Dharmas as factors of existence

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Within the Abhidharma tradition, the term dharmas or dharma (P. dhamma; T. chos; C. fa 法) is used to refer to the physical and mental factors of existence. This is one of multiple usages for the term dharma within traditional Buddhist texts.[1] In this context, the term dharmas is translated as "factors of existence," "phenomena," "constituents of reality," etc. Likewise, the term dharma (singular) is translated as "factor of existence," "phenomenon," etc.

Early Abhidharma scholars developed lists of dharmas, which were understood as physical and mental factors that are the basis, or "building blocks," for everything that truly exists, "in all of its particularity and variety."[2] Contemporary scholar Steven Goodman compared these lists of dharmas to the periodic table of elements.[3] Just as the elements in the periodic table combine chemically to form all types of physical substances, likewise the dhammas in Buddhist theory are said to combine to produce all types of physical and mental events. These lists are not intended as definitive "ontological" descriptions of ultimate reality, but rather as "maps" that indicate how our minds and bodies exist and function in the world in an interdependent manner. The purpose of studying these maps is to learn to distinguish the difference between how things appear and how they actually are, and ultimately to break down our grasping to a fixed sense of self (ātmagrāha).[3]

The Abhidharma traditions from different early Buddhist schools developed different lists of dharmas. However, these lists are similar and share many of the same factors.

Nature of "dharmas"

Patterns of energy

Steven Goodman describes dharmas as “factors of reality” or “what there is.” Regarding the list of dharmas found in one tradition, he states:

We could look at it like we would a periodic table of elements with all the different atoms, from hydrogen through einsteinium. There are lightweight atoms and heavyweight atoms, each with their own characteristics, their own quantum spin (at the level of quarks), and their own capacity to engage in conditional relations with other atoms to make molecules. These molecules combine with other molecules to make bigger molecules. And sometimes, as with carbon, an atom continues making long strings called polymers, such as plastics, which we may later use as a plastic bottle.
We can see polymers in their functional aspect, as, for instance, a plastic bottle, but we don’t see the molecular structure of the polymer itself. This distinction between the way things really are and the way they appear is crucial and is a distinction that is elaborated upon in the Abhidharma (and in subsequent) literature. It is said that the listing and understanding of the various factors of existence and their interactions is, in fact, the way things are. It is, however, difficult to be aware at the level of the flowing interactions of the dharmas themselves. [...] At the level of the way things actually are, not only in Western science but also in Abhidharma, there is an understanding that there is a fundamental plurality of different energy patterns, which in Western science, until recently, we called an “atom,” meaning “not divisible."
Atom is simply a word for a fundamental pattern of energy. Of course, nowadays, we say that not even the atom is so fundamental. What are the current and most fundamental building blocks that make up atoms? They are called quarks, which have rather wonderful names: beauty, strangeness, and charm.
In a similar way, the Abhidharma tradition has a very subtle and precise way of presenting what makes up our entire world, both physically and non-physically, perceptually, cognitively, somatically, physiologically, and so on. The equivalent to this atom (or quark) in the Abhidharma world is called a dharma. The study of the Abhidharma can be understood as consisting of becoming learned about both the essential features of these dharmas and also how these dharmas work together.[3]

Psychophysical factors that form a continuum

Charles Willemen states:

The factors or constituents of the dharma, the teachings, are also called dharma(s). Such dharmas are psychophysical factors, which flow according to the natural process of dependent origination. Dharma theory explains how the human being is a flux or continuum (santāna), without any permanent factor or soul (ātman). Existing reality is called the “realm of the real” (dharmadhātu). Buddhism concerns itself with the phenomenal, by which existence is recognized. This phenomenal world is in constant change. Buddhism sees all phenomena as formations (saṃskāra), formative forces or volitions that are formed (saṃskṛta) by causes and conditions. Formation has an active and a passive meaning. Factors (dharmas) are formed, but sometimes at least one unformed or uncompounded factor, nirvana, is recognized. The Sarvāstivāda... distinguish three unformed or uncompounded (asaṃskṛta) factors.
Everything that is an obvious object of consciousness is a factor. A person, just like the whole of existence, is a flux, a series of impermanent factors, but sentient life has a sentient element: mind (manas) or consciousness. A human being is a flow of material and immaterial factors set in motion by karma and controlled by the law of dependent origination. Dharma theory explains how existence functions in the context of a human continuum. It explains its ultimate factors and it contains the possibility of stopping this continuum.[4]

Conditioned or unconditioned

All dharmas can be categorized as either conditioned or unconditioned:[5]

  • conditioned (saṃskṛta) - produced through causes and conditions, and having the nature of arising, remaining and ceasing
  • unconditioned (asaṃskṛta) - not created through causes and conditions, and hence are not subject to arising, dwelling and ceasing

In the Pali tradition, only nirvana is identified as an unconditioned (asaṁskṛta) dharma. In the Sanskrit tradition, other dharmas are also identified as unconditioned. (See asaṃskṛta.)

