The Futility of "Reclaimed" Words: Democratizing Abhidharma

Apologies for the long title to a short post. In my defense, though, I think that the discussion implied behind these sentiments is fertile ground that intersects with EBT studies, namely, what do we make of the various sectarian Abhidharmas and what do we make of the near-universal tendency among Buddhist “sects” to create and compile Abhidharma? They are certainly “more early” than a lot of other literature, yet they themselves lack the moniker “early”, here specifically, largely on account of their divergence.

Now, I’m going to make an observation, but before I do, I would like to pre-emptively point out what I am not trying to say: [quote]The Sarvástiváda were all universally liberal modernists with an open-minded attitude towards interpretation, not hooked on any single orthodoxy as a sacred cow, meanwhile the Theravāda predecessors were all universally dour Abhidhammikas who never read any suttas.[/quote]Now that I have said what I am not saying, I will point out the nexus of this post.

The Sarvástiváda Abhidharma narratives recognizes Abhidharma as interpretation (right interpretation, according to them, but interpretation still), rather than being something that originates directly from material “exactly so-said” by the Buddha. They viewed their Abhidharma as interpretation (rightly) written by the Buddha’s students.

In one way or another, aren’t we all “Abhidhammika” in at least one sense, in the sense given above (perhaps without the hubris of the “rightly”)? We try to take a huge diverse collection of specific teachings and discourses and, internally or in writing (if one dares to propagate!), basically harmonize it and distill it for our own purposes. Hopefully we do this “right”. The key criticism many launch towards Abhidharmas is that they do it “wrong” at one point, contradicting a teaching or something, and this, combined with the fact that they generally claim one form of infallibility or another (the Abhidharmas), makes them easy targets.

But what if we didn’t think of all Abhidharmas and all Abhidharma-forming tendencies as “sutta-twisting” or “adding Buddhavacana”? What if we just considered them interpretations, perhaps right in some places, perhaps wrong in others. What if we didn’t immediately associate Abhidharma with “fake Buddhavacana”, which not all Abhidharma can be rightly accused of being necessarily?

Or, to put it more bluntly, and relate it more directly to the title, should we be “reclaiming” Abhidharma? Any text that claims to explain the contents of the Buddha’s teaching, with or without direct reference to the suttas, is by one definition an Abhidharma, and studiers and propounders of Dharma texts based on the suttas become their own kind of “Abhidhammikas” by this “reclaimed usage”.

Ultimately no one would ever adopt this usage and it would come across as highly supremacist and inflammatory (those who venerate Abhidhamma as Buddhavacana, I suspect, would be offended at a contemporary Buddhist teacher’s words being equally called “Abhidhamma”), so there is no reason to try to push this idea, “reclaiming Abhidharma” (hence the “futility” in the title), but I think it is interesting to consider nonetheless.


This speaks very much to my heart, and I have made very similar arguments in the past. It has often struck me when working on SC that we are, in many ways, doing similar tasks to what the Abhidhammikas did, using the tools and techniques available to them. To my mind, so long as we see the Abhidhamma as an evolving tradition of discussion “about the teachings”, there is no problem.

Long ago, in my Mystique of the Abhidhamma, I concluded:

Whatever is good and true in the abhidhamma will stand the test. When abhidhamma is removed from the class on ‘What the Buddha Taught’ and placed in the class on ‘The Evolution of Buddhism Through the Ages’ we will at last be able to assess it on its true merits.