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The Seven Books

A brief outline of the contents of the seven canonical Abhidhamma books will provide some insight into the plethora of textual material to be condensed and summarized by the Abhidhammattha Sangaha. The first book, the Dhammasangani, is the fountainhead of the entire system. The title may be translated "Enumeration of Phenomena," and the work does in fact undertake to compile an exhaustive catalogue of the ultimate constituents of existence.

Opening with the matika, the schedule of categories which serves as the framework for the whole Abhidhamma, the text proper is divided into four chapters.

The first, "States of Consciousness," takes up about half of the book and unfolds as an analysis of the first triad in the matika, that of the wholesome, the unwholesome, and the indeterminate. To supply that analysis, the text enumerates 121 types of consciousness classified by way of their ethical quality.[9] Each type of consciousness is in turn dissected into its concomitant mental factors, which are individually defined in full.

The second chapter, "On Matter," continues the inquiry into the ethically indeterminate by enumerating and classifying the different types of material phenomena.

The third chapter, called "The Summary," offers concise explanations of all the terms in the Abhidhamma matrix and the Suttanta matrix as well. Finally, a concluding "Synopsis" provides a more condensed explanation of the Abhidhamma matrix but omits the Suttanta matrix.

The Vibhanga, the "Book of Analysis," consists of eighteen chapters, each a self-contained dissertation, dealing in turn with the following : aggregates, sense bases, elements, truths, faculties, dependent arising, foundations of mindfulness, supreme efforts, means to accomplishment, factors of enlightenment, the eightfold path, jhanas, illimitables, training rules, analytical knowledges, kinds of knowledge, minor points (a numerical inventory of defilements), and "the heart of the doctrine" (dhammahadaya), a psycho-cosmic topography of the Buddhist universe.

Most of the chapters in the Vibhanga, though not all, involve three sub-sections :

an analysis according to the methodology of the Suttas;

an analysis according to the methodology of the Abhidhamma proper;

and an interrogation section, which applies the categories of the matrix to the subject under investigation.

The Dhatukatha, the "Discourse on Elements," is written entirely in catechism form. It discusses all phenomena with reference to the three schemata of aggregates, sense bases, and elements, seeking to determine whether, and to what extent, they are included or not included in them, and whether they are associated with them or dissociated from them.

The Puggalapaññatti, "Concepts of Individuals," is the one book of the Abhidhamma Pitaka that is more akin to the method of the Suttas than to the Abhidhamma proper. The work begins with a general enumeration of types of concepts, and this suggests that it was originally intended as a supplement to the other books in order to take account of the conceptual realities excluded by the strict application of the Abhidhamma method. The bulk of the work provides formal definitions of different types of individuals. It has ten chapters: the first deals with single types of individuals; the second with pairs; the third with groups of three, etc.

The Kathavatthu, "Points of Controversy," is a polemical treatise ascribed to the Elder Moggaliputta Tissa. He is said to have compiled it during the time of Emperor Asoka, 218 years after the Buddha's Parinibbana, in order to refute the heterodox opinions of the Buddhist schools outside the Theravadin fold. The Commentaries defend its inclusion in the Canon by holding that the Buddha himself, foreseeing the errors that would arise, laid down the outline of rebuttal, which Moggaliputta Tissa merely filled in according to the Master's intention.

The Yamaka, the "Book of Pairs," has the purpose of resolving ambiguities and defining the precise usage of technical terms. It is so called owing to its method of treatment, which throughout employs the dual grouping of a question and its converse formulation. For instance, the first pair of questions in the first chapter runs thus: "Are all wholesome phenomena wholesome roots? and Are all wholesome roots wholesome phenomena?" The book contains ten chapters: roots, aggregates, sense bases, elements, truths, formations, latent dispositions, consciousness, phenomena, and faculties.

The Patthana, the "Book of Conditional Relations," is probably the most important work of the Abhidhamma Pitaka and thus is traditionally designated the "Great Treatise" (mahapakarana). Gigantic in extent as well as in substance, the book comprises five volumes totalling 2500 pages in the Burmese-script Sixth Council edition.

The purpose of the Patthana is to apply its scheme of twenty-four conditional relations to all the phenomena incorporated in the Abhidhamma matrix. The main body of the work has four great divisions: origination according to the positive method, according to the negative method, according to the positive-negative method, and according to the negative-positive method. Each of these in turn has six sub-divisions: origination of triads, of dyads, of dyads and triads combined, of triads and dyads combined, of triads and triads combined, and of dyads and dyads combined.

Within this pattern of twenty-four sections, the twenty-four modes of conditionality are applied in due order to all the phenomena of existence in all their conceivable permutations. Despite its dry and tabular format, even from a "profane" humanistic viewpoint the Patthana can easily qualify as one of the truly monumental products of the human mind, astounding in its breadth of vision, its rigorous consistency, and its painstaking attention to detail. To Theravada orthodoxy, it is the most eloquent testimony to the Buddha's unimpeded knowledge of omniscience.

