Abhidharma/Abhidhamma To Aitken, Robert Baker (Buddhism)


The Abhidharma is one of the three subsections or "baskets" of the Tripitaka, the traditional collection of the Buddhist sacred scriptures. The Abhidharma is sometimes also written as Abhidharmapitaka, meaning "the basket of the Abhidharma."

Abhidharma means, literally, "concerning the Dharma. The term Dharma here refers to the teachings of the Buddha, which are mainly recorded in the Sutrapitaka, the sutras, or "sayings," of the Buddha. The Abhidharma literature is a collection of commentaries on the sutras. it contains literature that we generally classify as philosophy, along with other works of a more religious or historical nature.

The earliest version of the Abhidharma was produced in the Pali language. Various schools of Buddhism quickly developed their own versions of the Abhidharma and argued strongly for the superiority of their own interpretations. However, only three Abhidharma literatures still exist today: the Pali Abhidhamma (using the Pali spelling for this term), the Sarvastivadin Abhidharma, and the Sar-iputra Abhidharma of the Dharmaguptaka school.


Tradition states that the Pali Abhidamma developed when the Buddha visited his mother in Tusita, one of the Buddhist heavens, and taught her (along with Mara, the Buddhist devil, and all the remaining devas, or gods, in heaven) about the Dharma. He did this at night, and in the daytime he would repeat the same teachings to his major disciple, Sariputra. Sariputra recited the comments to his disciple, who in turn passed them down until they were recited at the Third Council of Buddhism, held at Pataliputra in 251 b.c.e. At that time all seven books were recited accurately by Revata, who was the presiding monk of the council.

The Pali Abhidamma, still used throughout the Theravada world, consists of these seven major works of Buddhist philosophy (arranged in order of historical age):

1. Dhammasangani: This work gives a scheme to categorize all dhammas (dharmas), here meaning "phenomena." The types of dham-mas are arranged in headings in a list called the Matika. In the Dhammasangani’s Matika there are 122 headings in four categories: cittuppada (dhammas of consciousness), rupa (those of corporeality), nikkhepa (the way dhammas are distributed), and atthakatha (an additional summary section).

2. Vibhanga ("distinctions"): Called "the Book of Analysis," the Vibhanga complements the Dhammasangani by fully discussing all dhammas, in the same order as the Dhammasangani. There are 18 topics in three groups: those dealing with mental phenomena, those dealing with the holy life, and supplemental categories.

3. Dhatukatha: This text concentrates on analyzing the dhatus, the physical elements, from 14 separate perspectives.

4. Puggalapannatti ("the designation of individuals"): This work discusses classifications of people, in 10 topics.

5. Kathavatthu ("subjects of discussion"): This work deals with wrong views. It was compiled as a result of schismatic disagreements among the early 18 schools of Buddhism. Written as a debate between two people, it involves 1,000 statements about the Matika, each analyzed in depth. The Kathavatthu was said to have been recited at the Third Council of Buddhism.

6. Yamaka ("book of pairs"): This work discusses the relationship between dhammas, elements of existence, and puggalas (in Sanskrit, pudgalas, "individuals" or "selves"). The format it follows is to ask two questions concerning an unclear subject, the answers to which reveal important distinctions.

7. Patthana ("system of relations"): Also called the "Great Book," the Patthana presents the entire system of conditioned reality. This work deals with pratitya-samutpada and the interrelations among elements of reality. There are four divisions, each one discussing the 24 paccayas (in Sanskrit, pratyayas, or "conditions").


Although the Sarvastivadin version of the Abhidharma-pitaka also has seven texts, these do not generally coincide with those of the Pali Abhidhamma. And they are not generally taken as a "fixed" canon of seven texts. Instead there was an Abhidharma tradition of six smaller texts or "legs" that culminated in the development of a seventh, the massive Jnanaprasthana, which in turn led to the writing of the Mahavibhasa, another, later compilation of Sarvastivadin thought. The first seven texts of the Sarvastivadin Abhidharma are as follows:

1. Sangitiparyay ("section for recitation"): This work lists doctrinal concepts.

2. Dharmaskandha ("aggregate of Dharmas"): This work focuses on Sarvastivadin doctrines, especially concerning the stages of the arhat’s progress.

