In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Early Buddhist Philosophy (Abhidharma/Abhidhamma)

  • Introduction
  • Synoptic Guides to the Abhidharma Piṭaka
  • Theravāda Commentaries
  • Sarvāstivāda Commentaries
  • Reference Works
  • Historical and Textual Studies on the Abhidharma Treatises
  • Academic Handbooks and General Studies
  • Studies on Abhidharma Concepts and Topics
  • Studies on Abhidharma Soteriological Topics

Buddhism Early Buddhist Philosophy (Abhidharma/Abhidhamma)
Tadeusz Skorupski
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 April 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0212


During the centuries after the Buddha’s demise, the activities of the Saṅgha in India are sparsely documented. It is, however, evident that the Buddha’s followers made efforts to gather and systematize his teaching. The efforts to gather his teaching resulted in due course in the collection of the Vinaya and Sūtra Piṭakas. The efforts to systematize his teachings induced controversies, and resulted in the fragmentation of the Saṅgha into schools, and the composition of sectarian Abhidharma texts. Generally, the Tripiṭaka (Vinaya, Sūtra, Abhidharma) is treated as the Buddha Word. However, particularly in the case of the Abhidharma texts, historical and textual studies indicate that their crystallization into the Abhidharma Piṭaka took several centuries after the Buddha. Conventionally, the Abhidharma is said to provide a systematization of the Dharma taught by the Buddha, but in effect it offers more than that. As such the term Abhidharma encompasses a body of literature and doctrine. In terms of literature, the roots of the Abhidharma Piṭaka are often traced to mnemonic lists called mātṛkā in Sanskrit, and mātikā in Pāli. Basic lists are already present in the Sūtra Piṭaka, for instance, in the Saṅgīti and Dasuttara suttas of the Dīghanikāya. Starting with such lists, Buddhist masters produced more lists, which they grouped and collated to form the foundation of Buddhist doctrine and practice. The phases that culminated in the compilation of the mature Abhidharma Piṭakas, as we have them, remain enigmatic. In terms of doctrine, the Abhidharma does not represent a mere systematization of the Buddha’s legacy. In addition to safeguarding his teaching, the Abhidharma casts new horizons for classifying and analyzing the phenomena of existence. One of its seminal aspects is its focus on taxonomy of the entire spectrum of existence in terms of the ultimate realities called dharmas (factors, phenomena). The dharmas are differentiated into conditioned and unconditioned, and correlated with the threefold stratification of the cosmos. The conditioned dharmas are analyzed in terms of their ethical and other qualities, and arranged into taxonomic groups. A clear distinction is made between dharmas that perpetuate existence or suffering, and dharmas that are conducive to the soteriological progress and attainment of the unconditioned state, nirvāṇa. The Abhidharma adepts also produced innovative theories and pragmatic stages of the path leading to emancipation. Thus the Abhidharma adepts formulated an innovative scenario of Buddhist doctrines, which they placed under the Buddha’s authority, and at the same time proclaimed them as the ultimate teaching.

Extant Abhidharma Piṭakas

The technical term abhidharma is a propositional compound composed of abhi and dharma, which the relevant sources endow with two principal meanings: (1) pertaining to or with regard to (abhi) the doctrine (dharma); (2) the highest or advanced (abhi) doctrine (dharma). While the first etymology is favored by the Sarvāstivāda school, the Theravāda tradition endorses the second interpretation. Taken together, these two interpretations clearly indicate that the term abhidharma is styled as a systematized and definitive exposition of the Dharma that is articulated in a variety of ways in the discourses of the Buddha and his immediate disciples. In the introductory verses of his Abhidharmakośa, Vasubandhu makes a distinction between the abhidharma that is stainless wisdom (anāsrava prajñā), and the abhidharma as treatises (śāstra) that are a repository of wisdom that aids to obtain the stainless wisdom. He credits the Buddha with teaching the ultimate Abhidharma, and treats the treatises of the Abhidharma Piṭaka as human products. It is impossible to determine whether all of the early schools had their own Abhidharma Piṭaka, but certain sources indicate the existence of Abhidharma texts of several, some say seven, different schools. Unfortunately, only three complete collections of the Abhidharma Piṭaka are extant: Theravāda, Sarvāstivāda, and one attributed to the Dharmaguptakas. This entry mainly covers the Theravāda and Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma Piṭakas, and to a lesser extent the Dharmaguptaka Abhidharma treatise (śāstra).

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