Some Evidence Suggesting the Spurious Nature of Abhidhamma Philosophy

Posted: April 20, 2012 by pathpress in Dhamma Article

by Ven. Paññobhāsa Bhikkhu

Originally published as an Appendix I of the Essay on the Aggregates of Mind.

1. In the only canonical account of the first Buddhist council (Vinaya Cullavagga Ch.12 it is stated that the venerable Upāli recited Vinaya, then the venerable Ānanda recited the five nikāyas (i.e., the Suttantas), after which the council was brought to a close. Abhidhamma is mentioned not at all in the entire account (nor is it mentioned in the canonical account of the second council). The general consensus of Western scholars is that the traditional account of the first council is largely fiction; nevertheless, it does indicate that at the occasion of its composition (presumably some time before the third council) Abhidhamma philosophy was either unknown or considered to be unworthy of mention. Ven. Buddhaghosa in his commentary to the Dīgha Nikāya tried to rectify the omission by simply changing the details of the story, which is a rather unconvincing device. The standard Burmese explanation of the conspicuous absence of Abhidhamma in the oldest ecclesiastical histories is that it is included in the Khuddaka Nikāya of the Suttanta Pltaka, but this assertion receives no support from the ancient texts themselves. (The Burmese also consider Vinaya to be included in the Khuddaka Nikāya, thereby rendering the fifth Nikāya—“The Small Collection” or “Collection of the Small”—very much larger and more comprehensive than the entire remainder of the Canon and reducing the Buddhist scriptures to a single Piṭaka.)

2. The word “abhidhamma” is very seldom found in the Vinaya and Suttanta (according to one authority eleven times), and when it is found it is usually paired with the term “abhivinaya.” Since there is and never was an Abhivinaya Piṭaka the context implies that “abhidhamma” here means simply “about Dhamma,” not “higher Dhamma.” In the very few cases where the term clearly refers to the philosophy of the Abhidhamma Piṭaka it is found in relatively very late canonical exegesis of older texts—for example, the Vinaya Suttavibhaṅga and the Mahāniddesa.

3. Very many of the terms which play integral, central roles in Abhidhamma philosophy (cetasika, citta-vīthi, bhavaṅga, javana, kiriya-citta, rūpakalāpa, etc. etc.) are either entirely lacking in the Sutlanta or are found there rarely and in a radically different context. The elaborate doctrine of citta-vīthi, for example, which is essential to traditional abhidhammic psychology and is taught in even the most elementary of Abhidhamma courses, is entirely foreign to the first two Piṭakas (and, curiously, is mentioned only briefly and obscurely in the third). Abhidhamma philosophy is claimed by orthodox authorities to be the most profound and important part ofthe teachings ofthe Buddha; but there is not a single narrative episode in the Canon, believable or otherwise, which clearly indicates that he ever taught it to anyone; and furthermore, much of the supposed “highest teachings of Buddha” (e.g., the theory of rūpakalāpas) is non-canonical—not even to be found in the Abhidhamma Piṭaka itself.

4. Kathāvatthu, the fifth book of the Abhidhamma Piṭaka, deals exclusively with dogmatic controversies with schismatic sects of Buddhism that existed around the time of the third council (i.e., the mid-third century B.C.). Also, it is believed that the compiler of the work was a bhikkhu named Moggaliputtatissa, who according to ven. Buddhaghosa presided over the third council. Some fundamentalism claim that the Buddha, foreseeing the doctrinal disputes and schism: that would arise after his death, laid down the general outline of the Kathāvatthu, and more than two centuries later ven. Moggalīputtatissa merely elaborated upon it. Although this cannot be categorically disproved it is, needless to say, rather unlikely. (Incidentally, considering that one of the main purposes of the third council was to purge the Saṅgha of heretics and champion what one faction, presumably led by ven. Moggalīputtatissa, believed to be Right View, it may be assumed that the Canon was edited and infused with new material favoring the views of the prevailing faction.)

5. Among the many ancient schools of Buddhism there were at least two versions of the Abhidhamma or Abhidharma Piṭaka, one being of the Theravadins, another being of the Sarvastivadins. Both of these versions consist of seven books, but this is almost their only resemblance, and they obviously are not based upon a common precursor. Other sects possessed of an Abhidharma Piṭaka, including the Mahayanists, tended to modify or borrow outright the version of the Sarvastivadins; but many schools, particularly thou which diverged from the Theravada/Sarvastivada lineage prior to around the beginning of the third century B.C., had none. Now it would be absurd to suggest that all of the ancient schools of Buddhism that broke away from the Theravadin line were so foolish as to throw out an entire Piṭaka, which many Theravadins claim is the most profound and most important of the three, that the Sarvastivadins subsequently concocted another one from scratch, and that some of the other schools then adopted the counterfeit in place of the original. lt would be much more reasonable to assume that there simply was no Abhidhamma Piṭaka in the earliest days of Buddhism, the trend for composing such abstract, technical philosophy beginning in the Theravada/Sarvastivada lineage shortly before the occurrence of the schism that divided them. This one point is sufficient to convince most Buddhistic scholars in the West that Abhidhamma philosophy was never taught by the Buddha.

