March 13, 2020 at 4:57 pm#276
I had a discussion with a few people recently who have doubts about the veracity of the ancient commentaries and even the Abhidhamma. The only way to develop proper confidence is to learn to see paramattha dhammas as they are. Nonetheless it can be damaging to incipient confidence to hear people refuting these sources. I put together this series of letters on the matter as some may find it edifying. The only name I left on was Cybeles – and she was someone who found it useful to read. It is rather long so don’t bother to read if it is not to your interest.
I think we should not place much confidence in the commentaries. Buddhaghosa and his successor Dhammapala laid the foundations of Theravada, and are basically equivalent to the founders or patriarchsin the other schools, whether or not he is so labeled. Buddhaghosa wrote the commentarial literature of Theravada, and key texts like the Visuddhimagga. Theravada is of course based on the words of the Buddha, but so is every other school. What makes Theravada distinctly Theravada, and not Sarvastivada, for example, are these commentaries and subtexts, which give the Theravada position and emphasis.
As is made clear by Buddhaghosa himself he was an editor and translator of the ancient commentaries, not the originator. Some of these ancient commentaries date back to the time of the Buddha himself and were rehearsed at the first council. Others were added at a later time but still before Buddhaghosa. He took care not to add in his own opinions.
I don’t see how one can possibly know that he did not add in his own opinions.
Buddhaghosa sometimes quotes two ancient teachers, and sometimes three, and notes that there was a minor difference of opinion about some matter. Sometimes Buddhaghosa won’t reach a decision and simply
notes the division. If he does come out in favour of one point he takes pains to let us know that this is only his opinion – the least trustworthy guide, as he notes. He writes (The Visuddhimagga III64) that a teacher “who knows the texts, guards the heritage, and protects the tradition, will follow the teachers’ (the elders)
opinion rather than his own.” I find the commentaries very much in-line with the Tipitika. They help me make sense of it all. That doesn’t make them true though. I think it is hard to prove anything, isn’t it?
May I ask, which of the ancient commentaries were recited at the first council? And what evidence do you have for this?
I found this in the attakattha to the Dhammasangani (first book of the Abhidhamma) the Atthasalini, (from the introductory discourse):
“The ancient commentary therof was sang By the First council, Mahakassapa Their leader, and later again by seers, Mahinda bought it to the peerless isle, Ceylon,…” endquote.
I am not sure, but I believe this is referring to the actual > Dhammasangani[not the commentary].
I asked a friend, who is a pali scholar, to look over the passage in the atthasalini. He wrote that it is indeed a reference to the ancient commentary:
The Pali of verse 13 on page 1 is:
- Yaa Mahaakassapaadiihi vaasiih’a.t.thakathaa puraa
sa”ngiitaa anusa”ngiitaa pacchaa pi ca isiihi yaa
My translation runs like this:
“The commentary which was earlier recited by the residents beginning with Mahaakassapa and later recited again by the sages also . . .”
This is only part of a long sentence. The mulatika interprets “anusa”ngiitaa” as meaning: recited again at the second and third councils. It is not yet clear to me which commentary was being recited and how much of
it is preserved in the Atthasalini or other texts. I understand that the ancient commentaries were handed down and ended up surviving in Sinhalese texts which Buddhaghosa then restored back into their Pali originals with some editing and cleaning up. I notice that on page 109 at the beginning of part III of The Expositor, there’s a reference to the Great Commentary as the source of the Discourse on Doors but I don’t know if this is the same commentary recited at the first council.
In the Vinayanidaana there is the mentioning of Moggalitissa Thera* (third council) as having learnt the commentaries. *”Whilst yet being a novice, Tissa mastered together with the commentary, the entire word of the Buddha with the exception of the Vinaya Pitaka.”
–transl. N.A. Jayawickrama, Vinayanidaana, VA i p. 41
I find it implausible that even an actual Dhammasangani existed at the time of the first council
considering no mention of it in the first councils account, but only mention of nikaya and vinaya represented by the two arahants Upali and Ananda.
