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Abhidhamma fantaisies
October 4th, 2018

illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

Abhidhamma fantaisies… vs. taking refuge in the saṅgha

Recently, a text was posted on FB (authored by Panduka Mahanama, an Abhidhamma teacher at Sambhodhi English Dhamma School in Sri Lanka… but not attributed to him by the poster) about "What is Abhidhamma?".

The text went as follows (the bold is mine):
The Buddha, just prior to the 7th annual rains retreat (vas), i.e. 7 years after Enlightenment, ascended to the Tavatimsa heaven, to deliver the sermon on Abhidhamma to thousands of Devas and Brahmas who assembled there, from ten thousand world systems, including His mother, who was then born as a Deva in Thusita Heaven.

There, seated on the ‘Pandukambala’ stone seat of God Sakka, He preached the Abhidhamma, in detail, for a continuous period of 3 months. It was expounded to the heavenly beings, as it had to be explained to the same audience. No human being was able to listen for so long, in one stretch. The gods who listened to the Buddha then, will be living even today, as their life span is much longer than for human beings.

Note: In Tavatimsa heaven, the life span is 1000 Celestial years. 1 day in Tavatimsa heaven is equal to 100 years in the human plane

Buddha returned to this world, every day during that period, to the shore of Anottatta lake in North India, to take his meals, and to attend to other necessary daily requirements. Ven. Arahat Sariputta, went there to meet the Buddha daily, to attend on him. He was the most intelligent of all the Arahats and was known as Dhamma Senadhipati. At that time the Buddha, gave Ven. Sariputta, a gist of the Abhidhamma, that he had preached to the gods on the previous day.

Ven. Sariputta, taught, in detail, what he learned to his 500 odd pupils. Those pupils in turn taught the other monks, and ultimately most of the monks at that time learned the Abhidhamma. which is the Special and Higher teaching of all Buddha’s.

At the first council, the Dhamma and Vinaya were rehearsed. Dhamma included the Sutta and Abhidhamma. As writing was not prevalent at that time, the dhamma were preserved verbally and handed down from teacher to pupil. This is known as oral tradition. For the first time, the Tipitaka was written down at Aluvihara in Sri Lanka at the 4th Council.

All the monks who participated at the 1st Council were arahats, with Catu-patisambidha knowledge. Catu-Patisambhida means 4 special Analytical Knowledge, namely
Attha, – analysis of meanings, cause
Dhamma, – of reasons, conditions, or causal relations
Nirutti – Language
Patibhana, – intellect to which things knowable by the foregoing processes are presented.
The arahats rehearsed and preserved the Dhamma and Vinaya at the councils. Hence there is no doubt that the original Dhamma preached by the Buddha is available up to date, in the Theravāda Tipitaka.

The 1st Council ‘Sangayana’ was held 3 months after Parinibbana. The Buddha’s teachings were divided into 3 sections called the Tipitaka, which consists of Vinaya, Sutta and Abhidhamma. The 3 Piṭaka were compiled, examined and approved by the 500 Arahats who assembled there.

Vinaya Piṭaka is a comprehensive code of monastic discipline, including the 227 rules and regulations for Bhikkhus and 304 for Bhikkhunis promulgated by the Buddha.
The Sutta Piṭaka is a collection of the summaries of the important discourses given by the Buddha, delivered to different beings at different places. The Suttas were explained at the first council by Ven. Arahat Ananda, Treasurer of the Dhamma. They were codified and the Sutta Piṭaka was compiled.
There was nothing to examine in Abhidhamma as it was preached direct to Ven. Sariputta. It was explained in detail by Ven. Sariputta to his 500 odd pupils. They explained what was taught to them to the other monks. All the senior monks, that assembled were Patisambidha Arahats. They new the Abhidhamma. It was recited at the Councils (Sangithi) and approved.

Cullavagga, which is a part of the Vinaya Piṭaka states in the Udana (index) to Chapter X1, that ‘the Three Piṭakas were recited at the 1st council, (Pitaka tini sangitm akamsu ) The 3 Piṭakas include the Abhidhamma Piṭaka. This is clear evidence that Abhidhama Piṭaka was recited at the 1st Council

The 3rd Council, was held during the reign of Emperor Asoka. It was presided by Ven. Arahat Moggaliputta Tissa Thera. After the 3rd Council, the book called Kathavattu was compiled by Ven Moggaliputtatissa Thera and added to the Abhidhamma Piṭaka. This book is a record of the incorrect views and controversies that were corrected at the Council.

During the 4th week after Enlightenment, the Buddha was contemplating on the Dhamma, seated in a place called ‘Ratanagara’ located in the vicinity of the Bodhi tree,. When contemplating on the Patthana, the 24 conditional relations of Cause and Effect, coloured rays started to emanate from His body for the first time. The Patthana is explained only in the Abhidhamma. It is the last book of the Abhidhamma Piṭaka.

Some western writers on Buddhism were of the view that Abhidhamma is a later addition and was included into the Tipitaka at the 3rd Council. The above facts indicate that Abhidhamma originated from The Buddha and was not compiled after the 2nd Council by some erudite Monks. Anyone who studies Abhidhamma will realize that no one except a Samma Sambuddha will be able to explain the details of Mind and Matter, the Law of Causation etc. in such accuracy and detail.

I'm afraid « the above facts indicate that abhidhamma originated from the Buddha... » doesn't stand. There is no fact in the above, just hearsay (from sources with an obvious self-serving bias to claim so... Every follower of the Buddha wants to cling to the "right words", in order to comfort one's own sense of holding the truth...).