Ultimate nature

Some early Abhidharma traditions held that all dharmas were ultimately existent (svabhāva). Later scholars, particularly in the Sanskrit Mahayana tradition, rejected this view. These later scholars, such as Nagarjuna, asserted that anything that arises due to causes and conditions can not be inherently existent (svabhava).

In the Sanskrit Mahayana, their are multiple Abhidharma traditions. The traditions that assert dharmas to be ultimately existent are referred to as the lower abhidharma. The traditions that assert that all things, including dharmas, lack inherent existence are referred to has the higher abhidharma.

Lists of dharmas

The different Abhidharma traditions present different lists of dharmas, or factors of existence. These lists are not intended as definitive "ontological" descriptions of ultimate reality, but rather as "maps" that indicate how our minds and bodies exist and function in the world in an interdependent manner.

In the Pali tradition, the following lists are referred to:

In the Sanskrit tradition, the following lists are well-known:

Distinction between Sutranta and Abhidharma points of view

Noa Ronkin states:

The Buddha’s discourses collected in the Āgamas/Nikāyas analyze sentient experience from different standpoints: in terms of name-and-form (nāma-rūpa), the five aggregates (Skt., skandha, Pali, khandha), the twelve sense fields (āyatana), or the eighteen sense elements (dhātu). All these modes of analysis provide descriptions of sentient experience as a succession of physical and mental processes that arise and cease subject to various causes and conditions. A striking difference between the Sūtrānta and the Abhidharma worldviews is that the Abhidharma reduces the time scale of these processes so they are now seen as operating from moment to moment. Put differently, the Abhidharma reinterprets the terms by which the sūtras portray sequential processes as applying to discrete, momentary events (Cousins 1983, 7; Ronkin 2005, 66–78).[8]

Development of dharma theory

Charles Willemen states:

Originally Buddhism used a threefold classification of factors: (1) five skandha (aggregate), (2) twelve bases or sense fields (ayatana), and (3) eighteen elements (dhatu). During the last centuries B.C.E., the dharma theory developed considerably in abhidharma Buddhism. The most influential dharma theory was that of the diverse Sarvāstivāda schools. Other schools either adopted most of the Sarvāstivāda dharma theory (as did the Mahīśāsaka), introduced minor changes (Dharmaguptaka), were influenced by it (Buddhaghosa in fifth-century Theravāda), reacted to it (Mahāsāṃghika, Madhyamaka), or built on it (Vijñānavāda). The Vaibhāṣikas in Kashmir inherited a fivefold classification from their Gandhāran brethren, who, after about 200 C.E., came to be called Sautrāntikas. Even among the western Sarvāstivādins there was no general agreement about the number of factors.
Nevertheless, the Sarvāstivāda branch that was most influential in Central and East Asia, in the Gandhāran part of northwestern India, and in Kashmir after the demise of the Vaibhāṣikas, was the branch that ultimately based its classification on such texts as the Abhidharmahṛdaya (Heart of Scholasticism) and on the Aṣṭagrantha (Eight Compositions), both probably from the first century B.C.E. This branch used a fivefold classification as found in the Pañcavastuka (Five Things), which was translated in China during the second century C.E. and advocated a Buddhist version of the five elements or modes that were popular at the time.
The Aṣṭagrantha was revised and renamed Jñānaprasthāna (Course of Knowledge) at the end of the second century C.E. and became the central text or corpus (śarīra) for the Vaibhāṣikas. The Abhidharmahṛdaya was commented on in the Miśrakābhidharmahṛdaya (Sundry Heart of Scholasticism), and this text was the basis of Vasubandhu’s Abhidharmakośabhāsya (Storehouse of Abhidharma), which dates to the early fifth century. The influence of the Abhidharmakośabhāsya or Kośa, was and is considerable.[4]


  1. See, for example, ten referents for "dharma".
  2. Goodman 2020, Chapter 2.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Goodman 2020, Chapter 1.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Willemen 2004, p. 220.
  5. Thupten Jinpa 2017, s.v. Chapter 4, Phenomena in General.
  6. Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. Lists of lists.
  7. The One Hundred Dharmas (Dan Lusthaus)
  8. Ronkin (2022)


Further reading

  • Ronkin, Noa (2005), Early Buddhist Metaphysics: The Making of a Philosophical Tradition, London; New York: Routledge