The Attahasalini (expositor) p. 32:
“Which is the Khuddaka Nikaya? The whole of the Vinaya-pitaka, Abhidhamma pitaka and the fifteen divisions excluding the four nikayas” p35 “thus as rehearsed at the [first]council the Abhidhamma is a Pitaka by Pitaka classification, khuddaka -nikaya by Nikaya clasification, veyyakarana by part-classification and constitues two or three thousand units of text by classification of textual units”
“the talk of two Bhikkhus on the Abhidhamma, each asking and answering the other without faltering is in accord with the Dhamma”
Gulissaani Sutta (M 69)
aaraññikenaavuso, bhikkhunaa abhidhamme abhivinaye yogo kara.niiyo “Friends, by a bhikkhu living the forest effort ought to be made in abhidhamma and abhivinaya”
“If without any intention of reviling the Vinaya one were to instigate another saying -‘pray study the suttas or gathas or Abhidhamma first and afterwards learn the vinaya’ there is no offense”
Vinaya iv 344
Why should we believe the old commentaries. Here is an explanation by Ven. Bodhi:
“Though the word cannot refer here to the Pitaka of that name obviously the product of a phase of Buddhist thought later than the Nikayas – it may well indicate a systematic and analytical approach to the doctrine that served as the original nucleus of the Abhidhamma Pitaka. In a careful study of the contexts in which the word ‘Abhidhamma’ occurs in the Sutta Pitakas of several early recensions, the Japanese Pali scholor Fumimaro Watanabe concludes that the Buddha’s own disciples formed the conception of Abhidhamma as an elementary philosophical study that attempted to define, analyse, and classify dhammas and to explore their mutual relations.”
–MN trans. pg. 1225
Yes I saw that by venerable Bodhi. I think he is reckless in saying this. He relies on a present day scholar (fumimaro watanabe of japan). I prefer to accept the words of the ancients. I do not think those of today are more wise.
From the expositor p. 16-17 it notes that the buddha in the 4th week after his enlightenment he contemplated the Dhammasangani (1st section of abhidhamma) “and while he contemplated the
Dhammasangani his body did not emit rays; … but when it came to the great book (the Patthana of the Abhidhamma) he began to contemplate the 24 conditions…his omniscience found its opportunity therein…”
I have visted the site in Bodhgaya and it is marked by a marble tablet about 20 meters from the site where he sat under the Bodhi tree. I think there will always be those who doubt the Abhidhamma. Nothing can prove it to them. Those who get a glimpse of its truths would feel that only a Buddha could have expounded such a deep teaching. Others feel that it was added in. But they can’t explain when this plot happened; how did it occur?.Saying something is the Buddha’s teaching when it is not is a grave kamma; why wasn’t such a huge lie admonished by other monks. .
Anyway just to show I am not the only person who believes the abhidhamma was rehearsed at the first council here is a part of a text, ABHIDHAMMA AND VIPASSANA, Sitagu Sayadaw:
“The abhidhamma which the venerable Sariputta heard in brief from the Buddha he preached to his five hundred disciples in a way that was neither brief nor extended. The monks who learned the abhidhamma
from the venerable Sariputta were newly ordained, having entered the Order on the day the Buddha ascended to Tavatimsa heaven. These five hundred sons-of good-family took ordination at that time – the
full moon day of Waso – because they were inspired to faith by a display of miracles performed at the foot of a white mango tree. On the following day, they listened to the Abhidhamma; and it was this Abhidhamma which became for those monks their Vipassana.
