Abhidhamma – Introduction

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Abhidhamma – Introduction

Revised January 9, 2019; August 4, 2019; September 8, 2019; July 19, 2022 (#9 added); July 25, 2022 (#10-11 added); February 23, 2023

1. “Abhi” means “higher” or “deeper.” Thus Abhidhamma is a more in-depth, fundamental description of Buddha Dhamma.

The result is the same as the material in the suttā. Still, Abhidhamma provides a “bottom-up” description of the existence, starting with 82 “most basic units” within the four ultimate entities of citta, cetasika, rūpa, and Nibbāna. That was a monumental task, and it took almost 500 years to finalize it at the third Buddhist Council.

The 81 “basic units” that make up this world are one pure citta, 52 cetasika, and 28 types of rūpa. Depending on the combinations of cetasika that arise with citta, 89 (or 121) types of contaminated citta (or viññāṇa) can occur. That will become clear as we discuss it further.

Abhidhamma Piṭaka is fully consistent with the other two Piṭaka of the Tipiṭaka.

2. In the suttā, the Buddha explained the Dhamma concepts using everyday language. And most people can attain Nibbāna without knowing anything about Abhidhamma.

However, one could study Abhidhamma and see WHY Buddha Dhamma is not a religion but is the ultimate explanation of nature, the Grand Unified Theory. That can lead to a “faith-based understanding” of Buddha Dhamma. It has a thousand-fold more explanatory power than modern science. And for those who like to “get to the bottom of understanding something,” Abhidhamma will bring joy to the heart.

Let us take the example of making a cake:

All one needs to know are the ingredients, how to mix them, and the proper procedures to bake them. That is analogous to suttā.

Abhidhamma’s approach is comparable to starting at the atomic level of the ingredients. Then one can describe how those fundamental entities combine to make flour, oil, eggs, etc. Furthermore, one would know the choice of those ingredients and WHY the cake needs to bake at a specific temperature.

It is mind-boggling what Abhidhamma can accomplish.

However, instead of being a boring “recipe book,” learning Abhidhamma can be a delightful experience if one starts with understanding the basics. Furthermore, one can get a much deeper understanding of the Dhamma concepts.

3. Abhidhamma provides a complete, consistent description of existence (encompassing the 31 realms). With this description, there can be no unexplained phenomena at any level. A logician like the late Dr. Kurt Gödel could have a great time with it; see “Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem.”

The scope of Abhidhamma is somewhat comparable to what the scientists are trying to do with a Grand Unified Theory to describe the behavior of inert matter. Einstein devoted the latter part of his life to developing one and failed; scientists are still far from achieving it. And even if accomplished, it can only describe the behavior of inert matter, not of living beings.

4. Abhidhamma is the Grand Unified Theory of the Buddha. I introduced it in the post “The Grand Unified Theory of Dhamma.” In this Abhidhamma section, I will try to provide further details. My goal is to describe it in an easy-to-grasp simple manner.

When I taught physics to undergraduate students, I told them not to memorize anything but to grasp the essence of the material. Many students (and adults) try to memorize descriptions of a concept but have no idea how to apply that concept. I used to give them all the complex equations and any other hard-to-memorize material in the tests; they needed to apply those equations correctly in solving problems.

My approach is the same here. For example, in the “Tables and Summaries” post, different types of cittā (loosely speaking, “thoughts”) are listed. There is no need to memorize them. One should understand a given Dhamma concept starting from the basics: for example, which cittā are immoral and can lead one to rebirth in the apāyā and WHY.

5. For example, a key concept in Buddha Dhamma is saññā (translated to English as “perception”). But it is much more complicated than “knowing and identifying an object”; see “Saññā – What It Really Means.”

One of my first goals in the Abhidhamma section is to describe saññā and the critical role played by the brain. For that, we first need to understand the connection between the brain and the mind (they are NOT the same). See “Brain – Interface between Mind and Body.”

Abhidhamma can make one addicted to it, as I have become addicted. When one starts to grasp how this complex world works, understanding even a bit more can bring joy to the heart.

6. However, I must say that even if one can understand the whole of the Abhidhamma theory, one MAY NOT understand the Buddha’s message. One must understand the true meanings of anicca, dukkha, and anatta.

I had so many unresolved questions on parts of Abhidhamma until I listened to the first desanā from one of my teachers on July 30, 2013, on anicca, dukkha, and anatta. It was like lifting a fog, and by the end of that desanā, I knew I would be able to ‘fill in the blanks” to improve my understanding.