The Commentaries

The books of the Abhidhamma Pitaka have inspired a voluminous mass of exegetical literature composed in order to fill out, by way of explanation and exemplification, the scaffoldings erected by the canonical texts. The most important works of this class are the authorized commentaries of Acariya Buddhaghosa. These are three in number :

the Atthasalini, "The Expositor," the commentary to the Dhammasangani;

the Sammohavinodani, "The Dispeller of Delusion," the commentary to the Vibhanga; and

the Pañcappakarana Atthakatha, the combined commentary to the other five treatises. To this same stratum of literature also belongs the Visuddhimagga, "The Path of Purification," also composed by Buddhaghosa.

Although this last work is primarily an encyclopaedic guide to meditation, its chapters on "the soil of understanding" (XIV-XVII) lay out the theory to be mastered prior to developing insight and thus constitute in effect a compact dissertation on Abhidhamma.

Each of the commentaries in turn has its subcommentary (mulatika), by an elder of Sri Lanka named Acariya Ananda, and these in turn each have a sub-subcommentary (anutika), by Ananda's pupil Dhammapala (who is to be distinguished from the great Acariya Dhammapala, author of the tikas to Buddhaghosa's works).

When the authorship of the Commentaries is ascribed to Acariya Buddhaghosa, it should not be supposed that they are in any way original compositions, or even original attempts to interpret traditional material. They are, rather, carefully edited versions of the vast body of accumulated exegetical material that Buddhaghosa found at the Mahavihara in Anuradhapura. This material must have preceded the great commentator by centuries, representing the collective efforts of generations of erudite Buddhist teachers to elucidate the meaning of the canonical Abhidhamma.

While it is tempting to try to discern evidence of historical development in the Commentaries over and beyond the ideas embedded in the Abhidhamma Pitaka, it is risky to push this line too far, for a great deal of the canonical Abhidhamma seems to require the Commentaries to contribute the unifying context in which the individual elements hang together as parts of a systematic whole and without which they lose important dimensions of meaning. It is thus not unreasonable to assume that a substantial portion of the commentarial apparatus originated in close proximity to the canonical Abhidhamma and was transmitted concurrently with the latter, though lacking the stamp of finality it was open to modification and amplification in a way that the canonical texts were not.

Bearing this in mind, we might briefly note a few of the Abhidhammic conceptions that are characteristic of the Commentaries but either unknown or recessive in the Abhidhamma Pitaka itself.

One is the detailed account of the cognitive process (cittavithi). While this conception seems to be tacitly recognized in the canonical books, it now comes to be drawn out for use as an explanatory tool in its own right. The functions of the cittas, the different types of consciousness, are specified, and in time the cittas themselves come to be designated by way of their functions.

The term khana, "moment," replaces the canonical samaya, "occasion," as the basic unit for delimiting the occurrence of events, and the duration of a material phenomenon is determined to be seventeen moments of mental phenomena. The division of a moment into three sub-moments -- arising, presence, and dissolution -- also seems to be new to the Commentaries.[10] The organization of material phenomena into groups (kalapa), though implied by the distinction between the primary elements of matter and derived matter, is first spelled out in the Commentaries, as is the specification of the heart-base (hadayavatthu) as the material basis for mind element and mind-consciousness element.

The Commentaries introduce many (though not all) of the categories for classifying kamma, and work out the detailed correlations between kamma and its results. They also close off the total number of mental factors (cetasika).

The phrase in the Dhammasangani, "or whatever other (unmentioned) conditionally arisen immaterial phenomena there are on that occasion," apparently envisages an open-ended universe of mental factors, which the Commentaries delimit by specifying the "or-whatever states" (yevapanaka dhamma).

Again, the Commentaries consummate the dhamma theory by supplying the formal definition of dhammas as "things which bear their own intrinsic nature" (attano sabhavam dharenti ti dhamma). The task of defining specific dhammas is finally rounded off by the extensive employment of the fourfold defining device of characteristic, function, manifestation, and proximate cause, a device derived from a pair of old exegetical texts, the Petakopadesa and the Nettipakarana.



9. These are reduced to the familiar eighty-nine cittas by grouping together the five cittas into which each path and fruition consciousness is divided by association with each of the five jhanas.

10. The Yamaka, in its chapter "Citta-yamaka," uses the term khana to refer to the subdivision of a moment and also introduces the uppada-khana and bhanga-khana, the sub-moments of arising and dissolution. However, the threefold scheme of sub-moments seems to appear first in the Commentaries.

The Buddhist Publication Society

The Buddhist Publication Society is an approved charity dedicated to making known the Teaching of the Buddha, which has a vital message for people of all creeds.

Founded in 1958, the BPS has published a wide variety of books and booklets covering a great range of topics. Its publications include accurate annotated translations of the Buddha's discourses, standard reference works, as well as original contemporary expositions of Buddhist thought and practice. These works present Buddhism as it truly is -- a dynamic force which has influenced receptive minds for the past 2500 years and is still as relevant today as it was when it first arose.