“And why was this? Those five hundred monks, all of whom became arahants during the rains-retreat of that year (the seventh rains- retreat of the Buddha), also became by the end of the retreat, masters of the seven books of the Abhidhamma (abhidhammika sattapakaranika). The Buddha first assembled the entire Dhamma and taught it all together (as the Dhammasangani). He then analyzed it into separate parts and taught (the Vibhanga). He further analyzed it in detail according to elements (producing thereby, the
Dhatukatha). Again he assembled it together and again analyzed it into minute parts, this time in relation to individuals, (and so taught the Puggalapannati). After that, the Buddha examined and compared the different doctrines existing in the world and taught (the Kathavatthu). Thereupon, he examined and taught the Dhamma in pairs (Yamaka); and finally, taught the doctrine of causal relations in detail (Pathana).
“The seven methods of examining Dhamma presented in the seven books of the Abhidhamma; that is to say, 1) the analysis of mind (citta), mental factors (cetasika) and matter (rupa) when taken together, 2) the analysis of the same when distinguished into parts, 3) the analysis of elements, 4) the analysis of individuals, 5) the comparison of doctrines, 6) the analysis of Dhamma into pairs, and 7) the examination of causal relations, are in truth none other than seven exceedingly deep methods of Vipassana practice. For this reason it can be said that the day the five hundred monks mastered the Abhidhamma – this being the teaching of abhidhamma-vipassana they had listened to since their ordination – was the very day they mastered the practice of Vipassana.” endquote
I have some doubt of the claim above, regarding the fifth book “Kathavatthu”. I thought that book was written by Ven Moggalana Tissa in King Asoka’s period, and the various doctrines
mentioned in it appeared long after the Buddha’s Parinibbana.
Glad to see your interest. This may ease your doubts. The Atthasalini explains that when it came to the Kathavatthu the Buddha forsaw the future misintepretations that would arise. The Buddha then “laid down a table of contents in a text not quite as long as one recital, to be adopted in all the discourse”. Thus
it wasn’t complete until the great arahant Tissa(mogali’s son) expanded it at the third council. It had to wait until that time to be completed as many of the wrong ideas didn’t come about until then.
These explanations in the Atthasalini make me laugh considering the Buddha taught according to present situations. Do the commentaries ever admit that they don’t know the origin of a text?
Laughter can arise with lobha-mula citta one of the interesting distinctions explained in the Abhidhamma. I see where your doubt lies: I gave such a terse note that it must look dubious. Here is more from the atthasalini. The Buddha “laid down a table of contents in a text not quite as long as one recital, to be adopted in all the discourses.: Is the person known in the sense of real and ultimate fact? nay that cannot be. Acknowledge your refutation. Is the person unknown in the same way as any real and ultimate fact
is known? Nay it cannot be. Acknowledge your refutation.”” It carries on and repeats different questions in eight different aspects. In fact I think the section they are attributing directly to the Buddha is fairly brief.
Knowing this it doesn’t seem surprising that the Buddha should have taught it in expectation of future wrong views challenging the Dhamma. Few, of course, could never have expanded it in the beautiful way (or any way) that mogalitissa did – he was an arahant with the four discriminations.
I think we must inquire into the truth about things not just have faith.
I couldn’t agree more with your last sentence. How to inquire though. We can never prove by textual evidence that the Abhidhamma was the Buddhas word. But can we prove that the suttanta was either? Can we even prove that the Buddha wasn’t just a legend- maybe the whole Tipititka was just a hodge-podge of different ideas and stories.
I think the only way to develop confidence in the veracity of the Abhidhamma and commentaries is by studying the details and testing them against the dhammas that are arising now in daily life. In other words ‘inquiring into the truth of things’ as you put it. Vipassana is a bit of a catch-phrase these days but it is nothing other than Abhidhamma – seeing paramattha dhammas as they are. Historical studies may help if they encourage us to want to prove the abhidhamma directly; or they may hinder if we accept the words
of such scholars as von Hinuber (who say it was just a later addition).
