Discernment of the Treasure of Abhidhamma

The ancient Pali Tipitaka, from www.larbredesrefuges.com.

Editor’s note: This feature was first published in the now-retired Bodhi Journal, Issue 6, December 2007. 


The intricate, abstract, highly technical  data and information of m?tik??s (doctrinal topics) expounded in the seven treatises of Abhidhamma may prove too abstruse and confusing to non-scholastic readers. If a reader, who does not aspire to develop himself or herself to be a Buddhist savant or intelligentsia but aspires merely to discern the ultimate Truth of Reality ought not to be unduely perturbed and distracted by the detailed, precise classifications and definitions or systematization of the physical phenomena (r?padhammas) and mental phenomena (n?madhammas) by the Abhidhammic philosophers known as ?bhidhammikas [1] . In actuality, the Abhidhammapi?aka is a grand commentary (mah?-a??hakath?) or exegesis on the early discourses of Gotama Buddha. The quintessence of the profound message of the Buddha is unveiled through the exposition of Abhidhammic philosophy as detailed discourses (vitth?dhammdesan?) [2] of the Buddha. The enterprise of the Abhidhammapi?aka is similar to that of the Suttapi?aka of Therav?da tradition and Sutrapi?aka of the Mah?y?na tradition. Its enterprise is awaken the worldlings (puthujjanas) from the slump of ignorance (avijj?) and to know one’s true self leading to the intuitive apprehension of the cosmic illusion of the multiplicity of the empirical world which are falsely constructed or fabricated mentally. The Abhidhamma communicates the ultimate truth of the cause of the human anguish (dukkha) and the noble path of cessation of anguish (dukkhanirodha).

The distinction between the Suttanta and Abhidhamma is that suttanta is principally neyyattha [3] which requires elaborations whilst the Abhidhamma is nitattha [4] which requires no explanation as it is explicit and direct. Fundamentally, the suttanta expounds the Conventional Truth (Sammuti Sacca) [5] while the Abhidhamma elucidates the ultimate Truth (Paramattha Sacca) [6] .

Treatises of Abhidhamma

The six treatises of the Abhidhammapi?aka of the Therav?da tradition are enumerated as follows :

1.      Dhammasangani

2.      Vibha?ga

3.      Dh?tukath?

4.      Puggalapaññatti

5.      Kath?vatthu

6.      Yamaka

7.      Pa??h?na

Dhammasanga?? is treatise of compendium of phenomena ; Vibha?ga,treatise of analysis of all phenomena, Dh?tukath?, treatise of discussion of groups, bases and Elements of Existence ; Puggalapaññatti, treatise of descriptions of types of Individuals; Kath?vatthu, treatise of Points of Controversy ; Yamaka, treatise of Pairs of Questions ; Pa??h?na, treatise of Conditional Relations.[7]

Analysis and Synthesis

Fundamentally, the Abhidhamma is constructed upon the Theory of Elements (Dhammav?da) that every phenomenon of the empirical world is conglomerated from the elementary irreducible constituents or elements called Dhammas[8] . The methodology on the basis of Dhamma Theory is two-fold, namely, the work of analysis (bheda) and that of synthesis (sangaha)[9] . Analysis of the phenomena into dhammas or elementary constituents is to reveal the ultimate Truth of Non-substantialism or Insubstantiality (Anatt?). The synthesis of the dhammas into the contigent phenomena is to unveil the ultimate Truth of Dependent Co-arising of all phenomena (Pa?iccasamupp?da) or conditional relations (pa??h?na). Two-fold work of Analysis and Synthesis invigorates the anti-Substantialism position of Buddhism which advocates the repudiation of Theory of Soul (?tmav?da) or Substantialism. It is by this methodology that the worldlings are guided and led into apprehension of the distinction between the conventional and ultimate truth. Whoever intuits such a distinction comprehend intuitively the profound teaching of the Tath?gata.