Abhidhamma can solidify and “fill in the blanks” of Buddha Dhamma from the suttā, which can be exhilarating.

Background of the Development of Abhidhamma Theory

7. Following is a brief background on how the Abhidhamma Piṭaka of the Tipiṭaka was developed over roughly 250 years by the lineage of bhikkhus, starting with Ven. Sāriputta. Of course, Ven. Sāriputta was one of the two chief disciples of the Buddha: While Ven. Mahā Moggallāna excelled in supernatural powers, Ven. Sāriputta excelled in Dhamma. He was only second to the Buddha in Dhamma knowledge.

The minute details on the structure of a citta vīthi (a series of citta) of 17 thought moments, with each citta lasting sub-billionth of a second, can be seen only by a Buddha. The Buddha described such minute details to Ven. Sāriputta. Then Ven. Sāriputta and his group of bhikkhus (and their subsequent lineage) completed the monumental task of describing the Abhidhamma theory, starting with the fundamental entities.

As I mentioned earlier, that is a million times more complicated task than putting together a Grand Unified Theory of inert matter (as scientists are attempting to do today). Because a living being has an inert body but a complex mind which makes that inert body “alive.”

8. At the First Buddhist Council, just three months after the Parinibbāna of the Buddha, only a theoretical framework was recited. More was added at the second Council, and the task was completed only at the third Council. This completed Tipiṭaka was written down in 29 BCE at the Fourth Buddhist Council;  see “Preservation of the Buddha Dhamma.”

A false statement in many books is the following statement. Abhidhamma was “invented” by bhikkhus after the Parinibbāna of the Buddha.

Those who make such statements have not either studied Abhidhamma or have not been able to understand the in-depth analyses in Abhidhamma. The minute details of the very fast citta vīthi are discernible only to the mind of a Buddha.

It is essential to realize that hundreds of Arahants at the Fourth Council wrote the whole Tipiaka. That included the complete Abhidhamma Piaka.

9. The description of the events leading to the First Buddhist Council, just three months after the Parinibbāna of the Buddha, is described in the  “WebLink: suttacentral: 21. Pañcasatikakkhandhaka” section of the “Cūḷavagga” of the “Theravāda Vinaya Piṭaka.”

At the end of that section is a small section titled “Tassuddānaṁ.” That summarizes the events of the First Council.

The following verse is in there: “Upāliṁ vinayaṁ pucchi, suttantānandapaṇḍitaṁ; Piṭakaṁ tīṇi saṅgītiṁ, akaṁsu jinasāvakā.”

That says: “Venerable Upāli recited the Vinaya (Upāliṁ vinayaṁ pucchi,) Ven. Ānanda recited the Suttas (suttantānandapaṇḍitaṁ or sutta ānanda paṇḍitaṁ), and all of the 500 Arahants present recited ALL THREE Piṭaka (Piṭakaṁ tīṇi saṅgītiṁ, akaṁsu jinasāvakā.) [tīṇi : see tayo. tayo : [nom. plu. of ti] three (persons).]

Thus, there is clear evidence that all three Piṭaka of the Tipiṭaka were recited at the First Council.

However, only a basic framework of Abhidhamma was available at that First Council. Further refinements/expansions were added to the Abhidhamma Piṭaka at the Second and Third Councils. The finalized version was written down at the Fourth Council.

10. In the “Introduction” to his book (Ref. 1), Bhikkhu Bodhi has a subsection on “The Origins of Abhidhamma” (see pp. 9-11 of Ref. 1.) There, he has provided a brief background which I will summarize.

The Buddha explained Abhidhamma in detail to an assembly of Devas in the Tāvatiṁsa Deva realm over three months. Each day, the Buddha would descend to Earth for his almsround, meet Venerable Sariputta, and give him a summary of that day’s discourse.

Having learned Abhidhamma from the Buddha, Ven. Sariputta taught it to his 500 student-bhikkhus. However, they had to expand that summary to the form we have in seven books today. That task was completed only by the Third Council, as mentioned in #9 above.

The “WebLink: suttacentral: Lomasakaṅgiyabhaddekaratta Sutta (MN 134)” confirms that the Buddha spent in the Tāvatiṁsa Deva realm: “Ekamidaṁ, bhikkhu, samayaṁ bhagavā devesu tāvatiṁsesu viharati pāricchattakamūle paṇḍukambalasilāyaṁ.” OR “One time, the Buddha was staying among the Devas of Tāvatiṁsa realm.”

