking to gods etc…).


Path and fruit mind moments comes to mind (magga Citta, phala citta). The EBTs depict the ‘eight Noble people’ as lasting longer than a moment and mentioned giving Dana to these people (otherwise giving Dana to an arahanta magga -someone on the path to arahanthood-would not be possible.

These two path and fruit moments are said to arise immediately one after the other. This concept is incompatible with EBTs.

With metta

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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.

  1. 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).
  2. The a-p introduces concepts not found in or incompatible with the teachings of the sutta-pitaka (s-p).
  3. The traditional account of the initial teaching of the a-p contains mythical elements, which stain the credibility markedly.
  4. The Patthāna contains too many questions as to be likely having been recited to his mother in heaven during a period of three month.
  5. 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.
  6. 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:

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.



Sorry, my friend. This is a battle lost long ago.