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Abhidharma (Skt.; Pal. Abhidhamma; Tib. ཆོས་མངོན་པ་, མངོན་པ་, chö ngönpa, Wyl. chos mngon pa) — refers to a set of texts developed by the early Buddhist schools and the system of thought that is presented in those texts.[1] The Abhidharma texts define many of the topics mentioned in the Buddha’s teachings (sutras), and arrange them into classifications, such as the five skandhas, the twelve ayatanas, the eighteen dhatus, and so on, thereby providing tools for generating a precise understanding of all experience.

Contemporary scholar Steven D. 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.[2]

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

Historical background

The Abhidharma (Pali: Abhidhamma) philosophy 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.[3]

Two main traditions

Noa Ronkin states:

It is customarily assumed that the multiple ancient Buddhist schools transmitted their own versions of Abhidharma collections, but only two complete canonical collections are preserved, representing two schools: the Sarvāstivāda, who emerged as an independent school from within the Sthaviras around the second or first century BCE, became dominant in north, especially northwest India, and spread to central Asia; and the Sinhalese Theravāda, a branch of the Sthaviras that spread out in south India and parts of southeast Asia. These two extant collections comprise the third of the “three baskets” (Skt., tripiṭaka, Pali, tipiṭaka) of the Buddhist canon.
The exegetical traditions of the Sarvāstivāda and Theravāda understand their respective canonical Abhidharma to consist of a set of seven texts, though each school specifies a different set of texts.[4]

The seven texts of the Sarvāstivādin Abhidharma-piṭaka survive in full only in their ancient Chinese translations. The seven texts of the Theravādin Abhidhamma-piṭaka are preserved in Pali and all but one (the Yamaka) have been translated into English.[4]

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:[5][6][7][note 1]

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

These different methods have been described as "wisdom categories",[5] "sets of phenomena",[6] "modes of analysis",[7] etc.

Each of these methods is taught to counteract specific wrong views. For example, contemporary scholar Karunadasa states:

Now the purposes for which Buddhism resorts to these analyses are varied. For instance, the main purpose of the khandha-analysis is to show that there is no ego either inside or outside the five khandhas which go to make up the socalled empiric individuality. None of the khandhas belongs to me (n’etaṃ mama), they do not correspond to “I” (n’eso’ham asmi), nor are they my self (n’eso me attā). [7] Thus the main purpose of this analysis is to prevent the intrusion of the notions of “mine,” “I,” and “my self” into what is otherwise an impersonal and egoless congeries of mental and physical phenomena. On the other hand, the analysis into eighteen dhātus is often resorted to in order to show that consciousness is neither a soul nor an extension of a soul-substance but a mental phenomenon which comes into being as a result of certain conditions: there is no independent consciousness which exists in its own right.[7]

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

The five skandha are taught to counteract grasping to a concept of the self as a solid, unique, and permanent entity.

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."[6]

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 are another scheme for categorizing all validly knowable phenomena. The eighteen dhatus are related to the twelve ayatanas as follows: in the scheme of the 18 dhatus, the "mind base" of the 12 ayatanas is divided into seven parts: the mind faculty + the six types of consciousness. (See diagram above.)[8]

Main mind and mental factors

Within the Abhidharma, the mind is often explained in terms of two aspects:

Main mind

Main mind (Skt. pradhānacitta) refers to any instance of the six consciousnesses. Each instance of the "main mind" is accompanied by various mental factors.[9] The mental factors are said to perceive the features of objects, while main mind perceives only their basic identity.[10]

Mental factors

Mental factors (Skt. caitasika) are defined 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 (Skt. saṅkhāra) concurrent with mind (Skt citta).[11][12]

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

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

Elements of ultimate reality

The Abhidharma traditions define the basic elements (or building blocks, or mental and emotional factors) of ultimate reality. These basic elements are said to describe everything that truly exists, "in all of its particularity and variety."[13]

The different Abhidharma traditions present different list of these basic elements. For example:

  • The Theravada tradition (of the Abhidhammattha-sangaha) present of list seventy-two ultimate realities.
  • The Sarvastidian tradition (of the Abhidharma-kosha) presents of list of seventy-five elements.

These lists are not intended as definitive "ontological" descriptions of ultimate reality, but rather as "maps" that indicate how our minds and bodies exist in the world in an interdependent manner. That is, these maps are taught to break down our grasping to a fixed sense of self.

72 dhammas of the Abhidhammattha-sangaha

The Abhidhammattha-sangaha identifies 72 basic elemements of existence, called vatthudhammā. The vatthudhammā are "phenomena which exist with intrinsic natures (sabhāva)".[14] These 72 entities are:

  • Consciousness (though there are many divisions of consciousness, this is regarded as one entity because all cittas have the same intrinsic nature—the cognizing of an object)
  • The fifty-two mental factors (these are each viewed as a distinct ultimate entity since each mental factor has its own individual intrinsic nature)
  • The eighteen concretely produced material phenomena (these are each viewed as a distinct ultimate entity since each concretely produced material phenomena has its own individual intrinsic nature)
  • Nibbana[14]

75 dharmas of the Abhidharma-kosha

See: Seventy-five dharmas of the Abhidharma-kosha

100 dharmas of the Yogacara school

Vasubhandu's Lucid Introduction to the One Hundred Dharmas (Mahāyāna śatadharmā-prakāśamukha śāstra) identifies 100 dharmas.[15]

Abhidharma texts

Pali tradition

Sanskrit Sarvastivada tradition

The complete Sarvāstivādin Abhidharma Piṭaka as well as many commentaries were translated in Chinese and are included in the Chinese Canon.[16][4] Part of the Sarvāstivādin Abhidharma Piṭaka has also been translated into the Tibetan language.[17]

East Asian tradition

Tibetan tradition


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





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