Some Introductory Notes on Abhidhamma

What is the Abhidhamma?

The abhidhamma is a complex and sophisticated system of psychology developed in the early centuries of the Buddhist dispensation. Traditionally it is said to have originated with the Lord Buddha himself. The high regard in which this set of teachings is held can be seen in the tradition which holds that the Buddha first gave this teachings while visiting the Tavatimsa heaven and upon return from that realm each night he would give the summary (matika) to the elder Sariputta, the Chief Disciple foremost in wisdom, who fleshed out the details.

Modern scholarship, on the other hand, generally regards the abhidhamma as a few centuries later than the suttas (discourses.) It is certainly true that whereas there is a high degree of agreement between the surviving recensions of the Sutta pitaka, the abhidhammas of the different schools are quite divergent, at least in detail and structure, even if the underlying principles remain the same.

In general, the abhidhamma is an attempt to formalize and systematize the teachings of the suttas into a coherent and all-inclusive structure. It may be that as the various schools split off on points of doctrine, the fine details elucidating the understanding of that particular school's interpretation were codified in books of abhidhamma.

Above, we called abhidhamma a system of psychology. This is true, but it is a more ambitious system than anything devised in the modern world, as it attempts to answer questions of metaphysics, ontology, epistemology and soteriology that western psychology sees as outside its scope.

Approaching Abhidhamma

The system of psychology built up in the abhidhamma teachings is a highly sophisticated and subtle one. It is one of the great historical triumphs of the human mind. It is best to approach these teachings on their own terms. There is much here that contradicts modern psychological assumptions. To cite just the most glaring example, there is no place in abhidhamma for the " subconscious" as understood in modern terms. Consciousness is seen as arising momentarily upon a single object, there is no room for multiple levels of consciousness happening simultaneously. This idea becomes more evident when we realize that, unlike modern theories, abhidhamma has a very clear concept of what precisely consciousness is.

The best complement to a study of abhidhamma is methodical introspection, as in the various methods of insight meditation. Abhidhamma is a system that values precision highly. The mental states are closely enumerated and defined and their relationships examined minutely. This refined level of precision is a great asset to meditation, and the direct observation of momentary states is the best possible basis for understanding and integrating the teachings of abhidhamma.

Abhidhamma is all in the details. The overview presented here cannot possibly do justice to the inter-woven complexity of the system. If a student wants to approach this school of thought it is best to seriously work through the books and to couple this with a sustained effort at methodical examination of the mind. In this sense, abhidhamma is the first and most mature experimental psychology.

The Basic Principles

As a summary and systemization of the Buddha's teaching, all of abhidhamma is firmly grounded on the Three Characteristics of all conditioned phenomena; that is anatta, anicca and dukkha, in English not-self, impermanence and suffering (or unsatisfactoriness.) Also underpinning the whole is the concept of the Dependent Origination; both as a general principle and in the mode of specific conditionality. As a general principle, dependent origination states that events are governed by laws of causality, nothing ever has or ever will arise by blind chance or by the arbitrary will of a creator. Specific conditionality is the exposition of specific chains of cause-and-effect, most importantly the twelve states given in the suttas beginning with " because of ignorance, karmic formations arise..." which explain the origination of this " whole mass of suffering. "

Coming out of the elaboration of these basic principles, we can find a few more basic axioms of the abhidhammic approach.

  1. Nothing arises without a cause
  2. Nothing arises from a single cause
  3. Nothing which arises is without effect
  4. Nothing persists beyond a moment

The Four Basic Categories

The abhidhamma's conception of reality is that of momentarily arising phenomena, the pattern of their arising following fixed laws of cause-and-effect. That which is ultimately real are the momentary phenomena (dhammas) all else are mental concepts (pannati) constructed by perception. All dhammas can be analyzed into four all-inclusive categories.