6. Regardless of the age and authorship of Abhidhamma there remains the serious fact that many of its tenets are in bald contradiction to quite elementary and uncontroversial observations of science. Although hundreds of examples of abhidhammic nonscience and illogic could be given, for the sake of brevity only two of the more outstanding cases will be discussed.

a) It is readily apparent that the authors of Abhidhamma philosophy were completely ignorant of the function, even the existence, of the human nervous system. Sensory consciousness is claimed to occur in the sense organs themselves, not in the brain; for example, visual consciousness supposedly arises in seven layers of (elemental and ultimately real) visually sensitive matter located on the anterior surface of the eyeball. Rather than relying upon the presence of sensory nerve endings, the material basis of tactile sensation (also one of the 82 “ultimate realities”) is said to uniformly pervade the body like oil soaking a tuft of cotton wool, being everywhere except in hair, nails, and hard, dry skin. The Pali word “matthaluṅga,” i.e., “brain,” is conspicuously absent in the canonical Abhidhamma texts (while in the commentarial literature the brain is declared to be a large lump of inert bone marrow and the source of nasal mucus); according to the Abhidhamma scholars, thought arises not in the brain but in a small quantity of variously colored blood contained in a chamber of the heart. This belief is closely interrelated with the fundamental concept that all mentality is strictly linear, only one specific image at a time existing in the mind, arising and passing away spontaneously through the metaphysical power of kamma. The generally prevalent and empirically consistent concept of a complex, physical generator of feeling and thought is quite foreign to Abhidhamma, and modern attempts to reconcile the two result in what is essentially doublethink.

b) The classical abhidhammic theory of matter primarily deals with 28 supposed elemental qualities which are never found alone, but are always combined in or associated with quasi-atomic particles called “rūpakalāpas.” The naïve realism underlying this philosophy is manifest, and furthermore has been scientifically obsolete for centuries. As an example the four (“ultimately real”) secondary material qualities supposedly present in all rūpakalāpas—color, odor, flavor, and nutritional essence—will be very briefly considered. The formulators of the theory evidently did not perceive that color, as such, exists only in the mind and is merely a symbolic interpretation of a certain bandwidth of electromagnetic radiation; and that furthermore the hypothetical rūpakalāpa is much smaller than the smallest wavelength of visible light. An individual rūpakalāpa, unless, perhaps, it could somehow be identified with a photon, could be endowed with color only potentially and even then in a very abstract sense. The formulators also evidently did not perceive that odor and flavor exist only in the mind, and are the result of molecules and ions of certain configurations interacting with specific neurosensory receptor sites. And the formulators quite obviously did not perceive the vast complexity of human nutrition. A hydrogen atom, for example, if contained in a molecule of sucrose is endowed with a certain nutritional value; if in a molecule of ascorbic acid, another; if in a molecule of cholesterol, yet another; if in a molecule of cellulose, is non-nutritive; and if in a molecule of cyanide, is poisonous. In the case of nutrition, even more markedly than in the preceding cases, the configuration and interaction of complex groups of elementary particles is of primary importance in determining the attributes in question. Just as a single nail does not contain within it the absolute element of “houseness,” even so a single subnuclear quantum of matter does not contain within it odor, flavor, or nutritional value. And finally, although rūpakalāpas are declared by the authorities to be ubiquitous and of appreciable size by modern scientific standards (roughly the size of an electron according to one authority), no physicist or chemist in a normal, waking state of consciousness has ever experimentally isolated or otherwise verified the existence of one.

  1. N: The main question is, how does one see the Abhidhamma: as a book of abstract classifications or as the study of our life at this moment? If one merely thinks of a book of classifications doubts may arise as to the fact whether it is the Buddha’s teaching. One may try to find out its history and there will be no end to argumentations and discussions.
    I would like to have more understanding of my life and I find the Abhidhamma most helpful in my search for the truth. The Abhidhamma is not a theory one finds in a textbook; the teaching of the Abhidhamma is about all the realities that appear at this moment. The Abhidhamma teaches about seeing, about thinking of what was seen, about all the defilements arising on account of what is experienced through the senses and the mind-door.
    While we are studying the different mental phenomena (nåmas) and physical phenomena (rúpas) and while we are pondering over them, we can be reminded to be aware of the nåma and rúpa which appear at that moment. In this way we will discover more and more that the Abhidhamma explains everything which is real, that is, the “worlds” appearing through the six doors of the senses and the mind.

    In the ultimate sense life exists only in one moment, the present moment. At the moment of seeing the world of visible object is experienced, at the moment of hearing the world of sound, and at the moment of touching the world of tangible object. Life is actually one moment of experiencing an object.

