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The Abhidhamma Pitaka 1 (Extract)

Homage to the Blessed One, the Worthy One, the Highest Self—Enlightened One!

Access to Insight

Published: 2014-11-02

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The seven books of the Abhidhamma Pitaka, the third division of the Tipitaka, offer an extraordinarily detailed analysis of the basic natural principles that govern mental and physical processes. Whereas the Sutta and Vinaya Pitakas lay out the practical aspects of the Buddhist path to Awakening, the Abhidhamma Pitaka provides a theoretical framework to explain the causal underpinnings of that very path. In Abhidhamma philosophy the familiar psycho-physical universe (our world of “trees” and “rocks,” “I” and “you”) is distilled to its essence: an intricate web of impersonal phenomena and processes unfolding at an inconceivably rapid pace from moment to moment, according to precisely defined natural laws.

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According to tradition, the essence of the Abhidhamma was formulated by the Buddha during the fourth week after his Enlightenment.[1] Seven years later he is said to have spent three consecutive months preaching it in its entirety in one of the deva realms, before an audience of thousands of devas (including his late mother, the former Queen Maya), each day briefly commuting back to the human realm to convey to Ven. Sariputta the essence of what he had just taught.[2] Sariputta mastered the Abhidhamma and codified it into roughly its present form. Although parts of the Abhidhamma were recited at the earlier Buddhist Councils, it wasn't until the Third Council (ca. 250 BCE) that it became fixed into its present form as the third and final Pitaka of the canon.[3]

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Despite its relatively late entrance into the Canon, the Abhidhamma stands as an essential pillar of classical Theravada Buddhist thought. Its significance does, however, vary considerably across regional and cultural boundaries. In Thai Buddhism, for example, the Abhidhamma (and, for that matter, many of the Commentaries as well) play a relatively minor role in Buddhist doctrine and practice. In Sri Lanka and Myanmar (Burma), however, they hold the same venerated status as the Vinaya and Sutta Pitakas themselves. The modern Burmese approach to the teaching and practice of Satipatthana meditation, in particular, relies heavily on an Abhidhammic interpretation of meditative experience. Regardless of the Abhidhamma's position on the shelf of Buddhist canonical texts, the astonishing detail with which it methodically constructs a quasi-scientific model of mind (enough, by far, to make a modern systems theorist or cognitive scientist gasp in awe), insures its place in history as a monumental feat of intellectual genius.


  1. Handbook of Pali Literature, by Somapala Jayawardhana (Colombo: Karunaratne, 1994), p. 1.
  2. From the Atthasalini, as described in Great Disciples of the Buddha, by Nyanaponika Thera and Hellmuth Hecker (Somerville: Wisdom Publications, 1997), pp. 45-46.
  3. The Katthavatthu, composed during the Third Council, was the final addition to the Abhidhamma Pitaka. See Guide Through the Abdhidhamma Pitaka, by Nyanatiloka Mahathera (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1983), p xi.

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