The Abhidhamma Philosophy

by Ven. Nyanaponika, Thera

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The Evaluation of Abhidhamma and the Question of its Authenticity

Even in olden days opinions about the Abhidhamma Pitaka moved between the extremes of unquestioning veneration and entire repudiation. Very early there were doubts about the authenticity of the Abhidhamma Pitaka as genuine Buddha word. The early sect of the Sautrantikas regarded, as their name indicates, only Sutta and Vinaya as canonical, but not the Abhidhamma.

It may have been a follower of that sect who is introduced in the Atthasalini as criticising the Abhidhamma lecture of a monk thus: ‘You have quoted, O preacher, a long Sutta that seems to girdle Mount Meru. What is the name of it?’ – ‘It is an Abhidhamma Sutta.’ – ‘But why did you quote an Abhidhamma Sutta? Is it not befitting to cite a Sutta that has been proclaimed by the Buddha?’ – ‘And by whom do you think the Abhidhamma was proclaimed?’ – ‘It was not proclaimed by the Buddha.’ Thereupon that monk is severely rebuked by the preacher, and after that the Atthasalini continues: ‘He who excludes the Abhidhamma (from the Buddha-Word) damages the Conqueror’s Wheel of Dhamma (jina-cakkam paharam deti). He excludes thereby the Omniscience of the Tathagata and impoverishes the grounds of the Master’s Knowledge of Self-confidence’ (vesarajja-nana to which Omniscience belongs); he deceives an audience anxious to learn; he obstructs (progress to) the Noble Paths of Holiness; he makes all the eighteen causes of discord appear at once. By so doing he deserves the disciplinary punishment of temporary segregation, or the reproof of the assembly of monks.’ This very severe attitude seems somewhat extreme, but it may be explained as a defensive reaction against sectarian tendencies at that period.

The main arguments of Theravada against those who deny the authenticity of the Abhidhamma, are as follows:

1) The Buddha has to be regarded as the first Abhidhammika, because, according to the Atthasalini, ‘he had already penetrated the Abhidhamma when sitting under the tree of Enlightenment.’

2) ‘The Abhidhamma, the ultimate doctrine, is the domain of the omniscient Buddhas only, not the domain of others’ (Asl). These profound teachings are unmistakably the property of an enlightened being, a Buddha. To deny this is as senseless as stealing the horse of a World Ruler, unique in its excellency, or any other possession of his, and showing oneself in public with it. And why? Because they obviously belong to and are befitting for a king (Asl).

Even to non-Buddhists who do not regard the Buddha as an omniscient Enlightened One, but recognize him as a great and profound thinker it should appear improbable that the Buddha would have remained unaware of the philosophical and psychological implications of his teachings, even if he did not speak of them at the very start and to all his followers. Considering the undeniable profundity of the Abhidhamma, the world-wide horizons of that gigantic system, and the inexhaustible impulses to thought which it offers – in view of all this it seems much more probable that at least the basic teachings of Abhidhamma derive from that highest intuition that the Buddha calls Samma-sambodhi, Perfect Enlightenment. It appears therefore a quite credible as well as a reasonable and cautious statement when the old Theravada tradition ascribes the fundamental intuitions and the framework of the Abhidhamma (not more than that) to the Buddha himself. A quite different question, of course, is the origin of the codified Abhidhamma literature as we have it at present. But this problem cannot be dealt with here, and in any case the sources and facts at our disposal do not allow very much to be said about it with any definiteness.

Theravada tradition holds that the Buddha preached the Abhidhamma first to the assembled gods of the Tavatimsa heaven, headed by his mother. After that, having returned to earth again, he conveyed the bare method to the Arahat Sariputta. Whatever one may think about this tradition, whether, as the devout Eastern Buddhist does, one regards it as a historical account, or whether one takes it as a significant legend, one fact emerges fairly clearly from it; the originators of this very early tradition did not assume the Abhidhamma texts to have been expounded by the Buddha to human beings in the same way and as literally as the Sutta texts. If one wishes to give a psychological interpretation to that traditional account, one might say that the sojourn in the world of gods may refer to periods of intense contemplation transcending the reaches of an earth-bound mentality; and that from the heights of that contemplation its fundamental teachings were brought back to the world of normal human consciousness and handed over to philosophically gifted disciples like the Venerable Sariputta.

In a comparative evaluation of Abhidhamma and Sutta texts, the fact is often overlooked – which, however, has been repeatedly stressed by the Venerable Nyanatiloka Mahathera – that the Sutta Pitaka too contains a considerable amount of pure Abhidhamma. This comprises all those numerous Suttas and passages where ultimate (paramattha) terms are used, expressing the impersonal (anatta) or functional way of thinking, for example, when dealing with the khandhas, dhatus, ayatanas, etc.

One also frequently hears the question asked whether the Abhidhamma is necessary for a full understanding of the Dhamma or for final liberation. In this general form, the question is not quite adequately put. Even in the Sutta Pitaka many different methods of practice, many ‘gates’ to the understanding of the same four Truths and to the final goal, Nibbana, are shown. Not all of them are ‘necessary’ or suitable in their entirety for all individual disciples, who will make their personal choice among these various methods of approach according to circumstances, inclination and growing maturity. The same holds true for the Abhidhamma both as a whole and in its single aspects and teachings.