    When we are thinking about the world and all people in it, we only know the world by way of conventional truth. It seems that there is the world full of beings and things, but in reality there is citta experiencing different dhammas arising and falling away very rapidly. Only one object at a time can be cognized as it appears through one doorway. Without the doorways of the senses and the mind the world could not appear. So long as we take what appears as a ‘whole’, a being or person, we do not know the world.

    The teaching of the Abhidhamma is mainly by way of ultimate realities, paramattha dhammas. In order to have understanding of the Abhidhamma it is essential to know the difference between ultimate realities, paramattha dhammas, and concepts, paññatti, such as a person or a tree.

    Through the Abhidhamma we are reminded all the time that there is no person who clings, no person who suffers, that only citta and the accompanying cetasikas experience different objects, be these unpleasant or pleasant. There is no person who develops understanding; understanding, paññā, is a cetasika that can only arise when there are the appropriate conditions for it.

    The Abhidhamma teaches us that realities are anattaa, like the whole of the Tipi.taka. Its teaching is not different from the Suttanta. With satipa.t.thaana we study the reality appearing at the present moment. This will lead to detachment.

    The prefix “abhi” in abidhamma is used in the sense of “preponderance” or “distinction”. “Abhidhamma” means “higher Dhamma” or “Dhamma in detail”. We have accumulated so much ignorance, we need many details in order to understand the truth.
    The Seventh book of the Abhidhamma, the book on conditional relations is of great help to understand that our life is conditioned realities. Each conditioned reality can exist just for an extremely short moment. When we understand this it will be easier to see that there is no self who can exert control over realities.
    The sixth book, the Yamaka, has a section on the latent tendencies. These are accumulated defilements that do not arise but that can condition the arising of akusala citta. They are called subtle defilements because they do not arise with the akusala citta, but they are powerful. Since they have not been eradicated they can strongly condition and influence our behaviour. They lie dormant in the citta like microbes infesting the body. So long as they have not been eradicated we are like sick people, because they can condition the arising of akusala citta when there are the appropriate conditions.They can condition the arising of akusala citta even to the degree of transgression of síla at any time, and thus, more defilements are accumulated again and added to the latent tendencies. The teaching of the latent tendencies helps us to see why the defilements in our life are so tenacious, arising again and again, and why their arising is unforeseeable and uncontrollable.

    All the texts of the Tipiṭaka , including the Abhidhamma, are not meant merely for intellectual study or memorizing, they are directed to the practice, the development of vipassanā. All the classifications of cittas, cetasikas and rūpas are terse reminders of the truth, they are an exhortation to develop understanding of what appears at this moment. This is the development of the eightfold Path leading to the eradication of all defilements.


  2. Greg Kleiman says:

    Hey Bhante, great article. But 6b. needs a little more thought. The abhidhamma is not trying to be the scientific view of matter. It is a description of how consciousness experiences matter. Consciousness experiences these qualities of the abhidhamma of taste and smell etc. So from the point of view of consciousness experience of matter the abhidhamma is a good description.

    • Jonothan Abbott says:

      Dear Bhante (and Greg)

      I agree with what Greg says here, that the sense-door objects mentioned in the Abhidhamma are a reference to what is being actually experienced at a given moment, and not to their conventionally known counterparts. While the latter can be measured, duplicated and otherwise scientifically evaluated, the former obviously cannot.

      These same sense-door objects are mentioned frequently in the Suttas among those things (dhammas) that have the characteristics of anicca, dukkha and anatta and that are to be known. To say that they ‘exist only in the mind’, as if they were concepts, seems to overlook the significance of this.

  3. Jonothan Abbott says:

    Dear Bhante

    In your article you set out the case for the proposition that “there was no Abhidhamma Pitaka in the earliest days of Buddhism”. You go on to say that, on the basis of that conclusion, most Buddhist scholars in the West are of the view that “Abhidhamma philosophy was never taught by the Buddha” (end of paragraph 5).

    However, you do not consider the question of whether the second of those propositions. (“Abhidhamma philosophy not taught by the Buddha”) necessarily follows from the first (“no Abhidhamma Pitaka in the earliest days of Buddhism”).

    As I see it, regardless of the view one takes on the compilation of the Abhidhamma Pitaka, there is still the question of whether or not the details of the Abhidhamma philosophy are, or could possibly be, a correct description of the way things are. (For example, is it so or possibly so that consciousness (citta) is momentary and accompanied by various cetasikas; is there or may there be a citta (the bhavanga citta) that has the same object from the previous life throughout this life, etc.). And this question involves a consideration of whether or not those details are fully consistent with the other 2 baskets of the Tipitaka, i.e., doctrinal rather than textual considerations.

    Jonothan Abbott

  4. Very valuable material. Thank you!

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