Abhidhamma Piṭaka – Deeper Analyses of Concepts

Abhidhamma Piṭaka plays a critical role in the Tipiṭaka. Abhidhamma provides detailed accounts of the material in the Sutta Piṭaka.

December 3, 2020; revised February 25, 2023

 Abhidhamma Piṭaka Goes Into Fine Details

 1. The Abhidhamma Piṭaka plays a critical role in the Tipiṭaka. Abhidhamma provides detailed accounts of the material in the Sutta Piṭaka. We can consider the following analogy to get an idea of the role of the Abhidhamma Piṭaka.

  • One needs to learn how to use various instruments in a car to drive it. Even more importantly, one needs to practice driving. But there is no need to understand how various instruments work. That is how one needs to use the Sutta Piṭaka. It is only necessary to learn the critical concepts in suttas and practice what one learns.
  • In that analogy, Abhidhamma plays the role of a detailed account of how the car is assembled and the role played by each part. If the car breaks down, a knowledgeable technician can refer to that technical manual and figure out the problem. Similarly, someone knowledgeable in Abhidhamma can clarify a profound concept that needs a complete and detailed analysis.
  • In most cases, it is not necessary to learn Abhidhamma in detail. However, it helps to have a cursory background in Abhidhamma to understand deep suttas better.
  • The following article briefly describes the Abhidhamma Piṭaka: “Abhidhamma Piṭaka – The Basket of Abhidhamma.”
Historical Background

2. The Abhidhamma Piṭaka was finalized at the Third Buddhist Council held about 200 years after the Buddha’s Parinibbāna (passing away). Many English scholars (and texts) say that the Abhidhamma Piṭaka was a late addition to the Tipiṭaka. That is a misunderstanding.

  • In the Introduction to his book, “A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma,” Bhikkhu Bodhi provides a detailed account of the history of the Abhidhamma Piṭaka; see pp. 9-11 of Ref. 1. An account with a few more details is given in Ref. 2.   That can be summarized as follows.
  • In the seventh year after attaining Buddhahood, the Buddha visited the Tāvatiṃsa Deva world. There he delivered the material in the Abhidhamma Piṭaka to Devas where the chief recipient was his mother, Mahåmåyå Devi, who had been born there. The material was delivered over three months, and the Buddha would descend to the human world for food each day. Each day, he would provide a synopsis of the teaching given to the Devas on that day to Ven. Sariputta.
  • Having learned the critical aspects of the Abhidhamma, Ven. Sariputta taught it to his 500 pupils, and thus the basis of the Abhidhamma Piṭaka was established. They needed to work out a detailed account of the material in a way that others could understand.
  • It took several generations of bhikkhus of the lineage of Ven. Sariputta — over 200 years — to finalize the Abhidhamma Piṭaka. 
  • Reference 2 provides a list of bhikkhus who contributed to that effort, including Ven. Moggaliputta Tissa, who apparently contributed to the final version at the Third Buddhist Council.

3. At the First Buddhist Council, just three months after the Parinibbāna of the Buddha, only a framework of the Abhidhamma theory was recited. More was added at the second Council, and the task was completed only at the third Council led by Ven. Moggaliputta Tissa.

  • That completed Tipiṭaka was written down in 29 BCE at the Fourth Buddhist Council; see “Preservation of the Buddha Dhamma.”
  • It is essential to realize that hundreds of Arahants at the Fourth Council wrote down the whole Tipiṭaka. That included the complete Abhidhamma Piṭaka. Therefore, we can be confident about the authenticity of the Abhidhamma Piṭaka AND the whole Tipiṭaka.
  • That is why it is incorrect to say that Abhidhamma was “invented” by bhikkhus after the Parinibbāna of the Buddha.
  • Those who make such statements have not studied Abhidhamma or have not understood the in-depth analyses of Abhidhamma. The minute details of the very fast citta vithi are discernible only to the mind of a Buddha. No one else can even invent such concepts. It is the inter-consistency that makes ALL the material in the Tipiṭaka trustworthy. See “Buddha Dhamma: Non-Perceivability and Self-Consistency.”
The Enormity of the Material in the Abhidhamma Piṭaka

4. The Abhidhamma Piṭaka contains about the same dhamma groups (dhammakkhandha) as the Sutta Piṭaka and Vinaya Piṭaka COMBINED. It is said to contain 42,000 dhamma groups compared to 21,000 for each of the other two. Thus, there are 84,000 dhamma groups in the Tipiṭaka.