  1. Rupa (matter or form)
  2. Citta (consciousness)
  3. Cetasika (mental concomitants; all mental factors beside consciousness)
  4. Nibbana (Sanskrit; nirvana)

The Form Category

Ancient Indian physics as preserved in the abhidhamma demonstrates a sophisticated and logically coherent system. We should not expect it to agree with modern physics, but as an explanatory tool for understanding the material world it worked quite well. Everything physical is composed of four elements known by mnemonic names earth, water, air and fire. These are not to be thought of as ordinary earth etc. but as qualities possessed by material things. Everything in nature is in actuality a combination of all four elements in different combinations. Hence ordinary earth is a substance in which the earth element predominates but it includes the other elements as well.

Earth (patthavi) is the quality of impenetrability or extension. It is that which takes up space. Water (apo) is the quality of cohesion or viscosity. It is that which holds matter together. Air (vayu) is the quality of motion, as in wind. Early physiology saw the movement of the limbs, for example, being due to the coursing of winds through the body. Fire (tejo) is the quality of heat and energy.


Consciousness is the quality of knowing. In abhidhamma this is seen as existing momentarily and arising each time afresh to an object. The types of consciousness may be analyzed in various ways; one of the simplest and most primary divisions is into six types according to the sense door to which it arises; eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind.

A more detailed analysis yields a total of eighty-nine types of consciousness. One division is into planes of consciousness. These are four.

  1. The sense-desire sphere which includes forms of consciousness natural to the human world, as well as the lower realms and the sensual heavens.
  2. The fine-material sphere which includes the types of consciousness accessed with jhana (meditative absorption) as well as the types natural to the gods of the brahma worlds.
  3. The immaterial sphere which includes the type of consciousness accessed by the formless or higher jhanas as well as the consciousness of beings in the immaterial realm, where mind exists without any physical base.
  4. The supramundane sphere which represents the type of consciousness which realizes nibbana.

Another important division which cuts across the fourfold division into planes, is the distinction between profitable, unprofitable and indeterminate consciousness. Here we see the practical side of abhidhamma. Volitional consciousness is karmically effective and is classed as profitable or unprofitable according to the ethical quality of the action. The greater part of indeterminate consciousness is classed as resultant in that it is the result of karma previously made, and this class includes all five physical sense consciousnesses. This means, that according to abhidhamma, every arising of a sense object to the mind is the result of karma previously made. (The other class of indeterminate consciousnesses are the functional. These include all volitional actions performed by arahants, since they make no karma.)

The Cognitive Series

One of the core teachings of the abhidhamma relating to consciousness is the cognitive series. This is an analysis of the way moments of consciousness succeed each other according to a fixed pattern.

The sequence varies according to circumstances and the whole system is quite complex. Here, we will briefly look at the instance of consciousness arising to a vivid object at one of the sense doors; let us say the eye cognizing a visible form. The sequence is as follows:

Life-Continuum is the word used by Ven. Nyanamoli to translate the Pali term bhavanga. This refers to the most basic type of consciousness. It may be thought of as the mind idling in neutral. It is the consciousness which exists in a state of deep sleep. It also recurs at any time during waking life when the mind is not engaged on an object. It is classed as a resultant because the nature and object of the bhavanga is determined by the karma made in the last moments of the previous lifetime and remains the same for the entirety of one existence.

The first consciousness of the cognitive series is called "past bhavanga " because at this moment, although the physical object has already impinged on the physical sense door, as yet the mind has taken no notice of it and the bhavanga remains fixed on the object from the past.

Then the first disturbance of bhavanga occurs and the stream of the life-continuum vibrates for a moment and is then broken (arresting bhavanga) The consciousness now rises to a more fully conscious form and adverts to the sense door where stimulus is present, in our example eye-consciousness arises to visible form.

This eye-consciousness is also classed as a resultant and will be either pleasant or unpleasant according to the karma previously made. According to abhidhamma, the pleasantness or otherwise of a sense object is an intrinsic quality of the object itself and the presentation to the sense doors is always in accordance with karma. Thus, if you see a beautiful sunset it is the result of previously having done meritorious deeds. (Such things as acquired tastes and eccentric responses are the result of a much more complex and higher level process, here we are dealing with the momentary process of cognition only.)