3. Prajnapti ("book of manifestation"): This work explains cosmology and psychology.

4. Vinanakaya: This work discusses the non-existence of the self.

5. Dhatukaya: This work is another psychological discussion.

6. Prakaranapada ("treatise"): This work discusses all the elements of reality.

7. Jnanaprasthana ("course of knowledge"): This work defines psychological terms.

The Sarvastivada Abhidharma has not survived in its Sanskrit original version—in other words, it does not exist today in Sanskrit. However, it had long before been translated into Chinese, and that version exists. While one part of the Sarvastivada Abhidharma, the Prajnapti, is not complete in Chinese, it is found in a Tibetan version. So today we are able to say we have complete access to the Sarvastivadin Abhidharma literature.

Chinese travelers collected works from many of the early Indian schools, such as Stha-viravada, Mahasnghika, Sammatiya, Dharma-guptaka, and Sarvastivadin, but only those from the Sarvastivadin Abhidharma were translated into Chinese. Thus the Abhidharma in the Chinese Tripitaka is, strictly speaking, that of the Sarvastivadins.


The Sariputra version summarizes the first two Abhidharmas without introducing much new material. It survives only in Chinese translation.

Abhidharma-kosa (Abhidharmakosa-basyam)

The Abhidharma-kosa, one of the greatest works of Buddhism, is a fundamental text studied to this day by most bhiksu (Buddhist monks). It is, literally, a commentary (basyam) on the kosha ("storehouse") of the Abhidharma. The Abhidharma is one of the three parts of the traditional Tripitaka, the writings accepted as scripture by Buddhists. The Abhidharma-kosa, as the work is usually referred to, is divided into topics, each dealing with a major conceptual category, such as the dhatus (elements) or the indriyas (sense organs). It presents definitions of all fundamental concepts in Buddhist thought: abhidharma itself ("discernment of the dharmas"), dharma, klesas, skandhas, rupas, and more.

The Abhidharma-kosa was extremely influential, both in India and later in such areas as Central Asia and China. It generated a vast com-mentarial literature itself. The Abhidharma-kosa was written by the fourth-century Indian scholar Vasubandhu (c. 316-396). At the time, he was a monk in Kashmir. He did not strictly adhere to the Sarvastivadin school, but he presented the Abhidharma-kosa as a careful exposition of the Vaibhasika philosophers, a branch of Sarvastiva-din thought.


There are two sections to Vasubandhu’s work. The first is a karika, or verse section, known as the Kosha proper. The second is the commentary (basyam) to the verses, also written by Vasubandhu.

The karika section existed independently and has been translated into Chinese as an independent work. The basyam section was translated into Chinese but was until recently lost in Sanskrit. A Sanskrit version was rediscovered in 1935 in the form of a palm-leaf text in a monastery in Tibet. This manuscript dated from the 12th-13th centuries. Part of the text was missing. However, it did include 600 of the main karikas.


The Abhidharma-kosa was translated into Chinese by Paramartha (563-567) and again by Xuan Zang (651-654). It became the foundation of the Zhushe or Kosa School of early Chinese Buddhism developed by Xuan Zang’s disciples. The importance of the Abhidharma-kosa was made known to modern scholarship after its translation into French by Louis de La Vallee Poussin, between 1923 and 1931.

Abhidharma school

This Chinese school flourished in the initial period of contact with Buddhism, especially during the Northern and Southern Dynasties period (420-589 c.e.). It emphasized study and practice based on the works of the Abhidharma, the commentary portion of the Buddhist canon. Specifically, the school taught that all dharmas are real and that they are produced by a combination of six primary and four subsidiary causes. Followers of the Abhidharma school studied such works from the early 18 schools of Buddhism as Dharmaratna’s The Heart of the Abhidharma. The school later declined and was absorbed into the Zhushe (in Japanese, Kosa) school in the seventh century.

