Introduction to Dhammasangani

by U Ko Lay | 1993 | 7,776 words

By The Editorial Committee - Translation Section Department for the Promotion and Propagation of the Sasana Ministry of Religious Affairs, Yangoon, Myanmar, 1995 supplied by This introduction in a way may be regarded as a brief introduction to the Abhidhamma Pitaka as a whole. It is in two parts. The first part is about Abhi...

Part I - Abhidhamma

The term 'abhidhamma' can be rendered literally as higher or special teaching of the Buddha. Abhidhamma is in fact a profounder treatment of the Teaching of the Buddha, dealing with ultimate realities, namely, mind (citta), mental concomitants (cetasika), matter or Corporeality (rupa), and Nibbana. Of these four, the first three are compounded and conditioned. Nibbana is the only ultimate reality which is uncompounded and unconditioned. In this book, 'mind' and 'consciousness' are both used for citta. The term 'thought' includes both citta and cetasikas, i.e., mind (or consciousness) and mental concomitants.

The Buddha expounded his teachings with only one object, mainly, the attainment of Nibbana. But the presentation varies according to varying occasions and circumstances. in Suttanta discourses the Buddha takes into consideration the intellectual level of his audience and teaches the dhamma in conventional terms, making reference to peoples and objects such as I, we, he, she, man, women, cow, tree, etc. But in Abhidhamma, the Buddha makes no such concessions; he treats the dhamma entirely in terms of ultimate realities. He analyses every phenomenon into its ultimate constituents. All relative concepts such as man, mountain. etc., are reduced to their ultimate elements which are then precisely defined , classified, and systematically arranged.

Thus in Abhidhamma, compounded and conditioned things arc expressed in terms of khandhas, mental and physical aggregates, ayatanas, sense-bases; dhatus, elements; indriya, faculties; sacca, fundamental truths and so on. Things denoted by conventional terms such as man, woman, etc., are resolved into ultimate components of khandhas, ayatanas, etc., and viewed as impersonal mental and physical phenomena, which are conditioned by various factors and are impermanent (anicca), subject to suffering (dukkha), and without an entity (anatta).

Having resolved all phenomena into ultimate components analytically in Dhammasangani and Vibhanga, Abhidhamma defines the conditional relations between the various constituent factors in Patthana, the last of its seven treatises. Thus Abhidhamma forms a gigantic edifice of knowledge relating to the ultimate realities which, in its immensity of scope, grandeur, subtlety, and profundity can be properly expounded only by the Buddha.

It is true that the Suttanta Pitaka also contains discourses dealing with analytical descriptions and conditional relations of the five mental and physical aggregates. Where the need arises, subjects such as the five aggregates, sense-bases, etc., are mentioned in the suttas. But they are explained only briefly by what is known as the Suttanta Method of Analysis (Suttanta bhajaniya), giving bare definitions with limited descriptions. For example, khandhas, the five mental and physical aggregates, are enumerated as the aggregate of corporeality, the aggregate of sensation, the aggregate of perception, the aggregate of volitional activities, and the aggregate of consciousness. They may be dealt with somewhat more comprehensively; for instance, the aggregate of corporeality may be further defined as the corporeality of the past, the present or the future; the corporeality which is internal or external, coarse or fine, inferior or superior, far or near. The Suttanta Analysis does not usually go further than this.

But the Abhidhamma approach is more thorough, more penetrating, describing each corporeal or mental phenomenon in ultimate terms. For example, in the summarised presentation of the Abhidhamma known as Abhidhammatha Sangaha, compiled in Sri Lanka in the fifth century A.D. by the Venerable Anuruddha, consciousness is described as consisting of 89 kinds, mental concomitants as consisting of 52 kinds, corporeality as consisting of 28 kinds, and Nibbana as the single uncompounded clement (asankhata dhatu). According to the Abhidhamma Method of Analysis (Abhidhamma bhajaniya), each description can be amplified much further.

The Seven Books of Abhidhamma

The Abhidhamma Pitaka is made up of seven treatises:

  1. The Dhammasangani contains detailed enumeration of all phenomena. The second part of this introduction gives a more detailed description of it.
  2. Vibhanga consists of eighteen separate sections which give a detailed analysis of phenomena quite distinct from that of Dhammasangani.
  3. Dhatukatha is a treatise which studies the dhammas analysed in Dhammasahgani and Vibhanga, in fourteen ways of analytical investigation.
  4. Puggalapannatti means the designation of individuals. In the first three books of Abhidhamma conventional terms are used to denote ultimate realities. (Here in this book conventional terms are used not only to denote ultimate realities but also to denote things which do not exist in an ultimate sense. This is because the use of conventional terms is necessary for human communication.)
  5. Kathavatthu is a series of dialectical discussions between the proponents of the orthodox Theravada school and those of the dissentient schools. For instance, One of the controversies involves arguments whether there are or there are not separate entities which may be termed individuals in a real sense. This involves a distinction between the truth of conventional usage (samuti sacca) and the truth of ultimate realities (paramattha sacca). Both the orthodox school and the dissentient schools quote from the Pali Canon in support of their opinions. The views of the dissentient schools were refuted. These discussions with final refutations were recited at the Third Buddhist Synod as part of the Abhidhamma Pitaka. The treatise uses the method of exposition as laid down by the Buddha in anticipation of the controversies that would arise and so it is accepted as expounded by the Buddha.
  6. Yamaka is a treatise which deals with ten subjects such as khandhas, ayatanas, dhatus. The method of treating these subjects is by means of questions in pairs such as questions m straight order and reverse order, questions of positive type and negative type. The main object of this treatise is to show inter-relationship between the three lokas (worlds), namely, satta loka (the world of beings), okasa loka (the 31 planes of existence) and sankharaloka (the world of conditioned) phenomena such as physical and mental aggregates sense-bases, elements.
  7. Pathana deals exhaustively with the conditions which help bring about the arising of physical and mental phenomena. There are 24 such conditional relations which are expounded by way of tikas (triads) and dukas (dyads) as shown in Dhammasangani. The exposition is done in so comprehensive and detailed a manner that the book is called Mahapakarana, the Great Treatise.

Tradition Regarding Exposition of Abhidhamma

According to tradition, the Buddha ascended to the Tavatimsa deva realm and expounded the Abhidhamma to an audience of devas which included the deva who in his previous life had been Queen Maya, the mother of the Buddha. In the human world the Buddha taught Abhidhamma to his Chief Disciple the Venerable Sariputta in a summarised form. The Venerable Sariputta taught what he had learnt from the Buddha to his 500 disciples. The Abhidhamma which we have now is in the form arranged by the Venerable Sariputta.

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