The mind then engages in a process of receiving, investigating and determining the object. This is an automatic process of perception; the cognitive analysis and recognition of an object. The physical data is now being turned over by the mind.

There then follows up to seven moments of what is called javana consciousness. (Ven. Nyanamoli's term is impulsion) These are the moments when fresh karma is made. Here volition is a primary factor, as it is not elsewhere in the process. The mind chooses here; the volition may be to continue looking at the object which sets up the karma for the next series of moments. But also here karma is made which will bear fruit well into the future, including future lives. For example, the javana may be an unwholesome one with desire to acquire the object and may include the will to steal etc.

There follows two moments of registration consciousness, which is the fixing of the object in the mind. If the object is not a vivid one, these will not occur and we are not then fully " conscious" of the object, in the sense that it is not available for later recall. After this the mind lapses back into bhavanga until another sensory impingement or mental event triggers the start of a new series.

This entire series must be thought of as happening extremely rapidly, many hundreds such sequences may occur in the time it takes to blink an eye.

Understanding this series is the key to the abhidhamma analysis of the mind. One thing that is very interesting in this series is the role of karma and result. We can see that these occur at different times in the sequence and the role of karma is critical in determining the entire series. From the abhidhamma point of view, karma is best understood on this momentary psychological level and works a lot like one of the conservation laws in modern physics. The sequence of profitable and unprofitable moments has a strong tendency to bring the system back into a balanced state by fulfilling old imbalances. But this balancing is definitely more than simply psychological in that the presentation of external objects is determined by it.

Mental Concomitants

Cetasikas are all mental factors besides consciousness. Fifty-two are listed, the aggregates of feeling (vedana) and perception (sanna) and fifty mental formations (sankharas.) These three are sometimes called the mental body. It is important to realize that these factors always arise together with each other and with consciousness. They are closely associated and highly interactive with each other. We should bear this in mind, because a discussion like that below which analyzes isolated factors can give a false impression of their separability.

A specific combination of cetasikas will arise with each moment of consciousness. Different classes of consciousness will take different constellations of mental concomitants according to fixed laws. However seven of these factors are classed as Universals because they arise in each and every moment.

The seven universals are;

  1. Feeling, the usual translation of vedana, is the primitive hedonic response to any sense stimulus. It is either pleasant, painful or neutral. One of these three occurs with each moment of consciousness.
  2. Perception, sanna, is the re-cognitive faculty. It is closely tied up with memory. We are able to recognize objects because we relate them to experiences previously had.
  3. Contact is the coming together of consciousness, sense-base and sense-object. This includes the physical senses as well as mind, the object of which is idea.
  4. Volition is the organizing, controlling factor and is the force which makes karma.
  5. One-pointedness is the faculty of focusing the mind upon its (single) object.
  6. Life Faculty is the force of vitality that keeps the other factors in existence in a living being.
  7. Attention is the power of adverting to an object.

Some interesting implications come out of this list. For instance, although volition and karma-making are predominant in the javana process, the factor of volition is actually present at every moment and therefore each stray thought represents many moments of karma-making.

Other mental formations are classed as wholesome, unwholesome and variable. The variable, such as energy and zeal, are those which may be wholesome or unwholesome depending on the object .

List of the Cetasikas


This last category is special in several ways. It is the only dhamma which is not impermanent or marked by suffering. It is the only dhamma which is not conditioned or caused by other dhammas. It cannot really be described or analyzed.

For Further Study

A Comprehensive Guide to Abhidhamma by Bhikkhu Bodhi. (a translation with explanatory notes of the Abhidhamma Sangaha)

The Path of Purification by Ven. Nyanamoli, chapter XIV. (translation of the Visuddhimagga)

Both of these books are available at moderate cost from the Buddhist Publication Society