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Abhidharma texts

From Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia
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Traditional accounts of early Indian Buddhist schools suggest that while certain schools may have shared some textual collections, many transmitted their own independent abhidharma treatises. XUANZANG (ca. 600–664 C.E.), the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim who visited India in the seventh century C.E., is reported to have collected numerous texts of as many as seven mainstream Buddhist schools.

These almost certainly included canonical abhidharma texts representing various schools. However, only two complete canonical collections, representing the Theravada and Sarvastivada schools, and several texts of undetermined sectarian affiliation are preserved.

Even though each of the Theravada and Sarvastivada abhidharma collections contains seven texts, the individual texts of the two collections cannot be neatly identified with one another.

However, a close examination of certain texts from each collection and a comparison with other extant abhidharma materials reveals similarities in the underlying taxonomic lists, in exegetical structure, and in the topics discussed.

These similarities suggest either contact among the groups who composed and transmitted these texts, or a common ground of doctrinal exegesis and even textual material predating the emergence of the separate schools.


The Theravada canonical abhidharma collection, the only one extant in an Indian language (Pali), contains seven texts:

1. Vibhanga (Analysis);

2. Puggalapaññatti (Designation of Persons);

3. Dhatukatha (Discussion of Elements);

4. Dhammasangani (Enumeration of Factors);

5. Yamaka (Pairs);

6. Patthana (Foundational Conditions); and

7. Kathavatthu (Points of Discussion).


The Sarvastivada canonical abhidharma collection, also including seven texts, is extant only in Chinese translation:


1. Sangltiparyaya (Discourse on the Sanglti);

2. Dharmaskandha (Aggregation of Factors);

3. [[Prajñaptisastra] (Treatise on Designations);

4. Dhatukaya (Collection on the Elements);

5. Vijñanakaya (Collection on Perceptual Consciousness);

6. Prakaranapada (Exposition); and

7. Jñanaprasthana (Foundations of Knowledge).

Certain other early abhidharma texts extant in Chinese translation probably represent the abhidharma canonical texts of yet other schools:

for example, the *Sariputra abhidharmasastra (T. 1548), which may have been affiliated with a Vibhajyavada school, or the *Sammatlyasastra (T. 1649) affiliated by its title with the Sammatya school, associated with the Vatsputryas.

In the absence of historical evidence for the accurate dating of the extant abhidharma treatises, scholars have tentatively proposed relative chronologies based primarily upon internal formal criteria that presuppose a growing complexity of structural organization and of exegetical method.


It is assumed that abhidharma texts of the earliest period bear the closest similarities to the sutras, and are often structured as commentaries on entire sutras or on sutra sections arranged according to taxonomic lists.

The Vibhanga and Puggalapaññatti of the Theravadins and the Sangltiparyaya and Dharmaskandha of the Sarvastivadins exemplify these characteristics.

The next set of abhidharma texts exhibits emancipation from the confines of commentary upon individual sutras, by adopting a more abstract stance that subsumes doctrinal material from a variety of sources under an abstract analytical framework of often newly created categories.

This middle period would include the five remaining canonical texts within the Theravada and the Sarvastivada abhidharma canonical collections. The catechetical style of commentarial exegesis, evident even in the earliest abhidharma texts, becomes


more structured and formulaic in texts of the middle period. The final products in this process of abstraction are the truly independent treatises that display marked creativity in technical terminology and doctrinal elaboration.

Some of the texts, in particular the Kathavatthu of the Theravadins and the Vijñanakaya of the Sarvastivadins, display an awareness of differences in doctrinal interpretation and factional alignments, although they do not adopt the developed polemical stance typical of many subsequent abhidharma works.

The composition of abhidharma treatises did not end with the canonical collections, but continued with commentaries on previous abhidharma works and with independent summary digests or exegetical manuals. Within the Theravada tradition, several fifth-century C.E. commentators compiled new works based upon earlier commentaries dating from the first several centuries C.E.