"Hearsay" is defined in the dictionary as "information received from other people which cannot be substantiated".
There's clearly no substantiation about the statements above made on the Abhidhamma coming directly from the Buddha. No proof whatsoever. The reliance on the magic number (500) in the statements about Sariputta or the councils also hints that this is hearsay.
Hearsay does not imply it's false… but it clearly implies it's far from enough proof to conclude that it's a "fact".
And as per the kalama sutta, « don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought "This contemplative is our teacher." »

If we practice "right speech", then it is critical that we don't spread lies, not even by mistake or by tradition / scripture, it is critical that we don't present myths as 'facts', it is critical that we abstain from mental fabrications! To put a lot of work in creating narratives doesn't indicate freedom from mental fabrications; and instead some work in order to substantiate the statements, rather than accumulating them without proof, would have been welcome.
Carl Sagan popularized the "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence": the burden of proof is on the one claiming stuff which seems highly improbable.

As it happens, the whole tipitaka is "hearsay", since the Buddha didn't commit to permanent storage / writing his teachings.
However, at least, the sutta piṭaka is filled with many "Thus I heard" ( which 1. indicates it's hearsay, 2. was only passed down to us because many agreed that they heard the same or at least similar enough not to doubt Ananda 's report.
The Abhidhamma isn't filled with "Thus I heard", but it was not written by the Buddha either. Analysis of the text clearly suggests many voices. It also suggests layers of elaboration.
If Ananda who could not be present to all of the discourses of the Buddha (as he was too young) but who did however assist him for many years (and thus did hear much of the dhamma directly from the Buddha, just like Sariputta supposedly) had to say "Thus I heard" on all suttas, so should Sariputta if he was quoting…

Serious Theravādins like bhikkhu Bodhi e.g. considers the Abhidhammattha-sangaha ( is one of the most important texts of the Theravāda tradition and yet notes that the work is ascribed to Acariya Anuruddha, a Buddhist savant about whom so little is known that even his country of origin and the exact century in which he lived remain in question.
Another section, already cited above, the khatavatthu (points of controversy, which happens to be extremely important historically as it informs us about many other early schools of Buddhism which had slightly different interpretations than the Theravādins, and how the Theravādins justify their interpretation as the correct one) is explicitly attributed to a specific author, Moggaliputta, not the Buddha!
As it happens, given these "points of controversy", unsurprisingly the Abhidhamma of the Theravāda school was not accepted as canonical by the other schools: the Mahasanghika ( rejected it, the Sarvāstivāda had another 'abhidhamma' ! The Sautrantika promoted a 'return' to the sūtras —hence their name— precisely as a reaction to such abhidhammas which they didn't see as canonical but drifting into mental fabrications away from the Buddha's teachings!!! The Pulgavada clearly disagreed too ( and is the cause of many points discussed in the kathavatthu.

When the Theravāda 's Abhidhamma itself states that sections are not from the Buddha, and that most early traditions of Buddhism actively reject that the Theravāda 's Abhidhamma is canonical, the Theravāda narrative / story-telling is hardly enough to establish any 'proof' of the Buddha being the author!
Mentioning the Cullavagga, in an attempt to authenticate the teachings, is particularly hilarious because the exact same book contains mentions of people disagreeing (!
As previously discussed (, some sections of the Abhidhamma have to arise only late, in particular after the initial schisms in the saṅgha since they're responses to other traditions: e.g. the analysis of "full cognition" as 17 moments of thoughts / 1 moment of matter ( in Theravāda is a direct result of looking for alternatives to the Sarvāstivāda and Sautrantika doctrines. Yet, these sections are not confined in the kathavatthu.
And it's quite a stretch to consider that the suttas were not only mere summaries of the important discourses, but also 'codified' (hence not just verbatim, in spite of the "thus I heard")… but the Abhidhamma would have been without examination, discussion, amendments, explanations… just direct transmission. It takes an Abhidhamma teacher to assert such a thing, in a blatantly self-serving way.

The thing is: the whole premise of the above text is a logical fallacy, of a call to authority (of the Buddha).
As it happens, personally, I trust the saṅgha enough that I don't mind if the Abhidhamma is the product of the best students of the Buddha, arahants themselves, with dedicated practice, who wrote the best explanation they could of the Buddha's teachings. I have all the reasons to trust their understanding, and their desire to be faithful to the teachings and helpful to other practitioners.
Taking refuge in the saṅgha includes trusting the saṅgha not to betray the Buddha's teachings, and that's not necessarily the same as the saṅgha simply being stupid parrots!
IF Sāriputta had entirely made up the Abhidhamma, as his best explanation of the dhamma, THEN that'd be just fine too, given how advanced this arahant apparently was!!
We don't need the call to authority, or claims of authorship without proof. What's the meaning of "taking refuge" in the saṅgha if we lie to ourselves about, or even entirely deny, the contributions of said saṅgha ?

#Buddhism #Dharma
Buddhism has no specific guideline on supporting teachers, it simply asks for you to consider causality: if you want this living tradition to survive, how are you participating, in practical terms, to make this happen? Nice words, exposure or social media ‘+1’ might feel good, but they do not actually help with the basic necessities: This is important: €315 last month, from 7 people, is not stretching far…
image: Sāriputta and Moggallāna, the 2 chief disciples (in Wisdom and psychic powers, resp.) of the Buddha.