Abhidhamma – Introduction

Revised January 9, 2019

1. “Abhi” means “higher” or “deeper”. Thus Abhidhamma can be considered a more deeper, fundamental description of Buddha Dhamma.

  • The end result is the same when compared with the material in the suttas, but 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. This is a monumental task and that is why it took almost 500 years to finalize it at the third Buddhist Council.
  • The 81 “basic units” that make up this world are 1 pure citta, 52 cetasika, and 28 types of rūpa. Depending on the combinations of cetasika that arise with citta, there will be 89 (or 121) types contaminated citta (or viññāna) that can arise. This will become clear as we discuss further.

2. In the suttas, the Buddha explained the Dhamma concepts using everyday language. And it is possible for most people to attain Nibbāna without knowing anything about Abhidhamma.

  • However, if one does not have enough “faith” in Buddha Dhamma, one could study Abhidhamma and see for oneself WHY Buddha Dhamma is not a religion but is the ultimate explanation of nature, the Grand Unified Theory. 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 an example of making a cake:

  • All one needs to know are the ingredients and how to mix them and proper procedure to bake it. That is what is done with the suttas.
  • However, Abhidhamma approach is comparable to starting at the atomic level of the ingredients, and then describing how those fundamental entities can combine to make flour, oil, eggs, etc and WHY those need to be mixed in a certain way, and WHY it all need to be baked at a certain temperature.
  • It is truly mind boggling what Abhidhamma can accomplish.
  • However, instead of being a boring “recipe book” (as Abhidhamma is thought these days), if one starts with an understanding of the basics, learning Abhidhamma can be a delightful experience. Furthermore, one can get a much deeper understanding of the Dhamma concepts.

3. Abhidhamma provides the complete, consistent description of the whole 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 can be appreciated to a certain extent by looking at 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 develop one and failed, and the scientists are still far from achieving it. And even if it is attained, it will be able to describe ONLY the behavior of inert matter, not the behavior of living beings, let alone the 31 realms of existence.

4. Abhidhamma is the Grand Unified Theory of the Buddha. I gave an introduction to it in the post, “Grand Unified Theory of Dhamma”. In this Abhidhamma section I will try to give further details. My goal to 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 the concept. I used to give them all the complex equations and any other hard-to-memorize material in the tests; what they needed to do was to apply them in solving problems.
  • My approach is the same here. For example, all different types of cittas are listed in the “Tables and Summaries”; there is no need to memorize them. What I want to do is for someone to be able to understand a given Dhamma concept starting from the basics: for example, which cittas are immoral and can lead one to rebirth in the apāyās and WHY.
  • A key concept in Buddha Dhamma is saññā (translated to English as “perception”). But it is much more complex than “knowing and identifying an object” as it is described. One of my first goals in the Abhidhamma section is to describe saññā, and the key 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).
  • Abhidhamma can make one addicted to it, as I have become addicted to it. When one starts to grasp how this complex world really works, understanding even a bit more of it can bring joy to the heart.

5. However, I must say that even if one can memorize the whole of the Abhidhamma theory, one WILL NOT understand the Buddha’s message unless one understands the true meanings of anicca, dukkha, anatta.

  • Abhidhamma can solidify and “fill-in-the-blanks” of Buddha Dhamma from the suttas, which can be exhilarating.
  • On the other hand, I had so many unresolved questions on parts of Abhidhamma until I listened to the first desana from one of my two teacher Theros almost a year ago, on July 30, 2013, on anicca, dukkha, anatta. It was like lifting a fog, and by the end of that dēsana I knew I will be able to ‘fill-in-the-blanks” to make my understanding much better.

6. Now to give a brief background on how the Abhidhamma pitaka of the Tipitaka was developed over roughly 250 years by the lineage of bhikkhus started with Ven. Sariputta: Ven. Sariputta was one of the two chief disciples of the Buddha: While Ven. Moggallana excelled in supernatural powers, Ven. Sariputta excelled in Dhamma. He was only second to the Buddha in Dhamma knowledge.

  • The minute details on the structure of a citta vithi (a basic thought process) 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. Sariputta, and it was Ven. Sariputta and his group of bhikkhus (and their subsequent lineage) that completed the monumental task of making a complete description of Dhamma theory starting with the fundamental entities.
  • As I mentioned earlier, this is a million times more complex task than putting together a Grand Unified Theory to explain the behavior 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”.

7. Only a framework of the theory was recited at the First Buddhist Council just three months after the Parinibbāna of the Buddha. More was added at the second Council, and the task was completed only at the third Council. It was this completed Tipitaka that was written down in 29 BCE at the Fourth Buddhist Council; see, “Preservation of the Buddha Dhamma“.

  • A common misconception stated in many books is that Abhidhamma was “invented” by bhikkhus after the Parinibbāna of the Buddha. The minute details of the very fast citta vithi are discernible only to the mind of a Buddha.
  • It is important to realize that even the last part of the Abhidhamma Pitaka was compiled by Arahants at the Third Council, and the whole Tipitaka was also written down by Arahants at the Fourth Council.

8. 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 compile such a complex work in the absence of an easy way of recording, let alone having access to computers.
  • I have given a breakdown of the Abhidhamma pitaka in the post, “Preservation of Dhamma”.

9. August 12, 2015: I have brought the subsections on “Mind and Consciousness” and “Manomaya Kaya” from “Dhamma Concepts” to “Abhidhamma” section, since it is imperative to understand those basic concepts first. It is a good idea to read those subsections (and “Citta and Cetasika“) 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, it becomes easier to grasp the material in subsequent essays.
  • Also, we all keep increasing our understanding as we learn Dhamma. I learn new things every day, and try to update the posts as much as possible. The more one learns, the more one can “see the inconsistencies” in other versions of “Buddhism” and also possibly in my own essays; some of these posts were written over 18 months ago. Please don’t hesitate to point out any inconsistencies at this website. I would be grateful. There is a “Comments” tab under each post.


1. “A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma”, by Bhikkhu Bodhi (2000); this is a revised and updated version of Ref. 2 below.

2. “A Manual of Abhidhamma”, by Narada Thero (1979).

3. “Buddha Abhidhamma – Ultimate Science“, by Dr. Mehm Tin Mon; this is a good 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 the incorrect interpretations of anicca, dukkha, anatta, come into play as in almost all existing Theravada texts (except the Pali Tipitaka of course). Also, anariya jhanas using kasinas and breath meditation are presented as Buddhist meditation in all three. I will try to point out such problems in relevant posts.

Next, “Citta and Cetasika – How Vinnana (Consciousness) Arises“, ………

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