Ultimately only profound, direct experience can prove the truth of the Tipitaka, but even so it is clear
Dear zh and Howard,
I am trying to establish all the reasons why you believe Abhidhamma is a later invention after the Buddha passed away. ZH wrote: “I live near a monk who also said that the Abhiddhama are not said by the Buddha although consists teachings of Buddhism. He said there are some contradictions in it with the early four Nikayas. I didn’t ask him what are the contradictions since I am not so familiar with the four Nikayas myself. I think many Theravadins have these opinions too”
So the reasons so far:
A monk says Abhidhamma contradicts the teachings in the sutta pitaka, specifically it contradicts the first 4 Nikayas. Howard, however doesn’t say that and in fact feels that the Abhidhamma is in agreement with the sutta pitaka.
Many Theravadans believe that the Abhidhamma is not the Buddha’s word.
Some modern scholars, including hermeneutics experts, have said they think the Abhidhamma is a later addition.
The style of the Abhidhamma is much more formalistic than the sutta pitaka so is likely not to be by the same person who taught the suttas.
The commentaries say it was first preached in a deva realm and that sounds like a fairy story.
Is that a fair summary and are there any other reasons? I would ask zh what specifically in the 4 nikayas the Abhidhamma contradicts but he has modestly stated that he is not sure. Does anyone else have any specific points where they think this is so?If this is all the reasons please let me know and I will give my reasons for not being convinced by them. I note that so far Howard has agreed with me that within the sutta pitaka there are very different presentations of the Dhamma- which seems to weaken point #4 objection.
Hi, Robert –
- A monk says Abhidhamma contradicts the teachings in the sutta pitaka, specicificaly it contradicts the first 4 Nikayas. Howard, however doesn’t say that and in fact feels that the Abhidhamma is in agreement with the sutta pitaka.
Yes, but Howard is a self-confessed non-expert on the Abhidhamma and especially on the subtleties of possible incompatibilities it might have with the Sutta Pitaka.
Many Theravadans believe that the Abhidhamma is not the Buddha’s word.
Well, of course that establishes nothing. Many people believe many things.
- The commentaries say it was first preached in a deva realm and that sounds like a fairy story.
Is that a fair summary and are there any other reasons? I would ask zhihuihe what specifically in the 4 nikayas the Abhidhamma contradicts but he has modestly stated that he is not sure. Does anyone else have any specific points where they think this is so? If this is all the reasons please let me know and I will give my reasons for not being convinced by them.
I look forward to being convinced by you! I would be quite pleased should you succeed.
has agreed with me that within the sutta pitaka there are different presentations of the Dhamma- which seems to weaken
point #4 objection.
Well, actually I suppose I have some questions about the authorship of the Jataka Tales as well! They were probably a copyright violation of Aesop’s Fables! ;-))
More on Abhidhamma authenticity. As Will rightly noted the whole of the Dhamma fits together and different portions complement each other. In the beginning of learning about Dhamma you probably remember that it was hard to grasp where different pieces fit in. We soon learn about the 4 noble truths but what do they really mean?
There are different levels of understanding in theory and practice. To properly comprehend the first noble truth of suffering (which is so much more than merely painful feeling or existential angst) there has to be insight into many actual dhammas – and that is not easy; in the beginning we don’t even understand what dhammas are, which is nama (mental phenomena), which is rupa (physical phenomena). The Abhidhamma precisely and clearly explains each of these in different ways. One can test it and see that the world – i.e. what is appearing at the 6 doors– is exactly what is taught there. Will noted in the end it doesn’t matter who taught it and this is so– it is the truth, the actuality of things as they are. It could not be surpassed and that is why it is called Abhi – higher or ultimate – Dhamma, truth.
I find the whole of the Tipitaka and commentaries fit and complement each other so well. I have no problem believing in deva realms – why should there not be other realms where beings dwell inside or outside the universe we see? Nevertheless, It wouldn’t worry me if they weren’t real as the Abhidhamma in particular is focussed on understanding the world as we experience it in this fathom length body. Even the Jatakas I find useful and don’t doubt their validity – I often read them as a counterpart to the Abhidhamma as they pertain to our daily life. For instance, I was just thinking over the story of the Bodhisatta when he was born as a powerful snake. He had taken a vow not to kill and when some boys speared him and carried him to their homes he endured the pain patiently – he could have killed them all easily. I often get impatient while waiting in lines, at the bank for instance, but if I remember such stories at those times it always conditions patience (if a snake can endure so much why should I get annoyed over a trifle). Is the story true? I don’t know – how could we know? But I don’t doubt it.
