An Introduction to the Abhidharma
In this series, I will discuss the philosophical and psychological aspects of Buddhism presented in the seven books of the Abhidharma Pitaka of the Pali canon. I will not look in great detail at the lists of factors, or dharmas, found in many competent books on the Abhidharma. Instead, my objectives here are three: (1) to outline and describe the principal methods and characteristics of the Abhidharma, (2) to relate the Abhidharma to what we generally know about the teachings of the Buddha, and (3) to relate Abhidharma philosophy to our situation as lay Buddhists.
Throughout the history of Buddhism, the Abhidharma has been held in high esteem. In the books of the Pali canon, for example, the Abhidharma is spoken of in terms of praise and special regard. There the Abhidharma is the special domain of the elder monks; novices are even asked not to interrupt the Elders when they are engaged in a discussion of the Abhidharma. We also find the Abhidharma recommended only for those who sincerely strive to realize the goal of Buddhist practice, and that a knowledge of it is recommended for teachers of the Dharma.
This traditional regard for the Abhidharma is found not only in the Theravada tradition but in other major Buddhist traditions as well. For instance, Kumarajiva, the great Central Asian translator renowned for his translation of Madhyamaka works into Chinese, is said to have firmly believed that he must introduce the Abhidharma to the Chinese if he wished to teach them Buddhist philosophy. In the Tibetan tradition, also, the Abhidharma is an important part of monastic training.
Why is the Abhidharma held in such high esteem? The basic reason is that a knowledge of the Abhidharma, in the general sense of understanding the ultimate teaching, is absolutely necessary to achieve wisdom, which is in turn necessary to achieve freedom. No matter how long one meditates or how virtuous a life one leads, without insight into the real nature of things, one cannot achieve freedom.
A knowledge of the Abhidharma is necessary in order to apply the insight into impermanence, impersonality, and insubstantiality that we gain from a reading of the Sutra Pitaka to every experience of daily life. All of us may glimpse impermanence, impersonality, and insubstantiality through reading the Sutra Pitaka, but how often can we apply that momentary intellectual truth to our daily existence? The system in the Abhidharma teaching provides a mechanism for doing so. A study of the Abhidharma is therefore extremely useful for our practice.
Let us consider the origin and authenticity of the Abhidharma. The Theravada school holds that the Buddha is the source of the Abhidharma philosophy and was himself the first master of the Abhidharma because, on the night of his enlightenment, he penetrated the essence of the Abhidharma. According to a traditional account, the Buddha also spent the fourth week after his enlightenment in meditation on the Abhidharma. This is the week known as 'the House of Gems.' Later in his career, it is said that the Buddha visited the Heaven of the Thirty-Three, where his mother was, and taught the Abhidharma to her and the gods. It is said that when he returned to earth, he passed on the essentials of what he had taught to Sariputta--hardly a coincidence, since Sariputta was his foremost disciple, renowned for his wisdom.
Thus it is claimed in general that it is the Buddha to whom we owe the inspiration of the Abhidharma teaching. This inspiration was passed on to his disciples who were philosophically gifted, like Sariputta, and by the effort of these gifted disciples the general outline and contents of Abhidharma philosophy were established.
Let us go on to consider the meaning of the term abhidharma. If we look carefully at the Sutra Pitaka, we find this term occurring frequently, usually in the general sense of 'meditation about Dharma,' 'instruction about Dharma,' or 'discussion about Dharma.' In a more specific sense, abhidharma means 'special Dharma,' 'higher Dharma,' or 'further Dharma.' Here, of course, we are using Dharma in the sense of doctrine or teaching, not in the sense of phenomenon or factor of experience (in which case it would not be capitalized).
There is an even more technical sense in which the term abhidharma is used in the Sutra Pitaka, and in this context dharma no longer means doctrine in general but, rather, phenomenon. This technical use is associated with another function, that is to make distinctions. This most technical use of the term abhidharma has five aspects, or meanings: (a) to define dharmas; (b) to ascertain the relationship between dharmas; (c) to analyze dharmas; (d) to classify dharmas, and (e) to arrange dharmas in numerical order.
The Buddhist canon is divided into three collections (literally, 'baskets'): the Sutra Pitaka, the Vinaya Pitaka, and the Abhidharma Pitaka. The Sutra Pitaka is ordinarily termed the basket of the discourses, the Vinaya Pitaka contains the rules covering the monastic community, and the Abhidharma Pitaka is normally referred to as the books of Buddhist philosophy and psychology. Here I would like to look at the relationship between the Abhidharma Pitaka and the Sutra Pitaka. There is a great deal of Abhidharmic material in the Sutra Pitaka. Remember the technical definition of abhidharma that we considered a moment ago. Keeping that in mind, we find in the Sutra Pitaka a number of discourses that are Abhidharmic in character: the Anguttara Nikaya, which presents an exposition of teachings arranged in numerical order; the Sangiti Sutta and Dasuttara Sutta, in which Sariputta expounds on items of the teachings arranged in numerical order; and the Anupada Sutta, a discourse in which Sariputta analyzes his meditative experience in Abhidharmic terms.
How, then, can we arrive at a distinction between the Abhidharma and the sutras? To do this we need to look at the second meaning of the term abhidharma, namely, its use in the sense of 'higher doctrine.' In the sutras the Buddha speaks from two points of view. First he speaks of beings, objects, the qualities and possessions of beings, the world, and the like, and he is often found making statements such as 'I myself will go to Uruvela.' Second, the Buddha proclaims in no uncertain terms that there is no 'I' and that all things are devoid of personality, substance, and so forth.
Obviously, the two standpoints in operation here are the conventional (vohara) and the ultimate (paramattha). We have everyday language like 'you' and 'I,' and we also have technical philosophical language that does not assume personality, objects, and so forth. This is the difference between the Sutric contents and the Abhidharmic contents of the teachings of the Buddha. By and large, the sutras use the conventional standpoint while the Abhidharma uses the ultimate standpoint. Yet there are passages in the sutras that describe impermanence, impersonality or insubstantiality, elements, and aggregates, and hence reflect the ultimate standpoint. In this context there is also a division of texts into those whose meaning is explicit and direct, and those whose meaning is implicit and indirect.
Why did the Buddha resort to these two standpoints, the conventional and the ultimate? For the answer we need to look at his excellence as a teacher and skill in choosing methods of teaching. If the Buddha had spoken to all his audiences only in terms of impermanence, insubstantiality, elements, and aggregates, I do not think the Buddhist community would have grown as quickly as it did during the sixth century B.C.E. At the same time, the Buddha knew that the ultimate standpoint is indispensable for a profound understanding of the Dharma, so his teachings do contain specific language for expressing the ultimate standpoint.