11. There is also a verse close to the beginning of the “WebLink: suttacentral: Dhutaṅgapañha (Mil 6.4.2)” section of “Milindapañha” of the Tipiṭaka directly saying that. It is in Ven. Nagasena’s answer to a question by King Milinda on the vast numbers of humans and Devas who attained magga phala while listening to the Buddha.

“..Nagare rājagahe paññāsasahassāni tīṇi ca satasahassāni ariyasāvakā bhagavato upāsakaupāsikāyo, puna tattheva dhanapālahatthināgadamane navuti pāṇakoṭiyo, pārāyanasamāgame pāsāṇakacetiye cuddasa pāṇakoṭiyo, puna indasālaguhāyaṁ asīti devatākoṭiyo, puna bārāṇasiyaṁ isipatane migadāye paṭhame dhammadesane aṭṭhārasa brahmakoṭiyo aparimāṇā ca devatāyo, puna tāvatiṁsabhavane paṇḍukambalasilāyaṁ abhidhammadesanāya asīti devatākoṭiyo,.”

The “WebLink: suttacentral: English translation (Mil 6.4.2)” there is as follows: “..In the city of Rājagaha three hundred and fifty thousand devout laymen and devout laywomen, disciples of the Blessed One, were walking in the Paths. And there again at the taming of Dhanapāla the great elephant nine hundred million living beings, and again at the meeting at the Pāsāṇika Cetiya on the occasion of the Pārāyana discourse one hundred and forty million living beings, and again at the Indasāla cave eight hundred millions of gods, and again at Benares in the deer park Isipatana at the first preaching of the Dhamma one hundred and eighty million Brahmā gods and innumerable others, and again in the heaven of the Thirty-Three at the preaching of the Abhidhamma on the Paṇḍu Kambala Rock eight hundred millions of the gods,.”

Much merits to the reader TripleGemStudent for providing me with this reference.

Weakening of Buddha Sāsana

12. The absence of Arahants (in significant numbers) started around the second century CE and coincided with the rise of Mahāyāna and the “contamination” of Theravada, which culminated in the Visuddhimagga of Buddhaghosa; see “Historical Timeline of Edward Conze.”

As we discuss more topics, it will become clear that only Arahants with superior mental power can accomplish the complex task of completing the Abhidhamma Piṭaka. It was compiled without an easy way of recording, let alone having access to computers.

I have given a breakdown of the Abhidhamma Piṭaka in the post, “Preservation of Dhamma.”

13. August 12, 2015: I have brought the subsections on “Mind and Consciousness” and “Gandhabba (Manomaya Kāya)” from “Dhamma Concepts” to the “Abhidhamma” section since it is imperative to understand those basic concepts first. Reading those subsections (and “Mind and Consciousness”) is a good idea before reading further in the Abhidhamma section.

It is not necessary to understand the material in all those essays. But the more of those basic concepts one understands, the easier it becomes to grasp the content in subsequent articles.

Also, we all keep increasing our understanding as we learn Dhamma. I learn new things daily and update the posts as much as possible. The more one learns, the more one can “see the inconsistencies” in other versions of “Buddhism,” and possibly in my essays; some of these posts date back to 2014. Please don’t hesitate to point out any inconsistencies on this website. I would be grateful. There is a “Comments” tab under each post.

14. I have written a series of posts in a new subsection introducing fundamental concepts in Abhidhamma at “Essential Abhidhamma – The Basics.”

The background and an overview are at “Abhidhamma Piṭaka – Deeper Analyses of Concepts.”


1. “WebLink: PDF Download: Bhikkhu_Bodhi-Comprehensive_Manual_of_Abhidhamma,” by Bhikkhu Bodhi (2000); this is a revised and updated version of Ref. 2 below. A pdf file can be downloaded (click the link to open the pdf).

2. “WebLink: PDF Download: A Manual of Abhidhamma,” Fifth Edition by Narada Thero (1987).

3. “WebLink: PDF Download: Buddha Abhidhamma – Ultimate Science,” by Dr. Mehm Tin Mon; this is a FREE publication (click the link to open the e-book); please read the following warning about all three references.

Unfortunately, some concepts in all three references are not correct. In particular, most existing Theravāda texts (except the Pāli Tipiṭaka of course) have incorrect interpretations of anicca, dukkha, and anatta. Also, in all three references, kasiṇa and breath meditation are presented as Buddhist meditations. These problems are discussed in the section “Elephants in the Room.”