They also composed independent summaries of abhidhamma analysis, prominent among which are the Visuddhimagga (Path of Purification) by BUDDHAGHOSA and the Abhidhammavatara (Introduction to Abhidhamma) by Buddhadatta.

The Abhidhammatthasangaha (Collection of Abhidhamma Matters]]) composed by Anuruddha in the twelfth century C.E. became thereafter the most frequently used summary of abhidhamma teaching within the Theravavada tradition.

The first five centuries C.E. were also a creative period of efflorescence for the abhidharma of the Sarvastivadins. In texts of this period, summary exposition combines with exhaustive doctrinal analysis and polemical debate. The teaching is reorganized in accordance with an abstract and more logical structure, which is then interwoven with the earlier taxonomic lists.

Preeminent among these texts for both their breadth and their influence upon later scholastic compositions are the voluminous, doctrinal compendia, called vibhasa , which are represented by three different recensions extant in Chinese translation, the last and best known of which is called the Maha vibhasa (Great Exegesis).

Composed over several centuries from the second century C.E. onward, these ostensibly simple commentaries on an earlier canonical abhidharma text, the Jñanaprasthana, exhaustively enumerate the positions of contending groups on each doctrinal point, often explicitly attributing these views to specific schools or masters.


Instead of arguing for a single, orthodox viewpoint, the vibhasa compendia display an encyclopedic intention that is often content with comprehensiveness in cataloguing the full spectrum of differing sectarian positions. The vibhasa compendia are


repositories of several centuries of scholastic activity representing multiple branches of the Sarvastivada school, which was spread throughout greater northwestern India. However, they came to be particularly associated by tradition with the Sarvastivadins of Kashmir who, thereby, acquired the appellation, Sarvativada-Vaibhasika.a

Three other texts composed during the same period that are associated with the northwestern region of Gandhara display a markedly different structure and purpose: the *Abhidharmahrdayasastra (Heart of Abhidharma) by Dharmas´resthin; the *Abhidharmahrdayasastra (Heart of Abhidharma) by Upasanta; and the *Misrakabhidharmahrdayasastra (Heart of Abhidharma with Miscellaneous Additions) by Dharmatrata.

Composed in verse with an accompanying prose auto-commentary, these texts function as summary digests of all aspects of the teaching presented according to a logical and nonrepetitive structure.

In contrast to the earlier numerically guided taxonomic lists well-suited as mnemonic aids, these texts adopt a new method of organization, attempting to subsume the prior taxonomic lists and all discussion of specific doctrinal points under general topical sections.

This new organizational structure was to become paradigmatic for the texts of the final period of Sarvastivada abhidharma.

This final period in the development of Sarvastivada abhidharma treatises includes texts that are the products of single authors and that adopt a polemical style of exposition displaying a fully developed sectarian self-consciousness. They also employ increasingly sophisticated methods of argumentation in order to establish the position of their own school and to refute at length the views of others.

Despite this polemical approach, they nonetheless purport to serve as well organized expository treatises or pedagogical digests for the entirety of Buddhist teaching.


The Abhidharmakosa (Treasury of Abhidharma), including both verses (karika ) and an auto-commentary (bhasya), by VASUBANDHU became the most important text from this period, central to the subsequent traditions of abhidharma studies in Tibet and East Asia.


Adopting both the verse-commentary structure and the topical organization of the *Abhidharmahrdaya, the Abhidharmakosha presents a detailed account of Sarvastivada abhidharma teaching with frequent criticism of Sarvastivada positions in its auto-commentary.

The Abhidharmakosa provoked a response from certain Kashmiri Sarvastivada masters who attempted to refute non-Sarvastivada views presented in Vasubandhu’s work and to reestablish their own interpretation of orthodox


Kashmiri Sarvastivada positions. These works, the *Nyayanusarasastra (Conformance to Correct Principle) and *Abhidharmasamayapradlpika (Illumination of the Collection of Abhidharma) by Sanghabhadra and the Abhidharmadlpa (Illumination of Abhidharma) by an unknown author who refers to himself as the Dpakara (author of the Dlpa) were the final works of the Sarvastivada abhidharma tradition that have survived.