Abhidhamma Pitaka

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Religious texts

The Abhidhamma Pitaka (abhidhammapiṭaka) is the last of the three pitakas, that is, baskets, constituting the Pali Canon, the scriptures of Theravāda Buddhism. It presents a more formal, abstract, systematic form of teaching than the others.

Nature of abhidhamma

Abhidhamma has been variously described as philosophy, psychology, metaphysics etc. Most scholars regard it as an attempted systematization of the teachings of the Sutta Pitaka, but L. S. Cousins, former Lecturer in the Department of Comparative Religion at Manchester University and former President of the Pali Text Society, says that the abhidhamma methodology looks at things in terms of occasions or events instead of sequences or processes. Tradition says that the abhidhamma is the absolute teaching whereas the suttas are adapted to particular hearers.


According to the scriptures themselves, the abhidhamma was taught by the Buddha himself. Tradition says that he thought it out immediately after his enlightenment, but only taught it some years later, to the gods. He then repeated it to Sariputta, who handed it on to his disciples. Scholars do not take this literally, dating these works generally around the third century B.C.E. However, some consider important aspects do or may go back earlier. Thus Cousins says that the abhidhamma methodology goes back earlier, perhaps to the Buddha himself. Dr Rupert Gethin, Lecturer in Indian religions in the Department of Theology and Religious studies, and co-director of the Centre for Buddhist Studies, at the University of Bristol, and current (2006) President of the Pali Text Society, also says important elements of abhidhamma methodology probably go back to the Buddha's lifetime. A. K. Warder, Professor Emeritus of Sanskrit at the University of Toronto, and Dr Peter Harvey of the University of Sunderland both suggest much earlier dates for the matikas on which most of the abidhamma books are based.


The Abhidhamma Pitaka consists of seven books.

  • Dhammasangani (-saṅgaṇi or -saṅga&7751ī)
  • Vibhanga (vibhaṅga)
  • Dhatukatha (dhātukathā)
  • Puggalapannatti (-paññatti)
  • Kathavatthu (kathā-)
  • Yamaka
  • Patthana (paţţhāna)


This book begins with a matika (mātikā, literally, matrix), listing classifications of dhammas, variously translated as phenomena, ideas, states, etc. It starts with 22 threefold classifications, beginning with good/bad/unclassified, and follows this with 100 twofold ones according to the abhidhamma method. Many of these classifications are not exhaustive, and some are not even exclusive. The matika ends with 42 twofold classifications according to the sutta method, which are used only in this book, whereas the other 122 are used also in some of the other books.

The main body of the book is in four parts. The first of these goes through numerous states of mind, listing and defining, by lists of synonyms, factors present in them. The second deals with material form, beginning with its own matika, classifying by ones, twos and so on, explained after. The third explains the book's matika in terms of the first two parts, as does the fourth, by a different method, and omitting the sutta method.


This book is in 18 chapters, each dealing with a different topic; for example the first deals with the five aggregates. A typical chapter (there are a number of divergences from this pattern) is in three parts. The first explains the topic according to the sutta method, often word-for-word the same as in actual suttas. The second is abhidhamma explanation, mainly by lists of synonyms as in the Dhammasangani. The third uses questions and answers, based on the matika: "How many aggregates are good etc?"


This book covers both the matika and various topics, mostly from the Vibhanga, relating them to the 5 aggregates, 12 bases and 18 elements. The first chapter is fairly simple: "In how many aggregates etc. are good dhammas etc. included?" The book progressively works up to more complicated questions: "From how many aggregates etc. are the dhammas dissociated from attention etc. dissociated?"


This book starts with its own matika, which begins with some standard lists but then continues with lists of persons grouped numerically from ones to tens. This latter portion of the matika is then explained in the main body of the work. Most of the lists of persons and many of the explanations are also found in the Anguttara Nikaya.


This book consists of more than two hundred debates on questions of doctrine. It does not identify the participants. The commentary says the debates are between the Theravada and other schools, which it identifies in each case. These identifications are mostly consistent with what is known from other sources about the doctrines of different schools.


This book consists of ten chapters, each dealing with a different topic; for example, the first deals with roots. A typical chapter (there are a number of divergences from this pattern) is in three parts. The first part deals with questions of identity: "Is good root root?" "But is root good root?" The entire Yamaka consists of such pairs of converse questions, with their answers. Hence its name, which means pairs. The second part deals with arising: "For someone for whom the form aggregate arises, does the feeling aggregate arise?" The third part deals with understanding: "Does someone who understands the eye base understand the ear base?"


This book deals with 24 conditions in relation to the matika: "Good dhamma is related to good dhamma by root condition", with details and numbers of answers.

Place in the tradition

The importance of the Abhidhamma Pitaka in classical Sinhalese Buddhism is suggested by the fact that it came to be furnished, not only, like much of the canon, with a commentary and a subcommentary on that commentary, but even with a subsubcommentary on that subcommentary. In more recent centuries, however, Burma has become the main centre of abhidhamma studies.

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