  • Philosophers discuss mind and matter as the two basic entities in the world. Scientists have studied the matter in great detail. But neither scientists nor philosophers have any idea of even how to BEGIN to describe the mind. We have discussed that in “Theories of Our World – Scientific Overview.”
  • Abhidhamma breaks down all rupa to be combinations of 28 elementary rupa. Those 28 types of rupa are in the physical bodies of living beings and all inert matter.
  • Then the mind is described in terms of citta (loosely translated as “thoughts”) and cetasika (mental factors.) There are 89 (or 121, depending on categorization) types of citta, which arise with different combinations of 52 types of cetasika. Thoughts of any living being can be described in terms of those entities.
  • To analyze the concepts in the suttas in terms of those “basic entities” is an exhilarating experience. Concepts can be investigated to depths as much as one wishes (and is willing to spend the time and effort).
Introduction to Abhidhamma – Current Standard Text

5. The Abhidhamma Piṭaka consists of the following categories: Dhammasaṅghani (Classification of Dhammas), Vibhaṅga (The Book of Divisions), Kathāvatthu (Points of Controversy) Puggala Paññatti (Description of Individuals), Dhātukathā (Discussion about Elements), Yamaka (The Book of the Pairs), and Paṭṭhāna (The Book of Relations). Kathāvatthu provides an in-depth account of controversial issues discussed at the Third Buddhist Council compiled by venerable Moggaliputta Tissa. Mahāyāna concepts like “antarābhava” were shown to be inconsistent, for example. See “Antarābhava and Gandhabba.”

  • There is a vast and complex material in the Abhidhamma Piṭaka. This is why it took so long to finalize that material per #2 and #3 above.
  • It is doubtful that anyone in recent years has read and comprehended all the material in the Abhidhamma Piṭaka, especially Paṭṭhāna or the Yamaka. 
  • Most people try to understand one summarized text to get a basic idea about the contents of the Abhidhamma Piṭaka. That standard text is Abhidhammatta Sangaha, a summary of the Abhidhamma Piṭaka compiled by Ven. Anuruddha, an Indian bhikkhu. That text does not go into deeper issues but provides the fundamentals.
  • That Pāli text was translated into English by Ven. Narada in 1956 (Ref. 3.). Subsequently, it was revised by Bhikkhu Bodhi in 1993 (Ref. 1.)
Critical Aspects of Buddha Dhamma

6. Even if one can understand the Abhidhamma theory, one MAY NOT understand the Buddha’s message. First, one must understand the Four Noble Truths (same as Paṭicca Samuppāda or the true meanings of anicca, dukkha, and anatta.)

  • Abhidhamma only facilitates one to analyze situations to deep levels ONLY IF one starts with understanding the Buddha’s message. That message is that there is a rebirth process where most rebirths happen in the four lowest realms where there are harsh levels of suffering. The only way to escape future suffering is to stop rebirth and attain Nibbāna.
  • Once one has that basic understanding, Abhidhamma helps clarify that picture. One can resolve any remaining issues/doubts by studying the detailed analyses in Abhidhamma. In a way, one cannot even begin to grasp the value of a Buddha until one can see deep concepts explained in an amazingly consistent way from many different angles.
  • Abhidhamma can solidify and “fill in the blanks” of Buddha Dhamma from the suttā, which can be an exhilarating experience.
Benefits of the Abhidhamma Piṭaka

7. Even though having a deep knowledge of Abhidhamma is not necessary, a basic understanding can be quite valuable.

  • Abhidhamma starts at a basic level and proceeds to deeper levels systematically. Therefore, one can get a good understanding of key concepts like kamma, cetana, saṅkhāra, viññāṇa, etc., by studying introductory Abhidhamma.
  • Those basic concepts must be well understood even if one does not wish to study Abhidhamma in detail.
  • We will start discussing those essential concepts next.

The other two Piṭakas were discussed in the subsection, “Tipiṭaka – A Systematic Approach.”


1. “Bhikkhu_Bodhi-Comprehensive_Manual_of_Abhidhamma,” by Bhikkhu Bodhi (2000); this is a revised and updated version of Ref. 3 below. (click the link to open the pdf).

2. Dhammasaṅghani (first of the Abhidhamma books) in the Buddha Jayanthi Edition of the Tipiṭaka (2005); pp. XIII-XIV (in the Sinhala language.) Here is a link to an online version of the “Buddha Jayanthi Edition of the Tipiṭaka.”

3. “A Manual of Abhidhamma” by Narada Thero (1956.) (click the link to open the pdf).

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