The importance of the Abhidharma school reflects the emphasis placed on study of Abhid-harma literature in the early phase of Chinese Buddhism. Once Chinese Buddhists attempted their own interpretations of the Buddhist corpus of learning, such new Mahayana schools as Chan and Tian Tai absorbed the energies of Chinese thinkers.

Afghanistan, Buddhism in

Buddhism reached what today is Afghanistan in the third century b.c.e. having spread from the area ruled by King Asoka. Over the next several centuries it spread among the population and during the second century c.e. assumed a more central role with the ascendancy of Kaniska to the throne.

Kaniska’s empire reached from the Caspian Sea across Afghanistan and south across the Indus River into northern India. A convert to Buddhism, Kaniska became its great patron. He is remembered for holding a great council of Mahayana Buddhist leaders to seek reconciliation among various schools. He also helped nurture the new artistic synthesis that had arisen, the Gandhara school of art, which mixed elements of Greek realism and indian mysticism.

With Kaniska’s support, Buddhist art and culture permeated his kingdom and many images of the Buddha carved in stone were produced. The Gandhara approach represented a significant step, as previously Buddha had not been pictured in human form; rather he had been represented by some artifact of his earlier presence—an empty seat, a footprint, or a riderless horse. Gandhara artists began to show him with a serene face and a body posed to suggest peace and compassion.

Kaniska saw to the building of many Buddhist structures, especially stupas and monasteries. The Bamiyan Valley, some 150 miles north of Kabul, one of the region’s trade and cultural centers (a stop along the Silk Road), became the site of a number of monasteries, though many monks chose to live in the more reclusive caves that honeycombed the valley walls. it would be here that some of the most important sculptures, gigantic statues of Buddha (the largest almost 175 feet in height), were carved out of the rock on the sides of the Bamiyan gorge. Carving of the two largest statues began during Kaniska’s reign and was completed over the next century.

Afghanistan became both a conduit for Buddhism to pass from india to China and Tibet and a center of Buddhist dissemination in its own right. Buddhism remained the dominant religion in Afghanistan until the mid-seventh century, when islamic forces overran the area. Kabul fell in 664. Over the next centuries, accounts of travelers in the areas suggest that the Buddhist artifacts remained largely untouched. However, disaster occurred in Bamiyan in the 13th century with the invasion of Genghis Khan. During the siege of Bamiyan, his grandson was killed and after the city was taken, every resident was killed.

Buddhism did survive, initially, although there is little mention of it from the 14th century. it appears to have died out gradually. By the time Afghanistan had contact with European colonial states there were no Buddhists, but a considerable amount of Buddhist art was scattered around the country. This remaining Buddhist presence in the country became a matter of heightened concern in March 2001, when the then-ruling Taliban regime decided to destroy the large statues of the Buddha located in the Bamiyan Valley. They were blown up, in spite of widespread pleas from the international community (including other islamic countries) to prevent their destruction. in the years since the fall of the Taliban, efforts have been launched to rebuild the statues. Before their destruction, one of the statues was the largest statue of Buddha in the world.

Africa, Buddhism in

Buddhism has had a relatively negligible presence in Africa’s long history. Only since the 1970s has it become significant in the complex African religious scene.

Buddhism first appeared in 1686, when three Thai monks were shipwrecked along the coast of South Africa, but that is all we hear of it until early in the 20th century when some 450 Cey-lonese Buddhists migrated to Zanzibar in search of employment. Around 1915 they formed a Sinhalese Buddhist Association and requested land from the British authorities to build a temple. in 1919 they obtained a sapling from the Bodhi tree in Sri Lanka. Their first worship hall was completed in 1927.

