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Abhidharma, its meaning and origins

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This scholastic enterprise was called abhidharma (Pali: abhidhamma), a multivalent term used to refer to the new techniques of doctrinal interpretation, to the body of texts that this interpretation yielded, and finally to the crucial discriminating insight that was honed through doctrinal interpretation and employed in re­ ligious praxis. Traditional sources offer two explana­ tions for the term abhidharma: "with regard to (abhi) the teaching (dharma)" or the "highest or further (abhi) teaching (dharma)." The subject of abhidharma analysis was, of course, the teaching (dharma) as em­ bodied in the dialogues of the Buddha and his disciples. However, abhidharma did not merely restate or recapitulate the teaching of the sutras, but reorganized

their content and explicated their implicit meaning through commentary. In abhidharma, the specific content of the various individual sutras was abstracted and reconstituted in accordance with new analytical criteria, thereby allowing one to discern their true message. This true message, as set down in abhidharma texts, consists of the discrimination of the various events and components (dharma) that combine to form all of experience. This discrimination in turn enables one to distinguish those defiling factors that ensnare one in the process of REBIRTH from those liberating factors that lead to enlightenment. And finally, when the defiling and liberating factors are clearly distinguished, the proper PATH of practice becomes clear. Hence, abhidharma was no mere scholastic commentary, but rather soteriological exegesis that was essential for the effective practice of the path. Traditional sources do not offer a uniform account of the origins of the abhidharma method or of the abhidharma corpus of texts. Several traditional accounts attribute the composition of abhidharma texts to a first council supposedly held immediately after the death of the Buddha, at which his teachings were arranged and orally recited in three sections: the dialogues (sutra); the disciplinary monastic codes (VINAYA); and the taxonomic lists of factors (ma trka or abhidharma). Implicitly, therefore, these traditional sources attribute authorship of the abhidharma to the Buddha himself. This question of the authorship and, by implication, the authenticity and authority of the abhidharma continued to be a controversial issue within subsequent, independent abhidharma treatises. Although many MAINSTREAM BUDDHIST SCHOOLS accepted the authority of abhidharma texts and included them within their canons as the word of the Buddha, several schools rejected the authority of abhidharma and claimed that abhidharma treatises were composed by fallible, human teachers.

Independent abhidharma treatises were composed over a period of at least seven hundred years (ca. third or second centuries B.C.E. to fifth century C.E.). The ap­pearance and eventual proliferation of these indepen­ dent abhidharma treatises coincides with the emergence of separate schools within the early Buddhist commu­nity. Doctrinal differences among various groups, which were, in part, the natural result of differing [[lin­eages of textual [[]]transmission]], were refined in scholas­tic debates and amplified by the composition of independent abhidharma exegetical works. Scholarly opinion on the sources for the genre of independent abhidharma treatises is divided between two hypothe­ses, each of which finds support in structural charac­teristics of abhidharma texts. The first hypothesis emphasizes the practice of formulating matrices or tax­ onomiclists (matrka) of all topics found in the tradi­tional teaching, which are then arranged according to both numeric and qualitative criteria. The second hy­ pothesis stresses the doctrinal discussions (dhar­ makatha) in catechetical style that attempt to clarify complex or obscure points of doctrine. These two structural characteristics suggest a typical process by which independent abhidharma treatises were com­ posed: A matrix outline served to record or possibly direct discussions in which points of doctrine were then elaborated through a pedagogical question and answer technique.

Regardless of which hypothesis more accurately represents the origin of independent abhidharma trea­tises, this dual exegetical method reflects a persistent tendency in the Buddhist tradition, from the earliest period onward, toward analytical presentation through taxonomic categories and toward discursive elabora­tion through catechesis. The need to memorize the teaching obviously promoted the use of categorizing lists as a mnemonic device, and certain sutras describe this taxonomic method as a way of encapsulating the essentials of the teaching and averting dissension. Other sutras proceed much like oral commentaries, in which a brief doctrinal statement by the Buddha is an­ alyzed in full through a process of interrogation and exposition. Both of these methods, amply attested in the sutra collection, were successively expanded in sub­ sequent independent scholastic treatises, some of which were not included within the sectarian, canonical abhidharma collections. For example, the collec­tion of miscellaneous texts (khuddakapitaka) of the canon of the Theravada school includes two texts uti­lizing these methods that were not recognized to be canonical "abhidharma" texts. The Patisambhidamagga (Path of Discrimination) contains brief discussions of doctrinal points structured according to a topical list (matika), and the Niddesa (Exposition) consists of com­mentary on the early verse collection, the Sutta nipata. In fact, a clear-cut point of origin for the abhidharma as an independent section of the textual canon only re­flects the perspective of the later tradition that desig­nates, after a long forgotten evolution, certain texts as "abhidharma" in contrast to sutras or other possibly ear­lier expository works that share similar characteristics.