You wrote that you felt the Abhidhamma is like the later Mahayana because the commentaries say it was first preached in the Tavitimsa deva world. This sounds like a fairy story and so you doubt the whole of the Abhidhamma – one of the three baskets of the Tipitaka. You say you don’t doubt the Sutta Pitaka(or not much); but you know right throughout the sutta pitaka (and not just in the commentaries to them) there are examples of devas and Brahma gods visiting the Buddha or the Buddha visiting them. If you doubt the Abhidhamma for this reason shouldn’t the sutta pitaka come under the same cloud?
It is true that in the recent times many scholars have called into question the authenticity of the Abhidhamma. I see this as a stain and a cancer on the life of the Dhamma. In past times the Abhidhamma was held in the highest regard even the crowning point of the Dhamma, among the faithful of Theravada. King Kassapa V in Sri Lanka had the entire Abhidhamma Pitaka inscribed ongold plates while the first book was also covered in gems, and king Vijayabahu used to study it each morning and translated the Dhammasangani from Pali into Singhalese. In fact there is much Abhidhamma already in the Sutta pitaka – just look at the 4th book of the Samyutta nikaya, for instance, or some of the Anguttara nikaya – thus the idea that the Abhidhamma is radically different from the sutta pitaka is not really true. In the sutta pitaka there are many teachings about the five aggregates (the khandas), the twelve senseBases (ayatanas), the eighteen elements (dhatus); but they are explained more thoroughly in the Abhidhamma Pitaka and this is
very helpful, as it shows us what is real and thus what can be an object for satipatthana vipassana. Does everyone need to study Abhidhamma? I don’t know but I do know that we live in a world of concept and story and self. The Abhidhamma, if applied correctly, brings us to see another world –and in that world there is only evanescent, conditioned phenomena: the noble truth of dukkha. Thus the function of Abhidhamma is to break down the idea of self. Who but a Buddha could teach such a doctrine. No one can prove the Abhidhamma is the Buddha’s word, nor can they prove the Suttas or Vinaya are BuddhaVaca. What they can do is find out whether the Abhidhamma applies to the dhammas that are arising and falling away at this moment. If they can do so any doubts or questions as to whether it came before or after the Buddha become nongermane. Howard, I’m very happy to write more and answer in more detail and queries, doubts or disagreements you have here (and anyone else who is reading).
A few years ago I tried reading the Abhidhamma but I kept falling asleep from boredom (another reason why it was taught in the deva-realm – their ability to stay awake But hearing you constantly espouse the virtues of this body of work has aroused my curiousity again. I can understand how the detailed elucidation of all the permutations of sensory/mental/physical phenomena can help break down the notion of a “self”, but besides this what other aspects of the abhidhamma do you find particularly valuable? Is there a cliff notes version of it I can read? I don’t have the stamina or leisure time of a deva at the moment. While I do keep a very open mind on the possible benefits of studying the abhidhamma, I fail to get any benefit from the Jataka Tales. I think it’s very easy for people to get wrong messages from them, and as far as I can recall it doesn’t demonstrate any of the unique and outstanding characteristics of the Buddha’s teachings that clearly separate him from all other spiritual traditions.
Careful- any more messages like that and I might write even more praise of the Abhidhamma! Seriously though I appreciate your interest; the reason I took the time to reply to Howard was:
1). I know Howard really considers the Dhamma deeply and is willing to be swayed in his ideas if he sees benefits in anything.