In 1962, the Buddhist Association received the first Buddhist monk to arrive in Africa since the 17th century. He worked in Zanzibar until 1964, when at the time of the revolution and the creation of the present state of Tanzania, all of the Buddhists (who now included people from a variety of Asian countries) moved to the African mainland and reestablished the Buddhist Association in Dar es Salaam. Dar es Salaam is now the home of the oldest Buddhist temple in Africa and serves a community of some 40,000 Buddhists, the second largest in Africa.

Meanwhile, early in the 20th century, some Hindus who had settled in Natal, South Africa, in the 19th century converted to Buddhism. Other Asian Buddhists arrived in South Africa by taking advantage of the liberal travel laws within the British Commonwealth. Among the first to form a community were Burmese in Natal, who erected the country’s first Buddhist temple. Their efforts have more recently been bolstered by Jeffrey Oliver, an Australian who spent eight years in Burma practicing meditation and immigrated to South Africa to found a Burmese monastery.

The real growth of Buddhism, however, as in the Western world, began in the 1970s, a decade that saw the arrival of a variety of Buddhist teachers to spread their faith and the movement of religiously alienated South Africans to Asia in search of a new spiritual path. By the 1980s a spectrum of Buddhist groups had emerged in urban centers around the country that attracted South Africans of Dutch and British backgrounds. Buddhist traditions included those from Thailand, Japan, China (including Tibet and Taiwan), and Korea. Among the 14,000 Taiwanese who arrived in South Africa in the last half of the 20th century, many are affiliated with the Fo Guang Shan Order. In 1992, these Taiwanese Buddhists began an ambitious project of erecting a Buddhist temple complex, complete with a seminary for training Buddhist leaders, at Bronkhorstspruit, just outside Johannesburg. The South African temple now serves a diverse population of interested seekers. As the 21st century begins, South Africa is home to some 80,000 Buddhists.

Apart from Tanzania and South Africa, very few Buddhists can be found across the continent.

As early as the 1960s, President Daisaku Ikeda of Soka Gakkai International (SGI) had included Africa in his plans for the expansion of the organization, but it was not until the 1980s that real recruitment efforts began, with its greatest response in Ghana and South Africa. It now has centers in Uganda, Mozambique, and a number of other countries. SGI is the only Buddhist group making an effort to build an African membership outside South Africa. The only other organization with multiple centers in Africa is the Association Zen Internationale, based in Paris, which has several affiliate centers in some of the former French colonies (Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Mali).

Most northern African countries, where Islam is the primary religion, do not allow or encourage the development of other religions, especially any that would seek to build membership from among the Muslim population. There are a few Buddhist centers, but they exclusively serve expatriate residents.

Agon Shu

Agon Shu is a new form of Japanese Buddhism. Agon Shu teaches a doctrine called Jobutsu-ho, the teachings and practices needed to attain enlightenment and full salvation (nirvana). The route to salvation includes the practice of the meditation methods founded in Esoteric Buddhism (Vajrayana), bolstered by additional practices such as kundalini yoga, a form of yoga that emphasizes the spine.

Agon Shu has established its headquarters at its main temple located outside Kyoto. In 1986, the president of Sri Lanka donated a true relic of the Buddha for enshrinement at the temple. The temple grounds is the site of the main annual festival of Agon Shu, the Hoshi Matsuri, or fire ceremony, during which members throw prayer into the fire in the belief that the fire becomes the agent in realizing the answer to their prayer requests. A lesser form of the fire ceremony is held in the local Agon Shu centers each month.

Agon Shu was founded in 1978 by Seiyu Kiri-yama (1921- ), who serves as president of the organization. Followers call him Kancho, or director, acknowledging his role as the leader of a new Buddhist school. Kiriyama had been a member of several different groups, and he drew on Thera-vada, Mahayana, and Tantric Buddhism, as well as some aspects of Shinto, in creating Agon Shu.

Agon Shu grew quickly in Japan and by the end of the century had established itself within Japanese communities in Taiwan, Brazil, and the united States.

