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Abhidharma exegesis

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Abhidharma exegesis evolved over a long period as both the agent and the product of a nascent and then increasingly disparate Buddhist sectarian self-consciousness.

Given the voluminous nature of even the surviving literature that provides a record of this long doctrinal history, any outline of abhidharma method must be content with sketching the most general contours and touching on a few representative examples.

Nonetheless, scanning the history of abhidharma, one discerns a general course of development that in the end resulted in a complex interpretative edifice radically different from the sutras upon which it was believed to be based.

In its earliest stage, that is, as elaborative commentary, abhidharma was guided by the intention simply to clarify the content of the sutras.

Taxonomic lists were used as a mnemonic device facilitating oral preservation and transmission; catechetical investigation was employed in a teaching environment of oral commentary guided by the pedagogical technique of question and answer.

Over time, the taxonomic lists grew in complexity as the simpler lists presented in the sutra teachings were combined in new ways, and additional categories of qualitative analysis were created to specify modes of interaction among discrete aspects of the sutra teaching.

The initially terse catechetical in-vestigation was expanded with discursive exposition and new methods of interpretation and argumenta-tion, which were demanded by an increasingly polem-ical environment.

These developments coincided with a move from oral to written methods of textual trans-mission and with the challenge presented by other Buddhist and non-Buddhist groups.

In its final stage, abhidharma texts became complex philosophical treatises employing sophisticated methods of argumenta-tion, whose purpose was the analysis and elaboration of doctrinal issues for their own sake.

The very sutras from which abhidharma arose were now subordinated as mere statements in need of analysis that only the abhidharma could provide. No longer serving as the starting point for abhidharma exegesis, the sutras were

invoked only as a supplemental authority to buttress independent reasoned investigations or to corroborate doctrinal points actually far removed from their scriptural antecedents.

Abstract analysis, which is the guiding principle of abhidharma exegesis, also became the salient characteristic of its doctrinal interpretation. The analytical tendency, evident in lists present even in the sutras, expanded in abhidharma to encompass all of experience.

In very simple terms, abhidharma attempts an exhaustive and systematic accounting of every possible type of experience in terms of its ultimate constituents.

Abhidharma views experience with a critical analytical eye, breaking down the gross objects of ordinary perception into their constituent factors or dharmas and clarifying the causal interaction among these discrete factors.

This analysis was not, however, motivated by simple abstract interest, but rather by a soteriological purpose at the very core of Buddhist religious praxis.

Analysis determines the requisite factors of which each event consists, distinguishing those factors that lead to suffering and rebirth from those that contribute to their termination. This very process of analysis was identified with the insight that functions in religious praxis to cut off ensnaring factors and to cultivate those leading to liberation.

Abhidharma analysis focused on refining these lists of factors and on investigating the problems that arise in using them to explain experience.

Simple enumerations of factors found in the earlier sutras include the lists of five aggregates (skandha), twelve sense-spheres (ayatana), and eighteen elements (dhatu) that were used to describe animate beings, or the lists of practices and qualities that were to be incorporated into the set of thirty-seven limbs of enlightenment, whose cultivation results in the attainment of enlightenment.

These earlier analytical lists were preserved in abhid-harma treatises and integrated into comprehensive and complex intersecting classifications that aimed to clar-ify both the unique identity of each factor and all pos-sible modes of conditioning interaction among them.

The abhidharma treatises of various schools proposed differing lists of factors containing as many as seventy-five, eighty-one, or one hundred discrete categories.

For example, the Sarvastivadins adopted a system of seventy-five basic categories of factors distinguished according to their intrinsic nature (svabhava), which were then grouped in five distinct classes.

The first four classes (material form rupa—eleven;

mind citta— one;

mental factors caitta—forty-six;

and factors dissociated from material form and mind cittaviprayuktasamskara—fourteen) comprise all conditioned factors (samskrta), that is, factors that participate in causal interaction and are subject to arising and passing away. The fifth class comprises three unconditioned factors (asamskrta), which neither arise nor pass away.

Through abhidharma analysis, all experiential events were explained as arising from the interaction of a certain number of these factors.

Particular occurrences of individual factors were further characterized in accordance with additional specific criteria or sets of qualities including their moral quality as virtuous, unvirtuous, or indeterminate, their locus of occurrence as connected to the realm of desire, the realm of form, the formless realm, or not connected to any realm, their connection to animate experience as characteristic of SENTIENT BEINGS or not, and their conditioning efficacy as resulting from certain types of causes or leading to certain types of effects.

To give an example, a particular instance of a mental factor, such as conception (samjña), can be virtuous in moral quality, characteristic of sentient beings, connected to the realm of desire, and so on.

In other circumstance, another occurrence of the same factor of conception, while still characteristic of sentient beings, can be un-virtuous and connected to the realm of form.

Although the specific character of each instance of conception differs as virtuous, or unvirtuous, and so on, all such instances, regardless of their particular qualities, share the same intrinsic nature as conception and can, there-fore, be placed within the same fundamental category.

Thus, the taxonomic schema of seventy-five factors represents seventy-five categories of intrinsic nature, each of which occurs phenomenally or experientially in innumerable instances.

Through this disciplined exercise of exhaustive analysis in terms of constituent factors, experience can be seen as it actually is, the factors causing further suffering can be discarded, and those contributing toward liberation can be isolated and cultivated.

This exhaustive abhidharma analysis of experience occasioned a number of doctrinal controversies that served to demarcate different schools.

