The third collection of the Pali "Triple Basket" is the Abhidharma. It belongs -- at least in the form handed down -- to an earlier period than the other two collections, the discourses (sutras) and monastic disciplinary guidelines (vinaya).
In spite of this, it should in no way be considered a corruption or distortion of the Buddha’s teaching. Rather, it is an attempt to systematize all of the doctrines laid down in the sutras and to elucidate them from a psychological, philosophical, physics, and physiological standpoint.
Just as this Abhidharma collection -- from the oldest Buddhist school, Theravada, preserved in the Pali language -- consists of seven books, so too does the version of the ancient defunct Sarvástiváda (Sabbatthiváda) school, which is preserved five in Chinese. The names of the seven books of both are:
Several of the formerly existing so-called Hinayana ("Lesser Vehicle") schools, especially the Sautrántikas, contested the authenticity of the Abhidharma altogether. The complete text of the Pali Abhidharma collection in the Thai (Siamese) edition -- donated by His Majesty the King of Siam comprises 6,297 pages.
And of these only 1,152, or a little more than one-sixth, have been translated into Western languages, namely the Dhammasangani into English by Mrs. Rhys Davids (1900) and into German by Ven. Nyanaponika (1950); the Kathávatthu (1915) into English by Shwe Zan Oung and Mrs. Rhys Davids; the Puggalapaññatti by me into German (1910), and by B.C. Law into English (1924).
A very succinct résumé of all the essential doctrines of the Abhidharma is given in the ingenious little summary called Abhidhammatthasangaha written by Anuruddha, who is believed to have lived not earlier than the 8h century.
In Burma, those wishing to study the Abhidharma are expected to first thoroughly learn by heart and master the meaning of this short epitome. Once one has mastered it, one will have grasped the whole substance of the Abhidharma.
One may look in the Discourse collection, the Abhidhammatthasangaha, and the commentaries in vain for terms and teachings introduced in the Abhidharma. This does not imply any deviation from the canonical Abhidharma's contents.
But it may show the necessity felt of having terms better fitted for the work of summarizing and systematizing. It would be useful to have all of those technical terms not met with in the earliest books collected and arranged chronologically.
Its main difference in treatment, briefly stated, is the fact that in the sutras the doctrines are more or less explained in conventional terms or everyday language (vohara-vacana) understood by anyone. In the Abhidharma, on the other hand, those same doctrines are explained in purely philosophical terms that are true in an absolute or "ultimate" sense (paramattha-vacana).
passing away at every moment.
For in reality, in an absolute sense (paramattha), there does not exist any real, self-dependent, permanent entity, no such thing as a so-called "ego," but only an ever-changing process of conditionally arisen phenomena. So the whole Abhidharma has to do only with the description, analysis, and elucidation of such phenomena.
While these phenomena are treated in the sutras under the Five Aggregates
- corporeality (body)
- mental formations
Studying the contents of the seven Abhidharma books requires a previous thorough acquaintance with the fundamental teachings and ethical aims of Buddhism. Only for them will the Abhidharma prove to be of real benefit. More