The 'special' or 'higher' dhamma
. Used in reference to the Abhidhamma Pitaka
, one of the three divisions (or 'baskets
') of the Pali Cannon
of Theravada Buddhism
Unlike the Sutta Pitaka or the Vinaya Pitaka, the Abhidhamma is not presented as a set of anecdotes relating to the actions of the Buddha and his followers. Rather, the Abhidhamma is a full-blown theoretical treatise on the metaphysics of Buddhist philosophy. The Pitaka is divided into seven books, many of which present the same information (more or less) in a variety of formats.
These books are:
The Dhammasangani("Enumeration of Phenomena"), which enumerates the 'ultimate realities' to be found in the world
The Vibhanga("Book of Treatises"), which contains the same information as the above, in the form of a catechism.
The Dhatukatha("Discussion with reference to the elements"), a reiteration of the same in question and answer form.
Puggalapaññatti("Descriptions of Individuals"), descriptions of a number of personality types
Kathavatthu("Points of Controversy"), questions and answers compiled in the 3rd century clarifying areas of disagreement among the "Hinayana" schools of the day.
Yamaka("The Book of Pairs"), a logical analysis of the same concepts presented in earlier books.
Patthana("The Book of Relations"), the longest book in the entire Pali Cannon, contain the laws of conditionality through which the different dhammas interact. In permutation with all the possible dhammas (as listed in the Dhammasangani), these laws give form to all knowable existence.
Explaining what, exactly, is taught in the Abhidhamma, is quite beyond the scope of anything so brief as an E2 node, an encyclopedia article, or, for that matter, any book under several hundred to several thousand pages. A brief description, made with every attempt to avoid leading anyone astray, might look a little something like this:
1. Dhammavada("dhamma theory"). All of existence is composed of combinations of fundamental elements called dhammas. They are not elements in the sense that a chemist conceives of such things, as components of physical objects, nor are they "spiritual" units. They are, in a certain sense, the building blocks of existence and reality themselves. There are unconditioned dhammas, consisting only of nibbana, and conditioned dhammas, which are all of the momentary mental and physical aspects of reality. In the view of dhamma theory, reality is, in fact, granular, and the idea that it is anything other than the intersection of these smaller elements is a delusory ideal imposed by sentient beings. Note that this is quite nearly analogous to the view espoused regarding the Five Aggregates.
2. Frames of Reference. Unlike the science and much of the other philosophies of the West, the Abhidhamma does not posit the existence of some manner of external, independant observer. Mind, rather than meerly an observation device, in an integral component of the nature of the world. All observations about reality are made with regard to experienced reality, and not to a reality that exists independant of all observation and interaction. As such, the Abhidhamma has something of a psychological character, hence the inclusion of observations such as those in the Puggalapaññatti. Additionally, the phenomena classified by the Abhidhamma are classified with respect to the proper direction of the human mind, as conceived of by the Buddhist desire to be rid of suffering (dukkha) through a fundamental re-focusing of the human mind away from desire. Noting this, we see that phenomena are classified as 'wholesome' and 'unwholesome', 'defilements' and 'purifications'. This scheme of classification composes the ethical focus of the Abhidhamma.
Historical Origin and Considerations:
Buddhist tradition holds that the Abhidhamma was created by the Buddha himself, in deep contemplation, four weeks following his enlightenment at Bodh Gaya. Like the other elements of the Pali Cannon, it is held to have been assembled with the rest of the suttas at the First Great Council following the paranibbana of the Buddha. Commentarial tradition also holds that the Abhidhamma was delivered not to his human disciples, but rather to the devas and celestial beings of the heavenly realms. The Buddha's mother, Mahamaya, who had gone to dwell in the heavens following the birth of the Buddha. However, the Buddha repeated, day by day, the teachings that he had given to the gods to his chief disciple, Sariputta. Sariputta, in turn, revealed these teachings to other learned monks of the Buddha's assemblage, giving rise to the text we know as the Abhidhamma. Many scholars, on the other hand, feel that the Abhidhamma is a later work, created by monks in the centuries after the Buddha, a work that evolved and was refined, primarily as a textual, not oral tradition, as followers of the Buddha-dhamma delved deeper into the philosophical implications of the original teachings of the Buddha.