Many of these controversies were directed by fundamental disagreements that could be termed ontological, specifically concerning the way in which the different factors constituting experience exist and the dynamics of their interaction or conditioning.

Such ontological concerns motivated the early lists of factors in the sutras, which were used to support the fundamental Buddhist teaching of no-self (anatman) by demonstrating that no

perduring, unchanging, independent self (atman) could be found.

In abhidharma treatises the focus of ontological concern shifted from gross objects, such as the self, to the factors or dharmas of which these objects were understood to consist.

Perhaps the most distinctive ontology was proposed by the Sarvastivadins, “those who claim sarvam asti,” or “everything exists.”

Beginning from the fundamental Buddhist teaching of ANITYA (IMPERMANENCE), they suggested that the constituent factors of experience exist as discrete and real entities, arising and passing away within the span of a single moment.

But such a view of experience as an array of strictly momentary factors would seem to make continuity and indeed any conditioning interaction among the discrete factors impossible. Factors of one moment, whose existence is limited to that moment, could never condition the arising of subsequent factors that do not yet exist; and factors of the subsequent moment must then arise without a cause since their prior causes no longer exist.

To safeguard both the Buddhist teaching of impermanence and the conditioning process that is essential to account for ordinary experience, the Sarvastivadins suggested a novel reinterpretation of existence.

Each factor, they claimed, is characterized by both an intrinsic nature, which exists unchanged in the past, present, and future, and an activity or causal efficacy, which arises and passes away due to the influence of conditions within the span of the present moment.

Only those factors that are defined by both intrinsic nature and the possibility of activity exist as real entities (dravya); the composite objects of ordinary experience that lack intrinsic nature exist only as mental constructs or provisional designations (praj-ñapti).

This model, the Sarvastivadins claimed, pre-serves the Buddhist doctrine of impermanence, since each factor’s activity arises and passes away, and yet also explains continuity and the process of conditioning, since factors exist as intrinsic nature in the past, present, and future.

Such past (or future) existent factors can then, through various special types of causal efficacy, serve as conditions in the arising of subsequent factors.

The Sarvastivada ontological model be-came the subject of heated debate and was rejected by other schools (e.g., the Theravada and the Darstantika) who claimed that factors exist only in the present, and not in the past and future. According to the Darstantikas, intrinsic nature cannot be distinguished from a factor’s activity.

Instead, a factor’s very existence is its activity, and experience is nothing other than an uninterrupted conditioning process.

The fragmentation of this conditioning process into discrete factors possessed of individual intrinsic nature and unique efficacy is nothing but a mental fabrication.

These ontological investigations generated complex theories of conditioning and intricate typologies of causes and conditions.

There is evidence for several rival classifications of individual causes and conditions, each of which accounts for a specific mode of conditioning interaction among specific categories of factors:

For example, the Theravadins proposed a set of twenty-four conditions; the Sarvastivadins, two separate sets of four conditions and six causes.

Besides establishing different typologies of causes and conditions, the schools also disagreed on the causal modality exercised by these specific types. The Sarvastivadins acknowledged that certain of these causes and conditions arise prior to their effects, while others, which exert a supportive conditioning efficacy, arise simultaneously with their effects.

The Darstantikas, however, allowed only successive causation; a cause must always precede its effect.

In these debates about causality, the nature of animate or personal conditioning that is, efficacious action, or KARMA and the theory of dependent origination intended to account for animate conditioning were, naturally, central issues because of their fundamental role in all Buddhist teaching and practice.

The investigation of these doctrinal controversies, which came to occupy an ever greater position in later abhidharma treatises, required the development of more formal methods of argumentation that employed both supporting scriptural citations and reasoned in-vestigations.

In the earliest examples of such arguments, reasoned investigations did not yet possess the power of independent proof and were considered valid only in conjunction with supportive scriptural citations.

This reliance upon scriptural citations spurred the development of a systematic HERMENEUTICS that would mediate conflicting positions by judging the authenticity and authority of corroborating scriptural passages and determining the correct mode of their interpretation.

In general, the interpretative principles applied were inclusive and harmonizing; any statement deemed in conformity with the teaching of the Buddha or with his enlightenment experience was accepted as genuine.

Hierarchies were created that incorporated divergent scriptural passages by valuing them differently. And finally, contradictory passages in the sutras or within abhidharma texts were said to represent the variant perspectives from which the Buddhist teaching could be presented.

Notable for its parallel with later Buddhist ontology and epistemology was the hermeneutic technique whereby certain passages or texts were judged to have explicit meaning (nltartha) expressing absolute truth or reality, while others were judged to have implicit meaning (neyartha) expressing mere conventional truth.

And for the abhidharma texts, the sutras were merely implicit and in need of further interpretation that could be provided only by the explicit abhidharma treatises. In abhidharma texts of the later period, reasoned investigations were deemed sufficient, and the supporting scriptural references became decontextualized commonplaces, cited simply to validate the use of key terms in an abhidharma context.

Reasoned investigations began to be appraised by independent non-scriptural criteria, such as internal consistency, and the absence of logical faults, such as fallacious causal justification.

The doctrinal analysis and methods of argumentation developed within abhidharma treatises defined the course for later Indian Buddhist scholasticism, which refined and expanded its abhidharma heritage through the addition of new doctrinal perspectives, increasingly sophisticated techniques of argument, and a wider context of both intra-and extra-Buddhist debate.

See also: Abhidharmakosabhasya; Anatman/Atman (No-Self/Self); Canon; Commentarial Literature; Councils, Buddhist; Dharma and Dharmas; Psychology; Sarvastivada and Mulasarvastivada


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