Selfless or Souless

The Abhidhammic analysis unveils that human personality is merely the conglomeration of physical and mental phenomena. There is no permanent entity, such as self (att?) or soul (?tma) which is embodied in the dynamic physical and mental phenomena. There is no whatsoever self which acts an agent which regulates the sense activities of the human personality. The physical and mental phenomena are the ultimate dhammas. There is no other essence or existence or personality or individual (puggala) whatever. The human personality is merely a concept (paññatti) constructed falsely from the erroneous conceptualization or imagination of the worldlings. The Buddha expounded the Emptiness (suññat?) of Self or Soul thus :

Empty is this Soul or aught (nothing) of the nature of Soul[10]

The Buddha formulated the Anatt? thus: This is not I; This not Mine; This does not belongs to me. The Blessed has revealed the true nature of the multiplicity including the human personality. Whoever intuits this profound ultimate truth of reality or Cosmos annihilates one’s illusive self or ego (aha?k?ra). The annihilation of the self or ego is the non-grasping (anup?d??na) upon the five aggregates (pañcakkhandh?) as This is I; This is Mine ; This belongs to me. The Abhidhammic analysis is to highlight he ultimate Truth of Anatt?; analysis is to hightlight Pa?iccasamupp?da. Discernment of these two central doctrines of the Buddha enables us to distinguish the conventional truth from the ultimate truth. The ultimate Truth is sought to annihilate the selfishness or egoism. The conventional truth is recognized but not rejected as conventional knowledge, such as language is needed as expedient device to communicate in human social intercourse. The Buddha admonishes us to utilize the language without ontological commitment to it. The illusive notion of Soul or Self must be eliminated as any notion of self-identity or ego-identity taints human thoughts and acts with ‘?savas’ or corruptions. It is because of this that Buddhist theosophy repudiates the Doctrine of Animism, Substantialism or Ontological Commitment[11]  to language or phenomena. Buddhist philosophy of Phenomenalism is anti-Substantialism or anti-Ontological Commitment. Elimination of notion of Substantialism or Ontological Commitment culminates in the experience of self –awakening or self-realization.

Mere Designation/Concept

When King Milinda posed question on the true nature of ‘N?gasena’, the bright, self-enlightened, highly-witted Ven. N?gasena responded thus :

N?gasena is merely a designation, a label, a concept, an expression, a mere name because there is no person as such that is found.[12]

Ven. N?gasena invigorated his position by quoting the exposition of Nun Vajir? who explicated the concept of a ‘Chariot’ to convey the illusiveness of concepts in the presence of the Blessed One thus:

Just as when the parts are rightly set
The word ‘Chariot’ is designated,
So when there are the aggregates 
It is the convention to say a ‘Being’.[13]

The Dhamma Theory of Abhidhamma rectifies the perversion (vipariy?sa) or erroneous perception of the worldlings The worldlings perceive that ‘The eyes see the object’. The wise perceive right that ‘Contigent upon the eye faculty and the object of perception there arises the visual consciousness’. The former is the conventional truth (mundane wisdom) and the latter is ultimate truth (supramundane wisdom). There exists actually neither the perceiver nor the perceived object in the ultimate analysis. What ultimately exists is the process or activity of perceiving. The activity of perception is dependently co-arisen from the perceiver and the perceived. Non-duality (advittav?da) is the ultimate truth of Dependent Co-arising. The lamp and the light are dependently co-arisen. They are not separate.


1. ?bhidhammika : one who is adept in Abhidhamma; expert in Abhidhamma

2. Sumanapala.G.D, Reality and Expression. Kandy : Paramita Intrenational Buddhist Society,1999.Chap.1,p.1.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Conventional truth in Abhidhamma refers to concepts or designations such as man, girl, boy, house,being, deva, N?gasena, Buddha and so on.These designations are illusive and unreal in the ultimate sense.

6. Ultimate Truth refers to aggregate, element, base, Anicca, Anatt?, Dukkha, Application of Mindfulness and so forth.

7. Introduction to Dhamma, http://www.abhidhamma.org/Introduction.html accessed 11.807

8. Karunadsa.Y, The Dhama Theory : Philosophical Cornerstone of the Abhidhamma. Kandy : The Wheel Publication No. 412/413, I.p.4

9. Ibid.

10. M.N.i.297 ; KV.67,79
11. Ontological commitment is the substantialist view that every word has a corresponding real existent.

12. The Questions of Kng Milinda. Ed. N.K.G.Mendis. Kandy : Buddhist Publication Society, 1993. Part II, p.29

13. Ibid., p.31 ; S.i.135

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