The Abhidhamma in the Modern World:
The Abhidhamma continues to be an important component of study for Buddhist monks, primarily in the Theravada nations, such as Burma and Thailand. In various forms, it also exists in the Chinese and Tibetan cannons, which are in use in the remainder of the Buddhist nations of the world. Monks whose focus is the Abhidhamma are specialists- theologians, as opposed to parish priests, but most monastic schools require at least some familiarity with it from all students.
The Abhidhamma has never been popular among Buddhist laity, and has not gained a lot of popularity in the West since Buddhism began to move out of isolated immigrant communities, and farther into the consciousness of the main stream. There are numerous reasons for this. One is the unavailability of materials relating to the Abhidhamma in non-Asian and non-dead languages. Translations, when they exist, often date to the 19th Century, and are only marginally more readable to the average Buddhist than the Pali originals. Only in the past 10-15 years has enough of a critical mass accumulated in terms of accessible translations of texts and commentaries to make it possible for non-scholars to obtain any significant knowledge of the contents of the Abhidhamma. Secondly, when reliable, accessible translations can be obtained, they are often found to be mind bogglingly boring. The Abhidhamma is not light reading, by any stretch of the terminology. It is dry, repetitive, and obscure, even when translated and commented properly. Thirdly, Buddhism among non-Asian folks in the West was largely kicked off by the likes of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, who are notable for many things, but not for their passionate interest in popularizing dry, textual forms of traditional religion. Among Asian folks in the West (and the East, for that matter), the Abhidhamma was held to be the domain of monks, and even at that, only weird, somewhat nerdish monks who liked obscure philosophy. Thought there might have been some reduction in the language barrier (at least they knew the right scripts, since Pali is usually written using the local character set), non-ordained Buddhists, no matter what their ethnic origins, remained little likely to take up Abhidhamma study on their lunch breaks.
At the same time, the Abhidhamma is widely respected in many Buddhist countries in the present day. It is a specialist's area, but, at times, it is made significant to your average Jane-and-Joe Buddhist. In Burma, for instance, meditation instruction centers that teach to the laity often base their lectures and instruction on aspects of the Abhidhamma. Among Thai and Sri Lankan Buddhists, there are some brave souls who undertake the study of the texts, often in study groups dedicated to this pursuit. Westerners, particularly those from scholarly backgrounds, though they may not be scholars themselves, are taking intrest as well. Nonetheless, due to its profound complexity, the Abhidhamma remains solidly outside of the spheres that most Buddhist travel in.
What, then, is the significance of these works?
Well, there are a few. Historically, the Abhidhamma has fueled a great deal of work by Buddhist monks and scholars in the areas of philosophy. It is a masterwork of Buddhist "theology", inspiring new works by later thinkers in the same manner that early classics of Christian theology or Greek philosophy inspired the religious thinkers of the West. Second, it provides a comprehensive view of Buddhist philosophy and thought, condensing (or 'expanding', depending on your page count) many of the principles spread throughout the teachings into (primarily) the two volumes of the Dhammasangani and the Patthana.
Perhaps most importantly is that, in the minds of many of its proponents, the Abhidhamma represents the most clear and direct window directly into the mind of the Buddha. Whereas the stories of the suttas contain teachings that were crafted by the Buddha for the comprehension of particular individuals, at particular times, under particular circumstances, the Abhidhamma is not speaking to any single person or audience. It is, in many ways, an abstraction and excision of the teachings of the Buddha from the particularities of circumstance, a generalization into theory of the specific implementations offered by the historic teachings of the Buddha.
References, & c:
Special thanks to the Access to Insight
summary of the Abhidhamma Pitaka, and for providing, online, the introduction to Bhikkhu Bodhi
's introduction to his translation of the Abhidhammattha Sangaha
of Acariya Anuruddha
A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma: The Abhidhamma Sangaha of Acariya Anuruddha, Bhikkhu Bodhi, ed. (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1993).
Guide Through the Abhidhamma Pitaka, by Nyanatiloka Mahathera (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1983)
The Psychology and Philosophy of Buddhism: An Introduction to the Abhidhamma, by Dr. W.F. Jayasuriya (Kuala Lumpur: Buddhist Missionary Society, 1988)
The numerous translations of the Pali Text Society
Abhidhamma Studies : Buddhist Explorations of Consciousness and Time, by Nyanaponika Thera, Bhikkhu Bodhi, ed.