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Abhidharma (Skt.; Pal. Abhidhamma; Tib. ཆོས་མངོན་པ་, མངོན་པ་, chö ngönpa, Wyl. chos mngon pa) — refers to a collection of Buddhist texts that define many of the topics mentioned in the Buddha’s teachings (sutras), and arranges them in classifications, such as the five skandhas, the twelve ayatanas, the fifty-two mental factors. and so on, thereby providing tools for generating a precise understanding of all experience.

Contemporary scholar Steven Goodman describes the Abhidharma as:

“...an in-depth study, both analytically and experientially, of what makes up the entire universe, the person, and their world. [The Abhidharma] speaks about different patternings of what make up this entire universe, for the sole purpose...of helping beings along the path to the cessation of suffering.[1]

The Abhidharma is known as the third of the three pitakas, or collections (literally ‘baskets’), into which the Buddhist teachings are divided. This pitaka is associated with the training in wisdom (Skt. prajñā).

Brief history

The Abhidharma (Pali: Abhidhamma) philosophy developed developed after the Buddha passed away in an attempt to organize and systematize the teachings of the Buddha. As one contemporary scholar explains:

During the first two centuries following the Buddha’s parinibbāna there took place, within the early Buddhist community, a move towards a comprehensive and precise systematisation of the teachings disclosed by the Master in his discourses. The philosophical systems that emerged from this refined analytical approach to the doctrine are collectively called the Abhidhamma. Both the Theravāda and the Sarvāstivāda, the two major conservative schools in the early Sangha, had their own Abhidhammas, each based on a distinct Abhidhamma Piṭaka. It is likely too that other schools had also developed philosophical systems along similar lines, though records of them did not survive the passage of time.[2]

Basic concepts

Three wisdom categories

Three wisdom categories of the abhidharma teachings.

The abhidharma tradition presents multiple methods with which to analyze the components of an individual and their relationship to the world. Three commonly used modes are:[3][4][5][note 1]

  • five skandhas (aggregates, heaps, etc.)
  • twelve ayatanas (sense bases, cognitive stimulators, etc.)
  • eighteen dhatus (sources, etc)

These different methods have been described as "wisdom categories",[3] "sets of phenomena",[4] "modes of analysis",[5] etc.

Five skandhas

The five skandhas (Sanskrit: pañca skandha; Pali: pañca khandha) are five psycho-physical aggregates that are said to be the basis for self-clinging. The five skandhas (aggregates, heaps, etc.) were mentioned in the very first teaching of the Buddha, and which the Buddha stated that clinging to these skandhas causes suffering. The five skandas are:

  1. rupa-skandha - aggregate of forms
  2. vedana-skandha - aggregate of sensations
  3. saṃjñā-skandha - aggregate of perceptions
  4. saṃskāra-skandha - aggregate of formations
  5. vijñāna-skandha - aggregate of consciousness

Twelve ayatanas

The twelve ayatanas are another scheme for analyzing the workings of the mind. They "include all validly knowable phenomena, both nonstatic and static."[4]

The twelve ayatanas are:

  • the six outer ayatanas (six sense objects, six outer sources, etc.):
    • rūpa-āyatana - sights
    • śabda-āyatana - sounds
    • gandha-āyatana - smells
    • rasa-āyatana - tastes
    • spraṣṭavya-āyatana - textures
    • dharma-āyatana - mental objects
  • the six inner ayatanas (six sense faculties, six inner sources, etc.):
    • cakṣur-āyatana - eye base
    • śrotra-āyatana - ear base
    • ghrāṇa-āyatana - nose base
    • jihva-āyatana - tongue base
    • kāya-āyatana - body base
    • mano-āyatana - mind base

Eighteen dhatus

The eighteen dhatus also include all validly knowable phenomena. The eighteen dhatus are an extension of the twelve ayatanas. These dhatus include the twelve ayatanas, and add to them the six types of consciousness that arise when there is contact between a sense organ and an object.[5]

Main mind and mental factors

The mind is often explained in terms of 'main mind' (Tib. གཙོ་སེམས་, gtso sems) referring to the six or eight types of consciousness, and the mental factors (Tib. སེམས་བྱུང་, sems byung) , which are often given as a list of fifty-one or fifty-two states.[6]

Main mind

Main mind (Tib. གཙོ་སེམས་, tso sem; Wyl. gtso sems), in Buddhist psychology and epistemology, refers to the six or eight sets of consciousness. It is distinguished from the mental factors or processes, usually listed as fifty-one or fifty-two, which are said to perceive the features of objects, while main mind perceives only their basic identity.[7]

Mental factors

Mental factors (Sanskrit: caitasika; Pali: cetasika; Tibetan Wylie: sems byung), are defined within the Abhidharma as aspects of the mind that apprehend the quality of an object, and that have the ability to color the mind. The mental factors are categorized as formations (Sanskrit: saṅkhāra) concurrent with mind (Sanskrit: citta).[8][9][10]

Alternate translations for mental factors (Sanskrit: caitasika) include:

  • "mental states",
  • "mental events", and
  • "concomitants of consciousness".

Abhidharma texts

Theravada tradition

Tibetan tradition

The primary Abhidharma texts studied within the Tibetan tradition are:

Geshe Tashi Tsering writes:

Tibetan monastics traditionally study the Abhidharma through two very important commentaries: the Treasury of Valid Knowledge (Abhidharmakosha) by Vasubandhu, a great Indian master from around the fifth century C.E., and the Compendium of Valid Knowledge (Abhidharmasamucchaya) by his brother Asanga.[11]

Important Tibetan commentaries are:


  1. Karunadasa identifies five categories: 1. name and form; 2. five skandhas; 3. six dhatus; 4. twelve ayatanas; 5. eighteen dhatus.


  1. Stephen Goodman. Shambhala Publications. https://www.shambhala.com/videos/steven-goodman-on-abhidharma/
  2. Karunadasa 1996, p. Introduction.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Steven Goodman, Frogs in the Custard, ZAM (out of print)
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 StudyBuddhism icon 35px.png The 5 Aggregates, 12 Cognitive Stimulators, 18 Sources
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Karunadasa 1996, p. Ch.I.
  6. RW icon height 18px.png Six consciousnesses
  7. RW icon height 18px.png Main mind
  8. Guenther (1975), Kindle Location 321.
  9. Kunsang (2004), p. 23.
  10. Geshe Tashi Tsering (2006), Kindle Location 456.
  11. Tsering, Geshe Tashi (2006-11-10). Buddhist Psychology: The Foundation of Buddhist Thought (Kindle Locations 223-228). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.




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