Ahkon Norbu Lhamo, Jetsunma

(1949- ) first Western female tulku

Jesunma Ahkon Norbu Lhamo, the first woman to be recognized by Tibetan Buddhist leaders as a tulku, or reincarnated lama, was born Alice Zeoli in Brooklyn, New York. She had an awakening in her 19th year through a series of dreams in which she was instructed in a mode of meditation. The dreams would continue for more than a decade, during which she married and began to raise a family. After she moved to Washington, D.C., a following began to form around her and she emerged as the teacher at the Center for Discovery and New Life.

In 1985, she met H. H. Penor Rinpoche, the head of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism. Though she was unaware of Tibetan Buddhism, when Renor Rinpoche queried her as to what she was teaching at the center, he identified it as Mahayana Buddhism. Subsequently, she was visited by other lamas, as Penor Rinpoche had concluded that she was a tulku (a reincarnated aspect of a bodhisattva). In 1988, Penor Rinpoche formally enthroned her as tulku. Her new name, Ahkon Norbu, tied her to a 17th-century female mystic and nun at the Palyul Monastery in Tibet. The contemporary Ahkon Norbu was designated the Western lineage holder of the Palyul lineage. In 1994, she was also recognized as an incarnation of the White Tara, one representation of Guan Yin.

Ahkon Norbu Lhamo is now the head of the Kunzang Odsal Palyul Changchub Choling, in Poolesville, Maryland.

Aitken, Robert Baker

(1917- ) founder, Diamond Sangha

Robert Aitken founded the Diamond Sangha, an organization of Zen Buddhist centers that encourages interreligious dialogue and activism on issues of social justice. The Diamond Sangha functions as one segment of the larger Sanbo Kyodan (Fellowship of the Three Treasures), a loose association of teachers in the lineage of Harada Dai’un Sogaku Roshi (1871-1961), the teacher of Yasu-tani Hakuun Ryoko Roshi. The Sanbo Kyodan teaches Rinzai Zen, the tradition that uses koans.

Aitken was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, but grew up in Hawaii. He attended the university of Hawaii, but his study was interrupted by World War ii. He joined the united States Army and was stationed on Guam at the end of 1942 when the Japanese invaded. Taken prisoner, he first learned about Buddhism from one of the guards at his detention camp, who lent him a book by the British Zen practitioner R. H. Blyth, a student of Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki. Aitken eventually met Blyth, who was interned in the same camp and after the war studied with him as preparation for his journey to Japan to study with Nakagawa Soen Roshi (1907-84).

In 1959, with Nakagawa Roshi’s permission, he began a Zen meditation group in his home in Hawaii, while periodically returning to Japan to sit with Yasutani Hakuun Ryoko Roshi (18851973) and his dharma heir, Yamada Koun Roshi (1907-89). Aitken received dharma transmission from Yamada Roshi in 1974 and was recognized as a Shoshike (Correctly Qualified Teacher) in the Shjobo Kyodan lineage of Yasutani Roshi in 1985.

Meanwhile, in 1969, Aitken founded the Diamond Sangha, a center in Honolulu where Japanese Zen teachers could meet American seekers. By this time, Aitken had developed some ideas that were quite distinctive within the larger Zen community. He had become a pacifist and peace advocate (during the Vietnam War), advocated changes relative to women’s concerns, and opposed traditional authoritarian structure in Zen facilities. He became a cofounder of the Buddhist peace movement and nurtured female practitioners at his Zendo. In 1979, the Diamond Sangha gave birth to Kahawai; A Journal of Women and Zen. In 1991, Aitken appointed his first female assistant teacher, Subhana Barzaghi, who was named a roshi in 1996.

From the original center, other centers were opened in Hawaii, across the United States, and then in other countries—Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, Germany, and Argentina. Among the many teachers he has trained, some have gone on to become Zen masters in their own right. They now lead Diamond Sangha centers, or, in a few cases, have founded their own independent centers.

As of 2005, Aitkin lived in retirement in Honolulu. He has become well known from his many books.

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