Abhidharma, its meaning and origins

Abhidharma, its meaning and origins

In the centuries after the death of the Buddha, with the advent of settled monastic communities, there emerged new forms of religious practice and modes of transmitting and interpreting the teaching.

In this more organized setting, Buddhist practitioners began to re-examine received traditions and to develop new methods of organization that would make explicit their underlying significance and facilitate their faithful transmission.

Although begun as a pragmatic method of elaborating the received teachings, this scholastic enterprise soon led to new doctrinal and textual developments and became the focus of a new form of scholarly monastic life:

The products of this scholarship became revered tradition in their own right, eventually eclipsing the dialogues of the Buddha and of his disciples

as the arbiter of the true teaching and determining both the exegetical method and the salient issues that became the focus of later Indian Buddhist doctrinal investigations.

This scholastic enterprise was called Abhidharma (Pāli: Abhidhamma), a multivalent term used to refer

- to the new techniques of doctrinal interpretation,
- to the body of texts that this interpretation yielded, and finally
- to the crucial discriminating insight that was honed through doctrinal interpretation and employed in religious practice.

Traditional sources offer 2 explanations for the term Abhidharma:

a)with regard to (abhi) the teaching (dharma)” or
b) the “highest or further (abhi) teaching (dharma).”

The subject of Abhidharma analysis was, of course, the teaching (dharma) as embodied in the dialogues of the Buddha and his disciples.

However, Abhidharma did not merely restate or recapitulate the teaching of the Sūtras, but reorganized their content and explicated their implicit meaning through commentary.

In Abhidharma, the specific content of the various individual Sūtras was abstracted and reconstituted in accordance with new analytical criteria, thereby allowing one to discern their true message.

This true message, as set down in Abhidharma texts, consists of the discrimination of the various events and components (dharma) that combine to form all of experience.

This discrimination in turn enables one to distinguish:

- those defiling factors that ensnare one in the process of Rebirth
- from those liberating factors that lead to Enlightenment.

And finally, when the defiling and liberating factors are clearly distinguished, the proper Path of practice becomes clear.

Hence, Abhidharma was no mere scholastic commentary, but rather soteriological exegesis that was essential for the effective practice of the path.

Traditional sources do not offer a uniform account of the origins of the Abhidharma method or of the Abhidharma corpus of texts:

Several traditional accounts attribute the composition of Abhidharma texts to a first council supposedly held immediately after the death of the Buddha, at which his teachings were arranged and orally recited in 3 sections:

1. the dialogues (Sūtra);
2. the disciplinary monastic codes (Vinaya); and
3. the taxonomic lists of factors (mātṛkā or Abhidharma).

Implicitly, therefore, these traditional sources attribute authorship of the Abhidharma to the Buddha himself.

This question of the authorship and, by implication, the authenticity and authority of the Abhidharma continued to be a controversial issue within subsequent, independent Abhidharma treatises.

Although many mainstream Buddhist Schools accepted the authority of Abhidharma texts and included them within their canons as the word of the Buddha,

several schools rejected the authority of Abhidharma and claimed that Abhidharma treatises were composed by fallible, human teachers.

Independent Abhidharma treatises were composed over a period of at least 700 years (ca. 3-2nd centuries B.C.E. to 5th century C.E.).

The appearance and eventual proliferation of these independent Abhidharma treatises coincides with the emergence of separate schools within the early Buddhist community:

Doctrinal differences among various groups, which were, in part, the natural result of differing lineages of textual transmission, were refined in scholastic debates and amplified by the composition of independent Abhidharma exegetical works.

Scholarly opinion on the sources for the genre of independent Abhidharma treatises is divided between 2 hypotheses, each of which finds support in structural characteristics of Abhidharma texts:

1) The first hypothesis emphasizes the practice of formulating matrices or taxonomic lists (mātṛkā) of all topics found in the traditional teaching, which are then arranged according to both numeric and qualitative criteria.

2) The second hypothesis stresses the doctrinal discussions (dharma-kathā) in catechetical style that attempt to clarify complex or obscure points of doctrine.

These 2 structural characteristics suggest a typical process by which independent Abhidharma treatises were composed:

A matrix outline served to record or possibly direct discussions in which points of doctrine were then elaborated through a pedagogical question and answer technique.

Regardless of which hypothesis more accurately represents the origin of independent Abhidharma treatises, this dual exegetical method reflects a persistent tendency in the Buddhist tradition, from the earliest period onward, toward analytical presentation through taxonomic categories and toward discursive elaboration through catechesis.

The need to memorize the teaching obviously promoted the use of categorizing lists as a mnemonic device, and certain sūtras describe this taxonomic method as a way of encapsulating the essentials of the teaching and averting dissension.

Other sūtras proceed much like oral commentaries, in which a brief doctrinal statement by the Buddha is analysed in full through a process of interrogation and exposition.

Both of these methods, amply attested in the sūtra collection, were successively expanded in subsequent independent scholastic treatises, some of which were not included within the sectarian, canonical Abhidharma collections.

For example, the collection of miscellaneous texts (Khuddaka piṭaka) of the canon of the Theravada school includes 2 texts utilizing these methods that were not recognized to be canonical “Abhidharma” texts.

The Paṭisambhidā-magga (Path of Discrimination) contains brief discussions of doctrinal points structured according to a topical list (mātṛkā),

and the Niddesa (Exposition) consists of commentary on the early verse collection, the Suttanipāta.

In fact, a clear-cut point of origin for the Abhidharma as an independent section of the textual canon only reflects the perspective of the later tradition

that designates, after a long forgotten evolution, certain texts as “Abhidharma” in contrast to sūtras or other possibly earlier expository works that share similar characteristics.