Was Abhidhamma Necessary?

Was Abhidhamma a necessary phase in the evolution of Theravada Buddhism? I know that some scholastic Buddhists love it, but it doesn't seem like it resonates with lay people. From by background as a Westerner, I find it heartening to see the simple Thai Forest Tradition making so many inroads with ordinary people, with its basic insistence on mindfulness, meditation and metta. So do we really need to label that experience and divide it up into categories and sub-categories in order to make sense of it? I see Abhidhamma at its best as a stepping stone to Mahayana, expanding the range of Buddhism to make it more universal. Any thoughts?

bhantekirti2019's picture

RE: Was Abhidhamma Necessary?

The question of "Is Abhidhamma Necessary" is very debatable. While Bhikkhu Bodhi and Bhante Gunaratana have written books on Abhidhamma, Ajahn Brahm says that Abhidhamma is not a word of the Buddha. Venerable Kiribathgoda Nanananda in Sri Lanka says Abhidhamma was taught to deities. Therefore it does not belong to human world. There are different interpretations to these well-known monks to whom we listen to. As practitioners, we study the teachings impartially for the aim of understanding the teachings of the Buddha. Professor Sumanapala says, Abhidhamma is the psychological approach to understand and realize the three trainings of the path to enlightenment - Morality, Concentration and Wisdom.

Instead of taking side whether it is necessary or not, I would take aspects that helps to understand my practice of Dhamma.

Abdhidhamma, the higher teachings

Abdhidhamma Pitaka is highly revered in the Theravada tradition. It offers a thorough analysis of the mind. Though it is presented evidently different from Suttas and Vinayas but the aim is all the same - to eradicate wrong views and all defilements. Abhidhamma maps out how the mind functions and so naturally I would think this is a subject that only those with little dusts in the eyes can fully comprehend. We all have different inclinations therefore, different capacities for understanding the higher teachings. Nevertheless, I think it is necessary for us to at least touch base with the Pitaka and grasp as much key takeaways as we can. We can benefit from each learning that we come across if we try to relate the teachings to our daily activities.

i did not take abhidhamma

I did not take the abhidhamma course because I was not particularly interested in it to begin with. Systematic theology is what it is, whether Buddhist, Catholic or otherwise. One may very well read a good, single book on the subject as I am preparing to do, but the intricacies fly over my head as redundant.

How many Buddhas may dance on the head of a pin is irrelevant.
Theravada sensibilities also appeal to me, although I also indulge the Pure Land approach to keep a balance between the "power of one" and the "power of another".

Earl Hardie Karges's picture

Abhidhamma as part of a Buddhist Dialectic

Yes, it is definitely a scholastic exercise, more than religious experience, I'd say without a doubt. But it may have been necessary for the Mahayana to come, and it also serves to distinguish itself from its rival Brahmanism, if nothing else, which has little to say in the way of doctrine. It can be a slow read at times, to be sure. One of the surprises to me was the development of the tetralemma-based logic, which Fumimaro Watanabe goes into deeply into with 'Philosophy and its Development in the Nikayas and Abhidhamma'. That is still a tough slow read at times, but with equations I expect that! And it probably played a bigger role in 'shunyata' than I had ever previously imagined. I see it all as part of what is emerging as a thesis for me, that Buddhism is more dialectic than doctrine, and always evolving.

Abhidhamma /Higher Teachings of Buddha

Yes, I agree that the Abhidhamma is a scholastic work as the Teachings of Buddha were very profound and those scholars of high intellectual abilities and deep knowledge of the Teachings would only be able to interpret the Teachings. Thus, there might be different interpretations of commentaries of the Abhidhamma at different times. For example, Venerable Buddhaghosa's commentaries on the Abhidhamma were the Atthasalini Atthakatha on the Dhammasangani, Sammohavinodani Atthakatha (the commentary on the Vibhanga) and the Pancapakarana Atthakatha ( the commentary on the other five texts of the Abhidhamma). When the new commentaries appeared, the old ones gradually disappeared. When Venerable Ananda wrote the Mulatika, his Abhidhammic views were very high and his comments were very elucidatory. He criticized some of the views that were expounded by Ven. Buddhaghosa. Then came the Anutika which was writtren by Ven. Dhammapala who was also a commentator of the Visuddhimagga Maha Tika. He advocated the opinion of Ven. Buddhoghosa which was rejected by Ven. Ananda. Thus, it could be seen here that the Abhidhamma is dialectic. However,one cannot deny that the Teachings in the Abhidhamma were taught by Buddha in the Tavatimsa heaven to the devas or deities as every day when Buddha descended to the human world, He related His Teaching to Sariputta. From Sariputta, these Higher Teachings were taught to his five hundred Sangha members and then later were compiled into one of the three baskets of the Tipitaka.