2.) on this list there are several, even numerous, members who wonder about Abhidhamma
and are ready to take the time to delve into it. Firstly, it has to be admitted that initially it seems as
exciting as counting dust motes. All those classifications and so many repetitions – it has put me to sleep on many a restless night.
There are seven books in the Abhidhamma. The first one- the Dhammasangani, (translated by Mrs. Rhys Davids) is the easiest to read and can be studied without too many problems. They get increasingly harder (the khatuvattu no problem to read, though) until the final book – The Patthana, (translated by Narada thera) is so difficult and repetitious that even the brave give up. It is, however, also the most important and profound as it details the numerous interwoven conditions that arise at any moment. We can’t just jump in and fathom it though. That is why in days past (and perhaps still to this day in Burma) novice monks began with the Abhidhammattha-sangaha , a concise and very accurate summary of the Abhidhamma. There is a copy on the web at
Once getting through that there is a superb book – Abhidhamma in Daily Life by Nina van Gorkom recently put on the web at
This book helps one to see that the Abhidhamma should not be studied like an academic subject. The different classifications are there to direct us to the varieties of phenomena arising at the 6 doors and to
see them with regard to characteristic, manisfestation, function, and cause(s). The ancient commentaries are very helpful too – the Expositor and Dispeller of delusion (both from PTS) The Abhidhamma brings in all aspects of nama (mind) and rupa (matter). It includes the 4 noble truths, because the khandas (
the aggregates ) are the truth of suffering; while the kilesa, defilements are samudaya sacca (the truth of the cause of suffering). The path to the end of dukkha (suffering) – satipatthana vipassana-
is nothing other than uncovering, studying directly, and dissecting in the present moment all the different phenomena detailed in the Abhidhamma. It includes all the teachings on kamma because kamma-pacccaya is one of the conditions elucidated in the Patthana, and it goes into more detail on this condition than in the suttas. The paticcasamupada (dependent origination) is fantastically hard to comprehend even at the theoretical level but the Patthana(last book of Abhidhamma) sheds much light on this teaching too. Sila (morality) samatha (concentration) and panna(wisdom) at different levels are explained in the Abhidhamma. Thus it complements and adds to the truths contained in the Sutttanta pitaka. It is not easy to study Abhidhamma and we should keep uppermost the purpose – to assist us to penetrate this moment and separate concept from reality. There are dangers: one can get carried away in metaphysical abstractions; or become conceited over ones mere theoretical knowledge; or stressed because one tries to realize what
one is not yet ready to know. It is not a short cut to wisdom – but I believe it was taught by the Buddha as our guide, just as much as the rest of the Tipitaka was and is.
On the Jatakas. I think you are probably right that the deeper aspects of Buddhism are missing from them. Nevertheless, kamma is a theme that runs through every story – and if we can see the depth of kamma: that each moment is conditioned, then the Jatakas teach us well.
Now you are lost!!! Condemned. I am already visualizing you eagerly reading and studying the Abhidhamma along the beaches of San Diego. Robert has enticed me as well; he is a true brainwasher believe me! Give it a try and also you will discover something very meaningful; promise I am not his special agent, just sharing.
Love and respectCybele
Hi, Robert –
I agree with Will as well. Whatever presents the Dhamma well and faithfully is good and useful. I value the Abhidhamma highly, and I certainly do not disparage the Jataka Tales. I simply am not convinced with
regard to the (relatively unimportant) issue of the authorship of them. I far more strongly doubt that the Buddha authored the Mahayana Sutras, though I value many of them quite highly as well. BTW, I have no problem with heaven realms or any of the other realms of experience or in devas visiting this realm. I
tend to be much more of a “believer” on these issues than not.
It is simply my suspicion (prejudice? that the story was concocted to add authenticity. I could, of course, be totally wrong! My main reasons for suspecting that the Abhidhamma Pitaka was the creation of scholar-
monks is that it really is quite different in tone and style, and that modern “experts” are rather sure that it was created during a 650-year period following the death of the Buddha. It certainly is an amazing piece of work, in any case.