Abhidharma (Sanskrit) or Abhidhamma (Pāli) are ancient (3rd century BCE and later) Buddhist works which contain detailed scholastic reworkings of doctrinal material appearing in the Buddhist Sutras, according to schematic classifications. The Abhidhamma works do not contain systematic philosophical treatises, but summaries or numerical lists. They are composed of long, dry, formal, abstract and systematic lists. The Pāli scholar Caroline Rhys Davids famously described the ten chapters of the Pali Abhidhamma book of the Yamaka as "ten valleys of dry bones.
According to the Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism, Abhidhamma started as an elaboration of the teachings of the suttas, but later developed independent doctrines. According to L. S. Cousins, the suttas deal with sequences and processes, Abhidhamma deals with occasions and events.
The literal translation of the term Abhidharma is unclear. Two possibilities are most commonly given:
In the West, the Abhidhamma has generally been considered the core of what is referred to as 'Buddhist Psychology'.
In the commentaries of Theravada Buddhism it was held that the Abhidhamma was not a later addition to the tradition, but rather represented the first, original understanding of the teachings by the Buddha. According to legend, shortly after his awakening the Buddha spent several days in meditation, during which he formulated the Abhidhamma. Later, he traveled to the heavenly realm and taught the Abhidhamma to the divine beings that dwelled there, including his deceased mother Mahāmāyā, who had rearisen as a celestial being. The tradition holds that the Buddha gave daily summaries of the teachings given in the heavenly realm to the monk Śāriputra, who passed them on.
The Abhidhamma is thus presented as a pure and undiluted form of the teaching that was too difficult for most practitioners of the Buddha's time to grasp. Instead, the Buddha taught by the method related in the various suttas, giving appropriate, immediately applicable teachings as each situation arose, rather than attempting to set forth the Abhidhamma in all its complexity and completeness. Thus, there is a similarity between the traditions of the Adhidhamma and that of the Mahayana, which also claimed to be too difficult for the people living in the Buddha's time.
Many scholars generally believe that the Abhidharma emerged after the time of the Buddha, to around the third century BCE. Therefore the seven Abhidhamma works are generally claimed by scholars not to represent the words of the Buddha himself, but those of disciples and great scholars. Factors contributing to its development could have been the growth of monastic centers, the growing support for the Buddhist sangha, outside influences from other religious groups, and a tendency for monks to become more theoretical and less practical after the passing away of the Buddha. Some scholars believe that the Abhidhamma represents an expansion of a set of teachings and categorisations that were employed during the earliest period of Buddhism and were then later developed and elaborated upon.
As the last major division of the canon, the Abhidhamma works have had a checkered history. They were not accepted as canonical by the Mahasanghika school and several other schools. Another school included most of the Khuddaka Nikaya within the Abhidhamma Pitaka. Also, the Pali version of the Abhidhamma is a strictly Theravada collection, and has little in common with the Abhidhamma works recognized by other Buddhist schools. The various Abhidhamma philosophies of the various early schools have no agreement on doctrine and belong to the period of 'Divided Buddhism' (as opposed to Undivided Buddhism). The earliest texts of the Pali Canon (the Sutta Nipata, parts of the Jatakas, and the first four Nikayas of the Suttapitaka) have no mention of (the texts of) the Abhidhamma Pitaka. The Abhidhamma is also not mentioned at the report of the First Buddhist Council, directly after the death of the Buddha. This report of the first council does mention the existence of the Vinaya and the five Nikayas (of the Suttapitaka).
Numerous apparently independent and unrelated Abhidharma traditions arose in India, roughly during the period from the 2nd or 3rd Century BCE to the 5th Century CE. The 7th century Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang reportedly collected Abhidharma texts from seven different traditions. The various Abhidhammic traditions have very fundamental disagreements with each other. These various Abhidhammic theories were (together with differences in Vinaya) the major cause for the majority of splits in the monastic Sangha, which resulted in the fragmented early Buddhist landscape of the 18 Early Buddhist Schools.
In the modern era, only the Abhidharmas of the Sarvastivadins and the Theravadins have survived intact, each consisting of seven books, with the addition of the Sariputra Abhidharma. The Theravāda Abhidharma, the Abhidhamma Pitaka (discussed below), is preserved in Pāli, while the Sarvastivadin Abhidharma is mostly preserved only in Chinese - the (likely Sanskrit) original texts having been lost, though some Tibetan texts are still extant.
A small number of other Abhidharma texts of unknown origin are preserved in translation in the Chinese canon. These different traditions have some similarities, suggesting either interaction between groups or some common ground antedating the separation of the schools.
The Theravada Abhidhamma, like the rest of the Tipitaka, was orally transmitted until the last century BC. Due to famines and constant wars, the monks responsible for recording the oral tradition felt that there was a risk of portions of the canon being lost. With the rest of the Canon the Abhidharma pitaka was written down for the first time.
These have all been published in romanized Pali by the Pali Text Society, and most have been translated into English as well. Some scholars date the seven Pali Abhidhamma books from about 400 BCE to about 250 BCE, the first book being the oldest and the fifth book the latest of the seven. Additional post-canonical texts composed in the following centuries attempted to further clarify the analysis presented in the Abhidhamma texts. The best known of such texts are the Visuddhimagga of Buddhaghosa and the Abhidhammatthasangaha of Anuruddha.
Early Western translators of the Pāli canon found the Abhidhamma Pitaka the least interesting of the three sections of the Tipiṭaka. Caroline Rhys Davids, a Pāli scholar and the wife of Pali Text Society founder T. W. Rhys Davids, famously described the ten chapters of the Yamaka as "ten valleys of dry bones". As a result this Abhidhammic aspect of Buddhism was little studied in the West until the latter half of the 20th Century. Interest in the Abhidhamma has grown in the West as better scholarship on Buddhist philosophy has gradually revealed more information about its origins and significance.
Within the Theravada tradition, the prominence of the Abhidhamma has varied considerably from country to country, with Burma (Myanmar) placing the most emphasis on the study of the Abhidhamma.
The Sarvastivada Abhidharma also consists of seven texts. However, comparison of the content of the Sarvastivada texts with that of the Theravada Abhidhamma reveals that it is unlikely that this indicates that one textual tradition originated from the other. In particular, the Theravada Abhidharma contains two texts (the Katha Vatthu and Puggala Pannatti) that some consider entirely out of place in an Abhidharma collection.
The texts of the Sarvāstivādin Abhidharma are:
Following these, are the texts that became the authority of the Vaibhasikas, the Kasmiri Sarvastivada Orthodoxy:
Little research in English has been made in these texts.
In the traditions derived from Sanskrit Buddhism, such as the Tibetan, Chinese and Japanese, the two main Abhidharma texts are Asanga's Abhidharma Samuccaya (Compendium of Higher Knowledge) - which is an early Yogacara work, and Vasubandhu's Abhidharmakosha (Treasury of Higher Knowledge) - which is a synopsis on the Mahavibhasa of the Sarvastivada tradition, with the addition of various Sautrantika and Vaibhajyavada perspectives.
These are both works from approximately 4 - 5 th century India, and are extant in Chinese, Japanese and Tibetan translations, as well as the Sanskrit.
The Abhidharmakosha is considered Vaibhasika / Sautrantika.